Compression gear really can make or break your workout
Compression pants, compression tops, compression sleeves, compression socks. Take a walk through any sporting goods store, and you'd certainly assume there's a reason to buy into the compression gear craze.
Sometimes to the tune of several hundred dollars.
But that's the thing with marketing: It has a way of convincing consumers to shell out cash for high-dollar items that may not be worth the investment. And when it comes to compression gear, the scientific evidence is a bit hard to nail down.
What the science says
Just so you wouldn't have to, I read 23 studies published since 2010 (you're welcome), each investigating the possible performance-enhancing benefits of compression apparel. The general gist is that compression clothing might offer negligible performance benefits. Sometimes. Maybe. Sort of. In very certain scenarios. But really, it's pretty hit or miss. More studies definitely need to be done.
Thank you, science. You're always so helpful.
Why the science is so confusing
The reason the scientific evidence is so confusing is that each study analyzes compression gear's benefits differently. For instance, one study might try to determine whether wearing compression garments during endurance running boosts performance during time trials, time to fatigue or time required to recover.
Regardless of what that study finds, it doesn't necessarily correlate to other forms of exercise, so other studies might find different information regarding the benefits of compression apparel in relation to sprinting or high-intensity interval training or different forms of strength training.
And then there's the question of how the garments boost performance (if they do — and that's a big if), and every study looks at different factors. One study might measure power output while another study might look at levels of creatine kinase or lactic acid in the blood. Still others might look at psychological effects, such as perceived exertion during exercise.
Which brings up another question that some studies fail to answer: If there's a performance benefit to wearing compression apparel, is it related to physiological improvements, or is there a psychological effect — placebo or otherwise — taking place? It's often hard to say.
As if that weren't enough to consider, there are big discrepancies between the types of compression garments used in different studies. Some use full-body garments, some use socks, some use leggings and some use shirts. Not to mention the different levels of compression available. Some apparel is much more compressive while other apparel offers little more support than a pair of pantyhose.
Mounting evidence for compression gear's recovery benefits
Although there is some limited evidence that indicates compression gear might offer benefits during certain forms of exercise — jumping performance, in particular — its most compelling use is to help prevent post-exercise delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A review study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014 found that wearing compression garments after "damaging exercise" (think heavy strength training, sprint work or endurance exercise to fatigue) helped reduce DOMS while also helping speed recovery of measures of muscle strength, muscle power and blood indicators, including levels of creatine kinase.
Deciding whether to buy
At the end of the day, laying out big bucks for high-dollar compression gear certainly isn't going to hurt your performance, but don't assume it's going to help you, either. Even if you do happen to get a boost in power, speed or strength, the benefits will likely be negligible — probably not enough to make a difference to the average gym-goer or even the recreational athlete.
If you like compression gear — if it feels good, you feel like you're benefiting from wearing it and you don't mind the price — then, by all means, keep at it. If, however, you'd rather pick up a pair of running shorts for $20 than spend $100 for a pair of fancy tights, you can feel confident you're not hurting your progress by making a frugal decision.
Remember, the fitness- and sports-apparel industry is a multibillion-dollar business. Take product marketing and hype with a grain of salt.