In many circumstances resistance bands underperform when it comes to building back strength and size. But, used strategically they can be a useful way to increase difficulty, change the resistance profile of an exercise, or provide resistance coming from another direction.
When NOT to use resistance bands
Resistance bands make exercises look just that bit fancier. That makes them more exciting. This also makes them more shareable on social media. It’s sad to say but you know it to be true.
Unfortunately, the popularity of resistance bands means there’s an awful lot of exercises that catch-on and sell your strength and size gains short. There are many examples of this not just with back exercises, but let’s stick to the theme…
I’ve spoken before about why you shouldn’t rely solely on band-assisted pull-ups. This is the same for all pulling variations, as well as common rotator cuff exercises focusing on external rotation.
As a resistance band is stretched then it becomes stronger. In the case of a pull-up as the band hangs and stretches it’ll assist you the most at the bottom and least at the top. In the case of performing a bent-over row with a resistance band it’s offering little resistance at the start, then more resistance as you pull in closer to your body.
Most pulling and back-focused exercises have a resistance profile that looks like this:
- Start of the pull (hands furthest from body) you’re going to be strongest.
- Middle of the pull you’re going to be weakest.
- Finish of the pull (hands closest to body) you’re going to be a little stronger again.
Now imagine throwing a resistance band in to the mix. You’d have the least resistance where you’re strongest, more where you’re weakest, and then more where you’re stronger again. Training like this infrequently isn’t a big deal. But training like this often, especially if you’re relying on heavier resistance bands as your go-to isn’t such a good idea.
Relying on resistance bands for your back training will result in suboptimal inter- and intramuscular coordination patterns, low levels of muscle activation at certain joint lengths, and as a result put a cap on your size and strength gains. If you have the option then you shouldn’t be solely relying on resistance bands for your back workouts.
When and how to use them effectively
Given the choice, in most circumstances I’m not a fan of using bands for pull-ups and rows. That being said in some situations they can be used as a smart strategy to increase difficulty, intentionally change the resistance profile of an exercise, or add resistance from another direction.
You can see resistance bands a little like resistance cables. They’re versatile, you can position them up anywhere to change up your angles, and they’re really cheap to buy (cheaper than a good cable system anyway!). But, unlike cables the strength of the band increases as you pull. With a cable it remains constant.
At the end of the day though, a resistance band is still a form of resistance. They can assist or resist bodyweight exercises, be added to dumbbells, barbells or kettlebells to increase the challenge, or just used on their own when Traveling or stuck at home. If you’re relying on them completely right now, just remember that it won’t be forever.
Here’s a useful way to add extra resistance on to a kettlebell row. Notice here I’ve used two smaller resistance bands so I can make this in to a drop-set.
Kettlebell and band combined row
I mentioned previously how the resistance profile of a band is not ideal for loading certain portions of a row or pull-up. But what if you wanted to intentionally make a certain portion of an exercise easier of harder? If you only cared about loading a row most where you can get the biggest squeeze, then a band would be useful.
If you want to emphasize really squeezing your shoulder blades together and loading your middle traps in their shortened position then a band will help augment that squeeze. You wouldn’t even care if you were under-loading the rest of the row since that’s not your aim anyway.
Emphasizing the peak of the squeeze with a resistance band while performing back exercises can be useful to build muscle awareness (“activation” exercises), as a finisher-type exercise to get your back to fatigue first in that position, or even to develop postural awareness. This chest supported isometric row is a good example.
Emphasizing the squeeze using band rows
Resistance bands can be used to manipulate force vectors – You can add extra resistance from another direction. By using a band to manipulate the direction of resistance you can not only make an exercise more difficult, but change the muscles you’re trying to emphasize too.
A good example of the above would be the single-arm row variation you’ll see below. While the direction of the load from the dumbbell is straight upwards (due to gravity acting on the weight of the dumbbell), having additional band resistance from more of a forwards direction further challenges the muscles responsible for pulling in the opposite direction. In this case your lats.
Adding another direction of resistance using a band
Here’s another below. I’ve not seen this elsewhere but I’ve been toying about with it recently and really like it. Principles are essentially the same as the above, but here I feel it works best using an underhand grip. I call it the Banded 2 on 1 Kettlebell row.
Three out of five exercises I’m sharing in this article are useful simply because the band adds an extra pull from a different direction. The final one uses a mini band but has much the same purpose. I don’t know who I first saw do these but they’ve been around for sometime.
Using a mini band to change loading and muscle emphasis
By adding a light mini band around your wrists when you row, the band is pulling your shoulders in to more horizontal adduction and internal rotation as you row. The result would be more activation of those muscles responsible for shoulder abduction and external rotation.
That’s not to say using a mini band is better than performing the same row without a mini band, but going heavier with it. But, a mini band does offer a different type of loading which can be especially useful for increasing shoulder stability and health. As the saying goes “different horses for different courses”. If you’re limited on dumbbell or kettlebell weight, bands are a good way to make your rows just that bit harder, too.
Resistance bands are a highly useful tool in the right hands. Before you start adding them to everything, consider what you’re trying to achieve by doing so. This is especially true for back exercises. The above are some useful options you can take for a spin.
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