In our constant quest to shape muscle, build strength, bust through plateaus and make progress, no training technique or tool should be off limits.
However, we seldom deviate from our tried and trusted training approach in the gym, despite the immense potential that lies in combining more modern exercise methodologies.
Take resistance bands as an example. They are traditionally used in sports rehabilitation centres and physiotherapists for injury rehab, yet seldom do you find them in the hands of serious gym-goers, despite their ability to add resistance and a new training dynamic to your training.
Progressive resistance overload works well when you aim to build muscle and strength, but you have to employ a variety of techniques to provide a different stimulus to avoid stagnation because our response to the same exercise and training loads decreases over time.
One way to reignite our gains is to incorporate resistance bands into exercises that have an ascending strength curve.
An ascending strength curve feels easier as a lifter nears full extension, commonly known in powerlifting circles as the lockout. A squat is a good example – your muscles don’t work as hard at the top of the movement.
Resistance bands (those big, thick rubber ones, not the thin elastic variety or the tubes with handles) work best in movements with an ascending strength curve by providing consistent resistance through a wide range of motion.
Resistance bands impose a different stimulus by adding what scientists call LVRT, or linear variable resistance training.
LVRT is progressively increasing the resistance with the range of motion. This translates into more muscle because, as the range of motion lengthens and the resistance increases, the amount of muscle fibres you use in the exercising muscle also increase, resulting in greater adaptations in muscle strength.
When you use bands you also use more force to stop the weight at the bottom of a repetition and more muscle fibres are then also called into play.
Bands can open up a new world of gains to you. When you train with regular loads you lift objects of constant mass, which does not apply maximal stimulation through the whole range of motion.
When you use bands with free weights you overload the whole range of motion because the bands increase resistance as they stretch (this takes place in the finishing portion of the exercise) while the free weights place the greatest overload in the initial stage of the lift.
Bands force you to use maximum contractile tension through an entire rep and have been used successfully by powerlifters for decades to break through plateaus and accelerate progress.
Bands increase the intensity of the exercise by allowing maximum loading at every point in the range of motion, allowing for greater applicable tension over time because you have more strength and greater leverage at certain joints, more so than others.
The more the band is pulled (such at the top of the range of motion of a particular exercise), the greater the resistance.
When you incorporate bands, you can make the hardest part of an exercise easier and the easiest part a little harder. Attach bands to a barbell and perform a squat and you will feel the bar get heavier as you press it up.
To handle the increased load, you need to press the bar explosively, which translates to greater strength.
Using bands also increases the period of bar acceleration compared to using an equivalent amount of resistance from free weights alone.
Research also shows that adding bands to classic moves such as the squat delivers 2-3 times the gains in voluntary strength compared to using free weights alone.
Setting up bands
You can loop the bands either around dumbbells, barbells or machine handles. Make sure you do so properly and evenly without one side having more tension than the other. Set the bands up so that when you take the barbell off the rack they don’t pull you forward or back or make the movement awkward.
There are three band options you can set up for exercises:
- Position 1 – Bar and object: Loop one end of the band around the bar and the other end on a nearby object or on the floor. Examples of this set up include the squat and bench press.
- Position 2 – Around the back: Run the band behind your back and grab one end of the band with each arm. This position is perfect for exercises where you are lying down, such as dumbbell flyes, lying tricep extensions or bench presses. You can also use it for doing push-ups.
- Position 3 – Stumping: Grab one end of the band with each hand with the middle portion lying on the floor while you stand on it. This is great for exercises where you stand, such as upright rows, barbell curls or lateral raises.
- Squats – loop two bands around the barbell and anchor them to the bottom of the power rack. When you squat the resistance from the bands decreases on the way down and increases on the way up, which will require more force to finish the lift.
- Deadlifts – run a single band under your feet or wrap two bands onto the attachment on the platform or hooks in front of you. In the bottom part where you are at your weakest in the deadlift bands start to pull tight. As you lift the weight up the leverage improves, with the bands pulling tighter to effectively increase the force you require to complete the lift.
- Dumbbell flyes – loop a band around your back and over your elbows and around the dumbbell handles. With bands you get continuous tension and a stretch overload from the dumbbells on this specific exercise.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.