The Science of Compression Wear: Is it Hype or Hope?

What Is Compression Wear?

Compression wear is generally made of a flexible yet firm, spandex-type material that is meant to fit closely to your body, support your muscles, and improve oxygen flow. Whether they’re socks, short, tights, shirts, or any other piece of clothing, compression wear applies varying degrees of pressure to different areas of your body. This direct pressure can range from low to high, and has been shown to increase circulation, promote blood flow, speed up wound recovery, reduce the risk of forming a blood clot, improve venous function, and much more.

While the benefits of compression wear are fairly ingrained within the medical community, these products have recently made a jump over into the world of consumer sports as well. Although it’s true that Allen Iverson first donned his compression sleeve as early as the 2000-2001 NBA season, it wasn’t until several years later that amateur athletes began wearing them as well.

Today, compression wear is available from nearly all major sportswear manufacturers, and even from newer compression-specific companies such as Tommie Copper and CopperWear. But when it comes down to it, does compression wear actually work? Does it provide you with tangible benefits, and if so, are they worth the high price? Before we get to that, let’s take a brief look at some of the claims made by compression wear manufacturers.

What Does Compression Wear Claim to Do?

Keep in mind that compression wear isn’t just one “thing.” What we mean by this is that there are medical-grade products that often require a prescription, and then there are different tiers of sport-related compression wear; from very expensive, completely custom products, to those you can pick up at your local big box sports store.

Because HighYa is all about helping you to become a more informed consumer, it’s these consumer-grade products that we’ll focus on. So what do some of the biggest compression sports wear manufacturers claim their products provide?

SKINS claims, “We now know what compression levels are required for specific muscle groups whilst static, during activity and in post exercise recovery. We know where you need movement for comfort and injury prevention, and how to get the best circulatory benefits for more oxygen delivery and reduced lactic acid build-up.” Zoot claims that their compression wear “increases oxygen delivery to muscles for maximum performance and faster recovery,” while CEP goes one step further and claims that their compression wear has been “proven to increase performance by 5%.”

While there are numerous other compression wear manufacturers on the market, we simply need to look at the above examples to see a trend emerging: Most companies claim that their compression wear improves circulation and boosts recovery. Is this true? If so, is there also truth to the claim that compression wear helps you perform better? Let’s see what science has to say.

What Do the Clinical Studies Have to Say About Compression Wear?

If you’re searching for a fairly exhaustive list (though it was published in 2011) of clinical studies referencing the efficacy of compression wear, look no further. While you can certainly browse the findings at your leisure, here are a few of the highlights:

  • “There were no differences in performance or other measures except for muscle soreness which was less after using the compression stockings.”
  • “There were no differences in performance, ratings of perceived exertion, muscle soreness, time to exhaustion and lactate concentrations.”
  • “Self-reported muscle soreness was reduced by wearing the tights.”
  • “Post-exercise lactate removal was significantly faster with compression stockings.”

This site puts it another way: “While performance outcomes are often the central focus for any athlete or sport scientist, compression garments may have greater advantages to improve recovery following an exercise bout (Duffield, Cannon, and King 2010). However, to date, the evidence remains equivocal, since the two known studies comparing compressive support to other recovery methods report varying conclusions (Gill, Beaven, and Cook 2006; Montgomery, Pyne, Hopkins et al. 2008).”

However, like many things in life, it appears that when it comes to compression wear, you really do get what you pay for. For instance, this document [editor’s note: this document is no longer available online] states that “one research by Doan, et al. (2003), stated there were improvements on performance and showed an increase in vertical jump height, an improved warm-up via increased skin temperature, reduced muscle oscillation upon ground contact and increased torque generated about the hip joint. However, upon further inspection the CG’s were slightly different to normal. They were made of different material (neoprene and butyl rubber) and were custom made for each individual doing the testing.”

“That’s all fine and well,” you’re thinking to yourself. “But what do regular people have to say?” Well, this reporter tested out some compression wear and came to the following conclusion: “If you're a runner or an athlete who depends on recovery in order to train the next day, there's benefit to buying them. But if you're a weekend warrior who plays pick-up basketball or rec-league soccer every once in a while? You can pass. The benefits you'd be buying compression gear for—to run faster or jump higher—don't exist.”

What’s the Bottom Line: Does Compression Wear Work?

The answer is: It depends on how you define “work.”

As we can see, there are two primary industries that promote the use of compression wear; medical and sportswear. The medical (e.g. wound recovery, veins, circulation, etc.) benefits are well established. On the other hand—and more the focus of this article—the evidence showing benefits to overall performance appears to be a bit murkier.

With this in mind, there is strong evidence supporting the ability of compression wear to reduce the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles and to aid in post-exercise recovery. However, the evidence for any sports-related benefits beyond this is far from scientific fact. So if you think donning some compression wear will make you the next Michael Jordan, you may want to reconsider. But it might help you recover afterward, so why not give it a try!

What’s your experience with compression wear? Share your thoughts with the world by writing a review, and help others become more informed consumers!

HighYa Research Team

The HighYa Research Team is passionate about helping you save money and make smarter purchasing decisions about everything the internet has to offer.