Product Review: The Best Compression for Crossfit
About 2 years ago now I posted one of my first reviews for the blog. Now several years and many more reviews later, it’s time to revisit one of the most popular ones. As competitive exercise has grown, so to has the plethora of companies looking to sell things to competitive exercisers, making it all the more important to know what you’re getting. So here we go again, a much expanded review of Compression for competitive exercise, the brands included this time around are Opedix, Virus, Skins, and BodyScience.
Background on Compression
I wanted to start this review by covering what compression even is, why we want it, what its good for, and maybe even what its not good for. So what is compression, it’s not just leggings or tights, there is a lot of effort put into these compression garments. They are designed with the principles of blood flow and pressure gradients in mind. The goal is to assist the body in moving blood around, by doing this we can increase the amount of oxygenated blood going to muscles, increase the amount of waste product removed from muscles, and keep muscles in a more optimal climate for performance and recovery. I’m going to keep performance and recovery separate this time around, because the science is actually quite different between the two. There is a rather elaborate “Science” section in my first review, that is still true, so I am going to expand on that here as well.
Squeezing the Muscle: Compression Clothing and Muscle Metabolism during Recovery from High Intensity Exercise
In conclusion, there are two novel findings in the present study. First, this study demonstrates that wearing compression shorts with ~37 mmHg of external pressure reduces blood flow both in the deep as well as superficial regions of muscle tissue during the acute recovery phase from high intensity exercise. Second, muscle glucose uptake was unchanged and thus independent from blood flow. We therefore conclude that wearing compression shorts with ~37 mmHg during recovery from high intensity exercise does not elevate muscle blood flow and therefore does not lead to a greater delivery of energy substrates or enhanced muscle glucose uptake when compared to non-compression clothing.
Effect of compression garments on short-term recovery of repeated sprint and 3-km running performance in rugby union players.
Relative to the placebo, wearing the compressive garment decreased time to complete the 3 km by 2.0% ± 1.9% (mean ± 90% confidence interval). Additionally, average sprint times improved (1.2% ± 1.5%) and fatigue was diminished (-15.8% ± 26.1%) during the repeated sprint test in the compression group compared with the placebo group. Delayed onset muscle soreness was substantially lower in the compression group compared with the placebo group, 48 hours after testing. Wearing compressive garments during recovery is likely to be worthwhile, and very unlikely to be harmful for well-trained rugby union players.
Effect of Lower Body Compression Garments on Hemodynamics in Response to Running Session
In response to running bout in thermoneutral environment, compression breeches did not affect major hemodynamic parameters in nonathletic females, including blood pressure, heart rate, leg blood flow, and tissue oxygenation. While compression breeches increased skin temperature, no effect on running performance, sensations, or modulation of the hemodynamic response to exercise was observed.
Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis
These results indicate that compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage.
You can start to probably see why I split performance from recovery here. There are still a ton of issues with the research, most of them are on small samples, typically doing endurance or unweighted efforts, and usually either drawing from entirely athletic or entirely un-athletic populations. But the feeling about compression is starting to change, for most endurance type events the compression is actually starting to look like only a placebo effect. For recovery however, most of the research looks quite promising. Thus it’s hard to really say where compression belongs for you as an athlete, you have to play with it and see what you like. Perhaps compression while training is merely a comfort or warmth issue. None of the research suggests that compression while training or exercising would hurt your performance, so in the chance it helps marginally, or leaves you more comfortable and thus able to perform better regardless of physiology, its important to discuss.
The Testing Protocol
Last time around, I only had two pairs of tights which I just kind of wore sporadically to get a feeling about them. This time I took a much more scientific approach, I did a number of workouts in each pair. Namely, I did one Airdyne interval session, one Airdyne recovery session, one running session, two lower body strength sessions (one high rep and one low rep), as well as multiple Crossfit conditioning sessions of various movements. Thus I have a good feeling for how each pair feels and performs in a number of environments.
Similar to the testing protocol, I’m going to be more specific in the conclusions section as well. I’ve split the “grading” into 5 parts as follows…
10 points for durability
10 points for styling
20 points for build quality and feel
60 points for performance and recovery
For a total of 100 points…shocker!
I’ve worn both recovery and performance pairs of these multiple times over the last several months, the graphics on the legs are starting to peel slightly, but the structure of the tights is uncompromised. I washed all the tights inside out in cold water, then air dry. As long as the graphics aren’t the reason you’re buying these, I don’t think this presents any real problem. With proper care and maintenance I suspect these will last for a long time.
The Virus tights are the most styled of all the pairs I tested. So much so that I actually think it detracts. In hindsight this section is rather vain but it matters to some people so I wanted to touch on it. By some people I mean me…I didn’t love all the graphics on these, I’m much plainer than that.
