Resistance bands are super portable, versatile, and affordable fitness tools. Here's how to add them to your fitness routine.
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Portable, affordable, and limitless in use, resistance bands are among the most overlooked pieces of fitness equipment. In part, that's because while treadmills, jump ropes, and stair-climbers are pretty self-explanatory, working out with resistance bands takes a little savvy.
Resistance bands are great because they can be used to make an exercise harder or easier, for upper body or lower body, and for cardio or strength, says physical therapist and strength coach Lauren Lobert, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., owner of APEX Physical Therapy. But, admittedly, there are a lot of different types and colors of bands, and crazy exercises you can do with them. How do you know where to start?
Read on to learn how to use resistance bands in your training to burn rubber (wink) and build muscle.
What Are Resistance Bands?
ICYDK (or have been living under a rack of dumbbells), resistance bands are essentially thick, colorful elastic bands that come in a variety of shapes, thicknesses, and sizes. "The different sizes and colors correlate with different resistance levels. You can choose which resistance to use based on your ability, and the type of band to use based on the exercise you're doing," explains Greer Rothermel, a certified personal trainer with RSP Nutrition.
Here's where it gets a little tricky: "Resistance bands can provide either assistance or resistance," explains Greg Pignataro, personal trainer with Grindset Fitness in Scottsdale, AZ. For example, "you can use a resistance band to assist in a pull-up and make it easier. The stronger the resistance band, the easier the movement will be. Or you can use a band to make a movement like air squat or glute bridge harder. The stronger the resistance, the harder the movement will be."
Different Types of Resistance Bands
Take a peek around your gym—you may or may not see some resistance bands lying around. (None to be found? NBD—you can grab affordable ones on Amazon, and since they're compact and lightweight, they're easy to tote with you in your gym bag.) Here are the five main types of resistance bands, so you can invest in and use the best type for your goal (and favorite fitness moves).
Tube Bands with Handles: Also called "handled bands," tube bands basically look like jump ropes made out of cylindrical rubber. On each end, you'll find heavy-duty pulley handles made of nylon or plastic for a secure grip. Most commonly, these bands are used for moves like shoulder presses and biceps curls. But "you can get a really good upper-body, lower-body, or full-body workout using just these bands," says Pignataro. (Need proof? Check out Lacey Stone's 20 Minute Upper-Body Resistance Band Workout)
Buy It: 12-Piece Fit Simplify Resistance Band Set ($20)
Large Loop Bands: Exactly like they sound, these bands form a large, closed loop like a rubber band, usually about 40 inches long. Typically, they're flat and thin, which is why they are sometimes called "flat and thin bands" or sometimes "superbands." These bands are best known for assisting with pull-ups (learn how to do a banded pull-up here), but they can be used for a variety of workout moves.
"These are my favorite because you can loop these around a pole, doorknob, foot of a couch, towel hook, etc., to do rows, chest presses, upright rows, chest flys, lunges, or triceps kickbacks," says Kyra Williams, certified trainer and CrossFit Level 1 instructor. "You can also step on them to give yourself resistance doing good mornings, lateral band walks, squats, overhead presses, biceps curls, or lateral raises."
Buy It: Set of 6 Serious Steel Resistance & Stretch Bands ($109)
Mini Bands: Think large loop bands, but make them bite size. Just like with giant loop bands, these come in a variety of thicknesses and can be used in some seriously creative ways for an insane workout. And you've probably seen them on your Instagram feed as a glute workout tool, because you can get a serious peach pump when you put them around your ankles, says Yusuf Jeffers, C.S.C.S., certified trainer and head coach at Mile High Run Club NYC. (Just check out this mini band butt workout from the LIT Method to see why.)
But they don't *just* go around your ankles. Mini bands can also go around your knees, thighs, wrists, and upper arms. (For a quick ab burner try these three moves that use a mini band, or try these mini resistance band exercises to build hip strength).
Buy It: Perform Better 4-Pack of Mini Exercise Bands ($18)
Figure-Eight Bands: Figure-eight bands are typically made of the same cylindrical rubber as tube bands, but form (surprise!) an 8 shape. Usually these bands have a built-in handle on each loop, making them great for upper-body workouts.
