Today we’re going to talk about blood flow restriction as it relates to training your chest.
Blood flow restriction training, also known as occlusion training or BFR, was discovered almost 50 years ago, but there’s still a lot of misinformation regarding how safe it is and the best way to implement it.
So, does blood flow restriction training for the chest work? Yes, blood flow restriction training for the chest does work and can increase muscular size and strength. It can also be used to recover from injuries. Most powerlifters and gym-goers can use BFR training safely, but you do need to be careful, and there are certain groups of people who should not use it.
In this article, I’ll talk about the history of BFR training, review some of the research on the benefits of BFR training, discuss some of its risks, and provide some sample BFR chest workouts.
At the end, I’ll also provide some recommendations for BFR bands that are optimal for using for chest training.
Check out my other blood flow restriction guides:
- Blood Flow Restriction Training for Glutes (Complete Guide)
- Blood Flow Restriction Training for Arms (Complete Guide)
- Blood Flow Restriction Training for Calves (Complete Guide)
What is Blood Flow Restriction?
Blood flow restriction was first recognized during the 1970s and 1980s by scientist Yoshiaki Sato, who originally called it KAATSU – “ka” meaning additional and “atsu” meaning pressure.
It involves using a band or cuff to completely occlude venous blood flow (blood pumping from the veins to the heart) out of a limb while partially restricting arterial blood flow (blood pumping from the heart to the rest of the body) into a limb.
This results in a low oxygen environment that also causes your heart to work harder to try to pump more blood to the working muscles.
BFR helps you achieve a muscle pump similar to what you’d feel when doing hypertrophy training, but it usually feels more intense.
This is because BFR causes your muscles to swell, results in a buildup of lactic acid, and raises the levels of human growth hormone in the body. It also activates mTORC1, which stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
BFR tricks your body into thinking it’s performing high-intensity exercises when it’s not. It forces your body to utilize more fast-twitch type 2 muscle fibers, which are responsible for sudden, powerful bursts of energy and are typically activated when lifting heavy weight.
In need of some BFR Bands? We tested the 6 most popular brands on the market. Check out our article on the Best Flood Flow Restriction Bands to find out the winner.
Does Blood Flow Restriction Work for the Chest? (4 Benefits)
Blood flow restriction is an effective way to improve your bench press strength and increase hypertrophy in your chest. It can also have other benefits that aren’t necessarily related to strength or aesthetic goals.
The top 4 benefits of using BFR for the chest are:
- Increased muscle size
- Increased strength when training at a lower intensity
- Improved recovery from training
- Improved recovery from injuries
Below, I’ll review some studies that attempt to back up these claims and discuss whether or not they’re valid.
1. Increased Muscle Size
In a study published by Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging, ten men were divided into either a BFR group or a control group. They performed four sets of bench presses at 30% of their 1RMs for a total of 75 reps twice a day for six days.
The BFR group wore cuffs on both arms, with the pressure starting at 100 mmHg and ending at 160 mmHg. Before and after each training session, muscle thickness of the triceps and pecs were measured.
At the end of the trial, the BFR group showed 8% and 16% increases in triceps and pec size, respectively. The control group showed a 2% increase in pec size, but they also showed a slight decrease in triceps size.
Results from this study suggest that BFR training can result in increased muscle sizes in the arms and chest, even when training with lower weights at a lower intensity.
2. Increased Strength When Training at a Lower Intensity
In the same study above, the subjects’ 1RM bench presses were also measured at the beginning and end of the trial.
The BFR group’s 1RM bench press increased by 6%, while the control group’s 1RM decreased by 2%.
In another study published by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, forty men between the ages of 22 and 32 were randomly divided into four groups: high-intensity resistance training at 75% 1RM, low-intensity training with BFR at 30% 1RM, a group that followed both training methodologies, and a control group.
Results from this study showed that the high-intensity training group had the largest 1RM increases at 19.9%, while the group that followed both training methodologies showed a 15.3% increase. The low-intensity BFR group’s 1RM only increased by 8.7%.
While these results initially appear contradictory to the results in the first study, keep in mind that the subjects in the first study trained twice a day for six days. The subjects in the second study only trained three days per week.
This suggests that training volume, frequency, and intensity are still the most important determining factors in increasing muscle size and overall strength.
It is also not known whether the subjects in either study were new or experienced lifters, which can make a difference in how quickly they were able to hit new 1RMs and gain muscle mass.
3. Improved Recovery from Training
Research on this is also mixed.
In 2017, the Journal of Science in Medicine and Sport published a study that examined whether or not lower limb occlusion can aid in recovery following a bout of exercise-induced muscle damage.
The subjects performed 100 drop jumps from a 0.6m box and were divided into either an occlusion group or a control group at the end of the exercise. The occlusion group reported less DOMS and had lower levels of creatine kinase than the control group.
However, another study published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research analyzed different recovery techniques in twelve male subjects with at least two years of resistance training experience.
