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Jim Stoppani, PhD, earned a doctorate in exercise physiology with a minor in biochemistry from the University of Connecticut (Storrs) before serving as a postdoctoral research fellow at Yale University School of Medicine. In 2002, he was awarded the Gatorade Beginning Investigator in Exercise Science Award by the American Physiological Society for his groundbreaking research. For the next 10+ years, Dr. Stoppani served as Senior Science Editor for Muscle & Fitness, Muscle & Fitness Hers and FLEX magazines at Weider Publications. In 2013, he created his breakthrough sports nutrition company JYM Supplement Science, which now includes a line of eight top-selling products.
Exercise Bands: Highly Underrated Muscle & Strength Builders!
Can you build even more muscle and strength by increasing the degree of overload over a target exercise’s range of motion? You bet! Let’s talk about training with bands!
My toolbox of training equipment runs the gamut, including barbells, dumbbells, cables, selectorized and plate-loaded machines, medicine balls, tires, cardio equipment, various rigs and power racks, and, last but not least … elastic bands.
If you think that last piece of gear is the most lightweight and gimmicky of the bunch, think again. Bands pack as big a punch as any piece of equipment in my gym and, in fact, even the heaviest barbell or dumbbell can’t mimic the distinguishing features of elastic bands. If these deceptively effective tools aren’t currently part of your training repertoire, it’s time to take a closer look at the unique benefits they offer, then incorporate them into your training.
For sure, you’ve seen heavyweight powerlifters and bodybuilders use heavy chains when benching, deadlifting, or squatting. Bands offer a similar effect, allowing you to increase the overload the further they’re stretched. (Remember in grade school when you aimed a rubber band at someone? The further you pulled it back, the farther it would fly!) That makes bands useful tools in conjunction with free weights and even machine movements. Here are some of the key benefits that bands offer.
I get the most use out of elastic bands—specifically, my Jym Strength Bands—when traveling. Bands are lightweight and easy to stuff into a suitcase, duffel bag, or briefcase. You can’t take your dumbbells on the plane, and you may not have access to a gym at your destination. Bands are a no-brainer for me on any trip I take.
Heavy-duty bands that you can attach to free weights or machine exercises are highly portable as well. They come in various lengths and degrees of resistance, and for some movements you can get away with a single band, but more likely, you’ll need a pair.
2) Linear Variable Resistance
The distinguishing characteristic of bands is linear variable resistance. In the gym, there’s a muscle-enhancing benefit to this property: As the range of motion (and thus the resistance) increases, so does the greater the degree of overload. For an exercise in which you’re stronger toward the top of the range of motion (called an ascending strength curve) such as the squat or bench press (the sticking pointis near the bottom), you’re now able to increase the overload over that part of the ROM in which you’re strongest. Previously, you were always held back by where you were weakest (i.e., your sticking point). While doing partial-rep training is one way to tackle the same problem, using bands allows you to do full ROM training and load up the various parts of the rep with, essentially, different loads that match your strength curve. You can’t get that with free weights!
Using banded bench presses as an example, as you push to full arm extension, the resistance gets progressively greater.
A strength curve refers to the way the force output of a muscle (or muscle group) changes over its range of motion. Most muscles increase in strength over the range of motion, whereas others increase until a certain point. With standing curls, the biceps get stronger until about the halfway point of the range of motion. Thus, the biceps are weakest at the start of the exercise and strongest at about the halfway point. When doing a curl with a free weight, you’re typically limited to how much resistance you can use by how strong the biceps are at the beginning of the exercise. As with movements that follow an ascending strength curve, here too you’re unable to maximally train the muscle where it’s strongest: at the middle of the ROM. When performing a curl with bands, however, the biceps are receiving more resistance at their strongest point to better stimulate size and strength adaptations.
Bands with Barbells
Powerlifters and athletes often use bands on barbell exercises such as squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. And it’s not just for show. With these big lifts in particular, building strength and size in the target muscle group requires heavy resistance, which bands on their own wouldn’t provide.
However, as I mentioned when discussing linear variable resistance, when using a barbell alone, the top portion of the lift is much easier than the initial portion of the lift (getting out of the “hole” on a squat or deadlift or getting the bar off the chest on bench). By attaching bands to the barbell, the elastic resistance kicks in the most at the top of the lift, allowing you to work on your “lockout” strength without adding significant resistance to the sticking point of the strength curve. You can achieve a similar benefit on the big lifts with chains and half reps using safety pins in a power rack, but bands are generally a more practical option.
Bands with and without Equipment
Aside from augmenting big lifts, just about any barbell or machine exercise you do in the gym can also be performed with bands (even exercises such as Romanian deadlifts. Dumbbell movements can also be loaded, but given their nature as being harder to control, it requires much greater coordination. Since a band’s thickness determines its resistance, you may have to have several pairs to best suit the exercise you’re doing.
I find bands most useful on their own (sansfree weights) when training for powerand explosiveness, particularly when using a lighter set of bands (since fast, explosive movements should be performed with relatively light weights anyway). When training for power, even though the weights are light, keep your rep counts low (3 to 8 per set) and the rep speed as fast as possible. (Rememberpowerand strengthare trained for differently.) Good band exercises for power include chest presses, shoulder presses, lateral raises, one-arm rows, jump squats, biceps curls, triceps press-downs, and woodchoppers. MI
Best Type of Bands. The most common types of bands are tube-style bands with handles on either end (such as my Jym Strength Bands); loop-style bands that resemble large rubber bands; and mini-bands, which are generally smaller, thinner versions of loop-style. When using bands with barbell exercises, either tube-style or thick loop-style bands will work. If using tube-style, you’ll want to be sure your set includes accessories for attaching the bands to the bar.
Attaching Band to Bar. When using bands on barbell exercises, make sure the band doesn’t slide from side to side on the bar; you can achieve this by having a secure attachment point on the bar (e.g., the collars) and making sure there’s no slack in the band at any point during the movement. Make sure the bands are placed symmetrically!
Anchoring the Band.On barbell exercises, anchor the band to a secure point on the floor, such as underneath the power rack, platform, or bench. You can always stand on the middle of some longer single bands. It’s important to match the direction of the band with the line of pull of whatever exercise you’re doing! For example, with free-weight movements, the direction of gravity is always the same: straight down. Hence, you wouldn’t want to anchor the band from in front or behind because that’ll change the direction of the force. For example, I’ve seen individuals do overhead shoulder presses with the bands placed well in front of the body. This means controlling not only the overhead movement but also that the bands want to pull your hands forward. When using machines or other equipment, match the line of pull with that of the equipment; you may have to wrap the band around a pole or other stable structure.
Choosing Band Exercises. When combining bands with other equipment, some exercises are better than others. Generally speaking, using bands with dumbbell exercises is impractical; however, bands combine well with certain machine moves, particularly leg presses and plate-loaded machines, where the bands can easily be anchored to weight plate racks.
Also, consider the strength curve of the movement. Adding bands to back exercises such as barbell or dumbbell rows and lat pull-downs is impractical because with these exercises the movement gets harder the further you go in the range of motion; in these cases, there’s no need to make the latter part of the movement harder than it already is. Here, the movements follow a descending strength curve: You’re weaker the longer the range of motion, so there’s no need to make it even more difficult.
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