Compression Clothing – The Science Behind How It Works for Athletes

Compression Pants and Shirts Benefits and Science

Compression clothing has become a staple in the world of sport and athletics. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the gym, out on your favorite running path, or the sidelines of an NBA basketball game. You’re nearly guaranteed to see compression gear on more than a few athletes.

But do these sleeves, pants, and shirts have a real benefit for the everyday athlete? Or have they merely become a fashionable trend to mimic the look and style of our favorite athletes?

This article covers everything you need to know about compression clothing, the science behind how it benefits athletic performance and workout recovery, and includes the best compression gear you can find to add to your own gym bag.

What Is Compression Clothing

Compression garments are tight forms of clothing designed to supply compression to the body in the localized areas they cover. The most common types of compression gear you’ll find are pants and leggings, leg and arm sleeves, socks, upper body shirts, and even gloves and headwear.

Typically they are manufactured from polyester, nylon, and spandex. The selection or mixture of materials used in the garment is determined by the desired level of tightness or elasticity required for the garment’s purpose. The design can also supply various levels of compression at different points of the body to enhance the pressure gradient they provide.

Pressure gradients are essential for how compression garments work. And now that we have a brief introduction to what these garments are, let’s dive into the details behind the science of how they work, especially for athletic performance and workout recovery.

The Science Behind How Compression Garments Work

Whenever you do any form of exercise, your body needs to supply your muscles with oxygen and remove metabolic byproducts like carbon dioxide. The more efficient your body is at both of these processes, the better your performance output will be.

A significant factor in oxygen delivery and metabolic waste removal is blood circulation. Since oxygen is brought to depleted muscles by your heart pumping blood throughout your body, and picking up oxygen from the lungs along the way, improved blood flow translates directly to enhanced athletic performance and recovery.

Applying compression to your body helps reduce the diameter of your blood vessels. To help paint a picture of why this improves circulation, think of using a garden hose to wash your car on a summer day. If you turn the water on and let it flow out of the end of the hose, it’s likely not enough pressure to move the water fast enough to wash your car. But if you attach a nozzle to the hose, reducing the diameter the water is flowing through, the water pressure increases dramatically.

Blood vessels work in a similar way. A vein with a larger diameter has a slower fluid velocity than a vein with a smaller diameter. Compression garments help reduce the diameter of your blood vessels to increase blood flow and improve circulation because of Pascal’s Law.

Additionally, creating regions of compression also creates a pressure gradient. Fluids flow from areas of high energy to low energy based on pressure, velocity, and density. This means if you increase pressure and velocity at your limbs, your blood will flow more effectively back towards the heart since it is at a lower pressure.

13 Benefits of Wearing Compression Clothing:

  1. Improve Athletic Performance
  2. Accelerate Post-Workout Recovery
  3. Improve Circulation
  4. Increase Proprioception (Awareness of the position and movement of the body)
  5. Improve Energy Utilization and Running Economy
  6. Reduce Muscle Fatigue and Time to Exhaustion
  7. Improve Temperature Regulation
  8. Positive Benefit on Controlled Force Output
  9. Reduce Impact Shock
  10. Lower Perceived Exertion
  11. Reduce Inflammation
  12. Reduce Muscle Soreness
  13. Reduce Risk of Injury

How It Helps Runners

Improved circulation plays a significant role in your running performance and recovery between training sessions. 

study by Sports Medicine in 2016 showed that compression garments produced an improvement in endurance performance variables like time to exhaustion, muscle temperature, biomechanics, and effort perception. Ultimately improving your running economy. Additionally, the study suggests that endurance athletes will also benefit from compression gear reducing muscle pain, exercise-induced damage, and inflammation.

The recovery benefits of compression garments also have substantial implications for endurance athletes and runners. Your body’s ability to recover from session to session dictates your progress over time. 

Improved output during training and enhanced recovery post-workout is a recipe for helping you become a better runner in the long term.

How It Helps Strength Athletes and Bodybuilders

If you’re a strength athlete or trying to pack on muscle mass and spending a ton of time in the weight room (and in the kitchen), chances are you’re constantly looking for ways to improve performance and accelerate recovery.

In 2018 the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that compression garments can positively benefit controlled force output after strenuous exercise. Additionally, Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise found that wearing compression clothing post-resistance training facilitates the recovery of muscular strength.

Most progress for strength and muscle growth occurs outside of the gym. When you break your muscles down, your body needs to have an environment to effectively build you back stronger. Including compression is just another recovery protocol that shifts your body into a more conducive environment to bring you faster results.

Does It Help With Weight Loss?

Like many tools in the fitness industry, compression clothing fell victim to a long series of poor marketing choices claiming to help “melt fat away without exercise.”