The subjects recovered after performing 10 sets of 10 back squats at 70% of their 1RMs by either lying on their backs for 45 minutes, wearing an occlusion cuff on each leg for 3 minutes and then lying down for 33 minutes, or lying down while wearing recovery boots.
Results showed that there were no major differences in perceived muscle soreness between the three groups.
This suggests that while BFR can improve recovery after plyometric or conditioning exercises, it isn’t as effective for recovering from heavy strength training.
Also, while these studies don’t look at recovery from upper body workouts specifically, it can still be assumed that BFR doesn’t have a significant impact on recovery in the chest and shoulders.
Check out our other resources on muscle soreness:
- Quads Sore After Squats: Is This Good OR Bad?
- Hamstrings Sore After Deadlifts: Is This Good Or Bad?
- Quads Sore After Deadlift: Is This Good Or Bad?
- Why Do Your Lats Get Sore After Push-Ups? (4 Reasons)
4. Improved Recovery from Injuries
Research shows that BFR can be used to induce hypertrophy and improve strength after injury.
One study analyzed the effects of BFR with physical therapy vs. physical therapy alone in patients who had recently undergone knee arthroscopy.
Two weeks after surgery, seventeen patients attended twelve physical therapy sessions. They were randomly assigned to a BFR group or a standard physical therapy group.
All patients performed the same physical therapy exercises, but the BFR group also performed the leg press, leg extension, and reverse press while wearing a medical tourniquet.
At the end of the trial, the BFR group showed bigger increases in thigh girth and quadriceps extension strength than the control group. They were also able to climb stairs faster than the subjects in the control group.
Again, while this study doesn’t examine the effects of BFR on upper body injuries, it can be assumed that BFR is also effective in rehabbing injuries to the shoulders, triceps, or pecs.
What Are the Risks of Using BFR for the Chest?
Despite the benefits, there are some risks associated with BFR. The chances of causing real damage are low if BFR is done correctly, but there are still a few things you should be aware of.
One of the biggest risk factors with BFR training is rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which skeletal muscle breaks down and enters the bloodstream. It can occur when the muscles are pushed beyond their limits. If left untreated, it can lead to kidney failure.
Other risk factors include possible nerve or artery damage, but this is more likely to occur if the bands don’t fit properly or if you use the wrong type of band.
Using a band that is specifically intended for BFR training and following the manufacturer’s instructions carefully can help mitigate these risks.
Some studies such as this one do show that BFR training has few dangerous effects on nerve or vascular function.
However, the subjects in this study were fitted with BFR cuffs by trained professionals. If you’re new to BFR, consulting with a trainer or physical therapist who is skilled in BFR techniques can help reduce some of these risks.
Who Should Do Blood Flow Restriction for the Chest?
As long as you are healthy and have no chronic illnesses or pre-existing conditions affecting the cardiovascular or circulatory systems, you can use BFR training.
BFR training is especially beneficial for athletes who are injured but want to continue training, people with physical ailments who are unable to lift heavy weights, or people who don’t have access to heavy weights.
It can also be beneficial for powerlifters who want to incorporate different styles of training into their routines but don’t want to lose strength or muscle mass.
Who Shouldn’t Do Blood Flow Restriction for the Chest?
People with the following conditions shouldn’t begin BFR training without first speaking to a doctor:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Past history of deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Vascular grafts
If you have any other medical concerns not listed here, it’s best to consult with a physician before starting BFR training.
I also don’t recommend BFR training for new lifters. If you’re new to powerlifting or strength training in general, you can achieve many of the same benefits of BFR just by training consistently and following a good program.
If you’re new to powerlifting and not sure how to get started, check out our guide on how to start powerlifting.
How Do You Use BFR for the Chest?
When training the chest, BFR bands should only be used at the top of the arms, right below the shoulders. Wearing them too close to the elbows or wrists can cause some serious damage since the arteries and nerves are close to the skin in these areas.
The bands should be wrapped in a layered manner as opposed to a spiral manner that covers a large part of your arm.
On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the tightest, BFR bands should fit anywhere between a 4-6 when training the chest. I recommend starting at the lower end if you’re new to BFR training and working your way up.
When the bands fit properly, you’ll notice the following changes in your arms:
- Your skin will appear slightly darker and redder.
- You’ll have increased vascularity in your hands.
- You can still feel your pulse at the wrist.
- Your muscles will feel tight when you’re working out.
The following are signs that the bands are too tight:
- Your skin becomes pale.
- You don’t feel your pulse at the wrist.
- Your arm feels numb.
- Your veins are flat and collapsed.
Once the BFR bands are properly wrapped, you can perform exercises such as the bench press, incline bench press, dumbbell incline bench press, or chest flys. You can even incorporate pauses and tempo work while wearing them.
Need ideas for bench press accessories? Check out these 17 exercises to improve bench press strength, many of which can be used for BFR training.
How Do You Program BFR Training for the Chest?
BFR training for the chest is much different than a bench day or upper body day that you’d find in most powerlifting routines.
With BFR training, you should follow the below protocol:
- Keep the weights low and reps high.
