Do compression pants work? Or are they just for show? Which ones are the best?
If you spend time at the gym or go out running, you may have noticed that both men and women alike are wearing some form of compression clothing.
Most commonly it's compression pants, although compression socks and shirts have also become popular lately.
Compression pants made by Nike, 2XU, Under Armour and others claim to improve performance and recovery from training. But do they really work?
According to research, it depends what you're using them for. We'll get into that, but first let's take a look at how compression clothing is supposed to work.
Performance and Recovery
In theory, Compression clothing provides several benefits that can improve physical performance (strength, endurance, power), as well as recovery. Compression pants are claimed to:
- Improve blood flow by wrapping the muscle with tight, mechanical pressure. This helps with performance, as well as recovery.. clearing metabolites from intense exercise out of the body.
- Compression holds the muscle in place and prevents muscle oscillation, thus reducing damage (micro-tears) to the muscle.
- Improve proprioception: our perception and awareness of body movement and balance. Also knows as kinesthetic sense.
- Reduce Swelling and inflammation. (Reduced Soreness)
- Increase Endurance and Power output.
Does Compression Clothing Work?
The effectiveness of compression clothing is a hotly debated topic. Many athletes swear by it, while many researchers have found little evidence to support the claims. After reviewing research on compression clothing, as well as using them myself for several years, I've come to some conclusions.
Compression is less effective for improving performance in endurance athletes.
A study funded by Nike examined the effects of wearing compression tights by distance runners. The study found that the compression pants did reduce muscle oscillation. However, no improvements in strength or running performance were observed. Another study from 2015 similarly found no improvements in distance running performance with lower limb compression.
Studies have found that some of the claims made by makers of compression pants are true. Improved oxygenation and reduced muscle oscillation have both been observed. It simply didn't lead to improved performance in distance running.
Compression clothing for the gym
It appears that compression clothing can be more effective when used during activities with more power and explosiveness. A 2013 review of more than 30 studies found that “compression clothing may assist athletic performance and recovery in given situations.” The situations referred to were sports like basketball or Crossfit, that involve a lot of sprinting and dynamic movements. Weight lifting would be included in this list as well.
Recovery and Soreness
The real upside to wearing compression pants, according to research, appears to be their ability to promote recovery. A 2017 study found that compression garments improved strength recovery, recovery from metabolic exercise and next day performance. Compression pants can also reduce swelling and soreness caused by delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
It's important to note that studies have found that to get the full benefit of enhanced recovery and reduced soreness from compression pants, they should be worn after exercise. That's not to say that wearing them during exercise wouldn't be beneficial for recovery. Just that research says wearing them after may offer the greatest benefit.
Issues I have with these studies
Having worn several different brands of compression pants, I have some issues with the studies. My main issue is in the quality of the compression pants worn during the studies.
I've owned Nike, Under Armour and 2XU compression pants, and the levels of compression and quality of the material is vastly different between brands. In particular, 2XU (pronounced, two-times-you), are the only ones that felt like real compression. 2XU compression pants are dramatically better quality compression garments than any of the others.
If you want to check out the 2XU's, here they are below. I've included the link because through my own experience, I know they are by far the best brand and well worth the money. (*This is an affiliate link). I only affiliate with brands and products I've used and Know.
My experience using compression pants
In my own personal experience, I've found compression gear to be a huge benefit, both for performance and recovery. Regardless of the activity, I just like how the compression feels on my legs. I pretty much only work out these days wearing my 2XU's, and the other's I'll wear on occasion.
Without a doubt, they help with recovering from my more intense workouts. After a tough leg day, I'm far less sore and my legs feel ready to work out again sooner. I also feel stronger wearing them.. and whether that's psychological or not, it's still a real thing. I just feel more like an athlete with them on, like all of my movements are more fluid and precise.
While research points in different directions and the debate on compression clothing remains alive, there seems to be plenty of evidence they have a lot of value. Regardless of what any study finds, plenty of athletes and weekend warriors alike swear by their compression gear, and I am one of those people. I've found them to be one of my most valued possessions when it comes to working out. Check out the 2XU website (not an affiliate link, it's just an awesome site.)
The only way to know if they work for you is to try them out. Even if the advantage they give you is small, it's still an advantage, and that little edge might just be enough to help you get a little closer to that best version of you.