Do Compression Garments Work for Muscle Recovery?

woman trail running with compression socks

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Whether you're a weekend warrior or professional athlete, muscle recovery is always a concern.  Avoiding post-exercise muscle soreness can also help you get back to your workouts and training regimes faster, but can also keep you more comfortable. 

It isn't a surprise that there is a lot of research focusing on muscle recovery and a variety of products said to boost the process, limiting soreness and shortening the time it takes to fully repair your muscles after strenuous training sessions.

Compression garments are an example of these types of products that are used by athletes and recreationally active people looking for a recovery boost.

What Are Compression Garments

Compression garments are pieces of clothing worn on various body parts that are tight-fitting and offer compression. They are most often made from a blend of spandex and nylon, though other materials are also used.

You can find compression garments in a range of pressure, though a physician typically prescribes higher ranges of compression for medical use.

When it comes to sportswear, compression garments are thought to increase performance and speed muscle recovery. 

Types of Compression Garments

Medical forms of compression garments are used to help people recover from surgery or increase circulation for those that need it. Athletic sportswear compression garments, on the other hand, are designed as pieces of clothing you can wear alone or as an outfit to cover most of your body. There are also sleeves that only cover a specific part of your body.

Some of the types of sports compression garments available include:

  • Full-length tights
  • Knee sleeves
  • Three quarter length pants
  • Shorts
  • Knee sleeves
  • Calf sleeves
  • Long and short sleeve shirts
  • Socks
  • Quad sleeves

Do Compression Garments Aid Muscle Recovery?

Before you use compression garments or muscle recovery, it’s important to know whether or not they are effective for this purpose. There are many claims to unravel, but there is promising research behind using compression garments to aid your muscle recovery process. It’s also wise to know what causes muscle soreness and the type that compression garments may help with.

Your muscles typically require 24 to 48 hours to repair themselves. Working the same muscle groups again too soon can cause tissue breakdown and prevent muscle building. Be sure to take time to recover.

The Cause of Muscle Soreness

Exercise is thought to cause minute tears in your muscles due to a natural process that actually builds more muscle fibers, helping you get stronger and faster. Muscle soreness may be due to an inflammatory response that results from these tears.

Often referred to as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), the severity of your post-training muscle pain depends on the duration and intensity of your workout.

This type of normal muscle pain is not the same as that caused by an injury like a sprain or muscle strain. While those types of injuries require medical attention, delayed onset muscle soreness can be treated at home. The peak effect of DOMS typically occurs 48 to 72 hours after your workout. 

Any sharp pains, sprains, swelling, or lingering pain might be a sign of something more and may require medical attention. Speak to a health care provider about your muscle pain if anything seems unusual.

What the Science Says

There are several theories behind how compression garments can aid in muscle recovery. Research has demonstrated some clear benefits to wearing compression garments for recovery.

The evidence suggests that compression garments have the following benefits:

May Reduce Muscle Damage: For instance, a biomarker of muscle damage called creatine kinase (CK) has been shown to be reduced after exercise when compression garments are worn. When CK levels are reduced, recovery time is improved due to the increased elimination of waste metabolites and the repair of muscle tissues.

Reduce Pain and Inflammation: When it comes to inflammatory response, compression garments can reduce both pain and inflammation after a workout. 

Decrease Soreness and Fatigue: The results of two meta-analyses showed that compression garment use decreases post-workout leg soreness, muscle fatigue, and muscle damage from exercise. The researchers believe these effects are due to an increase in blood flow and lymphatic outflow.

Beneficial for a Variety of Athletes: A 2017 meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine was conducted to see whether compression garments are effective for recovery in various workout modalities, including strength, power, and endurance performance following an initial bout of resistance, running, and non-load-bearing endurance exercise. 

The researchers found that resistance training had the highest clear recovery benefits from using compression garments, followed by cycling, allowing next-day performance improvements.

Promote Recovery When Worn Post-Workout: Timing-wise, most evidence shows that wearing compression garments for muscle recovery is best done in the post-exercise period. Conflicting research does not fully support their use during training.

Other Benefits of Compression Garments

May Improve Performance: Many athletes wear compression garments to improve their performance. However, the evidence behind this practice is slim. Most studies reveal no performance advantage from wearing compression garments.

Improve Recovery Times for Upper Body Strength: A 2014 study revealed that the use of compression garments can help with the recovery of muscular strength after resistance training. In particular, this effect was seen in the upper body. The recovery time was 3 to 8 hours after exercise.

May Reduce Muscle Vibration and Increase Muscle Control During Specific Activity: Compression garments may help athletes in sports like alpine skiing due to their ability to reduce muscle vibrations and increase control. More research is needed to say for sure whether there is a clear advantage.

Tips for Choosing Compression Garments

Here are some tips for choosing suitable compression garments for you.

  • Any compression level works: Research shows that there isn’t much difference for muscle recovery when it comes to the actual level of compression, so choose whichever compression level you like best.
  • Sport-specific: If you perform mostly running and cycling or another cardiovascular endurance exercise, it makes sense to go with a lower-body compression garment.
  • Specific pain points: If you often experience muscle soreness in a particular body part, such as your calves, selecting a sleeve for that area is a wise choice.
  • Support vs. flexibility: Some compression garments offer more support with more substantial compression while others are more flexible. You may want to consider the type of exercise you are performing before choosing if you plan to wear the clothing during exercise. Weightlifting and yoga may require more flexibility than running or other sports.
  • Other benefits: You might want to look for compression garments that offer additional benefits you might need, such as moisture-wicking, breathability, or pockets.

Other Ways to Aid Muscle Recovery

There are many other ways you can help your body recover from exercise. You can try multiple methods. Here are a few:

  • Active recovery work uses lower intensity activity post-workout to keep the blood flowing to the tissues that need it, bringing nutrients and blood to the areas to reduce inflammation and speed healing.
  • Ice bath therapy, also known as cryotherapy, uses ice to help cool inflamed muscles.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, work to reduce inflammation and soreness. Always speak with a health care provider prior to taking over-the-counter medications, including NSAIDs.
  • Sports massage therapy may increase blood flow to the muscles to reduce inflammation and stiffness.

A Word From Verywell

Compression garments are a viable option for boosting muscle recovery after exercise, reducing pain, and helping you get back to your exercise routine sooner. There are many options available based on the type of training you do and the body parts you feel could use the most help recovering. Remember to listen to your body and take time to rest and recover. If any pain seems intense, long-lasting, or unusual in any way, speak to a health care provider.

11 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.