- Keep your rest periods short.
- Use BFR as a finisher.
1. Keep the Weights Low and Reps High.
When using BFR to train, you shouldn’t lift more than 25% – 35% of your 1RM. It is also most effective when performing a total of 75 reps across 4 sets, with the first set being done for 30 reps and the subsequent sets being done for 15 reps.
2. Keep Your Rest Periods Short.
BFR training is most effective when you keep your rest periods short in between sets and exercises. I recommend resting for 30 seconds in between sets and 1-2 minutes in between exercises.
3. Use BFR as a Finisher.
Because you’ll be training with light weights and high reps, BFR training should be done at the end of your regular routine so you can prioritize your main lifts first. It’s also a good way to accumulate more training volume at the end of your workout.
Check out our article on How Do Powerlifters Train Chest.
3 BFR for Chest Workout Examples
There are several ways to workout your chest using BFR while keeping the above tips in mind.
Below are three short but effective BFR workout examples for the chest.
1. BFR Chest Workout with a Barbell
- Bench press, 1×30
- Bench press, 3×15
Rest for 30 seconds in between each set. At the end of the last set, rest for one minute, then perform:
- Incline bench press, 1×30
- Incline bench press, 3×15
Rest for 30 seconds in between each set.
2. BFR Chest Workout with Dumbbells
- Dumbbell Incline Bench Press, 1×30
- Dumbbell Incline Bench Press, 3×15
Rest for 30 seconds in between each set. At the end of the last set, rest for one minute, then perform:
- Dumbbell Incline Chest Fly, 1×30
- Dumbbell Incline Chest Fly, 3×15
Rest for 30 seconds in between each set.
3. BFR Chest Workout with Tempo Bench Press
When combining tempo work and BFR training, the reps are reduced significantly since it can be difficult to maintain time under tension for high amounts of reps.
Since tempo work can also be a bit more taxing, the rest periods are longer.
- Bench press – 4×7, 3 second negative
Rest for 1-2 minutes in between each set.
Frequently Asked Questions: BFR Training for the Chest
There’s still a lot of confusion and misinformation floating around the Internet about BFR training.
Below, I’ve addressed some of the most common questions I see about BFR training for the chest.
1. How Often Should I Do BFR Training for the Chest?
BFR training for the chest can be done anywhere between 2-4 days per week, either on its own or in conjunction with the rest of your training. If you’re new to BFR or strength training in general, you should start at the lower end of that range and gradually increase the frequency as you get more used to it.
2. Can BFR Training for the Chest Be Done on Consecutive Days?
No. You can use BFR training on consecutive days for different body parts, such as the chest one day and legs the next day, but it is not recommended to train the same body part two days in a row. This is so you can give each body part enough time to recover before you train it again. It also helps prevent overtraining.
3. Is BFR for the Chest Dangerous?
No. BFR training for the chest is considered safe for healthy individuals, as long as you use the right type of bands and wrap them properly.
4. Can I Use a Resistance Band for BFR Training for the Chest?
It is not recommended to use resistance bands for BFR training for a few reasons:
- It can be difficult to achieve the same amount of pressure from workout to workout, which could lead to inconsistent results.
- There’s too much room for error. If the bands are too tight, you can damage your nerves and blood vessels. But if they’re too loose, they won’t be effective.
- Most resistance bands are too thin and require too much pressure in order to be effective. They also can’t be layered properly, which can increase the risk of adverse effects.
5. How Long Should I Wear BFR Bands?
BFR bands should only be worn for a maximum of 15-20 minutes to avoid completely cutting off circulation to your arms.
6. Can I Use BFR Training to Prepare for a Powerlifting Meet?
When preparing for a meet, your main priority should be training the competition lifts and peaking properly so you can hit PRs at your meet. If you want to incorporate BFR training into your powerlifting training, I recommend using it primarily during a hypertrophy block at the start of a new training cycle and cutting back on the volume as you get closer to your meet.
Product Recommendations: BFR Bands
Not all BFR bands are the same, and they can vary in price, durability, and functionality.
Here are two recommendations for BFR bands that you can use to train the chest:
The Gymreaper Occlusion Straps are made out of a thick, elastic fabric. The material is smooth and won’t cause itchiness or irritation during your workout. The bands also come with an extra loop to keep excess material out of the way.
The size indicators allow you to get the same amount of pressure from workout to workout, and the heavy-duty pushdown buckle makes it easy for you to tighten them without assistance.
While these cuffs are significantly more expensive than the first product, they are also safer and allow you to get the most consistent results thanks to the pressure gauge they come with.
If you’re rehabbing an injury or unable to lift heavy weights for other reasons, BFR training with low weights can help you maintain or increase muscle size and strength.
When done correctly, BFR training for the chest is safe and effective for healthy individuals, but people with certain medical conditions should talk to a doctor before starting BFR training.
And if you’re concerned about how to apply BFR bands, a trainer or physical therapist who is skilled in BFR techniques can teach you how to wear them properly.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.