There was a time, long before Tobey Maguire was bitten by a CGI spider, that spandex bodysuits were the realm of bobsled teams and ballet dancers. Who’s to say if the recent glut of superhero movies have influenced fitness culture, but somewhere along the way it became common to see athletes from the professional (NBA players, pro endurance athletes, etc.) to the amateur (that bro Colin at your gym who is following a Mash Elite program) to suit up in stretchy sleeves, shirts, and tights. We don’t want you to be the last kid on your block wearing boring old loose exercise clothes, so today on What, When, Why we will examine Compression Gear, and its place and effect on your fitness!
Jokes aside, compression gear is different than regular ol’ spandex. It is generally much tighter and made from more densely woven fabric to impart structure. Some manufacturers add in other bands or compression zones to add to the effect, sometimes creating gear that is “graduated.”
Graduated compression is built to go from higher to less compression, usually in a distal to proximal (far from/close to the heart) fashion, which is meant to enhance the natural flow of the circulatory system. Options abound- what started as a simple sleeve for the calf or arm has evolved to the point that full body compression suits are an easily acquirable option. No capes as of yet, and underwear still seems to be worn under the pants, but I’m hopeful.
There are two main use cases for compression clothing. The first is intra-workout- using it during a lifting session, run, CrossFit WOD, etc. There are plenty of options out there as far as brands, styles, etc. so you can pick an option that both targets a unique “trouble” area for you and that makes you look cool (in your head.) One member of my old gym, CrossFit South Brooklyn, earned the nickname Super Karl due to his wide array of superhero themed compression shirts, often paired to great effect with a fedora.
The second use is post or inter-workout, as a recovery tool. Many athletes swear by wearing compression gear during their time out of the gym, often under their normal clothes (bonus Clark Kent points!) or to bed. Some companies make full body sleep-suits specifically for this use!
In a sense, we’ve already answered why- compression gear is claimed to help with athletic performance, recovery, etc. That said, there’s some debate about the efficacy of the stretchy stuff to live up to the hype.
As far as performance goes, studies are pretty inconclusive. While some studies have shown small performance gains, just as many have shown the effects to be placebo, if any. I find it hard to fathom that a pair of tights will be the difference between a made or missed snatch, or keep you on the bar during the 15’s round of Fran, but do think it can have some reassuring effect during longer workouts, runs, and the like. Placebo effect can be a legitimately positive phenomenon- plenty of people have lucky rituals, socks, war cries, etc. so if your tights make you feel stronger, by all means rock em!
Studies have shown more conclusive positive correlation with compression gear worn for recovery. Improved circulation can help your system flush lymph/inflammation more efficiently,
reducing DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and increasing muscle recovery time. You may want to have a discussion with your partner before hopping into bed in your recovery onesie, but we’ll leave that up to you!