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March 21, 2016 by
Jay Medley
If you’ve been shopping for workout clothing lately, odds are that you’ve seen compression gear. They’re the leggings you see worn under shorts on runners, the tall socks, arm and leg bands, or skin-tight shirts you see on athletes.

These ultra-tight garments come with big claims about their benefits, everything from better performance to faster recovery. But do they deliver on these claims? And do you need them for your type of exercise?

You may have also seen compression gear on your grandmother. Compression stockings have been used for decades for those with circulation or vascular problems; they help to push blood up and out of the lower leg to increase circulation. Some people wear compression socks on long flights for this reason to prevent deep vein thrombosis. If it works for those with poor circulation, logic would say that it could increase circulation for anyone, and thus the idea was adapted for athletes.

The idea is that increased circulation will bring more oxygen to your muscles and increase athletic performance, but studies on whether this actually helps have mixed conclusions. One 2013 study even found that compression shorts and leggings don’t actually increase blood flow and some of the deepest leg muscles actually received less blood flow when compression gear was worn. Exercise itself will increase your circulation.

Where compression gear does seem to make a difference is recovery, though more definitive studies are still needed. If the gear is increasing your circulation and helping your blood deliver more oxygen to your muscles, your muscles should be able to heal faster.

However, compression clothing needs to be worn for several hours after the workout for the recovery benefits, so if you’re wearing the same outfit you did while working out, you’ll need to be able to handle sitting in your own sweat. Because compression clothing’s effect on a workout is debatable, you may want to change into compression clothing after your workout.

The type of exercise or sport you do may dictate whether you want to try compression gear. A review of more than 30 studies on compression gear found that the effects are more pronounced in certain activities.

Athletes who compete in sports like basketball and those that involve sprinting and leaping, like some track and field events, could benefit from a performance increase from compression gear. Many people who lift weights feel that their muscles are better supported in compression gear, even if there are no studies to support a better performance.

Compression gear may not be ideal for activities like rock climbing or yoga: being so tight, the clothing may feel restrictive and not allow you to move and stretch as freely as looser-fitting garments. Of course, you could always change into the compression gear after a big climb to reap the recovery benefits.

If it feels good, do it. There are no negative health effects from wearing compression clothing that has been found so far, though some people hate the feeling of being squished (remember, these garments are worn very tight and have to compress your muscles to get their job done.)

Compression clothing could make you feel more supported or more aware of your body position, which could decrease fatigue. There could also be a placebo effect: knowing that you’re wearing the gear could make you feel better, leading to a better or longer workout. There’s no harm in trying it if you want to, but there’s not a lot of proof to say that you need compression gear.

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