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Utilizing Resistance Bands in Your Training

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

During the coronavirus pandemic, many of us need alternative methods to train. Many of us are reverting to cardio which is a great option. But for those that are looking for a substitute for barbells and free weights to get that pump, many of us are turning to resistance bands. Resistance bands provide a great and affordable way to train our muscles by providing a different training stimulus than traditional free weights.


Gravity and inertia are what we are really training against when we use free weights. The gravitational forces that act upon a weight determines how heavy or light the given weight is. This gravitational force creates an inertia of that object. Inertia can be considered the desire of an object to stay at rest or in motion unless acted upon by another force. In order to lift the free weights, we have to produce a large enough force to overcome the inertia of the free weights. As our joints move through our range of motion, it puts the muscles in different positions which make the weight easier or harder to move. This change in difficulty is due to the changes in gravity, inertia, and the lever arms our joints and muscles produce during a dynamic exercise.


This is why a dumbbell curl feels hard to start, but easier to finish. Resistance bands do not work against gravity or inertia, but by the elastic and tensile forces produced as the band gets stretched. When using bands, the resistance increases as range of motion increases, which is the opposite of free weights. This difference in the strength curve between free weights and bands, keeps the muscle engaged throughout the range of motion.

These elastic bands are great due to them being portable, cheap, easy to use, and extremely versatile. I have brought them to many family vacations and have done countless intense workouts that result in an awesome pump. These bands have the ability to recruit our muscles similar to that of free weights, even when using multi-joint exercises. Although the use of free weights was superior than elastic resistance bands, the use of elastic resistance bands activated muscles only slightly less than conventional free weights (2).


Knowing this, we can easily apply our principles of training to stimulate an adaptation just as if we were using conventional free weights. When using bands, we want to make sure we are applying both mechanical tension through the difficulty of the bands, and metabolic stress via the amount of energy we are using. Mechanical tension is considered the contraction of the muscle against a resistance, resulting in external forces and internal forces. Overtime, a given resistance will become easier, and we have to increase the tension by making our exercises more challenging. Usually by increasing the resistance of the band. This principle of progressive overload keeps our progress moving no matter what tools we use.


Metabolic stress comes from not only how much energy we use during a workout, but also the amount of metabolic waste material that is produced and cleared from the muscle during exercise metabolism. This stress can be increased by using supersets, increasing the repetitions, or by decreasing the rest time. It is worth noting that increasing the metabolic stress may also work to increase mechanical tension. The increased metabolic stress makes it difficult for the muscle to continue contraction which may also lead to increased mechanical tensions. All things considered, the same things that make our muscles grow using conventional weights, can still be applied using elastic resistance bands.


The beauty of these elastic bands is the versatility they have.


Many of the same exercises that we perform in the gyms can be replicated using resistance bands. Different bands will dictate the exact set up, but resistances bands can be used for single and multi-joint exercises throughout the whole body. In fact, many of these variations force people into new position such as different seating positions and more standing positions, creating a more need for core stability. This concept comes from the result of the 2017 Iversen et al. study (2). They showed that the elastic resistance band was able to activate the external oblique more than the conventional resistance exercise. When using bands as a substitute for conventional free weights, it is important to keep the band tight and to avoid slack, as this was where the biggest differences occurred between muscle activation patterns (2).

Another common use with bands is variable resistance. Variable resistance (accommodating resistance) is a way to accommodate the changing strength curves when using free weights, The full detail of variable resistance will be covered later, but here is a brief overview. When using a constant weight as in a traditional deadlift, gravity, inertia, momentum (generated from the moving load), joint position and muscle lengths dictate how heavy a weight feels as we accelerate, decelerate, and lower the load (1). The changing gravity, inertia, and momentum dictate how much muscle we need to recruit to move load through a movement. Our muscles and joints have a position and length at which they function best and produce the most amount of force against a load. When these are not in the optimal position to work against gravity, inertia, or generate momentum, we experience sticking points (3, 4).


Sticking points of exercises are often the hardest part of a lift and limit the amount of force we can produce to move a given load. To use variable or accommodating resistance, we attach bands or chains to the free weights. This modifies the strength curve so that the total load increases as we move through our weakest part of the movement to our strongest parts. When using these, we would use a load that is lighter than we would use without the bands. This has proven to be a successful method for increasing power. The rate of power development, squat, bench press, and all jumping measures improved in NCAA division II male basketball players using variable resistance training 1 day per week for 5 weeks (3).


A word of caution as this is an advanced method of training, as it incorporates high amount of eccentric control and may highly tax the neuromuscular system. Many early trainees may not need this method because there are other and safer ways to break through plateaus and increase performance for these types of trainees.

These bands can be use in a clinical setting as well. For example, rehabilitation programs often use resistance bands. They increase the pool of available core exercises and can also be used to potentially improve joint mechanics via joint distractions. They may also provide some more joint stability and an eccentric training stimulus in order to avoid a rapid and uncontrollable recoil. The examples listed here are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using resistance bands as a part of your program.


There are some drawbacks to using bands however. One of which is the limitation of knowing exactly how much resistance is being used. The distance between you and the site of attachment for the band can change the resistance drastically. To mitigate this, using a perceived exertion scale may help to provide some idea of the intensity of the band. As the perceived exertion increases on your scale, you know that the intensity is increasing. In addition, it is difficult for some training goals such as strength and power to be trained using bands alone. Due to the inability to provide a maximal or near maximal neuromuscular stimulus using bands alone. Thus, training for muscle growth (hypertrophy) will likely be benefited the most using resistance bands alone.


Resistance bands are being used more and more these days. They provide a viable training stimulus that may result in a new training environment for the user. We should be aware that bands are better for some goals than others, such as hypertrophy versus maximal strength training. However, that does not discredit their ability to produce a positive stimulus for adaptation. These elastic bands are cheap, portable, versatile, and should definitely be included in some way, shape or form in your training.


References

  1. Heelas T, Theis N, Hughes JD. Muscle Activation Patterns During Variable Resistance Deadlift Training With and Without Elastic Bands. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2019;:1.

  2. Iversen VM, Mork PJ, Vasseljen O, Bergquist R, Fimland MS. Multiple-joint exercises using elastic resistance bands vs. conventional resistance-training equipment: A cross-over study. European Journal of Sport Science 2017;17(8):973–82.

  3. Joy JM, Lowery RP, Souza EOD, Wilson JM. Elastic Bands as a Component of Periodized Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2016;30(8):2100–6.

  4. Saeterbakken AH, Andersen V, Kolnes MK, Fimland MS. Effects of Replacing Free Weights With Elastic Band Resistance in Squats on Trunk Muscle Activation. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2014;28(11):3056–62.

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