David C / Flickr
David C / Flickr

Imagine getting a full body workout just by doing the warm-up. Imagine healing in 6 weeks instead of 6 months. And the best part—you’ll never be sore.

The longtime secret of Japanese athletes has finally been leaked, leaving American fitness researchers speechless.

Attesting to this success, the Harvard Medical School, with a center specializing in Kaatsu research, will be hosting the 2015 Kaatsu International Society Symposium— the first Kaatsu conference held outside of Japan.

Perhaps now is a good time to jump on the bandwagon.

The Kaatsu origin story

In 1966, Dr. Yoshiaki Sato could no longer ignore the augmenting pain in his calves as he knelt on his ankles during a traditional Buddist ceremony. Observing that his normal blood circulation was inhibited by his body position, he noted the pulsing sensation he was feeling was similar to the fatigue he felt after his weight training sessions.

After the ceremony, Sato began to investigate whether these experiences were, in fact, the linked. He began to experiment with different bands—from bike tire to ropes—applying these constraints at various pressures to his limbs.

Sato meticulously recorded the results of his trials and gradually developed a methodology to safely modify blood flow. This protocol would serve as the basis of the Kaatsu method.

At 25, Sato fractured his ankle and damaged the ligaments around his knee. His doctor diagnosed 6 months for total recovery. While in a cast, Sato rehabilitated himself with Kaatsu Bands, recovering within 6 weeks. The Kaatsu method had worked.

How to practice the Kaatsu method

The word Kaatsu is a combination of the Japanse words Ka, meaning ‘additional,’ and atsu, meaning ‘pressure.’ The principles of Kaatsu are based upon blood flow moderation.

Thin pressure cuffs are strategically placed around the upper and lower extremities. The computerized Kaatsu device calibrates the appropriate pressures of the bands. Protocols and procedures vary depending upon performance, technique, fitness, or rehabilitation goals.

During the Kaatsu process, blood flow back to the heart from the arms and legs slows. The extremities become temporarily engorged in blood, which then flows to “normally unused or underused capillaries” and mobilizes muscle fibers.

Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen, a human performance expert and the chief medical officer helping to bring the Kaatsu training system into the U.S, explain, “With very light exercise in a very short amount of time, you get an exhaustive workout that sends a signal to your brain that says, ‘Hey, I’ve done something really hard here — you better help me recover and adapt to it.’ The brain then sends out a signal for a hormonal response that causes the muscle to grow and the blood vessels to grow.”

The skeptic in all of us

Olympic champion Bode Miller praises the Kaatsu method as “the most revolutionary training methodology I’ve ever seen…there’s an application for every human on the planet with this.” Fellow U.S. skier Todd Lodwick is equally as supportive as Kaatsu allowed him to compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics after breaking his leg and shoulder just one month prior to the games.

However, we must keep in mind that Kaatsu is new to the U.S. and research is limited. Currently, there are about 75 certified Kaatsu specialists in the States.

Led by Dr. Stray-Gundersen, a two year study on Kaatsu has just commenced which will explore how “Kaatsu improves strength and endurance among 18- to 35-year-olds.”

Dr. Stay-Gundersen admits, “I didn’t believe it either at first, but it’s hard to argue with the results. During one informal study with cross-country skiers fighting for spots on the U.S. Olympic team, we saw a 10 to 12 percent increase in strength after using Kaatsu, compared to what they would have had otherwise. To be able to improve someone who is already strong and already fit by that amount is huge.”

We can only hope the positive results keep coming. In the meantime, it’s back to the trails and weight rooms for the rest of us.