Resistance bands are versatile fitness tools that are highly effective for building strength, mobility, and stability. They are portable, affordable, and come in a wide range of resistances to keep you challenged and progressing toward your fitness goals.
Working out with resistance bands can be just as effective as using free weights as long as you intentionally challenge yourself. For those with grip or movement limitations, bands can provide a lightweight alternative for resistance training.
There are several ranges of resistance you can use. It is a good idea to have a collection of bands for different exercises that will require more or less resistance, plus the ability to increase resistance as you get stronger. Bands are unique from dumbbells when it comes to resistance, so keep in mind that you will likely have to test a few resistance levels before you find the best fit.
Resistance-band exercises have been all over social media during the pandemic. In case you aren’t familiar with them, resistance bands are similar to an elastic band, usually made from a synthetic fibre like latex or rubber. You can loop them around your legs or arms, for example, which helps create more tension while you work out. This tension makes it more difficult to do movements, and engages more muscles, which some claim will help you build strength and muscle.
Many of us know that strength training is important. Not only can it help us build strength, it can slow muscle deterioration as we get older, while increasing muscle mass can also increase metabolism. While you can build some strength through bodyweight-only exercises like squats or lunges, often the key to building a greater amount of strength is by creating resistance.
Types of Resistance Bands
Rubberized resistance bands come in many forms.
- Traditional bands are long cylindrical tubes with plastic handles attached to the ends. They differ in thickness, which determines how difficult the band will be to use. These bands are great for basic strength exercises.
- Looped bands are similar to traditional bands, but without handles; you can loop them around your ankles or wrists, or hold the band in the center.
- Braided tubes are four strands of tube braided together. Like traditional bands, they come in a variety of resistance levels. The braid provides added durability, so these tubes hold up in the most rigorous training applications (like outdoor environments).
- Flat bands are great for physical therapy, mind-body exercise, and seniors.
- The Superband, popular with CrossFit fans and other athletes, is great for pull-up assistance and partner exercises.
Bands are color-coded, but the colors can vary by brand. For example, one popular brand makes yellow bands with the least resistance for beginners or seniors, green is light resistance, red is medium, blue is heavy, and purple is ultra-heavy. Always test different band colors before choosing the best band for you.
How to Choose a Resistance Level
Which one is right for you? The first thing to keep in mind is that you can’t compare a resistance band with a dumbbell. A certain color band is not equal to a certain size dumbbell. Physics dictates otherwise.
When lifting weights, gravity plays a big part. You get more resistance when lifting against gravity, but then gravity makes lowering the weight easier. However, when using tubing, you do not fight gravity. Instead, the band presents you with resistance in both directions. The ability to move freely when using tubing allows you to mimic and recreate everyday movements.
To determine the right color band to use: You should reach moderate to maximum muscle fatigue between 20 and 30 repetitions. If your chosen band is too easy, you’ll know. If it’s too hard, you won’t be able to complete the exercise repetitions.
To work on strength, do fewer repetitions at a higher resistance. For endurance, do more repetitions against less resistance. Keep in mind that one band might not cut it for working out your entire body. Different muscles have different strengths, so you might want to buy two different resistance levels right off the bat.
How do resistance bands work?
To build strength and muscle, you need to apply resistance to your muscles. You can do this either with bodyweight exercises such as squats and push-ups, by using a band, or by adding additional weights like kettlebells, dumbbells, medicine balls or a barbell.
With a resistance band, the tension of the band when you stretch it is what challenges your muscles. The thicker the band or the more you stretch it, the more tension and force required from your muscles to lengthen the band.
To keep your muscles challenged during each set, make sure you don’t let the band go completely slack. Keeping some tension in it the whole time will make each exercise and your whole workout more effective.
You can use bands wrapped just above your knees for banded exercises like crab walks, glute kickbacks or glute bridges, or for upper body moves like seated rows and lateral plank walks. Bands can even be added to barbell exercises to make them even more difficult, such as deadlifts, bench press and squats. Depending on what exercise you do, you may need a different sized band.
Are resistance bands effective for building strength and muscle?
While it depends on your fitness level and goals, resistance bands can be a great way to assist with building strength and muscle.
Resistance and tension on your muscles is a key part and working out with a band can tick that box.
A 2019 systematic review looked at the effects of training with elastic resistance compared to conventional weight resistance such as machines and dumbbells, and the results suggest that yes, bands can provide similar strength gains.
Research from 2017 published in The European Journal of Physiotherapy also explored the effectiveness of elastic resistance bands to conventional resistance training equipment. They concluded that bands can be an effective training tool for many exercises such as rows, lat pulldowns and deadlifts, but not always for a squat, where they observed less muscle activation.
To make improvements in your strength and muscle mass, the key ingredients are tension, consistency and progressive overload (meaning to increase the volume, intensity, frequency, or density), so it’s important to stick to it and keep challenging yourself. This could mean using a thicker band to add more tension, or to do a higher number of reps or sets to fatigue your muscles more.
