“Wrap a band around your bicep until it begins to go numb, then pump out 30 reps with a light weight… Trust me, the pump is worth it.”
These are not the words of an enlightened man but rather my first experience of Kaatsu or Blood Restriction Training. Brought to my attention by a training partner whose grasp of science is not always the strongest, Kaatsu training has grown in popularity over the last decade. While my friend’s description may seem appropriate at first glance, there is quite a lot more to this training system than first meets the eye.
With this in mind today’s post seeks to answer three simple questions: what is Kaatsu training? How was it created? And, perhaps most importantly, should you try it?
What is Kaatsu Training?
Despite my friend’s understanding, Kaatsu training is a little more complicated than numbing your arm. InfoFit explained Kaatsu as “occlusion training, [which] involves a pressure cuff to the proximal portion of your limbs while preforming a low intensity exercise session. The device known as a pneumatic tourniquet, is designed to obstruct blood flow (Blood Flow Restriction, or BFR ) to target muscle groups and portions of your limbs.’
For our visual learners, Kaatsu Global produced a video on the topic some years ago
But we’re all here because we have at least a passing interest in gym culture so it’s also fun to include a video of John Meadows, an incredibly likeable bodybuilder with a remarkable pain tolerance.
If like me, you’re left utterly bemused by this style of training, you’re no doubt wondering how, why and when this was created.
The History of Kaatsu Training
In a 2005 review article for International Journal of KAATSU Training Research (Yes it exists), Dr. Yoshiaki Sato meticulously detailed his invention of Kaatsu training. Somewhat surprisingly given the his medical credentials, the discover of Kaatsu was entirely unscientific. As told by Dr. Sato, his initial ‘eureka’ moment came as a teenager. Sitting cross legged at a Buddhist memorial in 1966, the then High School student’s legs went numb. The sensation Sato felt in his calf muscle was remarkably similar to the discomfort he felt during calf raises in the gym.
Dr. Sato as a Young Man.
The swelling in his calf, caused by the reduced blood flow, set about a series of experiments in the gym. Six months after his initial discovery Sato was ‘able to achieve a significant pump up effect with KAATSU training.’ There was just one problem. Sato ignored the numbness his makeshift restriction training was causing in his legs. The result? A pulmonary embolism and lengthy hospital stay. In an act of true courage or reckless stupidity, Sato was undeterred and continued training, albeit with some major modifications to how he applied pressure to his legs.
Some time after this, Sato was involved in a skiing accident which resulted in both legs being placed in casts. Afraid that the inability to train would cause muscle atrophy, Sato continued to use Kaatsu training. Much to his delight (and his doctor’s disbelief), his experimenting with blood restriction training allowed him to keep his had earned muscle. News of his speedy recovery spread and others began to take an interest in Kaatsu training. Through his fitness club, Sato, then undertaking his own medical training, began using Kaatsu on others.
In the early 1980s, Kaatsu training methods were standardised and used in the laboratory for true scientific testing. A decade later, Sato secured patents for Kaatsu in Japan. Soon after patents were gained in England, Germany, France, Italy and the United States.
But When Did It Become Popular?
In 2005, Sato and others founded the International Journal of KAATSU Training Research, which first helped to popularise Kaatsu among the general sport science community. Two years later, the Kaatsu Training Research Institute was founded to further spread word on Kaatsu.
For the general lifting community, Kaatsu began to appear some time in the early 2000s. In 2005, Iron Man magazine published a brief article on Kaatsu training. Three years later, the late Charles Poliquin was asked to comment on it. His response was emblematic of many within the fitness community at this time
Q: Have you read anything about this occlusion training stuff (“Kaatsu“),
where blood supply is cut off when lifting? Seems to be the rage in Japan.
A: Yes, and occlusion training is about as useful as tits on a bull.
How convenient is it anyway? You need an occlusion suit or bands that restrict blood flow while you lift. You block and release blood flow, going back and forth. They claim it gives you more hypertrophy, but the studies were done on untrained subjects.
It’s very gimmicky. If I make you do ten sets of five on the deadlift, you’re going to grow whether you’re wearing an occlusion device or not. No need to buy an anaconda to wrap around you when you deadlift.
Despite what people believed, Kaatsu/occlusion/blood flow restriction training began to appear on major fitness and bodybuilding websites with a much greater regularity from 2009. As Jacob Wilson’s 2018 article on Kaatsu correctly notes, the last three years in particular have seen a much greater online interest develop in Kaatsu. The reason? I suspect the rise of YouTube fitness channels has played a large role. Coupled with this Kaatsu bands have also become a much easier thing to purchase and use. It has come a long way from the old bicycle tubes Sato used to use on himself.
But Should You Kaatsu?
On this point I’m in two minds as I’ve used Kaatsu incorrectly and correctly. The first time I used blood restriction training was an unmitigated disaster. I attached the bands far too tight, left them on for far too long and gave myself an almighty scare when I thought I’d developed varicose veins in my calves. Yes I overreacted but if you’re going to do something wrong, go all in.
Now the second time, was a far more pleasant experience, at least in terms of using the bands. It was done alongside a friend of mine who is a trained physiotherapist (I wasn’t taking chances this time!) and resulted in a pretty intense workout. I did this for roughly eight weeks for pretty much every muscle group. The weights used were far lighter than my regular training but the effects were the same if not slightly better owing to the new training stimulus.
Would I do it on a regular basis? Probably not as I enjoy just going to the gym and lifting. Anything that requires more effort than that I usually discard after a few weeks. Where I would and do use Kaatsu is when I’m coming back from an injury and need to use light weights and focus on form. After some knee trouble late last year I had to back off from squatting and a lot of knee flexion for a while. Kastsu bands and high rep leg presses meant that I kept most of my muscle mass, however meager it may be.
The other occasion when I use Kaatsu is when I’m traveling and have access to a gym with light weights or have no gym access whatsoever. In these scenarios a combination of Kaatsu, a resistance band and a combination of body weight exercises means a good workout is never too far away.
For those interested in the science behind Kaatsu and its applications, rather than the ramblings of a historian, The Fitness Network provides an excellent summary here.
What do you think about Kaatsu? Is it much ado about nothing? Let us know in the comments below!