To experience success in anything in life, you must first define what it is you want to accomplish, and clarify your primary objective in attaining it. From there, you gather information on what needs to be done to undertake this mission in the most effective way possible, with the understanding that it must involve a protocol that is practical, efficient, and sustainable for you.
To digress, certainly there are singular things in life you may just want achieve-and-leave, or to briefly experience, like the goal of climbing Kilimanjaro or a trip around the world. However, these transient ambitions are different than life-enhancing goals in life, and not what I’m speaking of. The type of aspirations I’m referring to involves making prolonged changes in your life.
One of the most common goals for men and women alike is to improve their bodies, via “losing fat”, “building muscle”, or simply “getting in shape”. The key word to insert here is sustainable goals. Very few individuals want improvement in the appearance and function of their body to be but a momentary experience. When someone wants to become leaner, healthier, or “get jacked”, there’s little yearning to quickly forfeit that achieved acquisition upon just getting a taste of it.
All of this sets the stage for the most regularly underrated, commonly misunderstood, and repeatedly discounted training tool there is: The often-belittled resistance band. The value of resistance bands as a standalone form of external loading has nearly as much resistance as they can effectively provide. Bands’ harshest critics in the fitness profession often condemn them as inferior forms of resistance for real workouts. These individuals focus entirely on what bands are not best at and go on often emotionally-charged rants of their ineptitude compared to the iron. Ironically, the majority of these anti-band advocates are those who’ve never trained with them long enough, and certainly not exclusively, to make an accurate assessment.
As with any training tool, certain individuals may never need, or choose, to train with resistance bands and still develop amazing physiques. Thus, this article is not about creating “band converts” but to open the door for more efficient, practical training options. There’s great benefit in breaking free of the limited mindset of traditional training applications. In a universal perspective, bands are not necessarily better than weights any more than are weights better than bands. Bands may not be the best tool for you but they certainly can be for others of the serious fitness population.
Resistance band training is an enigmatic topic in the hardcore fitness world. Most everyone is familiar with bands, has used them, and yet seldom does someone truly know how to train with them in a productive fashion. Resistance bands are the proverbial red-headed step child, or the black sheep, of resistance exercise. Or at best, an alternative tool for traveling when real equipment isn’t available.
The evidence of free-weights efficacy in building muscle and increasing strength is well known, however, those implements are not without disadvantages, and are certainly not the only constructive path to take for productive workouts. It’s taken being locked out of commercial gyms via a global pandemic for the masses to take at least a sober consideration of whether quality resistance bands can be a valid source of resistance for building muscle.
Contrary to what many assume otherwise, training for muscle development has a significant mental component. What you internally believe is instrumental in what is produced externally. Many will admit that they just don’t like bands, or they simply don’t believe that they can get results with only bands, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In addition, it’s often the ego’s perspective of “Bands vs Weights” that leads a majority of skeptics to seek confirmation bias to validate their doubt.
Not only is grabbing a band not as satisfyingly hardcore as the feel of a bar’s knurling, the thought of working out with rubber bands conjures up images of physical therapy, geriatric genres, or “group toning classes”. In truth, resistance bands are the easiest tool to use, yet the most demanding to train with in a way that produces impressive muscle-building results. A renewed mindset regarding training for muscular development is required to initiate this process.
Just a Tool, and a Valid One
It’s beneficial to understand that for any fitness objective outside of competitive barbell sports such as Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting, or even competitions such as Crossfit, the tool you use to provide added resistance is irrelevant as along as the primary objective is accomplished. In the case of building muscle, intramuscular tension is the language muscles speak. Success is in being competent in using the form of resistance you’re working with.
With free weights, it’s pretty straightforward in how to use the barbell or dumbbell. You’re working against gravity, so just lift it, lower it, repeat. The weight itself provides a training effect of some degree. Now, obviously there are technical aspects involved here to get the most out of that lifting, but for the sake of this article we are purely comparing the substance of resistance bands to free-weights. And, although pulley machines have their unique benefits, they still rely on gravity for the weight stack to travel up and down so are included in the same category as dumbbells and barbells for this article.
By contrast, training with resistance bands is all about the degree of intramuscular tension generated and sustained. Not only is it impractical to quantify the exact “poundage” of a particular resistance band in a given exercise, there’s no need to when you learn to dial-in to the degree of intramuscular tension experienced from the beginning to end of a repetition’s range-of-motion. Those who attempt to use bands “like weights” become discouraged very quickly, typically give up after a few workouts, and become another “statistic” for the ‘bands don’t work’ narrative.
Having Accurate Perspective
“Yeah, but you didn’t get that body from only bands” is commonly shouted at those with impressive physiques who’ve chosen a bands-only approach to training. The reality is, few who now use predominantly, if not solely, bands, and has trained seriously for a couple decades, have used only bands. This is not necessarily due to bands’ inferiority but the fact that other forms of resistance were available, more familiar, and practical.
Some of these hardcore individuals have gotten to a point where bands are not only the “safest” option for them but the most effective even if joint and spine health was not a priority. We can never unequivocally know that they could’ve gotten the same results with bands-only, but the fact they are sustaining their physique at a high level gives enough validity to the possibility. For lack of adequate training stimulus would lead to loss of muscle.
