These Compression Therapy Boots Helped Me Recover from 300-Pound Deadlifts
As a 31-year-old former competitive soccer player, turned half marathon-runner, turned indoor cycling instructor, and finally, now as a novice powerlifter, I wake up most mornings feeling as though I've been smashed by a semi-truck. (Hold dearly onto your youth, kids.)
And while that all-out, go-hard athletic mentality has most certainly factored into the aches and creaks I now experience as an adult, if I'm being totally honest here, it hasn't been the only (or even primary) reason for my pains. With the exception of forced warm-ups and cool downs while playing soccer with my teammates, for the most part, I've been notorious for eschewing workout warm-ups and recovery for the better part of my teens and twenties. (Related: Spending an Entire Weekend Focusing On Workout Recovery Opened My Eyes to Just How Much I Need It)
In addition to the seemingly never-ending muscle soreness I feel most days, this pattern has caused me to accumulate my share of injuries: two herniated discs, two torn hamstrings, and countless ankle sprains — all a result of failing to properly warm-up and repair my muscles, my orthopedists have told me with a wagging finger. (Although I'd also venture to say that copious sitting throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to my recent spike in aches, too.)
Now, as a powerlifter who regularly picks up 300-lb barbells off of the ground for fun, recovery can no longer be an afterthought. In fact, it needs to be one of my top priorities. Not just for preventing injuries, but also so my limbs don't feel as though they're about to fall off. (Related: The Difference Between Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, and Weightlifting)
It's a serious consideration for my fellow lifters, too, as I often witness at my powerlifting gym in Los Angeles. When folks aren't working out, you frequently see them sprawled out on the ground foam-rolling, jolting themselves repeatedly with a massage gun, and even sporting those giant, puffy, hissing boots while scrolling on their phones.
So when, six weeks out from an upcoming powerlifting competition in Denver, the opportunity came along to try one of those galactic space boots for myself — the new Therabody RecoveryAir Compression Boots (Buy It, $699, theragun.com) — naturally, I jumped at the chance (but not too high, because, you know, tight hammies).
My First Experience with the Therabody RecoveryAir Compression Boots
My initial impression when unboxing my pair of Therabody RecoveryAir boots? There is truly nothing subtle about these things, even when they're not inflated.
As I began to unfold (and unfold, and unfold some more) the giant sleaves, they seemed enormous — almost too much so. That said, the setup was fairly simple — the package contained the boots, a control box, a charging device, and two thick wires to connect the control box to the boots themselves. On the control box there are buttons to set specific time to wear the boots (either 15, 30, 45, 60, or continuous minutes) and a switch to modify the pressure itself (between 40 and 100 mmHg).
The setup instructions noted that a solid sweet spot for newbies to the boots was 40mmHg of pressure for 15 minutes. So, after zipping myself up into the contraptions, pushing the appropriate buttons, and ensuring my two cats weren't poised to attack one another (I figured there'd be next to no moving for the next 15 minutes), I hit start.
Within a few seconds, the boots began to hiss as they inflated starting at my feet, working their way up toward my calves, knees, and finally, hamstrings and quads. (FYI, the boots end on me at my hips, and I'm 5'10".) After a five-second squeeze on all those muscles at once, the boots then began to deflate, flattening completely before the hissing started up again. At full inflation, I'd say the boots added roughly three inches to my frame, making them quite the couch-hog (much to the two cats' annoyance).
Despite how scary-intense the boots looked, it certainly didn't feel that way at this low pressure — more like I was wearing tight spandex or donning a weighted blanket. While I emerged from the boots feeling no changes in my muscles, I did feel incredibly relaxed — like I'd just broken from a meditation or mindfulness session.
When the session completed, I folded up the boots and stuffed them, along with the control box and charging device, in a large drawer (out of the sun, per the product directions).
The Science Behind Compression Therapy
As Chad Walding, D.P.T., points out, the driving science behind these enormous, galactic, seemingly super-complicated boots was actually pretty simple (and found in several other, less expensive products): compression therapy.
"Compression therapy does just that — compresses an area of the body to reduce swelling and speed up muscle recovery," he explains. "When you put on compression boots or similar compression therapy [garments], the device helps the body to transport blood out of the limbs with equal and symmetrical pressure." (This type of therapy can be found in compression socks, knee sleeves, bandages, and sports wraps.)
Basically, these devices help to restrict the flow of blood and other fluids to that area, moving them toward the heart. This is helpful for recovery because your limbs have limited mobility when there's a buildup of fluid, says Walding. But while compression socks keep a constant (and albeit less intense) state of compression for however long they're worn, the magic of compression boots happens in the release of the boots, not the initial compression, says Jason Wersland, D.C., chiropractor and founder of Therabody.
"RecoveryAir pneumatic compression uses air to fill compartments in a garment so that they sequentially squeeze the limb starting at the part furthest away from the heart, eventually moving closer toward it," pushing blood out of the limbs, explains Wersland. When the boots release their grip, fresh, oxygenated blood makes its way back to the area. "This process increases the body's natural circulation to accelerate recovery and leave you with fresher feeling muscles," he says. The driving theory is that blood flow pushes out lactic acid and other waste byproducts of exercise from your muscles, which speeds up recovery and helps prevent sore, stiff muscles.
FWIW, research on compression therapy is pretty limited and, so far, inconclusive. For example, a 2020 research review on compression tights (i.e. leggings not recovery boots) found that, while compression therapy did seem to improve performance in a handful of studies, it wasn't clear if it was simply a correlation or the tights had a direct effect.
The RecoveryAir boots (which are classified as a medical device, meaning they're regulated and tested by the Food and Drug Administration) can help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) while decreasing swelling and muscle fatigue, according to the Therabody site.
