You may have seen them a bit more on social media recently – booty bands, resistance bands and elastics, as people looked for non-expensive gym alternatives for their fitness regimes while gyms closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But do resistance bands really work?

The short answer is yes, elastic resistance can give you the benefits of free weight resistance and more. While they can both provide progressive overload, increased muscle strength and size and aid in decreasing body fat – resistance bands also have the added benefits of providing constant tension, produce resistance on multiple plains of movement, they can activate more muscles and reduce cheating and are inexpensive and easy to transport and store. You can literally hold 100kg of resistance in one hand – pretty cool if you ask me.

 

Background

The first resistance bands were created from surgical tubing and used for rehabilitation in the early 1900s. By the mid-1990s they still were mostly used by doctors and physiotherapists. From about 2005-2015 they gained popularity with fitness professionals as a low-cost alternative to weights as they were light, flexible and easy to travel with and store. Resistance bands have come a long way in the past 10 years, with more variety, shapes and sizes. Today they are a staple in any fitness professional’s toolbox, not only for rehabilitation, but for strength, kinetic and plyometric training, improving fitness and body composition, power and flexibility with these small and inexpensive items.

How do they work

Resistance bands work in a similar way to free weights like dumbbells and barbells, but the main differences are instead of using gravity, they provide an external resistance that muscles have to work against. This engages the muscles to work against the force. It may look easier but you are actually working through the whole range of motion of the exercise, not just the gravity phase. Studies have shown that using resistance bands can be just as effective as free weights when training for body composition, while free weights were superior for strength gains, bands can be just as effective for muscle gain and fat loss results when programmed correctly. It’s also widely known by medical professionals that resistance bands are a great tool for rehabilitation post injury.

Activation

Also called activation bands, resistance bands or elastic tubing exercises are an effective way of warming up and activating targeted muscles and improving stability prior to conducting big lifts, free weight training or during slow, controlled training like Pilates.

Activating muscles before lifting weights helps ensure the right muscles are taking the force which can prevent injury and improve hypertrophy. Bands have particular use for activating the glute medius, and the rotator cuff, both notorious for their links to injury. So, activation has numerous benefits for everyone. From stability and the prevention of ‘runner’s knee’ due to imbalances caused by weak glute medius, to body composition benefits for aesthetics of the butt and hips. Activating and warming up the shoulder muscles with bands has shown to be beneficial for preventing shoulder damage. Activation exercises like banded crab walks, scapular slides and flys are a great way to get the muscles working, improve stability and prevent injury.

Hypertrophy and strength

You can get strength and muscle growth from resistance bands. Your muscles are under stress while fighting against the resistance of the band, so if they are stimulated adequately, they will adapt and grow accordingly. It is easy to progress the resistance of bands too, so adaptations over time can continue to be challenged. As workouts get easier, using a stronger band, smaller band or by dividing the band, as well as changing the range of motion and type of exercises, will ensure muscles are being stimulated long-term. A study by Mikesky in 1994 looked into the efficacy of home-based training programs using elastic tubing for older adults. The group exercised at home three times per week, using only banded exercises. The results showed significant increases in strength, isokinetic eccentric knee extension, flexion and strength and it was concluded that home workouts with elastic bands was an effective means of improving strength in those over 65.

The exercise science principles of hypertrophy and strength need to be considered for resistance band programs to be effective. Volume (sets x reps x load), frequency, exercise selection, rest time and tempo should be aligned with individual goals and lifestyles. Programming and progression are the same methods for resistance bands as it would be for free weights. For the best results these should be tailored to the individual’s fitness level and goals, however generic programming can be useful for general health and fitness promotion of large groups.

The position of the band is not integral or set in stone, however each exercise has an optimal position for each individual. For example, crab walks are effective for different people in different positions, around the feet, around the shins or just above or below the knee (See Workout examples).

Recovery and rehabilitation

Resistance bands are highly regarded by medical and sports professionals for rehabilitation and strengthening of muscles, joints and tendons post-injury. Elastic resistance is widely used for strengthening and rehabilitation of the rotator cuff (inner shoulder muscles), and the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), common areas of overuse and injury. A study on baseball pitchers showed a band was effective in functional eccentric strengthening of the posterior rotator cuff in the pitching shoulder. Researchers looking into ACL injury rehabilitation and prevention recommended clinicians use elastic banded close chain exercises during early ACL rehabilitation since they incorporate early weightbearing with hamstring and quadriceps coactivation.