Having trained with resistance bands, along with most every other form of resistance, for over 40 years, and also trained clients from most every genre including professional athletes and competitive bodybuilders since 1983, I’ve been one of resistance bands’ toughest critics over the years. I’m well aware of their “cons” to go with their “pros”. However, the majority of those issues are due to lack of understanding the innate properties of resistance bands and then trying to use them like you would free weights or machines. This subsequently leads to drawing conclusions based on incomplete, if not incompetent, comparison.
The overwhelming majority of those who workout using only resistance bands is not truly representative of their effectiveness at building muscle. Many of these individuals are drawn to bands for their undaunting appearance and consequently use bands in an ineffectual way by not understanding, or wanting to know, how to actually train with them in a muscle-building manner.
As well, the majority of these people would get no better result from using barbells and dumbbells. This is one reason that many who are drawn to bands are those who simply don’t have the desire to develop their physique in an extraordinary fashion. Bands are non-intimidating compared to “the iron” and that is more attractive to general population rather than serious athletes, bodybuilders, or trainees.
The point is, those whose only purpose is to “get in a good workout”, it doesn’t matter what equipment they use, it will give them the result that is in alignment with their primary objective. Training with bands in a way that stimulates muscle growth is far from a casual pastime as it can be the most challenging way to accomplish that goal.
Take Command of What You Control
You may not be in control of exactly how your body responds to resistance training in regards to “how big” you can get. However, you are in full command of your intent with the training you engage in. The level of intramuscular tension, and your training consistency is totally in your control when the goal is to stimulate muscle growth to the degree your genetics are preset for.
As previously alluded to, there is distinctive mindset when training with bands to build muscle, a matured mentality regarding mind-muscle coordination. Instead of the iron-inspired “going-to-battle” and just “move heavy sh!t” approach, it’s about using the resistance to create precise levels of intramuscular tension in a biomechanically-sound way.
To a significant extent, when training with weights, you can just move the weight in a particular exercise from Points A to B and there will be an immediate, not necessarily optimal, training effect. In essence, the weight is the cart leading the horse. With band training, you are in command of the rep-by-rep process by embracing the resistance rather than surviving it. Again, this is not less intense, just a change of perspective. You can focus on but one thing at a time, either “moving the weight” or “working the muscle”. When someone takes a band and just goes through the motions, there’s no arguing that it’s inferior to doing that with a dumbbell. With bands, you must dial-in the mind-muscle connection to get the desired training effect. And, this is where choosing the right band for you in each exercise in imperative. Too small of a band is ineffective as is selecting one of too much absolute tension, and subsequently insufficient tensile capacity.
Contrasting Data/ Define The Differences
There is a glaring problem with most every study you can find comparing resistance bands to free-weights. The number one inadequacy pointed out with bands is that there’s less resistance at the beginning of the rep and more at the end of its range of motion (ROM). Thus, experts saying there’s not sufficient tension at the beginning of an exercise use that to negate the “variable resistance” benefits that most every band company uses to promote their product.
Yet these same experts refuse to acknowledge the disadvantages of free weights, and how there’s a point in a barbell or dumbbell’s ROM that provides minimal to no tension to targeted muscles. When the operating lever of a muscle is at or near parallel to gravity, there zero-to-minimal loading on those targeted muscles. This is not an opinion but a matter of physics.
For example, let’s take a Banded Chest Press, start the rep with adequate tension, and then progress through the ROM where there’s more tension at the end of the ROM. This can be a highly effective exercise for the chest no matter what other equipment you compare it to. Yet most experts will discount this exercise purely due to preconception about bands.
And, there’s at least some vagueness in regards to optimal strength curves relative to a particular tool’s resistance curve. As example, a common practice is to add bands to a barbell to emphasize “peak contraction” or to optimize end-phase loading (aka “Accommodating Resistance”) yet will then say that early-phase loading is the most important part of an exercise’s ROM rather than that peak contraction. Again, that’s some obvious ambiguity.
Band Training Bottom Line
All said, even if free-weights were deemed marginally “better than” bands in a narrow comparison, the fact that bands have advantages in practicality, efficiency, and sustainability gives them the broad lead in building and maintaining lean muscle tissue. Considering that training frequency is one of the primary components in muscle hypertrophy success, a less-than-perfect training session is more productive than those you miss due to logistics, scheduling, or physical issues so common with being dependent on free-weights.
No matter if considering an all-band program or choosing to integrate bands along with free-weights, it’s beneficial to have them in your muscle-building toolbox.
In upcoming articles, the top exercises for each bodypart, how to progress and regress each exercise, how to choose the best bands for you, productive training programming, and applications for the total body with just resistance bands will be presented to demonstrate how to put this information into constructive action.
Vince McConnell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach with over 35 years experience training high school, collegiate, and professional athletes as well as general population to achieve their personal performance goals and physique objectives. Vince trains clients at his McConnell Athletics facility in Fairhope, Alabama and also offers online personal training and program design.