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So what’s the deal with compression garments?

I’ve been reading a lot about compression garments lately. What do they do and should I be wearing them when I work out?

Compression garments have actually been used for years in the medical field for people with poor circulation and as an aid to recover from surgery. You may even remember an elderly relative wearing compression stockings to ease varicose vein pressure or to help boost circulation. That technology has since been adopted by the athletic community with many of the same principles in mind. 

Compression athletic wear is skintight clothing that contains special, well-placed panels that aim to improve blood flow back to the heart, increasing overall circulation and re-oxy-genation of the blood. “Increased circulation also aids the removal of byproducts such as lactic acid that can lead to muscle soreness after training,” says Dawn Ferreira, senior product specialist at Zamst precision engineered technologies (zamst.us). “Compression can also reduce muscle vibration that occurs during activity, thereby delaying the onset of fatigue.” 

There are two types of compression garments: Those with graduated compression, which are tighter in the extremities, are designed to help increase blood flow back to the core; and those with compartmental compression are tighter in particular areas, which vary depending on the sport you play. Both types help enhance proprioception by supporting posture and aiding in the movement of certain muscle groups, which can help delay fatigue and enhance performance, according to Ferreira. 

The question, however, remains: Do these garments really work? A lot of people are dubious about the true value of the clothes, but there are just as many who are superfans. If you look at the research, upward of 30 or so studies support the garments’ claims to fame, proving they help do such things as reduce blood lactate, improve vertical jump and accelerate recovery in all sorts of forums and trials. 

However, a number of recent studies question the efficacy of compression garments as they’re advertised. One published this year in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance tested distance runners and monitored their gait, oxygen uptake and other variables as they ran on a treadmill without the garments. Then half of the participants put on calf compression sleeves and were retested. Results showed no significant differences between the efficiency of the runners when wearing the sleeves compared to running without them. 

So do they work? Perhaps. But the good news is there’s no harm in trying them out for yourself, and no studies to date have reported compression garments as having any negative effects. “A product must be a medical-grade compression to really provide a true benefit,” advises Ferreira, so shop carefully. If you have the time and inclination to wriggle into the clothing, then go for it and form your own conclusions.

Taking The Fright Out Of Tight 

Want to try compression on a small scale? Start with Zamst’s HA-1 compression socks. With medical-gradient compression, the socks are tighter in the ankles and less so at the calves, and have a built-in arch support system to stabilize the heel. One genius use for these socks outside the gym: on an airplane to reduce swelling in the feet and legs. $60; zamst.us