Compression clothing like Skins is very popular right now. And I’ll be the first to admit—they look cool. My pale legs at least look ready to do work when wrapped in black plastic with yellow stripes. But does science bear out any real advantages from wearing them? Indeed, compression clothing may provide something other than a placebo effect.
A recent article from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined the effects of compression clothing on oxygen levels in muscle tissue. Subjects were asked to perform standing, unweighted calf raises for two minutes. One group wore compression sleeves over their calves. The other group went au naturel. Researchers measured oxygen levels in the calf muscles during repeated bouts of the exercise.
By the way, at this point I was wondering, “How in the hell do you measure the amount of oxygen in someone’s calf muscles without cutting open his calf muscles?” The answer is near-infrared spectroscopy. Very cool! Okay, back to the story…
The study found that compression clothing increased the body’s ability to re-oxygenate muscle tissue once initial oxygen stores had been used. If you make the leap that increased oxygen levels will improve performance, then it appears compression garments do indeed deliver. This would especially be true in applications involving work and rest intervals, as the compression clothing would serve to more rapidly re-oxygenate muscle before the next work interval. This also raises the possibility of using compression clothing as a recovery tool. Anecdotally, I know athletes that sleep in compression garments to improve recovery.
A curious note: the compression clothing in the study did not affect how quickly muscles used available oxygen. The garments only affected how quickly oxygen could be replenished. Perhaps compression clothing doesn’t make your workout any easier. It may just keep your muscles better fueled to complete the work.