Resistance band exercises are often underrated and even more so underused, but bands can help you build muscle, improve your flexibility, allow you to train hard anywhere, and even upgrade your workouts. Here’s how to get the best results.
The first rule of resistance training is you don’t need weights to create resistance in your workouts. Whether it’s with bodyweight exercises, dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, or resistance band exercises, there are many ways to tax your body, build muscle, and burn fat.
If you’ve ever thought about adding resistance band exercises to your routine — or are limited to working out at home and don’t have much equipment — you might be surprised by how much you can accomplish without any iron.
How Can You Use Resistance
Bands in Your Workout?
Resistance bands can be used for at least four different types of exercises:
- Stretching and mobility
- Warm ups and muscle activation
- Resistance training and “getting a pump”
- Developing the “mind-muscle” connection (learning to better “feel” your muscles working)
Each of these goals require you to use the bands slightly differently, but with each example, you can accomplish quite a bit with just a few bands.
Resistance Band Stretches and Mobility Work
Resistance band stretches can help you overcome the hardest part of stretching — feeling like you are limited by the range of motion in your muscles. You know this as “feeling tight.” (A.K.A. “I’m not flexible!”). Funny as it might sound, the limitation might really be in your head, or in another part of your body.
Think about a simple hamstring stretch, where you lie on your back with one leg on the floor and raise the other leg to the sky. Most of the time you use your hands to provide resistance. Simply looping a resistance band around your ankle can create a different movement pattern (because the pressure of pulling comes at a different angle — from your ankle instead of behind your knee), which might allow you to generate more range of motion.
It’s not magic, but most people will find they can get a better stretch with the resistance band variation. That’s because a resistance band can help you go deeper into a stretch, provide support, or help reduce the load of your bodyweight when you perform a move. That’s why many trainers consider bands to be a “must” for maximizing your mobility.
There are limitless ways you can use resistance bands to assist you when you stretch. Here are two examples — one for your upper body, one for your lower body.
Banded Lat Stretch
Loop a band around something at least 6 inches over your head, such as a pull up bar. Grab the band with one arm and step back, so that you band forms a 45- to -60 degree angle to the floor. Get into a staggered stance and put one knee on the floor. Your arm should be in a straight line and aligned with the band.
Lean forward slightly so that your torso is perfectly aligned with your arm. (It will look like the band is an extension of your arm. You could draw a straight line from your hips all the way up to the top of the band where it’s attached to the pull up bar). Hold this position so you feel a stretch in your back.
Do 5 deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, and then switch sides.
Band Supported Leg Lowering
Lie flat on your back and then bring both of your legs up towards the ceiling. Your legs and body should form the shape of a “L.”
Wrap a band around the arch of one of your feet and hold it stable. Keep both of your knees locked out by squeezing your quadriceps muscles and pointing your toes towards your shins.
Lower your leg that does not have the band around it until either A) you feel tightness in your hamstring, or B) you feel pain in your back (this is bad) or don’t feel stable in your core. When either of those things happen, stop, then reverse the movement and lift the leg back up.
Ideally, you’ll take 2 seconds to lower your leg, then take 2 seconds to lift your leg back up using your core muscles. Perform 1–2 sets of 5 repetitions per leg as a part of your warmup, or pair with a lower body movement such as stiff-legged deadlifts.
Resistance Band Exercises
for Muscle Activation
Resistance band exercises can be used to strengthen or activate hard-to-hit muscles. For example, your shoulders are two areas that most people have troubling “feeling.” Because of continuous tension, bands are an effective way to help activation and work those muscles without supporting muscles taking over.
Band pull-aparts are a fantastic way to warm up your shoulders. Remember how bands help create more tension throughout the movement? Tension means more blood flow. More blood flow means you’re muscles will feel warm. It’s like adding oil to a squeaky break.
When performing the movement, make sure you don’t have too much slack in the band, because if you do that takes the tension off of your shoulders. The band pull-apart is also effective because it works your shoulders in a pattern that is often overlooked.
