Don't have access to heavier weights? No problem. Adding a resistance band to your dumbbells and kettlebells can make your exercises more challenging.

By Tiffany Ayuda
June 29, 2020
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We've been in quarantine for a few months now, and chances are, those 20-pound dumbbells you've been lifting might not feel as challenging as they used to be. But because of the recent shortage of exercise equipment, it can be hard to come by a heavier set of weights. Plus, you might not exactly be jazzed about turning part of your living room or bedroom into a home gym.

Fortunately, all you need to level up your heavy lifts is a good ol' resistance band.

"When working out outside of a traditional gym, many people don't have access to heavy weights, so adding resistance bands can be a great way to add more resistance without having to purchase additional bulky weights," says Tatiana Scott, a certified personal trainer based in Houston, Texas. (Related: The Perfect Strength Training Workout for Beginners)

Here's how it generally works: You take one or two resistance bands and loop them onto a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell, and perform the movement with both the weight and the resistance of the band. Sound tricky? No worries—keep reading for more tips on how to pull this off, plus why you should.

Why You Should Add Resistance Bands to Your Weights

Add Load

Adding resistance bands to your weights can help create the feeling of extra load you would otherwise get from lifting heavier weights. Why is that important? In order for your muscles to get stronger and grow bigger, you need to push them past their threshold for strength—a process known as progressive overload. Progressive overload involves the process of continually challenging your muscles with heavier weights, more reps and sets, or changing the tempo and intensity of the exercise (such as fewer reps but longer counts).

When you lift the same amount of weight for more than several weeks, your muscles will hit a plateau in growth and begin to adapt to the load, making the exercise less challenging. But by increasing the weight and intensity of the exercise, for instance, your muscles fibers will break down and inspire more growth, increasing your strength potential. Incorporating resistance bands in your lifting routine can help add this load and intensity when you can't reach for heavier weights to do so.

"When many people think about building muscle, they traditionally think of only lifting heavy dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells. What many people don't know is that you can progressively overload with resistance bands as well," says Scott. "Just like weights, resistance bands come in different levels of resistance. To practice progressive overload, you would simply choose a band that has more resistance as others begin to feel lighter over time," she says. Or, in this case, add a resistance band to a dumbbell move to create more resistance.

Enhance Tension Throughout Movement

Resistance bands also reinforce tension throughout the entire exercise, demanding you to move with more control, especially during the eccentric phase, aka the downward phase of a movement.

"With traditional weights alone, simply going up or down too far in the movement can release the tension that's on the muscle. But when you add a resistance band—as long as it's tight—you can create constant tension throughout the range of motion of the exercise," says Scott.

Case in point: In a bicep curl, you likely feel a release of tension during the eccentric phase (when you're lowering the weight back down). "Your muscle doesn't have to work as hard to lower the weight like it does to lift it. But by adding a resistance band to your dumbbells, you now have constant tension on the muscle, even during the eccentric phase," she says. (Related: What You Should Know About Eccentric, Concentric, and Isometric Exercises)

Perfect Your Form and Range of Motion

Resistance bands are particularly great to use in reactive neuromuscular training (RNT), says CJ Hammond, a NASM-certified personal trainer with RSP Nutrition. RNT is a technique that uses outside resistance or cueing tools to neurologically "turn on" an automatic response from your muscles, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). If you have issues performing an exercise with proper form or aren't activating the right muscles during a move, RNT can provide a way to correct those faulty movement patterns. "RNT increases your range of motion, builds symmetry in the movement, and lengthens, strengthens, and improves isometric stability in the antagonist muscle groups of the muscles you're targeting," explains Hammond. A little anatomy lesson: In every movement, there are agonist and antagonist muscle groups. The agonist muscles are the primary movers of the exercise (doing the majority of the work), and the antagonist muscles are the opposing muscles. When the agonist group contracts, the antagonist group relaxes.

