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Optimising Strength Training for Elite Rugby Players: A Comparative Study of BFR, Heat, and BFR Combined with Heat

In support of Hytro’s quest to enhance sports performance within professional sport, a partnership with Gloucester Rugby Club saw the Hytro BFR wearables being utilised to conduct a scientific research study that asked, ‘Can Blood Flow Restriction and heat, alone or in combination prior to strength training improve the performance of elite rugby players?’

Overview of the research aims

Following the announcement of the research partnership, once the study was underway, we met with Hytro Founder, Dr Warren Bradley and Gloucester Rugby’s Performance Nutritionist and Recovery Sports Scientist, Dr James Hudson to learn more about their ambitions for the study.

A winning combination saw Dr Warren bring over a decade’s worth of industry experience as a Sports Nutritionist in Rugby and Premier League Football to this study. Having completed a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology, he now sets out to further research, and scientific understanding, within the field of BFR and elite performance in a series of ongoing research projects.

Dr James brought not only his academic and industry experience within rugby, but utilised his 15 years as a professional rugby player to connect the scientific literature with the reality of training pro athletes, through understanding their challenges and motivations to ultimately get player buy-in. Harnessing their combined experience within the field, they designed this study to establish if BFR and exposure to heat, both alone and in combination, prior to resistance training, give a better-quality training session.

In season, pro rugby players get limited stimulus for their lower limbs through resistance training making weight sessions during a season really important. With sessions tending to only happen once a week between games, they focus on strategies to maintain the physical qualities of strength and power developed in the preseason, meaning there is a drive to maximise the sessions’ effect and the players’ ability to train at the right intensity throughout the season.

 

Dr James shared: “We have been  determining the best practice protocol for that weights session and to do that, we have looked at different preconditioning scenarios throughout the preseason to understand what is most applicable in that setting with elite rugby players.

We know that ischemic preconditioning using BFR can improve an athlete’s ability to produce power, and in recent research, resistance training in the heat and preheating prior to resistance training can have a really positive effect on maximal force production. Therefore, starting out we knew the theory behind this study was sound in terms of the previous research.

Our aim was to understand how these findings can be practically applied during a real world rugby pre-season, by identifying which elements of the session are positively affected by these interventions – perhaps lactate threshold, force production, or speed of force production. We can now draw from that a way of using these protocols in season to maximise what we  do with players.”

 

Dr James Hudson, Gloucester Rugby’s Performance Nutritionist and Recovery Sports Scientist

 

Only possible with Hytro due to simplicity, ease, and safety

This research study is made possible through the versatility, simplicity, and ease of use of the Hytro BFR wearables. As the only BFR product that can be worn anywhere, and administered independently or within a squad setting, the garments have been designed specifically with in-built straps and safety guardrails to enable a range of protocols to be adopted, and in this case, tested to understand their impact on pre-season training within professional rugby.

 

Dr Warren states: “Due to the product’s ease of use, it has been integrated without any great change to what the players were already doing, leading to a stacking of efforts; so they were doing their Preparation BFR whilst doing something else. It’s instant time-saving. The study introduced the idea of wearing BFR within a sauna setting, a world first, made possible with BFR for the first time due to the versatility of our shorts.”

 

Protocols for BFR, heat and BFR with heat

The research study has been taking three-week over nine weeks (three times three-week blocks) and has been undertaken in the field to ensure the findings can be adopted by practitioners working directly with athletes in club settings. Whilst lab-based research is greatly important, protocols can be difficult to reproduce in the real world and are often adapted so that they can be practically applied. This can lead to misinterpretation of data and misuse of protocols, resulting in ineffective results. It is therefore crucial that research is conducted within the intended environment that allows for reproducibility.

 

Dr Warren states: “In addition to this study, we have had another study running simultaneously looking at Preparation BFR in a University lab under more clinical and regulated conditions. The protocols used in the lab are identical to the protocols we have been using in the field, so once we publish our findings from the lab research and the field research, they will be directly transferrable and reproducible for practitioners across a wide variety of sports.”

