I'm With the Band: Mastering Resistance Band Workouts

resistance band workout

Story at-a-glance -

  • Resistance bands are popular as they give you a full body workout without weights or resistance machines; you may use them at home, while traveling and even at work
  • Strength training is important as it improves metabolic rate, reduces risk of falls, helps maintain independence and reduces risk of depression and anxiety
  • Resistance bands are flexible and may be used during warmups, as strength training and to develop explosive power by increasing the number of small and large muscles activated without compressing your joints
  • While there are a number of different types of bands available, many workouts may be completed at home using a compact tubular band with handles, including working your shoulders, legs and core

By Dr. Mercola

If you go to the gym frequently or have visited a physical therapist, chances are you've seen resistance bands. Band work allows you to get a full body workout without using weights or resistance machines. They are especially useful if you are recovering from an injury. However, benefits go well beyond rehabilitation. With resistance bands you can achieve almost any type of strength training exercise — chest press, rowing, shoulder press, triceps extension and squats — are possible using a simple elastic band.

Resistance bands are inexpensive, easy to store and a perfect way to get a workout while traveling. Made of strong, thin rubber, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and different resistance strengths so you can increase difficulty as your strength improves. The bands are not new in the fitness and sports performance industry, but to achieve the benefits the tool is capable of you must start with a plan. According to John Rusin,1 who has developed training protocols to maximize performance and injury prevention:2

“When strategically sprinkled into programming, bands provide an exponential upside to build muscle, get strong and explosive and stay healthy. But if you don’t have a plan and purpose for your band based training, this tool can be brutally tough on your joints and tendons and may even lead to injuries.”

Bands Comprehensively Address Performance and Strength Training

Strength training is an important component to your overall fitness and health, as it improves your muscle and bone strength, which can help prevent falls and fractures. It also improves production of growth factors responsible for cellular growth, proliferation and differentiation.3 Some of these factors promote the survival of neurons, helping to explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain.4

Strength training promotes fat loss, improves insulin sensitivity, lowers your risk of metabolic syndrome and improves your cardiovascular fitness.5 These elements enhance quality of life and improve your ability to perform activities you do each day. This helps to maintain your independence as you age and may reduce symptoms of chronic conditions such as back pain, arthritis and depression.

These simple bands can comprehensively help you improve your performance, strength and fitness by addressing a broad range of motion and muscles, enabling you to improve your range of capabilities. Bands are useful to help you increase your flexibility, develop power and strength and isolate core muscles.6 Each of these factors help to improve your mobility, balance, agility and coordination.

Although simple and convenient, resistance bands offer your muscles a training stimulus different from fixed weights.7 They are effective since they increase resistance as the band stretches. This means you work against more resistance at the end of your range of motion where you're likely to have increasing strength, targeting your muscles differently and helping to build functional muscle movements.

When used correctly, resistance bands also help decelerate your movement at the end of your range of motion, which may help protect your joints from injury.8 This is vastly different from working with traditional dumbbells or barbells, which provide constant resistance throughout the entire range of motion. Using resistance bands encourages the velocity of movement to change, thus developing greater adaptation in your muscles.

Bands Engage More Than Muscle

Bands help improve functional strength without the potential for injury you may experience with free weights dependent on gravity.9 Resistance bands allow movement through four planes, increasing the number of muscles and neurons activated.

Since the vectors used during resistance band workouts are different, it helps prevent repetitive stress in the same path or pattern of movement in your joints and muscles. While this is important when you exercise frequently, it is critical for those with pre-existing joints problems, such as arthritis.

Resistance bands also allow you to be more creative with your fitness routine as they can accommodate both your schedule and your location. Even if you only have an extra 10 minutes during lunch, you can pull out your resistance bands for a quick upper or lower body workout. An almost endless selection of options can be tailored to meet your needs as almost every movement can be replicated with a band to increase tension on the muscle, improving strength and mobility.10

Resistance bands are often used by occupational therapist working with children who have sensory integration and motor planning difficulties.11 Children who have learning disorders, attention and behavioral issues or experience emotional and sensory overload often crave muscle work. Resistance bands are mobile and give the children a way to build neural connections, core-strengthening, sensory integration and motor planning. These tools have become a staple in occupational therapy programs for children with such needs.12

Bands Enhance Your Workout From Start to Finish

Regardless of what exercise you’re about to start, resistance bands are an excellent means of warming up your muscles. Using bands in a dynamic warmup on your large ball and socket joints — hips and shoulders — may do dual duty of warming up the muscles while making them work against light resistance.13

To warm up your hips, Rusin suggests doing side steps with a resistance band just above your knees or near your ankles. The bands should provide some resistance as you step from side to side with your hips slightly bent back and your knees slightly forward.

To warm up your shoulders,14 Rusin suggests using three motions for eight to 12 repetitions per movement. In the first, hold the bands in each hand in front of your body, slightly more than shoulder width apart, with the band stretched across the front of your legs. Lifting your hands up above your head and back behind you, reverse direction and bring your arms up and around in front again.

In the second, the band is anchored on a stable object approximately shoulder height. Standing back far enough for the band to stretch, pull it toward you with both hands at shoulder height and then release slowly with your arms going straightforward. In the final shoulder warm up, hold a band with both hands slightly greater than shoulder-width apart and your arms directly in front of you. Stretch both arms out to either side and slightly behind you, moving against the resistance of the band.

