To the uninitiated, a Kaatsu training session probably looks like a gym workout for sissies. Look closer, though, and you’ll notice that the participants have constrictive cuffs strapped around their arms and legs. “Kaatsu” literally means “adding pressure” in Japanese, and the bands are designed to restrict blood flow. This can produce a number of advantages, not least increasing the amount of growth hormones that the body releases during exercise.
Originally designed as an efficient way to increase muscle mass, Kaatsu has recently seen its popularity increase dramatically—thanks in part to endorsements by celebrity fans like actress Aya Sugimoto. As interest in the regime has grown, so too has its scope, and it is now used for weight loss, anti-aging, rehabilitation and general fitness training.
The story of Kaatsu’s origins is, in itself, strangely poetic. While attending a Buddhist memorial service in 1966, high school student Yoshiaki Sato noted the tenderness in his legs that resulted from kneeling throughout the lengthy ceremony. The sensation reminded him of the one he got doing calf exercises, which led him to believe that both were linked to a reduction in blood flow.
In the decades that followed, Sato rigorously tested this hypothesis on himself—continuing, in more recent years, as a member of an NPO affiliated with the Tokyo University Research Center for Total Life Health and Sports Science. The refined formula that he produced is now patented in Japan, the U.S. and several European countries. It is also being considered for use in space travel as a means of preventing muscle atrophy in astronauts.
According to Tokyo-based personal trainer Masahiko Tanaka, Kaatsu works by stimulating high amounts of growth hormones through low-resistance training—attaining levels usually only seen in heavy weight training. “If you normally do ten reps of 10kg, with Kaatsu that becomes roughly similar to doing 30 regular reps of 30 kgs,” he explains. “You get the results of doing heavy exercise without the strain, so there is actually less risk of injury. What’s more, people with injuries can do this for rehabilitation.”
Tanaka’s springy step, compact frame and easy smile make him an excellent advertisement for the training he advocates. So does his impressive client list, which includes NBA and PGA players. However, he emphasizes that Kaatsu training is not just for professional athletes: “It’s for everyone. But I particularly recommend it for the elderly, in order to improve mobility, and for busy people who need a time-efficient training plan.”
It’s the low-intensity aspect that has made Kaatsu a popular method for women looking to slim down and tone up. At the two Kubira training studios that Tanaka runs—a private one in Ginza and a public one in Korakuen—over 80% of the regular members are female. “We have clients who are here to step up their routine, but we also see a number who are training for the first time,” he says.
At Kubira, a typical 90-minute training session with a licensed personal instructor includes stretches and warm-up exercises, followed by an hour of free weights, machines, and floor exercises. Not one to pass up a new experience, I agree to have my arms and legs strapped up for a short trial.
With a few measured tugs, Tanaka cinches my upper arms, creating a sensation not unlike having your blood pressure taken. We begin with a few simple exercises, like opening and clenching the fists, which cause blood to collect in the capillaries. This is another interesting benefit: blood is directed into long-unused capillaries, making them active and turning the arms a shocking pink.
After this warm-up, Tanaka walks me through a series of very low-resistance free weight exercises, such as 1kg bicep curls. Though they involve no more weight than a frying pan—and certainly less than my handbag—these seemingly easy lifts leave my arm muscles burning as if I’d been struggling with something much heavier.
And that’s the crux of Kaatsu training. As Tanaka reiterates, and my tender arms help confirm, it stimulates hard training through lighter, strain- and stress-free exercises. He recommends two sessions a week, noting that results should be apparent within the first month.
2F, 2-25-12 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku. Tel: 03-6801-8293. Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m. (reservation necessary). Nearest station: Korakuen.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today