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What is the best level of compression for recovery?

We consider a research paper titled The Effects of Compression Garment Pressure After Strenuous Exercise, by Jessica A. Hill et al. It was first published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in 2017.

Past research had reported mixed results on the influence that compression garments had for muscle recovery. This paper sought to understand whether the level of compression that the garments exert is an important factor. This wasn’t something that the previous, conflicting, research had either formally measured, considered or reported.

The research team found that the level of compression applied was important. With garments applying Grade 2 compression significantly improving the recovery of muscle strength, muscle function and muscle soreness compared to garments applying less pressure.

All participants undertook the same activities to achieve Exercise Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD).  The symptoms of EIMD include lower muscle strength, a decreased range of motion and a soreness, which can intensify in the time after exercise. The soreness is commonly known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)

The research team split their athletes into three groups.

  1. Control group
  2. Group wearing a leading brand (2XU)
  3. Group wearing a high grade of compression

The two groups wearing compression tights were fitted according to the manufacturers guidelines before the research team measured and recorded the pressure being applied by those garments.

2UX8.1 mmHg +/- 1.314.8 mmHg +/- 2.1
Higher grade garment14.8 mmHg +/- 2.224.3 mmHg +/- 3.7
Measures of compression in the groups considered

Here are how the groups performed, in a number of measures of muscle recovery, in the hours after their athletic exertions:

Muscle Function Test: Percentage change in Maximal Voluntary Contraction (MVC).

MVC is a standardised method for measuring muscle strength. The participants were seated - hip and knee joints at 90 degrees – and asked to extend their knee against a gauge measuring the strain.

A significant benefit for higher compression garments was observed.

Comparing compression level and post exercise muscle strength recovery

Muscle Function Test: Percentage change in Countermovement Jump Height (CMJ)

CMJ is a standardised method for measuring an athlete’s explosive lower body power. The participant stood on a force plate and with their hands on their hips. They were asked to jump with maximum effort.

Significant time effect was observed at all points in time.

Comparing compression levels and post exercise muscle power recovery

Athlete Perceived Muscle Soreness: Lower limb soreness measured using the Visual Analog Scale (VAS) standard.

When using VAS athletes score on a zero – 200 scale (0 = “no pain” and 200 = “unbearable pain”) after performing a squat to 90 degrees.

A significant time effect was observed for lower limb soreness.

Comparing compression levels and post exercise DOMS

This study also considered blood markers that measure muscle damage but they found no significant difference between groups. The authors hypothesise that it is likely, given the somewhat lower scores of Athlete Perceived Muscle Soreness, the protocol of exercise to induce muscle damage was not severe enough.

This study did not observe any significant inflammatory benefits from the use of compression. It is felt this might also have been a consequence of the lower burden of the protocol implemented.

Key finding: The amount of compression a garment exerts matters. Athletes, coaches & medical staff should consider the grade of compression a garment exerts if it is being deployed for recovery benefits.

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