By the end of each set, your muscles should definitely be feeling tired, so if you’re finding an exercise too easy with a band, try using a thicker band if you want to see strength improvements, or consider using traditional weights instead to turn up the difficulty! Your muscles might also feel a bit shaky after using a band, as they recruit those smaller stabiliser muscles around your large muscles. Enjoy that burn!
If you’re looking for a way to track your improvements in strength, conventional weight training may be a better option, as you can easily measure the weight of your lifts and see progress.
On the flip side, bands can be a great way to help you master an unassisted pull-up, by REDUCING the amount of strength needed to pull your body up. As you build strength over time, you’ll need less assistance and can switch to a thinner band, until eventually, you don’t need a band at all!
Resistance Bands for Therapeutic Use
Resistance bands are widely used for therapeutic use, including building flexibility and mobility and functional strength for injury prevention or rehabilitation.
Some physical therapists may assign specific resistance band exercises for various injuries or complaints, but you can also use resistance bands for injury prevention, exercise warm-ups, and increasing joint mobility, stability, and flexibility. Further research shows that using a resistance band is just as effective as other methods, such as the Swiss ball for core strengthening, balance, and stability.
For the elderly, resistance bands can help reduce injuries and falls. Since bands can provide load from every direction, and the load is easily adjusted for intensity, elderly exercises can use them effectively without needing to lift heavy weights.
Resistance Bands Training Tips
To make the most of your resistance bands, there are some tips, tricks, and safety precautions to be aware of.
- Check for cracks and tears: Injuries can occur if your resistance band breaks and snaps while working out. To avoid this, check for cracks and tears before use.
- Remove the slack: For the best results, stand far enough back or pull the bands tight enough in your hands to remove the slack.
- Double up: If you find you aren’t challenged while using your resistance bands, consider doubling up with a second band.
- Choose the correct resistance: Choose a resistance level that challenges you if you are working on building strength. You should feel close to the point that you cannot perform any more repetitions in the final few repetitions of your exercise. Increase the resistance when you get stronger by choosing a more challenging band. If you do not have a higher resistance level band, consider adding more repetitions to your sets. These tactics will help you to keep progressing.
- Go slowly: Do not let the bands pull you back sharply after pulling against the resistance. Be sure to control the band as you return to the starting position to avoid poor form and injuries.
- Use a solid anchor point: If you are anchoring your bands to a fixed point for your workout, make sure it is solid and stable. If you are using a door, make sure it opens away from you, so you don’t accidentally pull it open.
Resistance bands are an effective, portable, and affordable tool for building strength, mobility, and stability. They are also often used for rehabilitation and preventative work. You can be assured that as long as you use them properly, resistance bands will challenge you and help you progress towards your health and fitness goals. Be sure to follow all the safety measures by checking your bands for defects and anchoring them properly.
- Bergquist R, Iversen VM, Mork PJ, Fimland MS. Muscle activity in upper-body single-joint resistance exercises with elastic resistance bands vs. free weights.J Hum Kinet. 2018;61:5-13. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0137
- Lopes JSS, Machado AF, Micheletti JK, de Almeida AC, Cavina AP, Pastre CM. Effects of training with elastic resistance versus conventional resistance on muscular strength: A systematic review and meta-analysis. SAGE Open Med. 2019;7:2050312119831116. doi:10.1177/2050312119831116.
- Iversen VM, Mork PJ, Vasseljen O, Bergquist R, Fimland MS. Multiple-joint exercises using elastic resistance bands vs. conventional resistance-training equipment: A cross-over study. European Journal of Sport Science. 2017;17(8):973-982. doi:10.1080/17461391.2017.1337229.
- Yeun YR. Effectiveness of resistance exercise using elastic bands on flexibility and balance among the elderly people living in the community: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017;29(9):1695-1699. doi:10.1589/jpts.29.1695.
- Aksen-Cengizhan P, Onay D, Sever O, Doğan AA. A comparison between core exercises with Theraband and Swiss Ball in terms of core stabilization and balance performance. Isokinetics and Exercise Science. 2018;26(3):183-191. doi:10.3233/ies-173212.
- Kwak CJ, Kim YL, Lee SM. Effects of elastic-band resistance exercise on balance, mobility and gait function, flexibility and fall efficacy in elderly people. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(11):3189-3196. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.3189.
- Iversen VM, Mork PJ, Vasseljen O, Bergquist R, Fimland MS. Multiple-joint exercises using elastic resistance bands vs. conventional resistance-training equipment: A cross-over study. Eur J Sport Sci. 2017;17(8):973-982. doi:10.1080/17461391.2017.1337229
- Joy JM, Lowery RP, Oliveira de Souza E, Wilson JM. Elastic bands as a component of periodized resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2016;30(8):2100-2106. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182986bef
- Bergquist R, Iversen VM, Mork PJ, Fimland MS. Muscle activity in upper-body single-joint resistance exercises with elastic resistance bands vs. free weights. J Hum Kinet. 2018;61:5-13. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0137