What do compression garments actually do ?

CompressionClothYou can’t go into many sports shops now without seeing a lycra based product designed to hug your Lats and make your Biceps look huge, but does this tight-fitting attire actually do anything or is it another gimmick fashion garment to make you look as if you know what you’re doing. Most pro athletes or sports people will have either seen their own heroes donning the tight stuff or will have dabbled in it themselves, but do you actually know why you’re wearing it? With more and more sports companies entering the mix with their products claiming a world of performance-related benefits, should you be shelling out more on this clothing or should you be keeping your wallet tightly closed?

It’s no secret that compression garments, especially tights and socks have been used in the medical industry for half a century. Improving blood flow and venous return are very important from a medical standpoint but these factors have a definite performance cross over into sport.

Here are 5  benefits that research currently supports  (Berry and McMurray 1987, Kraemer and Bush 2001)

  1. Reduced blood lactate concentration & faster blood lactate removal
  2. More efficient blood circulation
  3. Reducing the effect of the dreaded DOMS
  4. Greater vertical jump score and better-repeated jump performance
  5. Decreasing perceived muscle pain post work out

Those five are actually pretty good reasons and they cover a large range of sports. Most sports benefit from reduced DOMS and faster blood lactate removal. Power-based athletes can’t argue that a greater vertical wouldn’t be handy.

So far compression garments sound unbelievable and I suggest you drop whatever you’re doing and run, yes run to a computer to purchase as much tight lycra as you can… Just hold up for a second and let us have a closer look.

There does seem to be a large gap in the research. some studies investigating very similar things have found completely different results. A study in 2010 found that wearing compression garments when performing sprint and plyometric exercises actually showed minimal improvements in recovery however, there were improvements in perceived muscle soreness. The same result was found three years previously when a study tested cricket players on their sprint performance. There were no differences in sprint performance but there perceived muscle soreness was lower. Now this isn’t rock solid evidence, all it is saying is participants felt as if they weren’t as sore. Basically, this could have been the placebo effect, which would explain why so many people wear them. saying that, no product will sell better if you genuinely think it helps you recover. My bet is if you find something that makes you think you can recover quicker you will max out your credit card in 5 minutes stocking up.

This one is interesting, an article published in the Journal of strength and conditioning found that those who wore whole-body compression garments in the 24-hour recovery window post resistance training had better psychological and physiological recovery rates. This is great right? but are you going to want to wear “whole body” compression garments for 24 hours after you’ve been to the gym or out on the field? Last time I checked it wasn’t convenient wearing that under a suit. It’s also weather dependant, I wouldn’t fancy wearing all that gear in anything above 20-degree heat, you’d start melting.

So are we onto something here? Actually the research surrounding compression garments doesn’t convince me either way. There is far to much conflicting evidence to make an informed decision at this moment in time. There is one thing that I do agree on when it comes to compression garments, everyone should know that sport, the gym or any feet of physical performance is nearly always what is in your head. If you need to don some lycra to beat the internal doubts my answer would be yes, you do need it. As for its actual ability to make you recover faster, it’s questionable. There is research backing it so it would be silly to dismiss it, but really I think it’s psychological.

Looking back at this article I haven’t told you to wear it or not, that my friends is for you to decide. Look at the evidence, weigh it up and decide what you think. If it sways your decision in any way I own loads of compression wear. The only way you are going to truly find out is by trying it yourself.

References

BERRYY, MJ and MCMURRAY, RG (1987) Effects of graduated compression stockings on blood lactate following an exhaustive bout of exercise. American journal of applied physiology. 66(3) p.121-132

DUFFIELD, R, CANNON, J and KING, M (2010) The effect of compression garments on recovery of muscle performance following high-intensity sprint and plyometric exercise. Journal of science & medicine in sport. 13(1) p. 136-140

DUFFIELD, R and PORTUS, M (2007) Comparison of three types of full-body compression garments on throwing and repeat- sprint performance in cricket players. British Journal of sports medicine. 41(7) p. 409-414

KRAEMER, WJ and BUSH, JA (2001) Influence of compression therapy on symptoms following soft tissue injury from maximal eccentric exercise. The journal of Orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. 31(6) p.282-290

KRAEMER, WJ, FLANAGAN, S, COMSTOCK, B, FRAGALA, M, EARP, J, DUNN-LEWIS, C, HO, J, THOMAS, G, SOLOMON-HILL, G, PENWELL, Z, POWELL, M, WOLF, M, VOLEK, J DENEGAR, C and MARESH, C (2010) Effects of a whole body compression garment on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 24(3) p.804-814