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Do compression garments ACTUALLY work?

March 22, 2015

I wanted to do a post on compression garments as I’ve had some questions of my own on whether or not they are actually useful. I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to some of these things. Recently I’ve been on a bit of a hunt tracking down as much research as I could to see if there are even many studies to back up their claims. I also have been experimenting with compression gear myself for awhile now, using them both during exercise and also post-exercise for recovery.

I came across a few different studies, including many recent ones, noting multiple benefits. Many of the manufacturers have created "studies" of their own, but I am sometimes leery of these results since they obviously stand to benefit financially from a favourable outcome.

My experience with compression gear:

I personally found that wearing compression garments after tough leg sessions is where I noticed an improvement in recovery. Wearing them during training did not seem to make that much a difference for me, but wearing them as recovery tights is when I notice a difference. It feels like I bounce back a bit better and I feel “fresh” in my legs again the next day etc. But I was worried that this could just be a placebo effect. Did I feel better just because I had convinced myself that my tights had done the trick?

Can compression gear positively affect your recovery?

Well I dug in with an open mind, and found quite a bit of research outlining several benefits, especially benefits in the form of better recovery. So maybe it wasn’t all in my mind! Here is one Aussie study in particular that caught my interest.

It was published in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. A group of cyclists did a 40 kilometre time trial test, then they did the same time trial again the next day. During the 24 hours between rides, the cyclists were given tights to wear, but they weren't told that some of them were wearing normal spandex tights and the others were wearing compression tights. A week later, they tested the same trial again, except this time they reversed it. So those who had worn spandex the week before got compression tights and vice versa. The result was that on the second-day rides, the cyclists went 1.2 percent faster when they wore compression gear during recovery as opposed to spandex.

It didn’t specify what the biological mechanism was that allowed for greater recovery but they speculated that increased blood flow helped restore the muscles with their fuel, glycogen and the scientists concluded that compression could aid recovery.

What about minimizing DOMs?:

Another study I read suggested that the use of compression garments during recovery periods may reduce the symptoms associated with delayed onset muscle soreness. This one was done on soccer players.

The latest strength and conditioning research on it:

The cherry on the cake for me was finding this very topic reviewed in Bret Contreras and Chris Beardsley's  latest research papers. I was pretty excited as I had already started this blog post! These are two people I trust when it comes to research. They cover many different topics and provide a monthly summary of all the most exciting research in the fields of Strength and Conditioning, Biomechanics, Physiology and Physical Therapy. They have been doing an excellent job at bridging the gap between the lab room/journals and the weight room/training field. You can sign up to their research papers here if you are interested. It's only $10.00 a month, a pretty good investment!

Following is a portion from their latest review:

What did the reviewers do?
The reviewers performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of the available literature in order to determine the effects of compression garments on various measures of recovery following damaging exercise. The measures of recovery included DOMS, muscular strength, muscular power and creatine kinase (CK) levels.

What did the reviewers find?
The reviewers identified 12 studies, in which outcome variables were measured at baseline and at 24 or 48 or 72 hours post-exercise. They reported that the training status of the 205 included subjects ranged from untrained to elite and their mean age was 22.3 ± 2.3 years.

Effect of compression garments
The reviewers found that the use of compression garments had a moderate effect on reducing the severity of DOMS, muscle strength, muscle power, and CK. There was very little heterogeneity reported in respect of the individual study results, suggesting that other variables (e.g. type of damaging exercise, population, exact type of compression garment used, etc.) did not effect the outcomes.

What did the reviewers conclude?
The reviewers concluded that compression garments are effective in accelerating recovery from muscle damage.

The review was limited in that it is unclear whether the use of compression garments affects long-term training outcomes. For example, it is unclear whether the use of this intervention allow individuals to train more frequently and therefore increase training volume. Similarly, it is unclear whether the use of the intervention blunts adaptations to exercise.

Bottom line: Waste of money? Or worth it?

So the big question! Is that improvement in recovery worth the $80-$100+ that a lot of these compression tights and garments will set you back? Well, yes and no. I personally think that depends on your level and frequency of activity. If you're an athlete (or serious exerciser) who depends on recovery in order to train the next day, there's benefit to buying them.

I personally like wearing the tights for an hour or two after a hard workout. This can help aid in recovery. Some people like to sleep in them, but I find that too restricting and I put a greater importance on getting a good night sleep in terms of recovery.

In terms of compression tights, BodyScience makes some of the best ones I’ve ever worn. They're comfortable and well fitting, and very very snug (which is what you want in a compression garment). They also they come in bright colors (I personally like black best but needing to have bright colours is a dealbreaker for many!).

What do you think? Do you know notice substantial benefits from using compression garments? Let me know in the comments below!



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