Blood flow restriction training and the exercise pressor reflex: a call for concern

Marty D Spranger, Abhinav C Krishnan, Phillip D Levy, Donal S O'Leary, Scott A Smith
American Journal of Physiology. Heart and Circulatory Physiology 2015, 309 (9): H1440-52
Blood flow restriction (BFR) training (also known as Kaatsu training) is an increasingly common practice employed during resistance exercise by athletes attempting to enhance skeletal muscle mass and strength. During BFR training, blood flow to the exercising muscle is mechanically restricted by placing flexible pressurizing cuffs around the active limb proximal to the working muscle. This maneuver results in the accumulation of metabolites (e.g., protons and lactic acid) in the muscle interstitium that increase muscle force and promote muscle growth. Therefore, the premise of BFR training is to simulate and receive the benefits of high-intensity resistance exercise while merely performing low-intensity resistance exercise. This technique has also been purported to provide health benefits to the elderly, individuals recovering from joint injuries, and patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation. Since the seminal work of Alam and Smirk in the 1930s, it has been well established that reductions in blood flow to exercising muscle engage the exercise pressor reflex (EPR), a reflex that significantly contributes to the autonomic cardiovascular response to exercise. However, the EPR and its likely contribution to the BFR-mediated cardiovascular response to exercise is glaringly missing from the scientific literature. Inasmuch as the EPR has been shown to generate exaggerated increases in sympathetic nerve activity in disease states such as hypertension (HTN), heart failure (HF), and peripheral artery disease (PAD), concerns are raised that BFR training can be used safely for the rehabilitation of patients with cardiovascular disease, as has been suggested. Abnormal BFR-induced and EPR-mediated cardiovascular complications generated during exercise could precipitate adverse cardiovascular or cerebrovascular events (e.g., cardiac arrhythmia, myocardial infarction, stroke and sudden cardiac death). Moreover, although altered EPR function in HTN, HF, and PAD underlies our concern for the widespread implementation of BFR, use of this training mechanism may also have negative consequences in the absence of disease. That is, even normal, healthy individuals performing resistance training exercise with BFR are potentially at increased risk for deleterious cardiovascular events. This review provides a brief yet detailed overview of the mechanisms underlying the autonomic cardiovascular response to exercise with BFR. A more complete understanding of the consequences of BFR training is needed before this technique is passively explored by the layman athlete or prescribed by a health care professional.

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