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
Words: Adele Jackson-Gibson
Illustration: Xoana Herrera