Do Compression Base Layers Improve Performance and Aid Recovery? The Results are in!
Over the last decade the sports market has seen a massive rise in clothing sales, especially functional sportwear such as compression base layers which are geared towards improving performance. With such an influx of popularity I thought I would take a look into them and see how popular they actual are, how much you spend on average and if they work. It’s also a topic I am very interested in as over the years I have found myself needing to wear more and more compression clothing to help with my workouts and recovery.
I was first introduced to base layers when I went over to the States in the early 2000s to play basketball, I mean I knew about cycling shorts and Ron Hill leggings, but they were for cycling or running and no one I knew wore them under their shorts for basketball. It wasn’t until I went to my first practice I noticed players wearing undershorts and compression tops while training. Back then Underarmour was the leading retailer for this, it would take other brands years to catch up, so the next time I had free time I went and grabbed some for myself. I felt the difference straight away and have been wearing them ever since. As I am getting older, I wanted to take a look and see if there are actually any real benefits or if it’s another fitness trend that has spiralled out of control and taken off due to great marketing and endorsements.
Now in the modern era the reported benefits of compression base layers are that they can enhance blood circulation, reduce injury, aid recovery, provide muscle support and reducing muscle soreness (Venkatraman and Tyler, 2015). However, compression has been widely used for decades to help with injury prevention and recovery in sport, from elastic bandages used on wrists, elbows or legs to heavy strapping powerlifters use to lift heavier weights and everything in between. This is because there is a huge amount of research and data which shows it helps with various medical aliments such as deep vein thrombosis (Thomas, 1998 and Ramelet, 2002) and post-surgery recovery (Miyamoto et al, 2011; and Miller, 2011), along with improving circulation back to the heart (Moffatt et al, 2007). This has overtime transferred into the world of sport and fitness and has evolved into what we know today as compression base layers.
Now every brand of compression base layer is different and is made up of different stitching, material and style but they all claim to aid in improving performance and recovery. So, let’s take a look at what compression base layers actually do. In a nutshell, compression is believed to increase blood flow when worn. This increased blood flow speeds up the removal of lactic acid and reduces muscle oscillation (reduces energy loss) when partaking in physical activity (Allsop, 2012). This therefore helps with performance and recovery. Over the years there have been various studies into the benefits of compression in sports. For example, Doan et al (2003) who tested track athletes doing a series of tests in both loose shorts and compression shorts. The study showed that jump heights recorded in the research were increased by 2.4 cm when wearing the compression garment. It was suggested that the compression gave a greater squat before the jump thus increasing the upward drive of the jump. Another study conducted by Driller and Halson (2013) showed that wearing lower body compression garments during a 30-minute cycling performance test resulted in a higher power output. This was also true of a study in NCAA D1 basketball players conducted by Ballman et al (2019) whose findings suggest that lower body compression enhances power output, anaerobic capacity and lowered participants rate of perceived exertion.
Some researchers claim however that there is very little evidence that compression makes a difference and it is the psychological aspect of wearing the compression base layers that improve performance. For example Chatard et al (2004) noted that 83% of the participants who wore compression garments believed that wearing it during exercise might have influenced how well they performed. Meaning that even though they didn’t have any measurable results they still believed that it helped them perform better.
So, what does this all mean and how does it affect you! Well even though it’s highly debated how much compression base layers actually help, a lot of studies have shown that base layers can improve performance and can influence how you feel when you perform, even if it’s very slight it might still give you a competitive edge. However, most research that I have seen has been with elite athletes but very little research has been done with the ‘average Joe’ so it’s debatable how much of a difference it makes to the amateur athlete or gym goer. That’s why I decided to ask you, the readers, what you thought about base layers. Let’s take a look at what you all thought.
Let me start by saying a massive thank you to everyone who took part and did the survey. The survey got 220 responses and out of the 220 people who took part 172 people said they wore compression base layers, with the majority of people paying between £20-£30 for them. This in itself shows how popular they are even in the small sample size that took part in this survey.
The next part of the survey looked at what activities people wore compression base layers for. They could select from sport, running, walking, weightlifting or a combination of these answers. The first thing I noticed was that the majority of people use base layers for a combination of activities and don’t solely wear them for one thing. When looking further into the data and separating the answers it was clear that sport came out on top with 48% of the responses and running coming in second with 30%, weightlifting coming third with 18% and walking coming in last with 4%.
With such a huge amount of selection when it comes to compression base layers available, I also wanted to see what type most people wore and what body parts they used them on. Out of the selections available to participants (3/4 length tights, compression leggings, compression shorts and compression tops) it was a tie at 28% between compression leggings and compressions shorts with compression tops coming in close behind with 26% and ¾ length tights coming in last with 18%. This data showed that the majority of participants wore them on their lower body, as leggings and shorts got the highest percentages. This would make sense as lower limbs are where a lot of people suffer from injuries but if you think of it in real terms, we are always using our legs so it would make sense we have them supported. However, as participants could select more than one answer another explanation was that participants used a mix of leggings and shorts which would account for both getting the highest percentage.
The main thing I wanted to look at was what the participants thought the benefits were of wearing compression base layers. Now for me I was expecting this area of the survey to show that most people would wear them to improve performance or prevent injuries, because a lot of studies and information about compression base layers claim these to be the main benefits of them. However, in my study it showed that the majority of those that took part (37%) wear them to keep muscles warm during exercise. A close second (with 30%) was because they offer more support during exercise and then injury prevention came in third with 18%. Improved performance was actually second last in the results with only 11% and only above participants saying they saw no benefit at all at 4%.
One explanation for what this data shows compared to academic studies is that participants actually did use it to improve performance and prevent injuries without even realising it. This could be because most academic studies use tests which can be measured but the average gym goer or athlete will have nothing to compare their current performance to, as they are unlikely to have established a baseline result before using compression base layers. However, if you look at the top two answers (keeping muscles warm and support during exercise) these in themselves will improve performance and lower the chance of injury as the body will be better supported for explosive movements and will have increased blood flow. So even though participants did not specifically recognise that base layers improved their performance and stopped injuries this could be a by-product of keeping the muscles warm with the extra support compression gives. Another possible reason is that with elite athletes who are in tune with their bodies a small improvement is very noticeable and can be the difference in competition, however for the average gym goer or athlete you might just dismiss a small improvement or attribute it to another aspect like not being at work that day or better sleep the night before.
What does all this mean? Well for me it’s been an interesting look at what you all think of compression base layers and their benefit. This look at them obviously has its limitations, in an ideal study I would have taken the same 220 people and put them through various testing and questionnaires. This study did also not take into account age, weight or athletic ability which might also have made a difference to how effective compression base layers are. One of the main points for me is that people use base layers for various reasons and even though the main reasons might not be directly to improve performance or prevent injury it might still be doing this as a by-product. As someone who has been wearing compression base layers for over ten years, I can honestly say I do notice a difference and it has helped me support injuries and boost workouts. I guess the main thing to take away from this is that if you think they help you in the gym, on the court or out on the field then wear them. Our motivation and a lot of our performance is in the mind so if you feel better when you have them on then wear them, if you feel they restrict your performance then don’t.
Lastly I would just like to take a minute again to thank everyone who took part and thank you all for reading this. Please make sure to subscribe for the latest updates and articles. Don’t forget to contact me if you feel you have something you would like me to look into.