Can You Work Out Less For More With Kaatsu?

You probably haven’t heard of it but there’s a new, high-tech solution on the block that aims to, quite literally, squeeze out better results from gym training, with even less weight. It’s a bold claim and sounds kinda faddy, so RISING decided to pop the hood and see if Kaatsu can deliver all that it claims...

Fad Or The Future?

Can you craft yourself into Herculean shape without really doing any exercise? If you could, you’d expect it to be bigger news by now: there’d be legions of couch-bound infomercial viewers leaving their houses with sculpted abs and steel-pipe forearms, smirking as they watch the rest of us running around like rats in a maze.

Instead of which, those ‘strap-them-to-your-gut’ electric pads and ‘done-in-four-minutes’ torture devices you still occasionally spot on late-night TV seem doomed to the same obscurity as the Belt Massager and the Revolving Hammock. So it’s surprising that there is one health innovation you’ve probably never heard of that’s being quietly picked up by early adopters from the Olympics, NFL and US Special Forces. And, even more startling, the evidence is mounting that it could actually work – it’s called Kaatsu.

Getting its name from a combination of the Japanese words ka ‘additional’ and atsu ‘pressure’, Kaatsu was dreamt up in 1966 after its inventor, Yoshiaki Sato, noticed that the severe pain in his legs after sitting in seiza (formal Japanese sitting poses) for prolonged periods was similar to the one he got from lifting weights. It was caused by the restriction of blood flow that’s technically known as ‘occlusion’.

Over the following years, Sato experimented with using ropes, straps and bike inner-tubes to control his own circulation in a more-or-less predictable way, eventually replacing them with computer-controlled pneumatic bands. Think blood-pressure cuffs, but thinner and detachable. By doing just a small amount of exercise, the brain and body is tricked into thinking that the body’s undergoing a huge workout – and upshifts its systems, raising lactic acid in the blood and pumping out growth hormone.

Drop Your Workout Load For The Same Results? Sounds TGTBT

Whenever RISING hears about a shortcut to exercise gains, we’re skeptical. But let’s hear Kaatsu out first: ‘Its efficiency is, by far, the greatest benefit,’ Steven Munatones, CEO of Kaatsu told RISING. ‘Fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers can be stressed in under ten minutes, while its benefits – secretion of HGH and production of nitric oxide that flows within the vascular system – continue for hours afterwards. But its secondary benefit is its convenience. Kaatsu can be done anywhere, at anytime, by anyone: in a gym, at home, in an airplane, in a pool, at work, in a cubicle, in zero gravity conditions in space, and in a hotel room.’

‘It’s been used by pro sumo wrestlers and baseball players in Japan for years’

It sounds great but who’s actually using it? Well, Kaatsu has been used by pro sumo wrestlers and baseball players in Japan for years, and is now making its way overseas. US skiing champ Bode Miller credits the system for his recovery from injury. Part of Kaatsu’s appeal is that it claims it can be used for big results with very low weights, minimising risk while maximising progression. Sets with very low weights can, Kaatsu claims, ‘trick’ the body into responding as if it’s in the middle of a life-or-death workout, and making similar gains.

Meanwhile, for the otherwise-sedentary, Kaatsu exercises are even less demanding: examples include putting bands on the legs and balancing on one foot, or walking around with a book on your head. ‘We have very specific and easy-to-do protocols for bed-ridden and otherwise sedentary individuals,’ says Munatones. ‘But it’s particularly useful for athletes who need a bit of an edge over their competitors and ageing Baby Boomers who lead a sedentary lifestyle.’

OK, but is there something missing? For instance, does it really strengthen bones and ligaments – the classic measures of ‘Dad strength’ – alongside muscle, like lifting with weights does? ‘Yes, for the same reasons that resistance training does,’ says Munatones. ‘These benefits have been proven in Japan, but specific medical claims in the United States must first be validated by independent research, that we will soon carry out,’ he admits. So the jury is still out on the final, scientific verdict.

There’s Always A Downside

This idea has popped up elsewhere, of course. As early as the ‘80s, bodybuilders were experimenting with tightening bands around their biceps to an occasionally disastrous degree: done wrong, the process can lead to deadly blood clots, which is one reason that Kaatsu practitioners insist that it’s done under supervision.

More recently, Blood Flow Restriction training (otherwise known as occlusion training, or BFR) has come back into fashion, with custom-made bands that come with quick-release toggles, designed to be worn during training sessions. The general idea is to cut off venous blood flow out of limbs but allow the arterial blood flow back in (because it’s under higher pressure), leading to a huge pump that – theoretically – causes huge muscle growth (NB if you’ve never seen Arnie talking about how much he loves ‘The Pump’, go and check it out).

There are several reasons why this could, potentially, work: old-school bodybuilders speculated that the extra blood somehow flushed the muscles with nutrients, but now it’s thought to be mainly down to increased metabolic stress and muscular recruitment. Maybe most surprisingly, the effect is actually more pronounced on strength than it is on muscle: in a whole group of studies done on rugby and American football players, athletes training with BFR made better squat and bench gains than hard-training control groups, although with barely any difference in muscle size.

Athletes Are One Thing, But What About The Rest Of Us?

One study from the Journal of Applied Physiology showed increased muscle cross-sectional area from BFR training using loads as light as 20% of lifters’ one-rep max in a given lift – that might be your gym’s smallest dumbbells. This seems odd at first glance, but actually makes sense: strength is partly dependent on muscle size, but it’s also dependent on muscle activation, and muscle activation is something that BFR seems to do very, very well. It’s also easier to recover from than ‘normal’ training, because it causes basically no muscular damage: you might get sore the first couple of times you do it because your body has not adapted to it, but otherwise it’s less taxing than a traditional set of heavy curls, for instance.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that it’s a bit intimidating: no man wants to be the guy in the gym wrapping himself in bands between sets, and there’s always the worry that you might be doing much more harm than good. Kaatsu may have the potential to sidestep this issue pretty neatly, as well as automating the whole process.

‘Kaatsu can be done anywhere: in a pool, in a hotel room, in zero gravity’

The biggest problem is that it doesn’t build the mental tenacity that’s the hallmark of serious lifters: it might power The Pump, but what about The Psyche? Then again, if you’re considering Kaatsu as an investment, you probably already get that from other training (as a SEAL) or don’t care (as an OAP). If the studies set to be performed in the US prove the value of Kaatsu, then we’ll be seeing pensioners and playmakers alike being re-introduced to the joys of The Pump.

RISING certainly wouldn’t recommend sacking off your regular routine for Kaatsu or BFR training but – done safely under professional supervision – it may have potential as a weapon in your armory for helping you to push you through a strength plateau. And when it comes to anything related to The Pump, well, you know in your heart that Arnold would approve...

WHAT NEXT? It’s possible to try occlusion training without the full Kaatsu kick – but, and this is very important to your health: do it under the supervision of a qualified trainer or coach who can talk you through it safely. The basics are simple: wrap a BFR band, which is designed specifically for this stuff, around your upper arm so that it’s tucked into your armpit – if you feel any numbness or tingling at all, it’s too tight. Next, grab a dumbbell that’s around 40% of the most you can normally curl, and do 10-15 reps with it, rest 30 seconds and repeat twice. Don’t plan on wearing a tight t-shirt afterwards...

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.