Even just a quick glance through most gyms — not to mention sporting events — will clue you in that compression wear is a hot trend.
These garments are made to fit tight against the skin, and they come in a variety of forms, from standalone sleeves to full tights to socks, shorts and calf wraps. Since they’re geared for performance, they can range in price but often represent a bit of an investment.
Many experts and researchers say it’s worth the cost. Not only do these garments show advantages during workouts and strength training, but they can also be beneficial for recovery, too.
Not all compression wear is the same, according to Ava Fitzgerald, sports performance coach at Professional Physical Therapy. Some is designed to add warmth, so that you can perform better in cold weather, and there’s the flipside as well — some keeps you cool so you can work out for longer, either outside in the heat or inside in a warm gym space.
“Outside of the weather component, compression clothing has become more and more popular as a means to heat muscles, keep them warm throughout a workout and provide low levels of direct compression to that area,” she says.
There’s a safety factor, too, Fitzgerald adds. The more loose-fitting your clothing is, the more likely it is to catch on something. That could affect your form during complex movements. For example, if you’re trying to keep a barbell close to the body, the task becomes easier when clothing is tight to the body.
The same aspect applies to being aerodynamic, she says. If you’re in a sport involving speed, such as cycling or running, compression wear produces less drag, helping your performance.
Compression wear is now seen in a range of sports, from basketball to gymnastics to rowing. Fitzgerald says, “Any athlete with goals of moving quickly, efficiently, and precisely, is going to benefit from wearing compression clothing.”
For those who are new to this kind of clothing, she recommends trying looser compression on one part of the body — for example, the legs or even just the calves — to adjust and work toward feeling comfortable.
Wearing compression gear while you’re exercising may do more than boost your workout performance — you could see better recovery results, too.
According to a small study of cricket players, those who wore compression garments during an event showed fewer blood markers of muscle damage later, and also reported less muscle soreness 24 hours after a match, compared with those who didn’t wear the garments.
The researchers noted that wearing the garments as a recovery tool — that is, putting them on after exercise, instead of during — could help reduce perceived muscle soreness. That means even if you don’t like wearing compression wear when you work out, it could still have advantages if you put them on when you’re done with your activity.
OUTSIDE THE GYM
Although compression wear can be beneficial for your athletic performance, some people find that it’s also useful for other activities as well, particularly if you struggle with leg cramps or numbness on long-distance flights.
When you fly, a number of factors work against you in terms of body changes, says Dr. Kevin Hopkins, family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic. The pressurized air creates a sensation of being at about 6,000–8,000 feet elevation — that’s higher than Denver — and the humidity is only at about 25%. Normal room humidity is twice that amount.
The pressure and low humidity cause temporary changes like dehydration and lowered blood pressure, which can both cause the veins in your legs to collect more blood, especially if you don’t get up and move around Hopkins says.
Wearing compression stockings or even sleeves can be helpful for getting the blood moving the way it should.
“If you notice that your feet or hands swell on flights, then it may be a good idea to use the compression wear,” he says. “The same could go for a job where you sit most of the day. The best strategy is to get up and move at least once per hour, but compression is a good backup strategy.”