Can you build muscle with resistance bands? How do they compare with free weights like barbells and dumbbells? Here’s everything you need to know.
Do resistance bands work for building muscle? Yes. Resistance is resistance, whether it comes from your own body weight, free weights or resistance bands.
Are resistance bands better than dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells for building muscle? No they’re not.
All things considered, I think you’ll see better results with free weights than you will with bands.
However, while resistance bands aren’t necessarily better than free weights, they can still do a decent job of stimulating muscle growth if you know what you’re doing.
Different Types of Resistance Bands
Bands come in various sizes, thicknesses and colors, providing different resistance levels. They typically fall into one of three categories
- Flat Loop Bands
- Tube Bands with Handles
- Therapy Bands
The thicker the band, the greater the training intensity. And by intensity, I’m referring to the amount of resistance provided by the band, rather than intensity of effort.
The Benefits of Resistance Bands
Resistance bands have a lot of things going for them. They’re relatively cheap, light, compact and portable.
The fact resistance bands don’t require a lot of space makes them ideal if there’s no room in your house for a lot of gym equipment, or you travel a lot and don’t always have access to a decent gym.
Training in a home gym with resistance bands is also very convenient. There’s no need to drive to the gym in the middle of rush hour, park, sign in, get changed, do your workout routine, have a shower, get changed again, then drive home.
You just whip out the resistance bands and start training. They can be used for a lot of exercises normally done with free weights, such as the biceps curls, lateral raises, tricep extensions and so on.
Even if you only have 10 or 15 minutes to spare, you can do a few exercises for this or that muscle group.
Then, later in the day, when you get another 10 or 15 minutes to spare, you can focus on another muscle group.
For many people, this “little and often” approach to strength training is more convenient and practical, which means the workouts are far more likely to get done.
Barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells rely on gravity to provide resistance in a vertical plane. If you want to train your chest with free weights, for example, you have to lie down on a bench or the floor. You press the weight up against gravity, then resist the forces of gravity on the way down.
Elastic bands, on the other hand, provide resistance in both vertical and horizontal planes, which puts more exercises on the menu.
Bands can also be an effective way to work around injuries.
If you find that certain free weight exercises in your training routine cause your joints to flare up, doing the same exercise with a resistance band may actually feel better, allowing you to work around any dings or dents that have built up over the years.
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Resistance bands provide variable resistance, in the sense that the tension is greatest when the band is stretched.
This can be an advantage when it comes to working around joint pain, as the resistance may well ease off at the point where a particular exercise starts to hurt.
You might not be able to do certain exercises with free weights without your joints giving you grief. But when you try the same exercise with a resistance band, it feels fine.
If your joints tend to flare up during a particular lift, it’s worth experimenting with resistance bands to see if they feel better than their free weight counterparts.
Resistance bands can also be used to make an exercise easier. A beginner trying to do their first set of pull-ups or chin-ups, for example, can loop a band around a pull-up bar, and put their knees or feet in the other end of the band.
The band takes on more of the load near the bottom of the exercise when your arms are straight. That’s typically the part of the exercise most beginners struggle with.
Strength Training with Resistance Bands
One of the other benefits of resistance bands, which you don’t get with free weights, is something known as accommodating resistance, which is another form of variable resistance training.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Let’s take the bench press as an example.
You start off with your arms straight, lower the barbell to your chest, then press it back to the starting position.
The amount of weight you’re lifting doesn’t change. By that, I mean the load is the same at the bottom of the movement, when the bar is near your chest, as it is at the top, when your arms are straight.
But even though the load is the same, the exercise is harder at the bottom than it is at the top. As a result, your muscles aren’t getting the same level of stimulation throughout the whole of the exercise.
With a resistance band, the whole thing is reversed. That is, the bands provide more resistance near the top of the movement, when they’re stretched, than they do at the bottom.
By combining the two, resistance bands and free weights, you challenge your muscles across the entire range of motion.
In the case of the bench press, you hook a band around both ends of a barbell. As the band stretches, you get more resistance towards the end of the movement.
That’s why some strength athletes, such as powerlifters, will often combine free weights, resistance bands and/or chains during the deadlift, bench press and squat. You can see how it’s done in the video below.
The addition of bands or chains makes the end of the lift a bit harder, which has been shown, in some studies at least, to accelerate strength gains in both the bench press and squat .
Do Resistance Bands Work for Building Muscle?
Resistance bands do build muscle. A muscle grows when the fibers inside that muscle are exposed to a certain level of tension, irrespective of where that tension comes from.
Resistance is resistance, whether it comes from your own bodyweight, free weights or an elastic band.
However, one of the limitations of bands is that the resistance is at its lowest when you start the exercise. Then, as you stretch the band, it gets harder to move, which makes the lift more difficult.
Bands match the natural strength curve of most exercises, in the sense that you’re usually weaker at the bottom of an exercise than you are at the top.
