The Benefits of Resistance Bands Will Make You Reconsider Whether You Even Need Weights
Adding resistance bands to your workout routine is an intimidation-free tactic to start testing out muscle-busting moves before trying dumbbells or the barbell to make gains.
But if there's anything that can be learned from the benefits of resistance bands, it's that the simple piece of equipment shouldn't be reserved for just the beginner exerciser. In fact, they deserve a place in even the most seasoned athlete's equipment closet. Here's what trainers want you to know about this potentially overlooked exercise tool.
7 Benefits of Resistance Bands
1. They’re super affordable and easy to transport.
If you're stocking up your home gym and can't decide if you should buy a rack of dumbbells or a set of resistance bands, do yourself, your closet space, and your wallet a favor and skip the free weights — at least for now. On average, dumbbells cost about $1.50 to $2.00 per pound of weight, and a best-selling 50 lb. set will run you $109 on Amazon (Buy It, $109, amazon.com). By comparison, a five-piece set of resistance bands that can be stacked to create a total resistance of 150 lbs will set you back only $30 (Buy It, $30, amazon.com). Another key benefit of resistance bands? Thanks to their sock-like size, you can bring them on an international flight without having to worry about racking up exorbitant baggage fees caused by a stow-away dumbbell set. Your bank account says TIA. (P.S., we can't get enough of these resistance bands either.)
2. They help stretch and warm up your muscles before a tough workout.
If you have about as much flexibility as a wooden board, resistance bands are going to be your BFF for stretching. Looping a band around your foot, rather than trying and failing to grab your heel with your hand, can help you better stretch out your hamstring if you're extra tight, says Hayden Steele, NSCA-C.P.T., C.S.C.S., and the creator of the Shock Training app. And if you can't easily grab your foot behind you for a quad stretch, wrap the band around the top of your foot and pull it up toward your glutes to get the job done, explains Dannah Bollig, a certified personal trainer and the creator of The DE Method.
Plus, bands can be used in warm-ups to activate the muscles that will need to be recruited in the upcoming workout, including weight lifting, running, and other strenuous exercises, says Bollig. To activate your rotator cuff muscles before an upper-body or chest workout, use a band to perform internal and external shoulder rotation exercises, which will help improve shoulder stability, says Steele. To get the glutes and legs ready for the upcoming sweat sesh, Bollig suggests performing a round of lateral monster walks with a resistance band around your feet. "I've done this a ton with my athlete clients as an amazing warm-up to get their leg muscles activated," she says. "This would be great to do before a run or intense activity."
3. They test your muscles throughout an entire exercise.
Just because resistance bands are cheaper than free weights doesn't mean they'll give you a workout so easy you barely break a sweat. In fact, one of the key benefits of resistance bands is their ability to strengthen your muscles by increasing the time they spend under tension.
For instance, when you're performing a bodyweight squat, your quadricep muscles mostly get challenged when you push your booty out of the squat and return to standing (the concentric portion of the movement when the muscles shorten or contract). But when you loop a large resistance band under your feet and over your shoulders, your muscles will need to work even harder to push through the added resistance to pop back up to standing, *and* they'll have to fight the pull of the resistance band while you're dropping into the squat (the eccentric portion of the movement when the quadricep muscles lengthen), explains Bollig. Translation: Your body has to put in extra effort throughout the tension of the entire movement. (Convinced you need to add resistance band squats to your routine? Try these variations.)
The same rule of physics applies when you're doing upper body exercises, such as bicep curls. Here, your muscles are activated and really fired up when you're bringing the dumbbell from hip height up to your shoulder, the concentric portion of the movement. But if you swap that free weight for a resistance band, your biceps will also have to control the resistance while you're lowering the weight down to hip level, the eccentric portion of the movement, says Bollig. Since your muscles are working under tension throughout the entire movement, there will be more muscle breakdown, and, with proper recovery, they can grow back stronger, Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., founder of Training2XL, previously told Shape. (Not to mention, eccentric movements damage your muscle [in a good way, don't worry!] — and strengthen them — more than concentric movements, meaning resistance bands give you a 2-in-1, leveled up workout.)
While stepping into a piece of plastic might not feel as satisfying as picking up a gigantic weight plate, the overall muscle-boosting benefits of resistance bands are the same as pumping iron. "Studies show that there's no benefit changes between machines, free weights, and resistance bands," says Steele. "Optimally, they would all be used together [in a training regimen], but when you look at strength benefits, you can't say that dumbbells are more effective than resistance bands. They just offer the same benefits for less money."
4. They great for functional fitness training.
Unlike gym machines, which keep your body moving in one set plane of motion, resistance bands can be pushed and pulled in nearly any way you want, so you'll develop a degree of motor control and coordination as you use them, says Steele.
