Choosing and Using Resistance Bands

What to know about resistance bands?
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When it comes to strength training, most of us are very familiar with the usual types of equipment. There are free weights like dumbbells and barbells and then there are machines, some with cables, some with weight stacks and some with both.

All of those pieces of equipment are great for building lean muscle tissue and helping you get stronger, but you don't need a lot of equipment, or a lot of money, to build muscle.

Resistance bands are a great alternative to weights or even a great addition to a traditional weight training program. They're inexpensive, versatile and they work your muscles in a completely different way than weights.

Maybe you've avoided using bands because you're not sure if they're effective or maybe you're not even sure what to do with them. Now is a great time to pick up a band for a little something different.

Resisting Resistance Bands

There are a variety of reasons some of us don't use resistance bands. Just a few of those reasons may include:

  • The resistance feels different. When you use free weights, gravity decides where the weight comes from, so you get more resistance during one part of the movement (such as the upswing of a biceps curl) than the other (the downswing). With bands, the tension is constant, which makes it feel harder. Bands work much like a cable machine, allowing you to keep constant tension on the muscle. You'll also incorporate more stabilizer muscles to keep the band in alignment throughout each exercise, adding a different dynamic to the same old moves.
  • Resistance bands may not feel as challenging as machines or dumbbells. With weights, you know exactly how much you're lifting. With bands, you can only go by how it feels and the tension on the band. That doesn't mean you're not getting a good workout, though. If you use good form and the right level of tension, your muscle fibers won't know the difference between weights or bands. Plus, bands offer more variety because you can create the resistance from all directions--the side, overhead, below, etc.
  • You don't know how to use them. It can be confusing trying to figure out how to use a band. Keep in mind that you can perform the same exercises as you do with free weights--the difference lies in positioning the band. For example, you can stand on the band and grip the handles for bicep curls or overhead presses. You can attach it to a door and do triceps pushdowns. You can wrap the band around a pole or chair for chest exercises or shoulder rotations. You can even do exercises on the floor like these seated biceps curls. The possibilities are endless and you'll find there are a number of exercises and workouts available to you.

Why You Should Try Resistance Bands

With those obstacles out of the way, why should you bother with resistance bands? For one thing, studies show that muscles respond to strength training with resistance bands just as well as they do to dumbbells or other types of equipment.

  • They travel well. You can easily pack them in your suitcase for travel and do exercises in the car or in your hotel room. This is perfect for when you're short on time and don't have access to your usual equipment.
  • They increase coordination. Because there's tension throughout the exercises, you have to stabilize your body. This helps with coordination and balance and it also helps you involve more muscle groups.
  • They add variety. With weights, you're often limited as to how many exercises you can do. But, the resistance band allows you to change your positioning in multiple ways. This changes how your body works and how an exercise feels. 
  • They're inexpensive. Bands range anywhere from $6 to $30, depending on how many you get and where you buy them, which is nice for the budget-conscious exerciser. You can stuff them under the bed, in a suitcase or just about anywhere, making them a versatile piece of equipment.
  • They're great for all fitness levels. Depending on how you use them, bands can be great for beginners as well as more advanced exercisers. You can use them for basic moves or add intensity to traditional moves.

    You'll find that there are a variety of resistance bands available and you can usually find them almost anywhere including discount stores (like Walmart or Target), at most sporting goods stores. 

    You can always buy resistance bands in stores, but if you're looking for more options and, sometimes, more quality, you may find you have to order them online.

    Tips for Buying Resistance Bands

    • Buy a variety of bands. Most bands are color-coded according to tension level (e.g., light, medium, heavy, very heavy). It's best to have at least three - light, medium and heavy since different muscle groups will require different levels of resistance.  A favorite for many exercisers are SPRI bands, which you can buy at Amazon.com. Take a look at the tension level for each color so you can buy a variety.
    • Buy comfortable, easy to use bands. Some bands you find in stores offer interchangeable handles, which means you have to take them off and on to use different bands. Some have handles that are larger than normal or made of hard plastic. These are minor issues, but they can make using your bands more difficult than it needs to be. Try to buy bands with padded handles and make sure you don't have to change them out.
    • Buy accessories. One key to using bands is having different ways to attach them. If you have a sturdy pole or stair rail in your house to wrap the band around for exercises like chest presses or seated rows, you may not need much more than bands. But, if you don't, you may want a door attachment - Buy at Amazon.com. You can also buy ankle cuffs, different handles, and other accessories.
    • Keep it simple. There are a wide variety of bands available - figure 8's, double bands, circular bands, etc. If you're just getting started, stick with your basic long tube with handles. Once you figure out how to use it, you may want to buy other types later for variety.

