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Kaatsu Training: Lighter Loads + Tendonitis Relief

Kaatsu training originated in Japan. The basic concept is that training with mild vascular occlusion allows for muscle growth equivalent to much higher weight loads while using relatively light weights. Why would anyone want to do this? For one thing, lighter weights means less likelihood of injury. For another, if you are already battling some injury, such as the brachialis tendonitis that I am plagued with, Kaatsu lets you develop larger muscles without aggravating that issue.

An example of Kaatsu training would be to put elastic bands (I use the elastic straps off $4 baseball belts) around your upper arm near the shoulder to restrict blood flow. The pressure used is slight, less than a blood pressure cuff fully inflated. Curls done this way will result in excellent arm growth. The buildup of lactic acid during Kaatsu training feels wicked, but is also likely to be beneficial* to connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments which are easily injured when working out with higher weights. I’ve even come across a study that suggested Kaatsu training with BCCA supplementation was especially useful for older lifters.** That would be me.

According to a recent study:Low intensity occlusion (50-100 mm Hg) training provides a unique beneficial training mode for promoting muscle hypertrophy.Training at intensities as low as 20% of 1 rep maximum with moderate vascular occlusion results in muscle hypertrophy in as little as 3 weeks.A typical exercise prescription calls for 3 to 5 sets to volitional fatigue with short rest periods.The metabolic buildup causes positive physiologic reactions, specifically a rise in growth hormone that is higher than levels found with higher intensities.Occlusion training is applicable for those who are unable to sustain high loads due to joint pain, postoperative patients, cardiac rehabilitation, athletes who are unloading, and astronauts.In fact, during the study, test subjects saw some pretty startling results:

  • Lactate increased*
  • Growth Hormone increased
  • Norepinephrine increased
  • IGF-1 increased*
  • Noradrenaline increased
  • Myostatin decreased (mystatin inhibits muscle growth)
  • One rep maximum strength increased
  • Isometric strength & torque increased
  • Isokinetic strength & torque increased
  • Muscular endurance increased
  • Cross-sectional area of the muscle increased
  • Slow twitch fibers changed into Fast twitch fibers

I like to combine Kaatsu training with larger grips on my dumbbells and a very slow tempo such as three seconds up, no rest, then three seconds down (aka: 3-0-3). Training with this slow tempo until volitional fatigue, say 20-30 reps has also been show to offer muscular growth similar to training with heavier weights. Combining these three tweaks: 1) low intensity 3-0-3 training 2)with the fat grips and 3)Kaatsu bands for bicep curls allows for biceps development when other issues such as tendonitis prevent the use of heavier weights. In fact, since training with Kaatsu bands, Fat Gripz and doing very slow reps with lighter weights, my tendonitis has cleared up. Completely. Finally. After several months of pain.

So there you have it…Choke to Grow! I’ve been using Kaatsu training as a work-around for biceps training in the setting of brachialis tendonitis with excellent results. However it may also be applicable to any older lifter who wants to achieve muscle growth while minimizing the risk of injury to connective tissues. There are official Kaastu bands available in Japan, but I’ve never seen a source of these online or in the US. You can make your own by cutting the leathery ends off of elastic baseball belts like I did.

Kaatsu training is not without risks – some people have developed blood clots. The amount of pressure used is critical. It is recommended to see an official Kaatsu coach to do this sort of training. You can read more about it here.


*Klein MB, Pham H, Yalamanchi N, Chang J.Flexor tendon wound healing in vitro: the effect of lactate on tendon cell proliferation and collagen production. J Hand Surg [Am]. 2001 Sep;26(5):847-54. Erratum in: J Hand Surg [Am] 2002

*Molloy T, Wang Y, Murrell G. The roles of growth factors in tendon and ligament healing . Sports Med. 2003;33(5):381-94.

**Walker DK, et. al. Exercise, Amino Acids, and Aging in the Control of Human Muscle Protein Synthesis Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: December 2011 – Volume 43 – Issue 12 – p 2249–2258