Clients will ask their personal trainers anything and everything they can think of, and expect a knowledgeable, expert answer, regardless of our specialties or other certifications. This could range from asking for meal plans from someone who is not a registered dietician, asking what they can still do for weight training with their broken leg, or asking about whether their compression leggings will help them recover faster from leg-day. The latter will be my focus today as I discuss the latest information available on compression garments, whether they work, who should be using them, and when.
Although compression garments have been around for many decades for medical purposes, they became particularly popular in the 1980s in movies and workout videos as the bright coloured spandex allowed viewers to see more detail in the movements happening on screen (the Jane Fonda workout videos come to mind as a stereotype). Then, many women began wearing them in group fitness aerobic classes, and for many, that was the last thing they knew of them until the recent trend of both men and women wearing compression garments (mostly leggings) either while exercising or afterward for recovery (or both). The claim is that the tight material on the effected muscle group promotes blood-flow and nutrient absorption allowing the muscles to recover faster, or blood-flow restriction causing a reduction in lactic acid buildup and delaying fatigue. But what is correct, if any of it is?
In his article, Owen Walker dives into this very question but begins with stating that it is “…of low quality and riddled with large inconsistencies…” which as I have researched thus far, seems to be the overwhelmingly most common finding. Some studies will support the use of compression for one aspect of training but no benefits for another, whereas another study will suggest the opposite.
Another study user powerlifters as the participants had a group using compression and another group not using compression for a 10-week training cycle. Their results did not show a significant difference between the groups using compression versus those who didn’t. Now, it is also important that although their study did answer some of their questions, it may have raised even more.
Most interesting though is that, of the studies I have read through so far, none have found any statistically significant decrease in performance of exercisers or athletes while wearing compression gear. This leads to a suspicion that compression gear may be the great placebo of the fitness industry. No negative effects to using it (besides perhaps to your chequing account), but some people use it and see increases in strength, stamina, or a reduction in muscle soreness. This can also be explained by being more comfortable while wearing it, having greater mobility than with baggy clothes, the added warm, the psychological sense of security (if you truly believe in the product), or perhaps even just the inflated sense of pride and self-esteem that comes with knowing how good you look in something so tight.
There are so many studies out there that focus on different types of training or different aspects of the training that no one could sum-up all the available data for a single article in a fitness magazine. But if I could bestow some advice on the subject it would be this: Give it a try. So far, there have been little-to-no negative consequences to using compression garments, and even if the positive consequences are simply placebos based on circumstantial variables, those are still positive consequences! Maybe looking good or feeling good is what you need. Maybe it will keep you working harder and spending more time on your training – and the evidence supporting hard work and more training leading to better results is overwhelming!
Christopher Curran is a graduate of the University of New Brunswick’s Sports & Exercise Psychology program and a current student of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Personal Fitness Trainer program. He has been working as a professional in the fitness industry for 3 years.