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Perhaps, like me, you can still vividly remember the barrage of ads on the tv during the Beijing 2008 olympics advertising a new range of compression garments. Up until this time, most were not aware of compression garments and their proposed benefits for recovery. Accordingly, the notion that wearing a tight fitting garment could improve your performance/recovery was a bit far fetched for most. But oh how times have changed! In Australia, there are now at least four major brands of compression garments available including Australia's BSc and it seems more and more mainstream global sport clothing companies are now also interested in bringing out their own range of compression garments.

Perhaps like many, when you first heard the notion that wearing a compression garment could improve your performance or recovery from exercise – you were a little sceptical. How could the type of clothing one wears affect performance? You may be surprised to know that there are in fact a large number of studies (over 25)1 which have shown a range of benefits for compression garments. In fact, researchers from Australia are among the key groups of scientist's that have made a valuable contribution to the evolution of compression garments2-4. This article will provide an overview of both the proven benefits of compression garments and the mechanisms by which compression garments work.

Mechanisms of Performance Improvement

So let’s start with the basic mechanism by which compression garments work. As the name suggests, compression garments are tight – much tighter in fact than your average sports lycra or sock. Compression type garments have actually been around for decades. They were originally used for a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT); with studies as far back as 1949 confirming the efficacy of local compression to increase blood flow in the deep veins of the lower legs5.

Increased Blood Flow

The most basic mechanism by which compression garments work is via increased blood flow secondary to increased pressure. One of the important variables affected by blood flow is oxygen delivery; with the other noted one being lactate. As a result, one of the most commonly measured variables in studies using compression garments is muscle tissue oxygenation. A special analytical technology called near infrared spectroscopy, allows the non-invasive measurement of muscle tissue oxygenation.

Increased Proprioception

One of the other mechanisms by which compression garments are thought to work is by increasing proprioception6, 10.  A somewhat challenging concept to explain; proprioception can be defined as the ability to perceive joint movement and position in space6 or simply just an increased ‘awareness’ of your relative position and movement. Proprioception itself is a highly developed function that’s related to one’s training and genetics11, 12. It involves a variety of neural pathways coming from receptors in the skin, muscle, ligament, and joint capsule7-9.  The enhanced proprioception thought to be provided by compression garments may be mediated by increased proprioceptive "cues" coming from the skin in close contact with the garment6.

Reduced Muscle Oscillation

The other proven mechanism by which compression garments work is via reducing muscle movement or oscillation upon impact10, 14. It thought that a reduction in muscle movement may reduce the amount of fatigue due to enhanced neurotransmission and more optimal mechanics at the molecular level of the muscle13.  It’s worth noting one study showed the dampening effect of the garment reduced muscle velocity to almost zero throughout the entire impact phase of the jump landing, especially in the 0 to .05 seconds time frame for which the impact force was highest10. In this particular study, it was theorised that this may be a key mechanism by which the compression garment enhanced repetitive jumping performance10.

Benefits of Compression Garments

When it comes to the specific sports, types of exercise and types of movements under which compression garments have been tested, the list is pretty impressive. The general consensus among exercise scientists after a lot of studies is that compression garments improve muscle function by a number of different mechanisms1. More specifically, studies have shown that compression garments can help to enhance both recovery and performance. Some of the more recent studies have started to examine what specific sports/types of exercise are suited to use of compression garments. To add to this, there is additional research exploring the relative effects of different degrees of compression1, 25, 26. But for the purpose of this article, we will just highlight a number of the different benefits that have been ascribed to various types of compression garments. The list below provides a range of published proven benefits for compression garments. It is split into two, namely benefits for recovery and benefits for performance.

Benefits of Compression Garments for Recovery

  • When worn after exercise, may be beneficial to reduce post-exercise trauma and perceived muscle soreness2.
  • Reduced decrements in countermovement jump performance, squat jump performance, knee extensor strength loss, and reduced muscle soreness following exercise-induced muscle damage17.
  • Metabolic markers of muscle damage as well as perceived muscle soreness may be attenuated by wearing compression tights after drop-jump training20.
  • Improved performance time in a repeated 40km cycling time trial resulting in higher average power output after wearing a compression garment compared with that after wearing the placebo garment22.
  • Significantly increased calf tissue oxygen saturation at rest before exercise and during recovery from exercise24.

