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Compression Shorts Are a Lie, Science Says

At least in terms of how much they can help you recover from a workout, according to a new study

Last week, the results of an aggregated study were released that attempted to collect all of the data from as many applicable studies pertaining to compression wear as possible to determine exactly how beneficial such skin-tight duds are with respect to workout recovery. It was not a great day for the world of spandex.

“Even data from our previous study supported the idea that such garments have the potential to reduce strength loss after a strenuous workout,” explained János Négyesi, the head of the international research team that conducted the study. “However, when we synthesized the data of all relevant studies, we found no effect of compression garments on strength recovery — even when factoring in exercise type and when and where the compression garment is applied.”

Hypothetically, let’s assume that the conclusion of this study is true, and let’s presume that every shred of information presented therein is correct. Ultimately, what this does is remove just one of the advertised benefits of compression wear without even drilling down to what I’ve always suspected is the foremost reason it’s worn, which I’ll get to in a moment.

What are the advertised benefits of compression wear?

Well, muscle recovery aside, the bulk of the promoted advantages have had to do with the immediate benefits of their use, or more specifically, their in-the-moment aid to exercise efficiency and sports performance.

This was the line provided by Under Armour’s founder and CEO Kevin Plank when he began the company, and after it had already more or less invented the compression-wear market for athletics. In August 2004, a Washington Post article retold Plank’s story about how eight of his teammates on the University of Maryland Terrapins football team had been hospitalized due to exhaustion. Plank deduced that the cotton T-shirts worn underneath their practice pads had absorbed too much sweat and weighed his teammates down, while the Lycra compression shorts he wore had wicked moisture away from his body while supporting his muscles. This was the inspiration for the entire Under Armour performance line.

That same year, Steve Battista, Under Armour’s marketing manager, told the Chicago Tribune, “Compression garments postpone the muscle fatigue because your muscles aren’t bouncing around that much. Most people wear [compression clothing] under their uniforms or pads if they’re playing on the field. You have to have an exceptional body to wear it outside as one layer.”

Basically, then, the genesis of compression wear seemed to center around two ideas: 1) the wicking of sweat away from the body so that it isn’t collected in cotton materials that will weigh the user down and impede performance; and 2) the support or stabilization of muscles — or the body as a whole — while physically active.

So where did the concept of post-workout muscle recovery come from with respect to compression wear?

That claim appears to be traceable to Zensah, a Miami-based manufacturer of compression sleeves for shins and calves that sprang up in 2004. Not only did Zensah assert that its sleeves reduced the incidence of shin splints, but that the additional blood flow provided by the compression also aided muscle recovery. The fact that they got their products onto Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade early in his basketball career didn’t hurt matters.

Zensah advertisement from 2010

Either way, for compression wear to deliver on its original promise, all it would need to do is provide moisture-wicking capabilities superior to cotton — which it undeniably does — as well as provide greater support than looser forms of clothing — something that’s clearly evident, but also largely based on the personal perception of feeling “supported.”

Moreover, a similar meta-analysis of several studies investigating the results of wearing below-the-knee compression socks on athletic performance reached the conclusion that such socks had a positive impact in a small number of studies, and that they may assist with reducing the perception of muscle soreness, too.

Good to know. But what was the foremost reason for the popularity of compression wear you mentioned earlier?

It’s precisely what Battista alluded to all the way back in 2004 when he said, “You have to have an exceptional body to wear it outside as one layer.” 

Form-fitting workout clothing, while not technically revealing, enables the wearer to reveal even more of their shape than they could if they were wearing a loose-fitting tank-top or a pair of short shorts. In those circumstances, compression wear provides the fittest of gym-goers and athletes with the opportunity to showcase their physiques under the guise of aiding performance.

So even if a comprehensive meta-analysis of compression wear has dispelled the notion that it aids recovery, I seriously doubt that we’re going to be seeing any less of it in gyms, on practice fields or along our favorite local jogging routes. After all, when has vanity not trumped science?