Build Quality and Feel:
Build quality wise, these are put together really nicely. The seems are all well stitched and they have a drawstring which is a major feature missing from the Skins. From a fit and feel perspective the compression is definitely noticeable, but not restrictive. I didn’t notice any bunching or major shifting in any of the movements I tested them in. The major problem I had with the fit of the Virus tights was the crotch. It sits quite low, which makes it feel like they need to be pulled up constantly, a feeling thats hard to ignore especially during a workout or strength program. This was a huge detractor for me, being distracted when performance is the goal is entirely counter productive. The fit otherwise was fine through the quad and calves.
The recovery pair of these had the same fit issue but was obviously less noticeable because I mostly just slept in them.
Performance and Recovery:
This section is hard to write because I didn’t do any real science, and this is where the science really comes into play, all I can quantify is how I felt, which is admittedly not really the definition of quantifiable.
For recovery, I wore these after several big leg days, and many Airdyne workouts. The recovery effect the next day and on subsequent training was easily noticeable, though hard to quantify without more scientific methods. Further, I can’t really hide the placebo effect from myself. I didn’t really attempt to replicate any of the studies protocol’s I read, though if you had unlimited time it would be far better to do some kind of measured workout, rest for 2 days, and then do it again and see how the results compared. But that’s pretty tangential to this review.
From a performance perspective the real drawback here was the fit, while it doesn’t really fall in the compression category of performance, my performance was definitely negatively effected which is the opposite of what you want from a compression tight, or any piece of gear you intend to use for competitive exercise.
Build quality and compression were great. Recovery effects were noticeable. The main detractor here was fit, so much so that it negatively impacted performance and really brought down the score, if these fit even marginally better this score would be much better. I had a lot of trouble ignoring the feeling that my pants were falling down.
These were easily the most interesting pair of tights in the whole review. They are also the most targeted, they are geared towards runners and skiers interestingly enough. They are designed with posture, mechanics, and clinical symptoms in mind, not so much the traditional compression for performance sake. I’m not sure how well they fit in the competitive exercise atmosphere, but here we go.
Like most of the other pairs, these held up find through the tests, and didn’t show any noticeable or unexpected wear from washing and drying.
In comparison to the Virus, these are actually the least styled of all four pairs, which I kind of enjoyed. They are a muted grey and mostly black, with one small logo above the knee. If for whatever reason branding is an issue for you, these are very subdued. They also have a zippered pocket if you’re going to wear them without shorts, its actually a thoughtful feature that I used on a few runs.
These are really in a category by themselves, as I believe they are designed to be worn more as pants, on their own, than a traditional compressive undergarment. Further, the feel is meant to be corrective rather than compressive. The goal behind these in addition to compression is to actually maintain proper mechanics under fatigue and through endurance efforts, which is really interesting to me, which is the primary reason I wanted to include these. In addition to the pocket these also have a drawstring, which I think is the new standard for compression, it’s really the only way to guarantee you will fit all athletes correctly as the body types involved in sports like these are very unique. Because these are geared for a little different audience, using them as a compression pant was actually not the best, they weren’t the most comfortable for Crossfit style workouts, they did fine through strength work, but really shined in the running workouts, which makes sense. They feel heavier, almost more like a wetsuit than a compression pant, so definitely consider that when reading this, while I’ve thrown them in with several compression pants, these really stand apart purely in their desired function.
Performance and Recovery:
I really didn’t like these for recovery. They were hard to wear for a whole night, interrupting my rest. I stayed quite warm which really kills my ability to sleep. Further, they didn’t really feel the same from a compression standpoint as some of the other pairs. Again, they aren’t primarily designed for that, so I won’t take off as many points as I would otherwise.
Performance wise these were probably the worst pair to squat in, because they are a little thicker, there was a noticeable bunching behind the knee, akin to a knee sleeve, which I stopped wearing for that very reason. If it doesn’t bother you, and you have some kind of orthopedic or postural problem, these might be worth a try. Where these really shined above and beyond all the other pairs was running. Most people don’t think of running as a movement, but it is just like any squat or olympic movement, and as such deserves the same attention when it comes to form and technique. I really felt these helped me stay tighter in my running form, I held a stronger stride and didn’t feel as fatigued, again there was no retest but I still give the Opedix credit for that feeling. While not the most versatile, if running is your thing these are definitely worth the look.
Strong performance in running and endurance, not the best for Crossfit or Recovery. Fit more like pants than compression. Most specific garment of the group.
Again, these held up find through the tests, and didn’t show any noticeable or unexpected wear from washing and drying. They did feel a little flimsier than I would’ve hoped as compared to the other 4 brands.