Benefits of Compression Garments for Performance

  • Enhance overall circulation and decrease muscle oscillation to promote lower energy expenditure at a given prolonged sub-maximal speed during running16.
  • Improved repetitive vertical jump capacity in competitive volleyball players6
  • Increases in muscle oxygenation economy and improvements in cycling economy, leading to delayed onset of fatigue and prolonged optimal performance in well-trained endurance cyclists18.
  • Greater distances travelled at a faster velocity in comparison to control and placebo garments in a simulated game-specific circuit for netball19.
  • Increased physical performance during prolonged high-intensity exercise, possibly because of improvements in muscle oxygenation and associated metabolic benefits21.
  • Significantly improved running performance at different metabolic thresholds23.
  • Relieves muscle fatigue of the calf muscle induced by repeated sets of calf-raise exercises25.
  • Compression induced changes in tissue blood flow and perfusion appear to result in improved oxygenation during short-term exercise, namely, during the first two-minutes of short-term dynamic exercise1.

As you can see from the list above and the extensive reference list below, the supporting science behind compression garments is quite impressive. But maybe you already own a pair of compression tights and don't need to be told that. In any case, this article should provide you with some amunition in the event that some try's to take you to task on this issue. As for those who have been sitting on the sideline...its time to get off...the jury's in - and compression garments get the thumbs up.

1. Coza A, et al. Effects of compression on muscle tissue oxygenation at the onset of exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(6): 1631–1637.
2. Duffield R & Portus M. Comparison of three types of full-body compression garments on throwing and repeat-sprint performance in cricket players. Br J Sports Med. 2007;41(7):409-414.
3. Duffield R, et al. The effects of compression garments on recovery of muscle performance following high-intensity sprint and plyometric exercise. J Sci Med Sport. 2010;13(1):136-140.
4. Duffield R, et al. The effects of compression garments on intermittent exercise performance and recovery on consecutive days. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2008;3(4):454-468.
5. Stanton, JR, Freis, ED, and Wilkins, RW. The acceleration of linear flow in the deep veins of the lower extremity of man by local compression. J Clin Invest. 1949;28:553–558.
6. Kraemer WJ, et al. Influence of compression garments on vertical jump performance in NCAA Division I volleyball players. J Strength Cond Res. 1996;10:180–183.
7. Barrack RL, et al. Proprioception in the anterior cruciate deficient knee. Am J Sports Med.1989;17:1-6.
8. Barrack RL, et al. Effect of articular disease and total knee arthroplasty on knee joint position sense. J Neurophys. 1983;50:684-687.
9. Barrett D5, et al. Joint proprioception in normal, osteoarthritic, and replaced knees. J Bone Joint Surg. 1991;73(6):53-56.
10. Kraemer WJ, et al. Influence of a compression garment on repetitive power output production before and after different types of muscle fatigue. Sports Medicine, Training and Rehabilitation. 1998;8(2):163-184.
11. Barrack RL, et al. Proprioception in the anterior cruciate deficient knee. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1989;17:1-6.
12. Perlau R, et al. The effect of elastic bandages on human knee proprioception in the uninjured population. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1996;23(2):251-255.
13. McComas, A. J. (1996) Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function (Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, IL).
14. Doan BK, et al. Evaluation of a lower-body compression garment. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2003;21:601–610.
15. Mills C, et al. A protocol for monitoring soft tissue motion under compression garments during drop landings. Journal of Biomechanics. 2011;44:1821–1823.
16. Bringard A, et al. Aerobic energy cost and sensation responses during sub-maximal running exercise - positive effects of wearing compression tights. Int J Sports Med. 2006;27(5):373-378.
17. Jakeman JR, et al. Lower limb compression garment improves recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in young, active females. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;109(6):1137-1144.
18. Scanlan AT, et al. The effects of wearing lower-body compression garments during endurance cycling. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2008;3(4):424-438.
19. Higgins T, et al. Effects of wearing compression garments on physiological and performance measures in a simulated game-specific circuit for netball. J Sci Med Sport. 2009;12(1):223-226.
20. Davies V, et al. The effect of compression garments on recovery. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(6): 1786-1794.
21. Sear JA, et al. The effects of whole-body compression garments on prolonged high-intensity intermittent exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(7):1901-1910.
22. de Glanville KM, Hamlin MJ. Positive effect of lower body compression garments on subsequent 40-kM cycling time trial performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(2):480-486.
23. Kemmler W, et al. Effect of compression stockings on running performance in men runners. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(1):101-5.
24. Ménétrier A, et al. Compression sleeves increase tissue oxygen saturation but not running performance. Int J Sports Med. 2011;32(11):864-868.
25. Miyamoto N, et al. Effect of pressure intensity of graduated elastic compression stocking on muscle fatigue following calf-raise exercise. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2011;21(2):249-254.
26. Ali A, et al. The effect of graduated compression stockings on running performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(5):1385-1392.
27. Kraemer WJ, et al. Effects of a whole body compression garment on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(3):804-814.

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