For example, in a squat, the agonist muscles are your glutes because they are the primary mover, and your hip flexors are the antagonist muscles—the opposing muscles. "If you lack the ability to get into a squat, training the antagonist muscle groups will create a stable movement which will increase your possibilities of improving that movement," says Hammond. RNT exercises are also designed to help improve your joint stability, making them a staple for rehab techniques after an injury, he says. (Related: Glute Activation Exercises You Need to Help Strengthen Your Butt)

For example, in the Instagram video below, the resistance bands are anchored above the weight via poles and are looped around the barbell. This places special emphasis on the isometric hold at the bottom of the squat to improve stability in the hips while also recruiting the glutes.

Improve Muscle Strength & Definition

Adding resistance bands to traditional lifts will also increase muscle fiber recruitment while doing the exercise, says Hammond. "The benefits of recruiting more muscle fibers will improve both performance and the aesthetic look of the muscle," he says. That's because lifting heavy weights works your fast-twitch muscle fibers. Unlike slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are built for endurance activities like running, fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited during quick, explosive movements, such as heavy lifts. These muscle fibers are responsible for creating muscle size and definition, so if you want to have a more toned, sculpted physique, leveling up your lifts with resistance bands is the way to go. (Related: The Difference Between Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance)

How to Add Resistance Bands to Your Weights

Now that you know the benefits of adding a resistance band to your strength training routine, you might be wondering when you should start using them. "You will know it's time to add a resistance band to your strength exercise when it becomes easy to perform. You might be aware of the FITT concept: frequency, intensity, time, and type. As your muscles begin to adapt, it's a good idea to switch up one of these variables," says Scott. "Adding a resistance band is a great way to change the intensity."

When it comes to choosing the right resistance, Scott and Hammond both advise starting light and working your way up to more resistance. "When working smaller muscles in your upper body, you can generally increase the intensity just by incorporating a light or medium band. But when strengthening larger muscles, such as your quads and glutes, a medium to heavy resistance band would be appropriate," says Scott.

As you get stronger and can complete several reps of an exercise with ease, you can increase the resistance level of your bands. "Focus on making sure that you can maintain a certain tempo through the reps and sets before using heavy bands," says Hammond. Some bands also include info on their labels about how their resistance level translates into weights, so look out for this and keep it in mind when choosing a band. (Related: How Often Should You Do Heavy Weight Lifting Workouts?)

Using a heavy band too quickly can lead to injury, a break in form, and loss of control over the weight. "Resistance bands are very good at helping with muscle recruitment but are unpredictable at times. Trying to expedite results without mastering the movement pattern or sticking to a tempo can become dangerous," explains Hammond.

When adding bands to weights, such as a pair of dumbbells, it's also important to make sure that you evenly distribute tension from the band on both sides, says Hammond. This ensures that you're not loading one side heavier than the other, creating muscle imbalances.

Here's how you can actually use resistance bands to gain muscle and make your exercises more challenging.

Slow Down the Tempo

The benefit of using resistance bands is that you can move more slowly with your exercises, ensuring that you're performing them with proper form. "It's important to slow down the tempo of the exercise instead of speeding through your repetitions. High repetitions with a slow tempo count will allow the muscle to fully fatigue and you will start to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers," explains Hammond. This also allows your body to gain better muscle recruitment and expedite your goals of gaining more muscle and increasing size, he says.

Whether you're doing a deadlift, squat, or bicep curl, "you can increase the intensity even more by lifting the weight in its concentric phase at a tempo of two to three seconds (count to three as you lift the weight off the ground) and lowering the weight in its eccentric phase for three to seven seconds," says Scott.

Hammond also likes to play with a 5-3-5 tempo: "I use a 5-3-5 tempo for the eccentric, amortization, and concentric phases," he says. FYI, the amortization phase is the transition time between loading energy to releasing it, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). So you would count to five on the way down, hold the bottom of your squat for three, and press into your heels to stand for five counts.

