Compression Suits and Exercise Recovery
Can compression suits help heal muscles faster?
A crucial part of building muscle is recovery. Professional athletes tend to work every angle possible for gains of just one or two percent. In competition a split-second advantage can mean the difference between winning or losing.
Compression suits are one of those competitive advantages growing in popularity. For those who aren't familiar, compression suits are tight pieces of clothing, often bodysuits. They're typically made of elastin, nylon or a breathable fabric.
The belief is that after a strenuous workout, you put on a compression suit, and your muscles will heal faster. It's heavily promoted for athletes traveling, with back-to-back events that wear their bodies down.
A few years ago, I started looking into the research, but the studies were small and came to a wide range of conclusions. A 2016 paper said this: "the current body of research on this topic is of low-quality and riddled with large inconsistencies – meaning the information should be accepted with caution."
Many studies said "compression garments might help with muscle soreness" or "may improve muscle healing." But, those statements were quickly followed by disclaimers like, "Caution has to be exercised with this data, however, due to the subjectivity of these measurements."
Here are a couple additional examples.
A study done in 2009 stated, "Our findings do not support the notion that wearing compression tights as an aid to recovery has a beneficial effect on performance."
BUT a 2017 study concluded that "compression most effectively enhanced recovery from resistance exercise, particularly at time points greater than 24 hours."
In 2018 scientists were looking at delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). That's the pain that happens a day or two after a muscle has been stressed. The researchers concluded, "Our results indicate that wearing conventional sports compression garments after DOMS has been induced has no significant effect on muscle edema and muscle soreness."
BUT a 2020 study said, "The researchers believe wearing a below-knee compression garment during regular workouts is beneficial because of the mechanical support and tissue compression it provides."
Here are some of the problems. There isn't any agreed-to definition of just how tight a suit should be. Nobody has documented the ideal length of time someone should wear them. There's no data on what type of suit is better; long sleeves or short sleeves? Open neck or closed?
Let's dig deeper into those studies. That 2017 study that said "compression enhanced recovery" also said, "The benefits of compression garments in relation to applied pressures and participant training status are unclear and limited by the paucity of reported data."
If the participants didn't benefit from the pressure of a compression suit, what did they benefit from?
In April of 2022, a large meta-analysis was released. That's a study that looks at previous randomized controlled trials and combines all the data. In this case, 19 trials with 350 participants were "extracted and meta-analytically computed." Here's their conclusion.
“Meta-analytical evidence suggests that wearing a Compression Garment during or after training does not seem to facilitate the recovery of muscle strength following physical exercise. Practitioners, athletes, coaches, and trainers should reconsider the use of Compression Garment as a tool to reduce the effects of physical exercise on muscle strength.”
In other words, wearing a compression suit isn't going to improve your recovery. In fact, for some people, it may hurt performance. Many subjects reported difficulty sleeping because the suits were hot and uncomfortable. Without a good night's sleep, your body doesn't heal as well. So the suits could be working against your ultimate goals.
There are lots of ways to recover quicker and improve performance.
- Work bodyparts on alternating days so your muscles can rest and rebuild.
- Eat a healthy diet, so your body has the nutrients to grow.
- Get enough sleep every day to give your body time to heal.
Unfortunately, compression suits haven't been clearly shown to help. Skip them and concentrate on what's been proven to work.
Can Compression Garments Reduce the Deleterious Effects of Physical Exercise on Muscle Strength? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses
János Négyesi, Tibor Hortobágyi, Jessica Hill, Urs Granacher, Ryoichi Nagatomi
Sports Medicine, 2022 Apr 27. doi: 10.1007/s40279-022-01681-4. Online ahead of print.
Effect of Compression Garments on the Development of Edema and Soreness in Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Rafael Heiss, Thilo Hotfiel, Marion Kellermann, Matthias S. May, Wolfgang Wuest, Rolf Janka, Armin M. Nagel, Michael Uder, and Matthias Hammon
Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 2018 Sep; 17(3): 392–401. Published online 2018 Aug 14.
The Effects of Compression Garments on Recovery
Davies, Vanessa; Thompson, Kevin G; Cooper, Stephen-Mark
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, September 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue 6 - p 1786-1794 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b42589
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