Elastic Resistance Bands – how and why to use them

Resistance bands are small, portable, inexpensive, and easy to use anywhere and anytime. If you need some help (or some convincing) to get your resistance training underway, this is for you!

This likely won’t be news to you but I will say it anyway – consistent resistance training provides so many health benefits that I think everyone should be doing it.

But, I also know that the items we usually associate with resistance training (barbells, dumbbells, weight plates, and big exercise machines) are scary, intimidating, heavy, expensive, and take up a lot of space. So, unless you have or want to get a gym membership then you might think that bodyweight exercises are the perfect strength training workout. And they are but don’t forget about the big elastic band thingies!

Resistance bands—also known as workout bands or exercise bands—are stretchy, elastic, rubber bands or tubes or loops that are used for both physical therapy and general fitness.

They have been in use since the early twentieth century when they were used primarily on the rehabilitation of people with damaged muscles. But in the 1990s, they made a move into the fitness industry and they have grown more and more popular ever since.  They are so popular and versatile that you can regularly see pro athletes and elderly fit folks alike using them.

Advantages of resistance bands

One of the most attractive elements of these bands is how compact and lightweight they are. They can be stored in your junk drawer or tucked away in a cupboard, which makes them perfect for your home or office. The fact that they can be balled up and jammed into a bag or backpack also makes them ideal for travel.

They’re also very cost-effective (even if you regularly snap them as I do). While you can easily spend hundreds of dollars purchasing a home weight system, you can find a good set of resistance bands online (*affiliate link*) for about twenty bucks. Sure, you can get into fancier and more expensive systems (like the X3 Elite Band which I also have but have never snapped), but most of us will do just fine with the cheaper option.

An unexpected but cool thing about resistance bands is that they can feel a little unsteady or wobbly, which means that you will need to work harder to maintain good form. This is a good thing! This instability factor means your workout targets what we fitness pros call your stabilizer muscles as well as other muscle groups. Where a weight machine may allow you to lift a heavier load, resistance bands allow you to develop greater control, which can make you more stable and protect you from future injury.

Unlike free weights or weight machines that only allow you to perform a limited number of movements, these bands provide resistance to just about any motion, in almost any body position. With a little ingenuity—and some heavy furniture to tie the bands to—you can do nearly any workout.

Do resistance bands actually work?

Resistance band training (or variable resistance training) has been shown to be extremely effective. In some cases, resistance band workouts are even more effective than weights, machines, dumbbells, bars, and plates.

A study on Cornell student-athletes, which included volunteers from the men’s basketball and wrestling teams and the women’s basketball and hockey teams, found that “Compared with C (control), improvement for E (elastic) was nearly three times greater for back squat, two times greater for bench press, and nearly three times greater for average power.” This means that, when compared with some regular weight training chumps, the heroes doing the variable resistance training (with elastic bands) experienced double the gains in one-rep max and triple the gains in average power after seven weeks.

In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers tested Variable Resistance on a middle-aged, sedentary population of women. This study showed that even low-intensity elastic band training was found to be at least as effective as regular weight training. And when applied out in the wild, it’s a lot easier to convince a sedentary population to do a workout program at home using some nice elastic bands than it is to convince them to drive across town to the CrossFit box. So it’s a win-win situation. 

A 2011 study that was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that Variable Resistance training showed greater anabolic hormone responses over conventional weight lifting, meaning that it provided a greater increase in serum Testosterone and Growth Hormone than regular weight lifting. These two hormones play a large role in both increasing and maintaining muscle mass, which often becomes a problem for us as we age. For me and women – by the way.

Choosing the right resistance band

Keep in mind that you cannot compare a resistance band with ye olde fashioned dumbbell. They behave differently throughout their full range of motion, so you can’t say that a certain colour of resistance band is equal to a certain dumbbell weight. The physics just doesn’t work that way. (If you want to learn more, there’s an excellent paper on that subject in the Journal of Human Kinetics.)

In a nutshell, when you lift weights, gravity plays the biggest role. Gravity creates more resistance when you lift a weight, but it makes lowering the weight easier. When you use elastic tubing to do that same movement, instead of you fighting gravity, the band fights you in both directions.

Variable resistance

Variable resistance is a fancy term that means the resistance you experience changes as you move through each exercise’s full range of motion. Simply put, the resistance you feel will increase as you reach the end of the movement and decrease as you move back to the starting position.

Think about a regular old elastic band that you might use in the office or kitchen. When you stretch it out, it provides more and more resistance (until it has no other option but to break). Resistance bands are the same, the elasticity of the resistance band makes it harder and harder to stretch the farther you stretch it.

This isn’t a bad thing, it just means the force you exercise against changes throughout the movement of the exercise. Once we understand this, we can use it to our advantage by using various techniques to shorten or lengthen the band, depending on whether we want more or less resistance. For example, this morning I wrapped more of the band around my hands to “shorten it” and thus create more resistance during my seated row exercise.

Band resistance levels

Okay, back to how to choose the proper level band.

The bands you find online or at your local fitness store are colour-coded. Most often, the level of resistance corresponds with colours like this:

  • yellow (ultra-light)
  • green (light)
  • red (medium)
  • blue (heavy)
  • purple (ultra-heavy)

In the same way that we generally don’t use the same weight of dumbbell for every exercise, you will likely change up the colour band you use depending on the exercise. For instance, since your bicep is a smaller and weaker muscle group, so you may use the green band for bicep curls. But for the more powerful leg muscles involved in squats, you’ll need the blue one.

Different muscles have different strengths, which is why I suggest buying an entire set of bands rather than just one or two.

How to use resistance bands

Like I said, with some ingenuity and creativity, you can do almost any exercise you would normally do with a weight using a band. There are also endless websites that will show you workouts that you can do with your bands. Including my own coaching website brockarmstrong.com!

In this video, I demonstrate a quick but effective upper body workout that you can do with any suitable gauge of an elastic resistance band.

The movements involved are:

  1. Bicep Curl
  2. Tricep Kickback
  3. Lateral Raise
  4. Front Raise
  5. Standing Row

In the video, I do two sets of five reps of each movement, but you can choose the number of reps and sets that match the resistance gauge of your elastic bands and (of course) your current fitness level. Just make sure you get close to failure while still being able to maintain good form by the end of each set.

In this video I demonstrate these resistance band Lower body exercises:

  • Deadlifts
  • Lateral Steps
  • Hip Bridges
  • Standing Kickbacks
  • Lying Leg Extensions
  • Monster Walks
  • Reverse Lunge
  • Kneeling kickback

In this video, I demonstrate some easy and quick ways to use resistance bands to strengthen your ankles (and shins and feet). This is what I would call a pre-hab workout because it’s designed to prepare your body for things like jumping and running. 

This video demonstrates a 4 movement upper-body workout that you can do with an elastic resistance band, any time and anywhere.

After a quick warm-up rotation, do a few reps of these 4 exercises:

  • Lateral Pull-downs
  • Lateral Raises
  • Band Pull-aparts
  • Band chest-press

I only do one set of each movement in the video but I suggest you do two of three rounds of the entire circuit, depending on your fitness level and your time available.

But the exercises don’t end there! The good people over at rubberbanditz.com have a library of exercises you can do with resistance bands and ACE Fit has a database of exercises you can do with your bands as well. So if you need some more inspiration, these are great places to go.

A word of warning: Because resistance bands leave you in total control over how you move and use the band, you need to remain focused on your form for each and every exercise.

By including and using resistance bands in your fitness program you can greatly improve your strength and muscle definition without spending a ton of money or filling your house with bulky expensive gear.

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