But that's not the only functional-training benefit of resistance bands: Bands offer more planes of resistance than dumbbells, so you can actually perform a greater variety of exercises with them, says Steele. "Because free weights rely on gravity, they can only provide resistance in a vertical plane – the direction of gravity," he explains. "Unlike free weights, bands don't rely on gravity for resistance. This increases their potential for use in more functional movement patterns that mimic everyday life, as well as sport-specific activities."
Think about a standing chest press, during which you press two dumbbells out in front of you while standing. Even though you're moving your arms in the path of motion that would work your chest, gravity is actually pushing the dumbbells down, not pressing them against you, so you end up working your deltoid muscles in the shoulder, says Steele. "On the other hand, the bands directly resist the plane of motion, so they actually are going to provide the chest resistance during that movement," he says. You'll still get some deltoid work with a band, plus some additional triceps training, but your pecs are going to be putting in most of the effort, adds Steele. So by swapping your dumbbells for resistance bands while performing horizontal-plane exercises, such as these standing chest presses or punches, you'll have a workout that *actually* strengthens the muscles you're targeting.
What's more, if you practice recreational sports, additional planes of movement allow you to practice common sports-specific movement patterns, including baseball swings or basketball passes, with added resistance, which could help athletes enhance their performance and reduce their risk of injury, says Steele. (Related: How to Use Resistance Bands to Fake Heavier Weights at Home)
5. They keep your form in check.
As you progress through the workout and start feeling ready to call it quits, it's tempting to let your form go to the wayside and your effort level flatline. But with your resistance bands acting as your accountability buddy, there's no chance for you to slack off.
"Bands naturally prevent you from cheating on the exercise, which is common when using free weights, especially among beginners," explains Steele. "Cheating involves the use of momentum to get the weight moving. Once that momentum has been built up, the muscle fibers no longer need to be maximally activated to continue moving the weight through the rest of the range of motion. In other words, momentum is doing most of the work, not the muscles."
But when you're using a band to make #gains, you'll have to continue working against resistance when momentum would typically take over and finish the move for you. "The only way to continue a movement while performing an exercise with elastic resistance is to call on more muscle fibers to continue stretching the band," adds Steele.
On the same token, resistance bands help create a "muscle-mind connection" that helps keep your form right on the money during the entire exercise, says Bollig. Take, for example, a squat with a resistance band looped around your thighs. To get your glutes shaking and muscles working at their max, you'll want to maintain proper form throughout the movement, including keeping your knees out over your toes as you sink into your squat. But if they start buckling in, you'll feel the resistance band loosening up, which will remind you to push your knees back into place and engage your glutes and hip abductors. The result: A more effective and safer workout, she explains.
6. They are incredibly safe to use.
Sure, you won't have to worry about dropping a heavy weight on your foot, but that's not the only safety benefit of resistance bands. "Weight training can just be very hard on your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and sometimes you're not in full control," says Bollig. "With resistance band training, you're in control the entire time. You're not worried about jerking weights, and you're going to protect your ligaments and tendons by controlling your muscles throughout the entire movement." For instance, when you can't do another squat when using a heavy barbell, your muscles might give out before you've safely off-loaded the weight. Cue painful injuries. But if your body can't handle another resistance band squat, just slip out of the piece of rubber and you're good to go. (Related: The Best Way to Bench Press Alone Safely)
What's more, resistance bands create a matching resistance profile, meaning that when your muscles are at the weakest point of range (think: the bottom of a chest press), there's more elasticity in the band and less resistance, so the band is at its weakest point too. And when you're the strongest (think: your arms are fully extended in the press), so is the band, says Steele. If you were to do the same move with a dumbbell, the weight would be the greatest at the bottom of the press, when your muscles are the weakest and are most susceptible to injury, he explains.
7. They can help modify or progress an exercise.
Frantically squirming your way to the top of a pull-up bar isn't doing your upper body any muscle-building favors. So if you can't gradually lift your body up in a controlled movement, strap a long loop resistance band to the bar and step into it. "If you can't do a full pull-up, the band is going to assist you in the range of motion when you're the weakest, and then help you get to the point where you can do that single rep on your own, and you can continue to progress from that," says Steele. When you lower toward the ground, the band will stretch out, and as you pull to the top, the band will recoil to help you shoot back up to the top of the bar, he explains.
Or if you are limited with the weights you have on hand, you can add a resistance band to a set of 10-pound dumbbells weights to amp up the intensity when you need something a bit heavier. Just step on a long loop resistance band, slip the free ends over two dumbbells, and power through an intense round of deadlifts, chest flies, or bent-over rows. Now, go power through a pull-up your high school gym teacher would be proud of.