    Some Resistance Band Activities and Exercises

    While bands are great for resistance training, you can also use them for a variety of cardio exercises as well. In fact, if you're traveling you can incorporate both cardio and strength exercising using just that one piece of equipment.

    Cardio Exercises Using a Resistance Band

    Just a few exercises you can do to get your heart rate up include:

    • Band Jumping Jacks - Hold the band in both hands over the head and pull the band down as you do jumping jacks.
    • Front and Back Double Leg Jumps - Put the resistance band on the floor in front of you in a straight line from right to left. Jump over the band with both feet to land in front, then jump diagonally back, moving to the right. Continue jumping forward and back using the band as a marker for the length of the band before coming back.
    • Side to Side Double Leg Jumps - Lay the band down on the floor crosswise next to your right foot. Each handle should be facing the front and back of the room. Starting on the left side of the band, jump with both feet over the band, landing on the other side. Jump back over and repeat for 30-60 seconds.
    • Side to Side Band Lunges - Wrap the band around your back and grab on to each side under the armpits, just below the handles. Pivot and turn to the right, taking the left leg out into a straight leg lunge and pressing the left hand forward, straightening the band. Come back to start and repeat on the other side.

    Those are just a few ideas. Putting your band on the floor can give you some ideas for how to use its length for other moves like puddlejumpers.

    Strength Training Using a Resistance Bands

    If you're ready to try your resistance bands, it may be easier to get started by doing basic exercises you're already familiar with.

    For detailed instructions for many of these exercises, try Resistance Band Workouts for Beginners.

    • Chest Press - For this exercise, wrap the band a chair behind you - You can also wrap it around a pole, rail or use the door attachment to secure the band in the door. The resistance band should be right at about chest level and you should step far enough away from the door that you get constant tension on the band. If you're in a chair, as shown, you might need to wrap the bands around your hands several times for more tension.  Keep your elbows in a 'goal-post' position (parallel to the floor) throughout the movement. And push out and back for about 16 reps.
    • Rotating Chest Press - Wrap the band around a sturdy object and loop one handle through the other, pulling it tight.  Step away from the anchor until you have plenty of tension on the band and begin with the right side towards the anchor, arm straight.  Rotate the body, pivoting on the feet, and bring the right around all the way across and touch the left fingers.  Repeat for 16 reps on each side.
    • Band Rows - Loop the band under your feet and grab onto the band closer to your feet for more tension. Tip from the hips so that your back is flat and your abs are in. Now squeeze the back and pull the elbows up to the torso in a rowing motion. Lower and repeat for 16 reps.
    • Bicep Curls- For the bicep curl, you can stand on the band with both feet (harder) or with one foot (easier). Hold the handles in each hand and curl up in a bicep curl, just as you would with dumbbells. You can make this move harder by stepping the feet wide or by using a heavy band.
    • Band Triceps Extensions - Sit tall and hold a band out in front of you with elbows bent out to the sides at shoulder level. The palms should face the floor. The closer the hands are together, the harder this exercise will be. While keeping the left hand in place, straighten the right arm out to the side until it's parallel to the floor, squeezing the back of the arm. Move back to start and for 16 reps before switching arms.

    These are just a few examples of band exercises. Below is a list of full workouts you can try or, if you don't like the idea of using bands for your entire workout, try incorporating some of the exercises with your traditional weight routine for variety and challenge.

    Resistance Band Workouts

     

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    Source:

    Colado JC, Garcia-Masso X, Pellicer M, Alakhdar Y, Benavent J, Cabeza-Ruiz R. A Comparison of Elastic Tubing and Isotonic Resistance Exercises. Int J Sports Med. 2010;31(11):810-817. doi:10.1055/s-0030-1262808.

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