Is compression gear worth wearing during strength or cardio workouts? The short answer is... sort of. It depends on the activity and your goal.
Multiple studies have examined the effect of compression clothing on endurance, strength and power, motor control, and post-exercise recovery.
Let's go through it.
This one is a little hazy. What we're looking for here is some impact of compression on physiological markers such as oxygen uptake, blood lactate concentration during continuous exercise, blood gases, and cardiac parameters. The majority of research in this area is inconclusive on the impact of compression on these physiological markers.
Note that while there seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting the use of compression wear during endurance exercise, the studies have been unable to consistently show a correlation. People may THINK they're benefitting, which may in fact create a psychological and even an actualized benefit. But it's impossible to isolate the psychological effect without using a placebo condition in a study.
Strength and Power Exercise
Research is mixed in this area as well. Some small positive effects have been observed on sprint performance and vertical jumping, but these benefits seem to be almost negligible.
However, here's where we get to some real potential benefits of compression gear: studies have shown positive effects on the removal of lactate (H+ buffering) during short rests between sets of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
Without getting into too much detail about hemodynamics, it makes sense that tight compression gear may enhance local blood flow and improve oxygen delivery, and additionally, may enhance arterial blood flow, which in turn will facilitate more efficient clearing of metabolites, the aforementioned H+ buffering, and distribution of nutrients.
Proprioception and Neural Mechanics
Research on compression gear has shown some improvements in proprioception and sensory feedback. As a reminder, proprioception is the body's ability to know where it's located in space. These improvements also may help explain the strength and power benefits during HIIT exercise.
We know that compression will increase arterial blood flow and venous return. We can say that it will also increase clearing of cellular waste products, which may result in quicker recovery after an intense bout of high intensity exercise.
Clothing generally provides a barrier to heat transfer and thus slows sweat evaporation. Compression clothing may inhibit this natural process of heat transfer even more, which would IMPAIR performance in the short term (during exercise), even while potentially improving muscle repair and recovery times (post-exercise).
Research is lacking on the effect of compression gear on sweat evaporation in cold weather temperatures. However, in theory, inhibited sweat evaporation would be less important in cold weather environments, so the negative impact of compression gear may be lessened, while the potential performance and recovery enhancements would remain.
It's important to understand that compression may have benefits to exercise performance and recovery, particularly during and after high intensity interval training, but it may also have negative impacts on overall exercise performance in others areas such as the inhibiting of sweat evaporation.
Hey, maybe you just wear it because it makes you look jacked, but it's always a good idea to get the facts too.
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- Ali A, Creasy RH, Edge JA. Physiological effects of wearing graduated compression stockings during running. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2010; 109(6); 1017-1025.
- Born, D., Sperlich, B., & Holmberg, H. (2013). Bringing Light Into the Dark: effects of Compression Clothing on Performance and Recovery. International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance, 8(1), 4-18.
- Bringard A., Perrey S., Belluye N. Aerobic energy cost and sensation responses during submaximal running exercise–positive effects of wearing compression tights. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006; 27(5): 373-378.
- Kraemer WJ, Flanagan SD, Comstock BA, et al. Effects of a whole body compression garment on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women. Journal of Strength and Conditiong Research. 2010; 24(3): 804-814.
- Jakeman JR, Byrne C, Eston RG. Lower limb compression garment improves recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in young, active females. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2010 ; 109(6): 137-1144.
- Sperlich B, Haegele M. Achtzehn S. Linville J, Holmberg HC, Mester J. Different types of compression clothing do not increase sub-maximal and maximal endurance performance in well-trained athletes. Journal of Sports Science; 28(6):609-614.