One of the biggest trends in exercise wear in recent years is the growing popularity of compression clothing. Compression clothing is exercise attire made from a blend of nylon and spandex that stretches snugly across your body. No doubt some people put on this type of clothing before a workout because they like the way it looks – the bright colors and sporty designs are eye-catching and fun.
Wearing sporty, comfortable exercise clothing can give you an extra psychological lift that makes a workout more fun. Some people even wear it to show off the body they’ve worked so long to tighten and tone. If you work out at home, you don’t have to “dress to impress” or wear the latest styles. You can put on what’s comfortable. Does wearing compression clothing offer benefits from a fitness standpoint that go beyond comfort?
The Humble Origins of Compression Clothing
A far cry from the brightly-colored compression clothing you see today, compression garments from the past were mostly plain-colored stockings worn by people with varicose veins and other veins problems. By tightly hugging the calves, these stockings “push” blood in the lower extremities back to the heart so it doesn’t accumulate and cause swelling. The compressive action of compression stockings reduces leg puffiness and gives the lower legs added support. Compression garments are still used clinically today for people with vein problems and those with other medical conditions like arthritis for added joint support.
Compression Clothing Expands Beyond the Medical Field
These days, it’s athletes who are flocking to stores to buy compression clothing. No wonder. Manufacturers of compression clothing claim these garments increase muscle power and speed up muscle recovery after a workout. More than just a fashion statement, compression garment makers claim compression sportswear is not only stylish but has fitness benefits.
A few studies looked at whether compression garments improve exercise performance. Is there science behind these claims? If so, how are they of benefit? One theory is wearing compression clothing increases flow of blood back to the heart from veins in the lower part of the body. By pressing on veins in the lower legs, these garments create an additional push that boosts blood flow back to the heart during exercise. In theory, this could aid in lactic acid removal, increase oxygenation and reduce fatigue.
Does this hold true in practice? Most studies have yielded disappointing results. In one study of professional runners, there was no difference in 10K times or blood lactate levels when they wore compression stockings. Another small study in male and female runners found no difference in running times or blood lactate levels with or without compression stockings. Another small study carried out on well-trained cyclists showed wearing compression stockings or compression suits didn’t improve maximal or sub-maximal endurance performance.
When Compression Clothing May Offer Benefits
Wearing a compression garment probably won’t improve your endurance performance but it could help you recover faster after a workout. Several small studies show wearing compression stockings modestly reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness. One study even showed compression stockings reduced muscle fatigue after doing calf raises.
Another study found compression garments aided recovery and reduced markers for inflammation after eccentric exercise, the kind most likely to cause muscle soreness. Even more compelling is a 2010 study showing wearing full body compression clothing for 24 hours after a resistance workout improved muscle recovery in both men and women. Some small studies also show the compression these garments offer may aid the removal of lactic acid from fatigued muscles after a sweat session.
If you think compression clothing is a way to improve your performance you may be disappointed. There’s little evidence that compression stockings or garments enhance endurance, although research is limited. When compression garments may be useful is after a workout, by helping you recover more quickly and, possibly, experience less soreness. The verdict is still out on how effective they are but there is some support for this idea. Plus, a number of fitness trainers advocate the use of these garments.
Other Benefits of Wearing Compression Clothing
You might think compression clothing would be hot to wear when you’re exercising in a warm environment. Not so. Most sports compression garments are made of a material that “wicks” away moisture so it doesn’t accumulate underneath the garment. This makes these garments breathable. Some are also constructed with fabric that has an SPF factor that protects against sun damage, making them ideal for outdoor activities.
Compression garments also give your muscles and tendons added support. Muscles oscillate or move less when you perform an exercise wearing a compression garment. The added support can help you maintain better form when performing some exercises. It’s also possible this may reduce the risk of injury although this hasn’t been looked at as of yet.
Compression garments also hug your body in a way that’s flattering and makes you look more toned. When you wear a compression top, the compression of the fabric against your core and tummy is a subtle reminder to stand tall and use good posture.
The Bottom Line
Compression garments with their bright colors and the way they shape your body make them fun to wear. Unfortunately, there’s no real evidence they improve exercise performance, although wearing these garments may reduce muscle soreness and help you recover more quickly. If you like the way they look and feel, wear them. There are lots of styles and bright colors to choose from. Most importantly, wear what’s comfortable for you and what makes you feel the most motivated during a workout. If it feels good, wear it!
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