Muscle loss in older adults reduces their mobility and increases risks for falls, fractures, disability, and heart disease. Preventing or reversing the loss of muscle and strength is a major concern for wellness professionals serving older adults. However, for many older adults weight training with machines or free weights may not be practical or safe without supervision. A recent study has investigated a low-cost, low-risk alternative for building muscle mass and strength in older adults: low-load elastic band resistance training paired with a technique known as blood flow restriction.
Blood flow restriction (also known as kaatsu training) is a technique that can promote increased muscle growth and strength without requiring the lifting of heavy weights. Blood flow restriction is also notable for how quickly it produces changes in muscle mass and strength. This technique has been used by Olympic athletes and bodybuilders looking to gain muscle mass, and is now being promoted for adults of all ages.
This small study on blood flow restriction included 17 participants between the ages of 61 and 85. Nine participants engaged in elastic band resistance training using the blood flow restriction method, while eight performed elastic band resistance training without blood flow restriction. Both groups exercised two days a week for 12 weeks, performing 75 repetitions for an arm curl and a triceps exercise. Those individuals in the blood flow restriction group wore an inflatable cuff on both arms to appropriately restrict their blood flow as they performed these exercises. At the start and end of the study, researchers measured the size of the participants’ muscles using an MRI, as well as their arm strength and arterial function. Arterial function was measured due to concerns about the potential of this exercise to cause increased stiffness in the arteries (which has been shown to occur during heavy resistance training and is of particular concern for older adults).
At the beginning of the study, no significant differences were observed between the two groups of exercisers. However, after the 12-week study, those participants using the blood flow restriction technique showed a 17 percent increase in the cross-sectional area of their elbow flexor and extensor muscles. In the group not employing blood flow restriction, no changes in muscle cross-sectional area was observed. Additionally, on measures of strength, the blood flow restriction group showed a 7.8 percent increase in strength for their elbow flexor muscle, and 16.1 percent increase in the elbow extensor muscle. There were no differences between the groups for cardiovascular tests and there was no negative effect observed on arterial stiffness.
From this study, there appear to be a number of benefits to low-load elastic band resistance training using the blood flow restriction technique. As a way of building muscle without requiring heavy weights, the technique has clear advantages for older adults. The elastic bands are low cost and pose a lower injury risk than free weights and machines. They are often given to older adults and patients with low levels of activity to take home for unsupervised physical therapy exercises, because they have been previously shown to not exacerbate chronic disease conditions or produce training-related injuries. However, bands alone have been shown to provide little to no effect on muscle growth.
Ideally, future studies with a larger number of participants can be conducted to further investigate the benefits of such training, but it should also be noted that another study comparing low-load resistance training with blood flow restriction with heavy-load body-building type exercises also found similar beneficial effects of blood flow restriction for leg muscles as well.
Yasuda T, Fukumura K, Uchida Y, et al. Effects of low-load, elastic band resistance training combined with blood flow restriction on muscle size and arterial stiffness in older adults. Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences Medical Sciences (2015); 70(8): 950–958.