Compression sleeves, leggings and knee-high socks are standard accessories for many pro athletes. Most players in professional sports wear some kind of compression clothing. The thinking is that this clothing helps with circulation, support and muscle recovery. But does it actually work?
Before you decide whether compression clothing is right for you, it helps to know the history and the science.
Start at the bottom
Compression clothing began at the feet. Compression socks were created in the 1940s by inventor Conrad Jobst, who used elastic fabric — another new invention — to relieve pain caused by a condition in which his veins had problems sending blood back to the heart. For people with poor circulation, blood can pool in the legs after each pump. Compression socks work by firmly holding the body in place and squeezing the feet and legs. This reduces the diameter of the veins and helps circulation by keeping more blood moving as it pumps.
The invention of synthetic fabrics in the 1950s, including spandex, nylon and polyester, led to more clothes that could sculpt and mold the body instead of drape over it. Spandex was first used at the Olympics by the French ski team in 1968.
In the early 2000s, more and more athletes, including NBA players, began wearing compression clothing, including leggings. Trainers maintained that it helped players perform, saying that compressed muscles worked more efficiently and that the clothing helped improve circulation and support, particularly with strained muscles.
Since then, compression clothing has been embraced by everyone from Olympic athletes to Navy SEALs. The technology has never been more advanced and responsive to athletes’ needs, with companies like 2XU, which is the Official Uniform Partner of Gold’s Gym, offering compression clothing that’s lighter and more flexible than ever, and measuring its gear using specialized pressure and tensile strength testers.
Compression clothing benefits: the science
Today, studies appear inconclusive on whether compression clothing is effective. But it’s important to note that research has been sporadic and that some studies have zeroed in on specific sports and contexts, so the results may not necessarily apply to all activities and body conditions.
It’s helpful to look at compression clothing studies from three angles:
- Performance. Compression clothing proponents believe improved circulation results in more oxygen being delivered and that this, in turn, can improve your performance. (Be sure to check out our tips on how to boost your endurance.) But a 2016 study that compared distance runners with and without compression clothes did not show a difference in their efficiency. Still, another study found that the clothing did have a small positive effect, particularly in short-duration sprints.
- Recovery. Another point argued by compression clothing proponents is that the improved blood flow can help speed recovery, and that the clothing can help reduce soreness because, like a massage, it applies pressure to muscles. Although scientists who studied whether elite cross-country skiers recovered better with compression clothing found no difference, scientists who looked at the recovery of rugby players, cyclists and rock climbers did find that compression clothing helped.
- Psychology. Scientists acknowledge that some people can, indeed, perform better or recover more quickly simply because they believe that compression clothing is effective. In other words, confidence is key: Your confidence that wearing the clothing will increase the efficiency of your movements and decrease tiredness later on can lead to better results.
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