The Research, Benefits, and Performance-Enhancing Effects of Compression Leggings
Updated: Sep 4
Earlier this week, I was asked to offer my thoughts on compression leggings for a story with InStyle Magazine on the best compression leggings.
Well, any athletes who have worked with me, or interviewers for that matter, have quickly learned that I never shy away from providing my professional opinion when asked (politely). After sending the writer a rather extensive email response to their questions, it occurred to me that this would be great information to share on this blog. So after a long hiatus (primarily due to an extended focus on my full-time job), I'm finally back in the blogosphere and here to share about...compression leggings.
Read on for my (lengthy) responses to the questions posed to me:
What do compression leggings do/what are the benefits?
First it’s important to note that there’s a difference between what compression leggings are reported to do and what the relatively limited research actually proves.
Historically, compression garments have been commonly used in medicine to reduce peripheral swelling and aid with venous blood return (circulation) in patients managing vascular conditions, poor distal circulation, or post-surgical recovery. More recently, compression-style clothing has been adopted and made commercially available within the sport and athleisure worlds. On the market, brands describe these items using buzzy phrases like “eliminate fatigue” and “boosts performance;” however, it’s important to look beyond the marketing to make informed decisions and purchases.
As mentioned, compression garments were prevalent in the medical field before their rise in modern sportswear. Medical-grade items measure the degree of compression (pressure) in millimeters of mercury (mmHg); this is the same measurement used to calculate blood pressure. To offer some actual numbers for context, a “textbook” average blood pressure is 120/70 mmhg; on the other hand, medical-grade compression garments can range from 20-50 mmHg. Commercially available compression socks (for travel, sitting/standing jobs, sports) are commonly <20 mmHg (usually in the 15-20 mmHg range). I say this because it’s important to understand what levels of compression are appropriate for different populations and purposes. Ultimately, individuals should check in with a qualified medical professional prior to experimenting with compression - especially anything in the 20+ mmHg ranges.
Medical warnings and cautions aside, the research on compression leggings in sports is very mixed and inconclusive. While the research is still relatively limited, there seems to be little to nothing to suggest significant performance enhancements during exertion. The benefit more consistently found in various experiments boiled down to lower levels of “perceived post-exercise muscle soreness.” It’s also worth noting that compression garments may lead to a higher average skin temperature (helpful for training in the winter and on colder days?).
So, what do compression leggings do, and what are the benefits? They MAY offer post-exercise support by reducing perceived muscle soreness. Could there also be some degree of performance-enhancing effect? I’d argue that lower levels of perceived muscle soreness ARE beneficial, because soreness is a limiting factor. Greater discomfort hinders performance. If your soreness is at a 7/10 (10 being high), your rating of perceived exertion is likely going to be higher; an activity that’s normally a 1/10 might feel like a 3/10. So yes, it seems fair to argue that lower levels of perceived muscle soreness are a performance-enhancing benefit. In terms of performance measures like power output and time-to-exhaustion, the research findings are ultimately mixed, and we are still looking at a relatively small sample of studies. I will say though, as many in sports know, you never want to underestimate the power of the mind; it’s always possible that there’s a psychosomatic effect for some individuals.
Things I’d recommend people to consider…
If you’re looking for “performance enhancing” compression, check to see if the leggings quantify the amount of compression (remember this is measured in mmHg).
Exercise caution (no pun intended) with leggings or any article of clothing that exceed 20 mmHg of compression. And certainly, consult with a qualified medical professional.
Test out any compression leggings at home prior to wearing them during activity. Your body may need time to adjust to the compression (depending on the amount), and it’s better to know how your body responds for short periods of time first.
If you’re experiencing discomfort or any other undesirable effects, stop wearing them.
Performance-enhancing effects aside… if the leggings are safe, comfortable, and you feel amazing wearing them - go for it! Live your best life in the leggings of your choice.
Can you wear them all day?
If they’re not medical-grade compression and more athleisure-style “compression” leggings, wearing them all-day like any other item of clothing is up to the individual.
Unless you have a good reason to wear medical-grade compression (anything with a pressure rating, and definitely anything over 20 mmHg) all-day, you should only wear such items for the intended purpose and/or during the specific activity.
What type of workouts are they good for?
Given that their primary benefit is lower levels of perceived muscle soreness, workouts or activities that place a high demand on the lower extremities are the most appropriate situations. This could look like speed work on the track, leg day at the gym, interval training on the bike, and plyometric-heavy workouts. Additionally, trained individuals are less likely to experience soreness during workouts. Post-exercise muscle soreness is more common in: 1. individuals newer to training/newer to a given activity, and 2. the start of a new training program or training block. It all comes down to placing new stimuli on the body and overloading the body (this is why micro-trauma occurs and how gains are made).
Along with any personal favorite brands/pairs?
I’m a horrible person to ask! As I’m on the shorter side at 5’3”, most leggings are too long unless I manage to find a ⅞ length. Additionally, I’ve never felt the need to use compression leggings with an actual pressure rating. So, the leggings I wear might be named “compression leggings,” but I wouldn’t consider them as such. A few legging options I enjoy (compression aside): Nike (I’ve found ⅞ lengths!), Fabletics, and Baleaf (great budget option - and on Amazon!).
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