While this is often touted as a benefit of resistance bands, it’s actually a limitation as far as muscle growth is concerned.
The Downside to Resistance Band Exercises
One of the things that stimulates muscle growth is challenging your muscles at longer lengths. That is, you want your muscles under a high level of tension when they’re in a stretched position.
But that’s the opposite of what you get with most resistance band exercises.
Rather than constant tension, you get more tension at the end of a movement, when your muscles are in a shortened position, than you get at the start when they’re lengthened.
Various studies have been done to establish the importance of training at long muscle lengths when it comes to hypertrophy.
In one trial, a team of Japanese scientists compared seated and lying leg curls to see which one stimulated more growth in the hamstrings .
Seated leg curls differ from lying leg curls in that they cause some of the hamstring muscles (specifically the ones that cross the hip) to be put in a stretched position.
After 12 weeks of training, the seated leg curls stimulated significantly more muscle growth in the hamstring muscles that cross the hip, which were the ones trained at long muscle lengths.
Here’s how the researchers sum up their findings:
“Hamstrings muscle size can be more effectively increased by seated than prone leg curl training, suggesting that training at long muscle lengths promotes muscle hypertrophy.”
A similar study, this time using the leg extension, also shows a faster rate of growth when a muscle is trained at longer muscle lengths .
Partial reps performed in the bottom third of the movement, which challenge the muscles at long lengths, stimulated more growth than partial reps done in the top third of the movement.
Of course, there are ways to work around the problem.
How to Make Resistance Band Workouts More Effective
You can hold the resistance band in such a way that you shorten the distance between your hand and the anchor point of the band. This way, you get more tension in the band at the start of each rep. You can see some examples of how it’s done in the video below.
Depending on how much tension you want to work against, you can also double up the band, switch to a harder band, or combine multiple bands.
When there’s a lot of tension in the band at the start of each rep, chances are you won’t be able to complete a full rep. There’ll come a point where the resistance becomes so great that you can’t stretch the band any further.
However, there’s no reason why some of your sets can’t be done through a full range of motion, while others are done through a partial range of motion, where you focus on challenging your muscles at long muscle lengths.
You could even try some isometric work at long muscle lengths. In a review of 26 studies, isometric training at long muscle lengths produced greater muscular hypertrophy when compared to equal volumes of shorter muscle length training .
8 of the Best Resistance Band Exercises for Building Muscle
Here are 8 resistance band exercises that work both the lower and upper body, making for a very effective full-body workout.
Squat (Quads, Glutes)
Lying Leg Curl (Hamstrings)
Push-Ups (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)
Lateral Raise (Shoulders)
Lat Pulldown (Back, Biceps)
Seated Row (Back, Biceps)
Biceps Curl (Biceps)
Triceps Pressdown (Triceps)
Progressive Overload and Muscle Growth
The progressive overload principle refers to the idea that you need to constantly increase the demands you impose on your body in order to stimulate the muscle adaptations necessary for hypertrophy.
Within certain limits, your muscles will grow in direct proportion to the amount of work they’re required to do. And while there are many methods you can use to increase muscular work over time, these are the three to focus on.
- Increase training volume. Training volume refers to total number of hard sets you do for each muscle group over the course of the week. You can increase training volume by doing more sets per workout, or increasing your training frequency so that each muscle group is trained more often.
- Increase resistance. Using a thicker band is probably the most obvious way to increase resistance. However, you can also move the anchor point further away from your body, which takes some of the slack out of the band, making the band more difficult to stretch.
- Increase the number of reps. Another way to make sure you’re challenging your muscles is to more reps in each set. That is, if you did 4 sets of 10 reps in the previous training session, try to do 4 sets of 11 reps the next time.
Should You Use Resistance Bands or Free Weights?
All things considered, if I had to choose between training exclusively with free weights or resistance bands, I’d go with free weights.
However, you don’t have to choose one or the other, and there’s no good reason why you can’t use both.
For example, when COVID-19 hit and all the gyms were closed, I got myself some dumbbells and a set of resistance bands.
The resistance bands gave me a lot more exercises to choose from, which in turn meant I didn’t have to sit around watching my gains go down the drain.
However, given a choice between training in a home gym with bands, dumbbells and resistance bands versus a fully-equipped commercial gym, I’d take the gym every time.
Do resistance bands work? That depends on what you’re using them for.
If all you want is a bit more muscle here or there, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve that with resistance bands alone, or a combination of resistance bands and bodyweight exercises.
And if all you’re trying to do is hold on to the muscle you have right now, resistance bands are a viable option. Maintaining muscle mass takes a lot less work than gaining it in the first place.
However, if you’re a bodybuilder who’s on a mission to build muscle as fast as humanly possible, and you’re trying to reach the upper limits of your genetic potential for muscle mass, resistance bands alone won’t be enough.
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