The Skins strike a nice balance between the styling of the Virus and the simplicity of the Opedix. Though the labeling is a yellow/gold that really stands out far more than a simple black/white, or black grey. And yes I realize this sounds like Batman from the Lego Movie…but it’s true, I only work in black, or in this case, workout.
Build Quality and Feel:
If you’ve read my first review, you know this area is where I originally faulted the Skins the most. I ordered a Large based on their sizing chart and they ended up so loose that they were hardly even usable for recovery let alone performance compression. This time around I got a Medium and the fit was much much better. They were still a tad on the loose feeling side, which I have a feeling now is more due to the levels of compression they provide rather than the actual cut and fit. The build quality is high, I never once worried about the fit or the seems, nor did they bunch or ride up. The only real issue I have with the skins now is the lack of a draw string, meaning the waist has to be much higher in order to keep everything where it’s meant to be. I don’t love a high waist, far from the worst thing in the world, it still felt a little odd. To their credit, the model on the website is wearing them high as well, so one could’ve expected as much.
Performance and Recovery:
As mentioned in the fit section, the compression feeling of the Skins is vastly improved over the last time I wrote this review. I really enjoyed both squatting and airdyning in these, as well as rowing. They never bothered me from a fit perspective, I didn’t find myself pulling at them very often, though slightly more often than the BodyScience. They definitely felt like compression, but were not overly tight such that if I pushed really hard on an interval my legs felt like sausages, which can sometimes happen with these compression garments under heavy load.
These were actually very nice for recovery, the looser feel from a performance perspective might’ve been less desirable, but made them far easier to wear while recovering and to bed. They weren’t too warm to sleep in, or so tight that they kept me awake. Of all four pairs I found these the most versatile for both recovery and performance.
Most versatile of all the pairs tested, on the flimsy side but still good, great for recovery, no drawstring and a high waist made the fit slightly less comfortable than desired.
Again, these held up find through the tests, and didn’t show any noticeable or unexpected wear from washing and drying. They have an ankle band that keeps them from riding up that did stretch some, but I found it almost too tight to start, so a little stretch actually improved the fit some for me.
I’ve always been a big fan of the styling of the BodyScience tights. The white/black works well with my tastes and is barely noticeable under a pair of fight shorts.
Build Quality and Feel:
Where the Skins sit high on my waist, the BodyScience sat much lower, which might be a problem for some, in many cases they sit below the waist line of my regular workout shorts, but once I got used to it I didn’t really notice it. These like most of the other pairs have a drawstring, which made the fit around the waist perfect and adjustable based on activity. As I mentioned they also have an ankle cuff that keeps them from riding up much, which is a nice feature. Overall, I still feel these felt and looked the best of all the four pairs. I was comfortable doing just about any training in them, making them the most versatile from a performance perspective. The compression is actually a step greater than all the other pairs, which highlighted the proprioception and really actually helped me “feel” my legs. This sounds a bit odd, but is one of the noted placebo effects of compression garments, that just having something on your legs forces you to feel their position more than you would normally, and can cue better positions because of it. I never felt limited or negatively affected by the BodyScience skins.
Performance and Recovery:
The BodyScience compression was by far the best pair of longs from a performance perspective. The additional compression makes training in them rather delightful, well as delightful as some of the masochistic stuff we do can be. I won’t say things I can’t prove like they made me stronger, or I was able to do more reps, or do anything faster. If nothing else they made the extreme discomfort slightly more comfortable. I don’t see any problems with that.
From a recovery standpoint these weren’t the easiest to wear to sleep. I could easily wear them all day while awake, but while trying to sleep the compression became a bit too much, it kept me from falling asleep or staying asleep. With sleep being as important as it is, I wouldn’t want to wear these for sleep. If you recall this is a similar result to the first review. Though I have to give the advantage to the performance side over the recovery, as I have other tools for recovery that mean more to me.
TL:DR – great product with some minor flaws that kept it from a perfect score. Best for performance. I would buy these if I could only choose one.
If I could only buy one pair of compression tights for Crossfit I would buy the BodyScience Athlete Longs, they’re well designed, well styled, well put together, and are geared towards performance, which is exactly what I look for. If I could only buy one pair for recovery I would buy the Skins, they’re more comfortable and the only pair I really felt like I could sleep well in. If I was buying a pair for endurance sports I would have trouble choosing between Opedix and BodyScience, but would probably convince myself that the Opedix were the right choice. The combination of the more aggressive styling, and fit issues makes it hard for me to recommend the Virus, though they are the cheapest pair I reviewed, so if cost was a concern, the cost to performance ratio is probably the highest, so for the budget athlete I would recommend the Virus. As with the first review, the best metric I can give you is what pair I would buy again, or a second pair of, and for me that’s the BodyScience again, though the competition is definitely getting tighter.