While these are warmup exercises for your hips and shoulders, they can also be done while taking a five to 10 minute break at work to increase circulation and movement during the day. Another popular way of using resistance bands is to build strength and power. The further the band is stretched, the greater the resistance generated against your muscles. For a demonstration, see the video below.

However, resistance bands also allow you to accelerate the return, or eccentric phase, while your body is returning to its original position. This can potentially increase stress on your joints and care should be taken to reduce your risk of injury. Rusin recommends rotating two to three weeks of banded lifts with two to three weeks off to maximize benefits and minimize risk.

Different Bands Allow Different Functions

Resistance bands come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and some have handles and loops on the end to make the movements easier. This gives you both variety in the type of exercise you can do and the ability to match resistance bands to your intended activity. As far as design, there are two different types of bands: flat and tube.15,16,17

Flat Bands

There are two types of flat bands. Therapy bands are typically used by physical and occupational therapists in rehabilitation exercises. These bands are wide, flat, open ended, about 4 feet in length and do not have handles so you must grip them with your hands.

Fit loop bands are very similar to therapy bands as they are flat and between 4 inches and 2 feet in length, but they are a continuous loop rather than open ended. This type of resistance band is best for lower body movements, such as the side step Rusin used in his dynamic warmups discussed above.

Tubed Bands

There are several different types of tubed bands, offering you several fitness options. Compact bands are tubular, approximately 4 feet long and usually have a handle attached to each end. Figure-eight bands are shaped like an “8” with a plastic tube in the middle and two hard handles on opposite ends.

Ring bands are a continuous tubular band with a 1 foot circumference and two soft handles integrated into the tube at opposite ends of the ring. Lateral resistance bands are a single strip of tubular elastic with two ankle Velcro cuffs at each end for lower body exercises, targeting the hips and thighs.

It is best to purchase several different levels of resistance bands to ensure you have the strength necessary for your fitness level and intensity. For example, a band used on your lower body will likely offer too much resistance for upper body work.

Consider Integrating These Movements Into Your Fitness Routine

In this video Jill Rodriguez demonstrates several exercises using a resistance band, and a variety of ways you may change the exercises to activate different muscles. Here is a sampling of exercises you can do at home using compact resistance bands.

Biceps circuit

Start in a seated position with the band under your feet and holding the handles, palms up. Keep your shoulders back and pull the handles toward your chest. You may vary the movement by pulsing the motion in the middle or holding the handles in place with your hands at your chest or in the middle. The bicep curl may also be done standing with the band under your feet, shoulders back and knees bent slightly.

Pull the band up to your chest and return to the starting position. The same isometric hold and pulse variation may be added while standing. Another variation begins while standing and bending slightly at the hip, draw your hand up to the opposite shoulder, crossing over your chest. As you advance, you may place both handles in one hand and do a one handed bicep curl.

Banded resisted pushup

Place the tubular band behind your shoulders and under your armpits. Get into a modified pushup position with knees bent and the bands under your hands. As you do the pushup you’ll feel the resistance from the bands. As you become stronger, do these as regular pushups.

Reverse fly

In the standing position, the band (not the handles) held in your hands with palms down, pull the band apart at shoulder height. If you need more resistance as you become stronger, loop the band around your hand so the area between your hands becomes shorter. You make this more challenging by pulsing the movement in the middle or holding it for about 10 seconds at the end of the extension.

Back extension

This is a postural exercise to work your core muscles. Place the band under your feet and grasp the handles with palms up, lifting the handles to your shoulders. Keep your shoulders back and back straight; lean forward, bracing your abdominals, and then sit up. You’ll feel the resistance in your back and core.

Shoulder circuit

Stand with the bands under your feet. Hold the handles palm down with shoulders back, knees slightly bent and elbows straight. Raise your hands to shoulder height straight in front of you and lower slowly. In the overhead press, begin in the same position with your hands to your side. Raise your hands over your head and straight up.

One-armed shoulder circuit

Start with the band anchored to a stable object at shoulder height. With your right hand holding the handle, palm down and your body half an arm’s length to the left of the anchor point of the band, pull the handle toward you until your elbow is bent to 90 degrees. Next rotate your arm in this “L” position so your hand raises up and the lowers to the original position in front of you, keeping your arm to the side of your body. This is one rep.

Next, keep the handle in your right hand, move your right leg back and pull the handle toward your shoulder for a high row position with your palm facing the ground and your hand to shoulder height. Next, turn your hand so your thumb is up and your palm faces your body. Pull the hand toward your body for a low row, bending your elbow so it moves behind your body as you pull your hand to your waist.

Leg circuit

For a banded lunge, put the band under your left foot with knees slightly bent, shoulders back and abdominal muscles tight. Pull the handles of the band to your chin with palms in to your body and step back with your right foot, bending both knees to 90 degrees. Return to the starting position and repeat. Switch the band under your right foot and repeat on the other side.

Next, place the band under both feet about shoulder width apart in preparation for a squat. Holding the handles with palms facing your body, move your hands up to your shoulders. Sink into a squat position, with your hips swiveling back as if to sit in a chair. Keep your knees behind your toes. Rising and lowering once is one repetition.

Overhead triceps extension

Sitting on a chair or bench, position the center of the band beneath your glutes. With a handle in each hand, stretch your arms upward, bending your elbows so your hands are positioned behind your neck. With palms toward the ceiling, press your arms straight up until they fully extend. Lower back down and repeat.