4 Ways Resistance Bands Can Transform Your Workout

Looks can be deceiving, particularly when it comes to training with elastic bands. This unassuming piece of equipment doesn't appear nearly as "hardcore" as a loaded barbell or pair of heavy dumbbells, so it stands to reason that bands are probably great for rehabbing injuries and low-impact workouts for the elderly but lousy at helping the serious gym rat build significant size and strength, right? Wrong. So very wrong.

Elastic resistance exercise, as with elastic tubing equipment, has been around for almost a century. It was originally introduced as a unique exercise tool and eventually became popular as a rehabilitation device. Today, bands are more than just an entry-level alternative to heavy free weights. They're used around the world by elite athletes in all sports—football players, UFC fighters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, you name it—to develop strength, power, speed, and even muscle size.

Elastic and free-weight resistance (i.e., barbells and dumbbells) have several things in common, all of which are critical to an effective resistance-training routine:

  • They both provide some form of resistance.
  • They allow a free range of motion.
  • They allow variable speed of movement.
  • They allow progressive resistance.

Despite the similarities, you might assume that, due to the lightweight and flimsy appearance of elastic tubing, free weights are clearly the superior resistance-training equipment; however, studies have shown that muscle activity and peak load during elastic-resistance exercise is similar to that of free-weight training. Research has also found that programs using elastic tubing, elastic bands, and similar devices increase muscle strength and size and decrease body fat in a similar manner to free-weight programs.

In other words, your muscle fibers don't know the difference between dumbbells and elastic bands in a given range of motion, provided the resistance is more or less the same.

Benefits of Bands

In addition to the ways in which they are the same, elastic resistance offers several key performance-enhancing features that free weights don't.

1. More Planes of Movement

Unlike free weights, elastic bands don't rely on gravity to provide resistance. This increases their potential for use in more functional movement patterns that mimic everyday life as well as sport-specific activities. Because free weights rely on gravity, they can only provide resistance in a vertical plane—the direction of gravity. So, if you do a free-weight exercise in the horizontal plane—such as moving your hand from the left side of your body to the right side while holding a dumbbell—there's no resistance.

That's not the case with elastic tubing. Horizontal plane movements are fair game. Thanks to elastic bands, you can perform exercises such as twisting your body from side to side, side kicks and punches, as well as movements that mimic a baseball swing or basketball pass, with added resistance. This is especially useful for athletes looking to enhance performance and reduce injury risk. In a 1998 study, collegiate tennis players who trained using elastic bands significantly increased their shoulder strength as well as the speed of their tennis serve compared to those who didn't use bands.[1]

In another study, researchers discovered that an elastic-band training program strengthened the rotator cuff muscles of collegiate baseball pitchers better than a program that used dumbbells.[2]

Horizontal-plane movements also come in handy when you're performing regular tasks like turning your body while carrying a heavy box. People take these everyday movements for granted, but you can easily injure yourself if your strength is lacking in the horizontal plane, especially as you get older.

Because elastic resistance doesn't rely on gravity, it's also possible to redirect the emphasis placed on working muscles in the middle of a set by changing the line of pull on the tubing or bands. In one 1998 study, researchers offered a specific example of this, reporting that emphasis placed on the quadriceps and hamstrings during elastic-tubing squatting and stepping exercises changed when the subjects altered the direction of pull.[3]

This ability to change emphasis is important for those looking to target specific muscles either for aesthetic reasons or sports requirements. It's also important for those with injuries, as shifting the force more to certain muscles can help protect certain joints. For example, greater hamstring emphasis during squatting or stepping movements can help protect certain structures around the knee. This is difficult to accomplish with free weights because, as previously mentioned, they require the direction of force to be vertical, due to the reliance on gravity for resistance.

2. Constant Tension

Another benefit of elastic resistance is that it provides continuous tension to the muscles being trained. When you lift a free weight in any direction other than straight up and down, the tension on the muscle varies and can actually be removed at certain points. Again, it comes down to the difference between needing and not needing gravity for resistance.

For example, on a dumbbell curl, by the time you curl the weight all the way up, the dumbbell is falling toward your shoulder. The tension is removed at the top because the dumbbell is no longer being lifted up against gravity by the biceps. When you do biceps curls with elastic resistance, the tension is present throughout the entire range of motion because the resistance is coming from the elastic properties of the band, not the weight of the dumbbell.

3. Linear Variable Resistance

Arguably the most definable characteristic of band training is linear variable resistance, which means that as the range of motion increases, so does the resistance. For example, when you do a biceps curl with elastic tubing, as you curl your hand up toward your shoulder, the resistance becomes progressively greater. This is due to the physical properties of elastic material, which we've all experienced at some point with a rubber band: The more the band is stretched, the more resistance it provides.

One benefit of this elasticity is that as the range of motion (and thus the resistance) increases, so does the number of fibers it recruits in the target muscle. The more muscle fibers being used, the greater the adaptations in muscle strength. This is a perk free weights can't offer.

Another valuable byproduct of this linear variable resistance is that in most cases, it better mimics the strength curve of the muscle than free weights. A strength curve refers to the way a muscle or muscle group's strength changes over a range of motion. Most muscles increase in strength over the range of motion up to a certain point.

Again, using the dumbbell curl as an example, as you bring your hand toward your shoulder, the biceps gets stronger until about the halfway point. So, the biceps is weakest at the start of the exercise and strongest at the halfway point. When doing curls with a free weight, you're limited in the resistance you can use by how strong the biceps is at its weakest point (the beginning of the exercise). As a result, the muscle doesn't get adequate resistance at its strongest point in the range of motion.

When you're performing curls with elastic tubing, however, the resistance increases with the range of motion, so the muscle gets greater resistance at its strongest point, stimulating greater strength adaptations.

Many individuals report that they can feel a difference with elastic resistance, such as a stronger burn in the muscles and greater muscle fatigue, than with free weights. Linear variable resistance is to thank (or blame!) for this.

Research has confirmed this anecdotal evidence. A 2004 study found that athletes who included elastic-resistance bench press training in their regimens had a significantly greater increase in bench press strength and power on average than those who did only free-weight training.[4]

In a 2006 study, athletes who used elastic-band training in addition to free weights had significantly more leg power than when they trained only with free weights.[5]

4. No More Cheating

Another critical benefit of elastic resistance is that it prevents the user from cheating on the exercise, a common practice with free weights, especially among beginners. Cheating involves the use of momentum to get the weight moving. Once that momentum has been built up, the muscle fibers no longer need to be maximally activated to continue moving the weight through the rest of the range of motion. In other words, momentum is doing most of the work at this point, not the muscles.

The physical properties of elastic-resistance devices simply don't allow you to cheat by using momentum. The only way to continue a movement while performing an exercise with elastic resistance is to call on more muscle fibers to continue stretching the band.

The Bottom Line on Bands

Elastic resistance offers several benefits that outweigh those of free weights (pun intended). These bonus features include functional strength, injury prevention, greater gains in explosive power, and convenience of use, particularly at home or when traveling.

Believe it or not, a program using only elastic bands can bring you the type of results that most people think only come from free weights—increased muscle strength and size and decreased body fat. All of this from a lightweight set of rubber bands.