"This allows you to increase time under tension during the eccentric phase and fatigue the larger muscles and recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers during the amortization phase," explains Hammond. "During the concentric phase, you trick your brain to recruit more muscle fibers as if you're moving at a faster pace because the muscle receives more volume as the band increases in length," he says.

Power-Up Push and Pull Movements

You can use resistance bands for a variety of lifts, but Scott loves them for performing bicep curls, overhead tricep extensions, chest presses, bent-over rows, deadlifts, hip thrusts, and kettlebell swings. You can train your fast-twitch muscle fibers to push more powerfully with a resistance band, for instance, when doing overhead presses, tricep extensions, and hip thrusts. In the same way, resistance bands can make pulling movements, such as bent-over rows, deadlifts, and chest flys, more challenging by adding even more tension as you pull the weights against gravity.

Resistance bands can also help you improve dynamic movements, such as a kettlebell swing. In a kettlebell swing, Hammond will loop the band around the kettlebell handle and anchor it down by standing firmly on top of the band on the floor. Because you're not only swinging against gravity but also against the resistance of the band, "this will help improve the hip thrust speed and correlates with driving the hips up or forward to improve jumping ability and power with a kettlebell," he says. (Needless to say, this is pretty advanced, so make sure you master the kettlebell swing first.)

Much like training with barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells alone, the number of reps you should perform with resistance bands depends on your goals and level of fitness, says Scott. (Here are more training volume basics that'll help you choose the right reps, sets, and weight when working out.) You'll know that you're doing enough reps if you're getting fatigued by the end of each set. Scott recommends trying rep ranges that look something like this:

  • For muscle stabilization/endurance: 12 to 20 reps per set
  • For bigger muscles/hypertrophy: 6 to 12 reps per set
  • For strength and power: 1 to 5 reps per set

Resistance Band Safety Tips

The first thing you want to look for when buying a resistance band for heavy lifts is to find a long one that's heavy-duty and professional-grade, says Scott. Think: The large-loop resistance bands you can use for assisted pull-ups. "They're less likely to break and will last longer than others," she says. Those mini-bands you typically use for bodyweight squats, glute bridges, and leg raises? They should sit out on these movements. (Confused? Here's a full guide to types of resistance bands and how to use them.)

"I like to secure the band under both feet when doing bicep curls, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and squats. You want to make sure that your feet are firmly planted so the band doesn't move," says Scott. She will place the loose ends of the band around her hands while holding dumbbells, but you can also wrap them around dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebell handles.

"When performing kettlebell swings with extra resistance, I like to hold the loose end of the band in my hand while holding the kettlebell at the same time. The key is to make sure it is secure and that you feel comfortable in your foot placement and handgrip," she says.

When attaching the bands on a barbell (perhaps to do any of these barbell moves), Hammond says that they should be outside of the movement pattern (it shouldn't interfere with where you're moving your body) and secured with a double wrap or some sort of clamp to keep them in place.

While you can add a band to basically any type of strength exercise you're doing, Hammond advises not adding them to balance or agility exercises unless it's a very light band. "It can be unsafe to add a resistance band to a high-impact exercise. You have to make sure that the joints will maintain their integrity," he says. "But with isometric exercises, you can go heavy on the resistance band because you have multiple muscle groups helping to prevent the body from moving in an unpredictable position."

Lastly, you want to make sure the bands don't wear down and break. To do this, Hammond recommends avoiding allowing the bands to rub on a hard surface, which can cause the bands to snap during the movement. "Focus on making sure the band does not create friction and rub against your body," he says.

In terms of how often you should be adding resistance bands to your weights, Scott says there are no real rules, so you can do it as much as you like. "The key is to make sure you are constantly challenging yourself when you begin to feel the exercise is becoming too easy. Those FITT principles apply to this," she says. For example, with her clients, she'll incorporate a resistance band to leg-day exercises to make the eccentric and concentric phases harder. "The next leg day I might remove the band and just use the weights," she says. There's no magic formula—it's about making your workouts more fun and exciting.

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