Who should use them?

Everyone! If you ever invest in fitness equipment, it should include resistance bands, regardless of your age, gender or abilities. If you don’t have access to free weights or if you simply want to optimise training and stability and reduce injury risk – bands are for you.

While they add significant value to advanced athletic and strength training regimes, they show particular promise for older populations and those with existing musculoskeletal conditions. A study conducted on older adults showed it was safe for an older population with diverse disorders. The group showed improvement in physical fitness with training combined with feelings of increased vigour. This showed resistance bands were a great means of stimulating the elderly to keep physically active even when they have moderate disorders as improved physical fitness may help to prevent age-dependent impairments.

Summary

It’s safe to say that resistance bands can be just as effective as free weights for body composition goals, and are beneficial for strength, stability and general health. Resistance bands can be better for functional strength, injury prevention and muscular power and explosiveness, while free weights offer more overload and efficient hypertrophy – adding them together is the best of both worlds.

Resistance bands can get the results that most people think only come from heavy free weights, increased muscle, reduced fat, better strength and power, all from a band.

 

Workout examples

Below are some exercise examples that are great for use with resistance bands, either for band only workouts or to add to a workout for activation, recovery or rehabilitation.

Exercise examples

ExerciseOptimal band type and position
Crab walksSmall band around ankles, shins, feet or above knee
SquatsLarge band around both feet and shoulders/hands
Good morningsLarge band around both feet and traps/shoulders
Bent over rowsLarge band around both feet and held in each hand
Squat to pressLarge band around both feet and shoulders/hands
Shoulder pressLarge band around both feet and hands
Chest pressLarge band behind back and in both hands, standing or laying on floor
Flys (chest or rear delt)Large band behind back and in both hands, standing or laying on floor
Glute kickbacks (on floor)Small band around one foot or ankle while the other foot kicks back
Hip AbductionSmall band around or just above knees
ClamshellsSmall band around or just above knees
Slide plank to clamshellSmall band around or just above knees
Side plank leg raisesSmall band around or just above knees or the ankles
Glue bridgesSmall band around or just above knees
Pull downsLarge band anchored from something above the head
Bicep curlLarge band around both feet and in hands
Triceps extension (overhead)Large band around one heel, standing while pulling up with one hand
Lateral raisesLarge band around feet and in hands
Kneeling crunchLarge band anchored from something above the head
Hamstring curlLarge band anchored around something close to the floor and one foot

 

Full body workout example – beginner / intermediate

ExerciseSets/repsRest between sets
Crab walks3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds
Kickbacks3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds
Good mornings3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds
Squat to press3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds
Rest for 1 minute
Rear delt flys3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds
Chest press3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds
Rows3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds
Kneeling crunch3 sets 10 reps20-30 seconds

 

 

References

 Aniansson, A. P., Ljunberg, P., Rundgren, A., and Wetterqvist, H., 1984, Effect of a training programme for pensioners on condition and muscular strength. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.

Boyer, B. T., 1990, A comparison of the effects of three strength training programs on women. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research.

Harwood, R., 2012 Exercise Resistance Band Fitness History, Fitness Health Ltd.

Marturana Winderl, A., 2019, Why Everyone Should Own a Set of Mini Resistance Bands, Self

Mikesky, A. E., Topp, R., Wigglesworth, J.K., Harsha, D.M., and Edwards, J.E., 1994, Efficacy of a home-based training program for older adults using elastic tubing. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology.

Page, P. A. 1993, Posterior Rotator Cuff Strengthening Using Theraband(R) in a Functional Diagonal Pattern in Collegiate Baseball Pitchers. Journal of Athletic Training.

Schulthies, S. S., Richard, M.D., Alexander, K.L., and Myrer, J.W., 1998. An Electromyographic Investigation of 4 Elastic-Tubing Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises After Anterior Cruciate Ligament Reconstruction. Journal of Athletic Training