 

Gloucester Rugby Player in sauna wearing Hytro BFR Performance Shorts

 

Dr James shares the details of the study: “The study has involved three blocks of three-weeks, with each three-week block comparing two of the three different protocols. In a three-week block, the first week was very much focussed on familiarisation with the players and integrating it into their normal program. For example, for block one, at the beginning of a lower limb session the players did trunk and core training prior to their main lift, so we integrated BFR during those periods using a protocol of three rounds of five minutes of occlusion with two minutes break. A few minutes prior to the session starting, during preconditioning, is where we did  their first two rounds of occlusion, then the third round was during that core or trunk network.

Then we did a crossover design in the second and third week so the players have tried both protocols, each for a week. In the following three-week block we applied  the heat-only protocol vs BFR only, and in the last three week block we  introduced the BFR combined with heat vs BFR alone. The protocol for heat  involved 12 (total) minutes in the sauna, as that is the required time indicated by prior research to raise the skin and muscle tissue temperature. They  strapped in for two rounds of five minutes of BFR whilst in the sauna, with two minutes rest unstrapped in between. Then came out of the sauna, put on their gym shorts and tee on top of their Hytro BFR Performance Shorts, and completed the final third round whilst completing the trunk or core work as above.

We have been making sure that everything is valid in terms of the methodologies used within an applied setting. Throughout the study we have ensured  it is simple to integrate so that the players became familiar with the BFR shorts and there was no drastic change to their usual protocols or schedule.”

 

Dr Warren adds: “The study was  designed to cover the methodology we know for preheating and for BFR from previously published protocols, so we have been combining those two published protocols and comparing them, on their own and when used in this stacked modality setup.”

 

The team set out to take advantage of this unique opportunity to pioneer new research that is based on well-formed and founded existing research studies. As they have been reviewing BFR, heat, and BFR with heat, they have explored new territories with the aim of creating industry-defining, world-class research.

 

Gloucester Rugby Player lifting weights wearing Hytro BFR Performance Shorts

 

Partnership with Gloucester Rugby Club

This is only made possible by partnering with the esteemed Gloucester Rugby Club, and Dr James, who has been executing the study at the highest level utilsiing his professional playing experience, academic achievements, and industry experience.

 

Dr Warren comments: “I was delighted to partner with Dr James, and Gloucester Rugby Club for this research study as I knew the quality and depth of research would be excellent. The willingness of all those involved, the quality of the staff, athletes and the facilities available to enable this study are outstanding. I very much look forward to finalising  the study and reviewing the results in due course.”

 

Athlete response to research

To maximise buy in from the playing team, Dr Warren visited the club and spent a day coaching the players on Hytro BFR wearables. This allowed the players to ask any specific questions about the product, and Dr Warren could share his expert view on the science, and why the wearables have been designed in the way they have to ensure safety and ease of application.

 

Dr James describes: “If players have used BFR previously for rehab after an injury, they will have used pressure cuffs which can be fiddly to apply and hard to use consistently. So, the buy-in from the players has been great because of the ease of application of Hytro. The fact we can coordinate it together in groups is fantastic.”

 

Gloucester Rugby Player reclining wearing Hytro BFR Performance Shorts

 

Not only have the players bought in to the study, and the Hytro BFR wearables, but importantly so has Head of Performance Dan Tobin who has previously carried out his own research studies and understands the requirements, knowing how to support engagement with the players.

 

Dr Warren and Dr James are now collating the data gathered during the study and will shortly begin analysing the results ready to share their findings via a white paper in due course. Hytro continues its drive to lead in both scientific advancement and product development within BFR through recent studies with Bristol City Women’s and Oxford United. In a previous study conducted with Bristol Bears, the benefits of post-match Recovery BFR were assessed and the white paper is available here for review.

 

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