Welcome to Band Camp
The humble resistance band can rival free weights — if you follow this primer to train like a pro.
What doesn’t the resistance band have going for it? Most cost less than $10, weigh mere ounces, fold up to the size of a smartphone, and are easier to find right now than actual weights. They’re also pretty damn effective. In fact, a 2019 review of studies found that training with them can lead to similar strength gains as training with conventional resistance equipment, like free weights or machines. If you’re wondering how (fair), keep reading.
Bands Make Your Muscles Work Longer
To create tension — which simulates weight — simply stretch the band. The farther you stretch it, the more tension it provides. Unlike free weights, bands provide tension throughout an entire rep, increasing the amount of time your muscles have to work for, says Zeena Hernandez, a doctor of physical therapy and the owner of Good Reps Physical Therapy in New York City.
She references biceps curls as an example: If you were to do them with a set of dumbbells, your muscles would get worked as you lift the weights, then catch a break when gravity takes over as you lower them and reset for your next rep. But when you do curls with a resistance band looped under your feet, one end of the band in each hand, your upper-arm muscles face resistance the whole way through because now you have to work against gravity to maintain control so, you know, the band doesn’t snap right out from under you.
They Demand More From Your Core
Even when you think you’re zeroing in on, say, your legs, bands make your core work overtime. “The need to control the band throughout the full exercise means you have to engage all the stabilizing muscles in your core more so than if you were working with dumbbells,” says Nike Master Trainer Flor Beckmann. Depending on the move, you can call on tiny, underused muscles in your upper and lower body to maintain control too.
They Have a Place in Practically Any Routine
Bands can also help you build strength after an injury without overloading your muscles, says Hernandez, and some (especially the superstretchy, long-loop ones versus the tighter “mini bands,” the circles that are typically less than a foot wide) are ideal for boosting mobility and balance, adds Beckmann. They’re also a clutch tool for mastering more challenging exercises, like pull-ups or pistol squats, says Beckmann, as you can use them as an assist. (A quick Google search for “banded ____” will show you how. Just look for instructions from a certified trainer or physical therapist.)
Of course, for all the reasons to love resistance bands, you have to use them properly to get the love back. Start here:
"Unlike free weights, bands provide tension throughout an entire rep, increasing the amount of time your muscles have to work for."
Doctor of Physical Therapy
- Choose the best band for your workout.
You may have picked up on this by now, but there are many breeds of resistance bands. Shop based on the type of exercises you’ll perform most.
If your routine is packed with compound, multijoint movements (think squats and deadlifts), you want the long, thicker loops that look like enormous rubber bands, often called “super bands,” says Hernandez. These allow you to work on your technique without the risk of hurting yourself with weight.
When you want to zero in on a specific muscle group, you need bands that are more flexible so you can easily pull them in different angles. Try the long, thin loops; tubes; or the paper-thin, wide strips of elastic that look like big ribbons — you can create a cable-pully system for, say, lat pull-downs or leg extensions, says Beckmann. For activation exercises that require limited range of movement, namely from your glutes and hips, choose mini bands, as those are easy to place above the ankles or knees, she adds.
- Consider the “weight.”
Bands come in a variety of weight, or tension, options, usually extra light, light, medium, heavy and extra heavy. (Many brands sell variety packs and use colors to designate levels of tension.) To pick the right “heaviness” for a particular exercise, think about your goal, says Hernandez. If you’re training for muscular endurance or stability or you’re sore and want to focus on active recovery, pick a lighter band and aim for fewer sets with more reps, like 2 to 3 sets of 15 to 20-plus reps, she says. If you’re trying to build strength and muscle while you’re on a break from your gym, grab a medium or heavier band, and go for more sets (3 to 5) of a lower rep scheme (say, 8 to 12).
It may take some trial and error, says Nike Master Trainer Traci Copeland. “If you can’t do five consecutive reps with good form, then you need to lighten it up a little bit,” she says. On the flip side, if you don’t start to burn out toward the end of a set, go a little heavier.
- Play around with placement options.
With mini bands specifically, you can alter the intensity of an exercise based on where on your limbs you place the band. Placing it farther away from the muscle you’re working increases the intensity, says Hernandez, as this creates a longer lever for the muscle to move. If you’re doing, say, side-lying leg lifts to strengthen your glutes and you place the band above your ankles instead of above your knees, your glutes have to work to control both your thigh and your calf.
PSA: Never place the band directly on your knees, ankles or other joints. Even though bands are soft and stretchy, the tension they create can put too much pressure there, increasing your chance of pain or injury, says Copeland.
- Repeat: Tension, tension, tension.
To maximize any band’s strengthening capabilities, keep it taut the whole time, says Copeland, which means you should feel like your muscles are actively resisting the band throughout each part of the exercise. Should the resistance band go lax, you may as well not be using it at all, she adds.
For each rep, she says, stretch the band until you feel you have to resist it from snapping back, then keep that tension consistent throughout your set. If you lose it between reps, simply reset to that point.
Nail these tips and you might become the band’s No. 1 fan not just while it has its moment, but for life.
Words: Adele Jackson-Gibson
Illustration: Xoana Herrera