The Pros and Cons of Compression Gear

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - SEPTEMBER 25: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder poses for a photo during media day at Chesapeake Energy Arena on September 25, 2017 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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Russell Westbrook has a reputation both for being a dominant point guard and for wearing compression everything. Whether one has anything to do with the other is not so clear.

A quick history. Before it was expensive and came in neon colors, compression gear took one form: putty-hued, knee-high, post-op stockings. Since they increase circulation, doctors prescribed them to help prevent swelling and blood clots. Then, in the 1980s, researchers realized that this concept applied to athletes, too.

“During a workout, the body has endured micro-tearing of the muscle and created lactic acid, which it flushes out through the lymphatic system,” says Chad Beauchamp, a Southern California–based sports physical therapist. “It would normally take two or three days to flush out the excess, but these garments quicken this process, so you’ll have less muscle soreness and recover a lot faster.”

Indeed, compression gear has become a recovery best practice, along with ice, elevation, and movement. But most guys aren’t wearing it for recovery only. Watch a 10K go by and you’ll see a lot of compressed calves. And there are problems with this.

First is what gets to be called compression gear. The Food and Drug Administration is charged with regulating medical-grade stockings. But at Dick’s Sporting Goods, anything with a snug fit gets labeled compression.

Second, studies show it has a marginal performance benefit at best. Shimmying into tights isn’t going to shave minutes off a time trial or boost your one-rep max.

On the other hand, muscle-hugging garments aid in proprioception, or the ability to feel your own body, Beauchamp says. Flex your bare feet, then slip into compression socks. Flex again and you’ll enjoy more sensations in your joints and muscles. Experiencing such nuance in your movements may improve your form, he says.

Bottom line, if putting on compression gear makes you feel like a superior athlete, why not? Ultimately, it works if it feels good to you, says Tina Christie, a sports physical therapist in Chicago. “When you feel more supported, it can help you perform better,” she says.

If you are in the market for compression gear, make sure it’s the real deal. Choose a size based on calf or biceps circumference, instead of small-medium-large. Good garments stand up to washing and retain their tightness. Not to worry—a broken pair of compression socks become just socks.