Buy It: Figure 8 Toner Resistance Exercise Tube Band Set of 3 ($15)
Therapy Bands: Therapy bands are the same material as large loop bands, but usually thinner and don't form a loop. "I like to use these resistance bands for shoulder pre-hab and rehab of the shoulder, to increase the stabilization of the rotator cuff—these muscles that are so often torn in people," says physical therapist Lisa Nichole Folden, D.P.T., owner of Healthy Phit Physical Therapy & Wellness Consultants in Charlotte, NC.
While they're typically used in physical therapy for mobility, they can also be used in workouts. (See these barre exercise that use a therapy band).
Buy It: TheraBands Resistance Bands Set of 3 ($13)
How to Use Resistance Bands In Your Workout
Good news: "They are seriously useable for every person and fitness level," confirms Omari Bernard, C.S.C.S., a certified trainer, strength coach, and corrective exercise specialist. You scale up just like you would with free weights: You do the same exercises but increase the level of resistance you use, he explains.
"The colors, thicknesses, and exact amounts of resistance/assistance will vary by brand and company," says Pignataro, but in general, a thicker band equals more resistance (or assistance). The color of the band can help indicate how much assistance or resistance the band will give: "Typically, the darker the color the more the resistance: yellows and oranges are lightest, with reds and blues in the middle, and greens, purples, and blacks are the most resistant," says Brian Ferrari, M.S., C.S.C.S., a Gold's Gym fitness expert.
How do you pick which resistance band to use? Rothermel says that you should always choose a band that feels challenging for the movement based on the number of reps and sets in your circuit. And when it comes to the type of band, you'll want to ask yourself how and why you're using one. Then, take a look above at some of the exercises, workouts, and movement patterns you can use for the various styles of resistance bands.
If you're just getting started, Folden recommends testing the bands beginning with the least resistance available. "If you can do 12 to 15 reps of the exercise in your routine with a particular band without feeling tired, move to a band with slightly more resistance." In general, she says, you want to feel like you're really tired and working at it. (Also see: How to Pick the Right Size Dumbbells for Your Workouts)
But there's a thin line between #workingit and compromising form. "The goal is always to feel challenged by the exercise but able to control the resistance band throughout the entire move," says Rothermel. If you can't control the resistance at any point in the rep (ex: if you feel like your legs or arms are being snapped back to starting position), that's a sign the resistance is too high for you. It puts you at risk of performing the move with bad form—which is counterintuitive to any strength gains you might make from using a harder resistance band, she says. Fair enough.
The Benefits of Using Resistance Bands
Unlike free weights, resistance bands force you to work hard during the eccentric portion of the movement (when the muscle lengthens), and not just concentric (when the muscle shortens), says Jeffers. Think about a biceps curl with a dumbbell: First, you contract the bicep muscle to lift the dumbbell up (the concentric motion). Then, when you release the dumbbell back to start (the eccentric motion), there's not a ton of caloric burn, says Folden. However, doing the movement with a resistance band changes that: "Add a resistance band and your muscle will be worked in both directions," she says.
That means your muscles are working under tension for a longer period of time and moving through their full range of motion, explains Rita Matraia, certified restorative exercise specialist and owner of The Core Connection, a fitness studio in Massachusetts. The result: "It improves the overall function and strength of the muscle, which ultimately leads to increased metabolism and greater caloric burn," says Folden. (Related: A Resistance-Band Interval Workout to Speed Up Your Metabolism)
Another difference between using resistance bands and dumbbells or kettlebells is that they can be used to make an exercise easier—not just harder. Banded deadlifts and pull-ups are perfect examples of this, says Pignataro. "The elasticity makes the deadlift pull easier, which can help folks who are new to the barbell deadlift learn the proper hip-hinge mechanic." (Learn how to do a resistance band deadlift and six other exercises for legs and glutes.)
Similarly, banded pull-ups and chin-ups can help folks learn the movement pattern and technique while they're still developing the proper strength. "You'll get stronger and be able to work through the full range of motion to ensure proper sequencing and muscle recruitment during the real thing," PJ Stahl, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist previously told Shape. As the movement gets easier, you can switch to a thinner band with less assistance, until you're able to do a bodyweight pull-up, unassisted. NBD.