Aside from serious lifters, Walding notes that any athlete putting major stress on their lower limbs — say, ultramarathoners or triathletes — could benefit from using the boots. "Compression [therapy] can help add to their recovery routine and potentially improve performance," he explains. (Related: The Best Knee Compression Sleeves, According to Customer Reviews)
As for the average moderate-intensity exerciser, Wersland notes that any type of waste-flushing can generally make you feel super good (as I found out quickly on my first two wears). "Daily physical activity — whatever that looks like for you — produces metabolic waste products in the muscles, which can increase muscle fatigue and soreness," he explains. "Whether you're a marathon-runner or a nurse on your feet all day, anyone could benefit from RecoveryAir."
Sports recovery aside, however, Heather Jeffcoat, D.P.T., owner of Fusion Wellness & Physical Therapy in Los Angeles, adds that compression boots, like the Therabody RecoveryAir, can also provide important medical help for certain patients. For example, in people with venous insufficiency (when the veins in your legs don't allow for blood to flow properly back to the heart), patients will often require more manual lymphatic drainage, mechanical support with compression boots, or compression socks or hosiery, she explains. "When your muscles contract against the compression stockings, it helps your venous system return circulation back to the heart," says Jeffcoat. She also notes that some of her pregnant patients enjoy wearing the boots to help drain excess fluids from the lower limbs (and prevent pregnancy feet). Walding also says that compression therapy can also help folks who are immobilized due to an injury or illness to get blood circulating again.
As for who shouldn't use compression boots? Jeffcoat says that anyone with a serious cardiac condition (such as acute pulmonary edema and acute pulmonary embolism) should steer clear entirely. And if you have serious wounds or tumors on your legs, sensory impairments, or any other health complication that affects your limbs and/or heart, talk to your doctor, she advises.
How I Used the Compression Boots for Recovery During My Training Peak
About six weeks out from my second-ever powerlifting competition, my training program — consisting of squats, bench presses, and deadlifts — entered what's called a "peak cycle," which is basically a hyper-intense training cycle leading up to an event. Each time I'd open my training programs from my coach to see four sets of two or three reps within 80 to 95 percent of my one-rep maximum, or 1RM, and I'd wince. (FYI, a powerlifting competition consists of three attempts at those three lifts for a single, heave-as-possible rep.)
As my training program ramped up, I asked Walding how I might use the boots to kick my recovery into high gear, too.
"I'd recommend using [these types of devices] three to four times per week after your harder workouts for recovery," he says. "Compression boots are best used post-workout, and similar to getting a massage, since you're moving blood flow and lactic acid, it's important to hydrate."
As for the right amount of pressure? Walding says that comes down to comfort. For the average person, 20 to 30mmHg of pressure should do fine to treat muscle soreness and combat aches. The duration of the session was up for individual discretion, too. He told me to start at 20 to 30mmHg of pressure and work my way up in increments of 10mmHg to determine my own personal sweet spot.
Of course, because "go hard or go home" encapsulates a lot of my personality, I decided to do my first real session with the intensity to 100mmHg, the highest possible level, for 30 minutes. (Those first couple of times, I was really just tinkering with it like a new toy.)
Not like I would have expected anything different, but the pressure was a lot on my limbs. It didn't feel as though I was entirely cutting off circulation, but wiggling my toes was basically out of the question. I also felt a slight flash of claustrophobia as the boots filled up, and the pressure was so intense I could feel my pulse on the back of my knees by the time the inflation reached that area. My heart rate also increased from 68 bpm (my average resting heart rate is somewhere between 53 and 58 bpm) to 80 bpm, as my trusty Fitbit Inspire (Buy It, $94, amazon.com) verified.
But, on cue, the boots would eventually deflate with each cycle, and those symptoms would subside immediately. And while my suddenly boosted heart rate felt somewhat jarring, Walding assured me it wasn't out of the ordinary. "This is likely because more blood and fluids are moving away from the body to the center of the body and back toward the heart."
Are Compression Boots Worth It?
I've been using the boots for four weeks straight, and my competition currently two weeks out. To be perfectly frank, I look forward to wearing my Therbody RecoveryAir boots each night more than my daily glass of Cab, which is saying something.
Although I initially used the boots only after my leg-specific lifting sessions (I have two of those per week: a squat day and a deadlift day), within a week, compression therapy via the Therbody RecoveryAir boots became a nightly ritual — gym or no gym. Unlike other forms of recovery which require you to actively do something (i.e. foam rolling or stretching), using the boots required next-to-no effort. And, best of all, I could use them while scrolling TikTok, bingeing on Netflix, or even working. (I'm wearing the boots right now as I type this, actually.)
Did they improve my performance? Honestly, it's tough to tell. Although my DOMS have been much less intense while training for this competition compared to the last one I did in February 2020, that improvement could be attributable to my gained strength and experience this time around, as well as nutrition, hydration, warm-up technique, or any number of other factors.
Plus, Walding notes the placebo effect can be at play with recovery devices. "If you believe something works, your mind will make you feel the benefits," he says. "In the CrossFit community where I coached and competed, everyone wore compression sleeves for a period of time and they believed it reduced muscle soreness and improved performance. But just as quickly as it was popular, one day it wasn't a trend anymore, and people still competed and recovered fine."
With a $699 price tag and a lack of concrete evidence, compression boots are more of a luxury than a necessity to prevent injuries for athletes. But as someone who's spent way too much on workout gear over the years, I can't judge. After all, I've been using these boots every night — and I definitely can't say the same thing about my foam roller.
Even if my positive takeaways are thanks in large part to the placebo effect, it's hard to beat a form of recovery you can do while sipping a glass of vino.