While at this time, there isn’t much research supporting the idea that compression garments alone will make you lose weight, there are a few areas where they can help you with your weight loss goals.

The first way compression gear can help you in your weight loss journey is to benefit your recovery process. Like any other athlete, if you’re working out, your progress occurs through your ability to recover and improve your performance between training sessions. If you’re not fully recovered, you won’t be at the top of your game for your workout of the day. Which means you’re leaving untapped progress on the table.

The second way it can help you while training for weight loss is to reduce exercise impact shock and improve biomechanics. Both of these factors play a critical role in keeping you injury-free. An unsuspecting injury can put you on the sidelines and stall your progress towards reaching your goals.

Just remember, there are no magic pills for “exercise-free results” in fitness. But there are tools that can help you along the way when used correctly.

Risks and Side Effects:

It’s always important to first talk to your doctor or preferred healthcare provider whenever you start a new fitness or recovery protocol – especially if you have any underlying health conditions. Some medical conditions can have adverse reactions to compression and muscle constriction. 

Common side effects can include allergic reaction to garment materials, skin irritation, blistering, or rashes from contact with the skin. Additionally, circulation loss can occur if the compression garments are fitted improperly or too tight.

Best Compression Clothing:

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Compression Pants and Leggings

Compression pants and leggings have become a staple part of both fitness and leisure alike. Endurance athletes and sports heavy on running and lower body movements use them to take advantage of the improved circulation and recovery benefits they provide. 

The popularity (and comfort) of compression pants has led to an explosion of ‘athleisure’ pants and leggings designed with all-day comfort and versatility in mind. 

When you’re on the hunt to buy a pair of compression pants or leggings, the most important thing to look for is matching the compression level to the garment’s purpose. A legging designed for comfort may not provide the compression required for the athletic performance benefits they provide. Conversely, a pair that is too tight may not be suitable for all-day wear and leisure.

Compression Socks

Compression socks are where compression sportswear got its start. Dating back all the way to the 1950s, they were first invented as a medical device to treat varicose veins and poor circulation.

As time went on, the overlapping benefits of this intervention gradually made their way into the world of fitness. The feet being one of the body’s extremities means it is a common place for poor circulation to occur. For athletes, poor circulation to the feet and lower leg can translate to diminished athletic performance.

Now there are a wide variety of compression socks on the market. There’s a specialized sock for nearly every need, from general improvements in blood flow to improving stability and ankle dorsiflexion.

Compression Leg and Arm Sleeves 

Compression sleeves for the legs and arms allow you to apply isolated compression to parts of your arms and legs of your body without having to wear a full set of pants or shirts.

The first benefit to leg and arm sleeves is the ability to target specific muscle groups that need a bit more attention and create pressure gradients to improve the blood flow.

The second is for convenience and restriction. Sliding on an arm sleeve mid-match for your throwing arm is much easier than heading into the locker room to change your base layer. And tight compression gear could potentially create unwanted restriction or irritation for parts of your body you’d rather have unrestrained.

Compression Shorts

If you’re in a warm environment or only want to target the upper chain of your lower body, compression shorts are the perfect option.

Compression shorts target your glutes, hip flexors, quadriceps, and hamstrings. And for some athletes, shorts provide less opportunity for chafing and restriction than a full-length set of pants. They allow you to maintain compression for your core lower-body muscle groups while allowing you to maintain comfort and temperature control while you train.

And honestly, many athletes wear them because they’re just far more comfortable than regular underwear while competing in sports or working out.

Compression Shirts

Compression shirts provide support and improved circulation for your upper body. Additionally, they are commonly used to maintain core body temperature in the cold as a base layer. And also to help keep you cool when it’s hot by spreading your sweat to improve evaporative cooling.

Additionally, sometimes loose clothing can get in the way of athletic performance. Compression shirts keep everything tight, aerodynamic, and allow you to reduce impact force during exercise.

Review and Key Takeaways:

Compression garments aren’t a magic bullet that will transform your athletic performance and workout recovery. However, they are valuable tools that do provide benefits for athletes to help you reach your performance and recovery goals. 

The two primary benefits you receive from compression clothing are improved circulation and support. Improved circulation helps you along the way to enhanced results both in training and throughout recovery. And additional support helps you stay injury-free, keeping you from having to take an extended time on the sidelines not making progress.

Ultimately, the best way to determine if compression gear is right for you is to try them out for yourself. Some athletes notice the benefits to their performance and recovery right away. In contrast, others may find them personally uncomfortable or not worth making the change to their current setup. Every athlete is different. Which highlights the importance of getting in-tune with your own body to determine which training and recovery protocols work best for you individually.

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