My biggest question with compression clothing is always ‘what qualifies it to be labelled as a compression garment?’. The word ‘compression’ seems to get thrown around a lot in the activewear market and I always wonder quite how justified its use is.
The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any definitive answer to this question. So, being ever curious, I’ve spoken with brands, analysed product labels and descriptions, trawled through a number of research journals and scoured patents to try and find an answer myself.
I feel it’s so easy for people to be misled by brands referring to their products as compression garments, when the product is no more technical and has no more R+D behind it than a standard pair of running tights.
So, I am urging you to question where you spend your money, and what your sportswear can actually do to help you improve. Whether you’re a bodybuilder, runner, cyclist or gymnast, here’s what you need to know:
Characteristics of Compression Garments
There are many different elements that contribute to a garment having compression properties. Identifying some of these elements in your activewear will be easier than for others. For some things, like elastane content, you can simply check the label, whereas for other aspects, you may need to consult the brand website or even get in touch with them directly.
Compression garments are usually a mix of elastane and a microfibre such as nylon or polyester. Elastane is a synthetic fibre known for its elasticity. The ratio of elastane in the mix should preferably be more than 22%. For reputable brands, I’ve come across elastane contents of between 24-35%.
Garments may also have varying materials in different panels of the piece to best target compression where needed.
For us ladies, the word denier is something most commonly associated with the thickness of hosiery. The word refers to the weight (i.e. thickness) of the individual threads of a fabric.
What you need to know is the higher the denier the greater the compression.
Compression garments should be tighter at the extremities, gradually decreasing in pressure towards the heart. This helps to promote blood flow back to the heart from the outer extremities.
Degree of Stretch/Compression
There are lots of different knits used in the manufacture of fabrics, which all offer different capacities to stretch, and in different directions.
Some manufacturers manipulate this to ensure that the fabric in compression garments stretch and compress in the appropriate direction for the action of the muscle, such as by using panels. Other companies use technology such as a circular knit, to ensure 360 degree stretch.
As well as this, the degree of recovery is important. Elastane recovery potential is how well the elastane returns to its unstretched size.
Benefits of Compression Clothing
There have been numerous studies looking at the effects of wearing compression clothing. While some research has shown it to make little difference, it is generally accepted that there are a number of benefits to wearing compression clothing pre-, during, and post-workout.
Compression clothing improves venous return (the blood flow back to the heart). More efficient blood flow to the heart means better blood flow out of the heart. This has lots of benefits including general health and wellbeing.
Increased oxygenation of the blood means that your muscles can warm-up faster, perform better, and recover faster.
Recovery is a really key use of compression clothing. During workouts, compression clothing can aid lactate clearance, therefore reducing fatigue. But it is also beneficial post-workout to speed up the removal of such waste products, allowing muscles to repair faster. Compression can also reduce swelling and discomfort.
Reduced Muscle Damage
Muscle oscillation is the muscle vibration that occurs during exercise. This occurs mainly with high impact training including running, HIIT movements, and workout classes such as Les Mills Body Attack. Often, this is visible. With runners, you can see this vibration/wobble through the leg as the foot impacts with the ground.
Compression clothing reduces this kind of muscle movement and therefore minimises muscle damage in this way. This also contributes to the reduction of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
The pressure applied to the skin surface by compression clothing is said to increase the body's awareness, leading to improved posture, agility and stability.
My Thoughts on Compression Clothing
What I love about compression garments is that they can enhance your training and performance without being at all invasive or difficult to implement. You literally just pull on the clothing as and when you want, and they work by the same principles for absolutely everyone. That’s why compression technology is so popular with athletes, doctors and even the military.
I’m passionate about companies that invest in research surrounding what they do, and there are some brilliant compression garment companies that specialise in just that. These are the companies that I want to invest in so that I can enjoy a great product.
Even though research shows mixed results in terms of the benefits of compression garments, I love how they feel and the fact that they are helping me to train harder and recover faster - even if that is just a placebo effect sometimes.
If you've found benefit from compression clothing, let me know by commenting below or tweeting me @theblondeethos. And don't forget to download this guide in pdf format so that you can always refer back to it!