Think about how much time you spend at your desk with your shoulders slouched. The band pull-apart works the opposite range of motion, meaning it helps pull your shoulders back into their correct alignment, improving your posture.
Better posture means less pain. And because you’re pulling the band apart, that means you have maximum tension with minimum weight. This is something that isn’t always easy with weights like dumbbells.
Here’s how to do it: Grip the opposite ends of a long (about 40 inches is typical) resistance band. You can mix up your hand position, from prone (thumbs facing one another) to neutral (thumbs facing the ceiling) to supinated (thumbs pointed away from one another).
Position your hands about shoulder width apart, or at a distance where you feel a little tension in the band. From there, pull your hands outward as wide as you can.
Pause and squeeze the muscles in your upper back and shoulders, then reverse directions and bring your hands back toward one another (back to the starting position), and repeat. Focus on keeping your shoulders down and back throughout the entire movement.
Perform 3 sets of 15–30 repetitions.
Mini-Band Lateral Walks
Remember how pull aparts were great for your shoulders? These lateral band walks can do the same for your glutes and help them wake up.
Place the band above your knees. Spread your legs wide enough that you feel tension across the band. (Consider this an athletic position, like a baseball player about to field a ground ball.) Take one leg and step out to the side. Then, follow with your other leg, making sure you maintain tension on the band throughout the movement.
Walk for 10–15 steps in one direction (i.e. from left to right) then switch and go for the same distance in the opposite direction (from right to left).
Place the mini-band around your legs just above the knees. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell vertically against your chest with both of your hands supporting the weight underneath. Press your elbows inward against your rib cage, which activates the muscles in your upper back.
Squat down by pushing your hips back and pressing your knees outward against the mini-band. Doing so activates your glutes and helps you steer clear of knee pain. Lower yourself down until your elbows touch the insides of your knees, then press through your feet to stand back up.
Resistance Band Exercises
for Building Muscle
No matter what some people might insist, weights are not the only way to build muscle. Weights are effective because they add resistance. Bands also provide resistance, meaning they also can help you build muscle.
Research has repeatedly shown that building muscle is somewhat dependent on volume — or the number of reps x sets x weight. Because you have 3 variables you can manipulate, bands provide a way to increase volume (through more reps) without needing more weight.
This approach works for any muscle in your body — from arms and shoulders, to your chest, back and even your butt. Just ask anyone who’s ever tried Bret Contreras’s glute burnout.
What are the Limits of Resistance Bands?
Like anything, there are always some limitations. For instance, resistance bands don’t necessarily challenge your muscles through a full range of motion.
Lifting weights consists of a raising portion (the concentric) and a lowering portion (the eccentric). The eccentric phase of a lift is the part where you are lowering the weight back down, and it’s beneficial for both muscle growth and improving muscle control.
They feel lighter on your muscles as the bands themselves get shorter. As we discussed above, that may be great from an injury prevention standpoint. But since eccentric muscle actions are where we elicit the most muscle damage in training, using bands alone might limit the amount muscle you can build.
Bands can also make measuring your resistance a little tricky. Part of adding muscle is creating a challenge for your muscles. That’s why bands work — they add resistance. At some point, however, your body will adapt to resistance. This is why you might stop seeing results. Your body adapts, and you need to keep creating a new challenge in order to fight off plateau.
There are many ways to do steer clear of plateaus, however. You can make an exercise more challenging (if you are doing band rows with both arms, you can switch to a 1-arm version with the same band, which will make it more difficult), or you can add weight. This is where dumbbells and barbells have an obvious advantage, as you can just use bigger weights.
But don’t stress too much. Your hand placement, the distance between you and where the band is anchored, and how far the band is stretched can all be used to increase or decrease the resistance. You can also user thicker bands (which has more resistance) or even add multiple bands.
At some point — yes — you might need to add more weight to create a bigger challenge. But as long as you continue to find ways to challenge your muscles (which can also occur by doing more reps and/or sets of an exercise), your resistance band workout will keep delivering results.