High Intensity Training with Resistance Bands
In this post, I want to look at resistance bands: how useful are they, who can benefit from them, and can be used for HIT? Outside of simple equipment such as chin bars and push up handles, another piece of home exercise kit that people tend to consider for strength training are resistance bands. The idea of resistance bands is appealing: a potential gym’s worth of exercises promised in a portable pouch the size of a typical handbag. What’s not to like?
Watch Simon explain three key points about resistance bands
Different types of resistance band
Resistance bands come in different styles targeted at different users. There are rehabilitation bands, often recommended by physiotherapists, which are a thin flat rubber strip or loop which provide a relatively low amount of resistance. At the other end of the spectrum are weightlifting bands, a flat loop of rubber but this time much thicker and stronger, intended for serious lifters to use in conjunction with free weight equipment. Lifters will attach these bands to barbells and an anchor point to increase resistance on exercises like the squat, deadlift and bench press.
I want to look at another type of band, rubber tubes that can be attached to handles or ankle straps by carabiner type clips, and anchored to a door with a simple non-permanent attachment. I made it a deliberate constraint of this article that the supplied door anchor was the only anchor point I allowed myself to use, to best reflect the casual user. These bands are typically targeted at the general home fitness market and I want to see if they hold any value as a standalone exercise tool. The potential end users I have in mind are individuals who want to exercise at home, the frequent traveller, and the mobile personal trainer.
There are many brands that sell sets of these rubber tubes as a kit, the one I have chosen for this review is the Bodylastics Max Tension set. The main reason I chose this brand is their “snap guard technology”, a fancy way of saying that inside of the rubber tube is a cord that stops you from over-stretching the rubber (over-stretching can damage the rubber and may lead to tearing/snapping). As safety during exercise is of paramount concern, a premium set like the Bodylastics with this safety feature is the way to go.
Rubber bands as a source of resistance
Before we get set looking at specific exercises we need to consider how rubber bands work as a source of resistance and if there are any special considerations we need to make. Unlike bodyweight and free weights exercises where the source weight of the resistance remains constant, the more you stretch a band the more the resistance increases. Think of playing with a small rubber band in your hands, when you begin pulling it stretches easily, but the more you stretch it the harder it gets.
This presents us with our first significant challenge- this increasing resistance does not always match with the pattern of muscle torque produced in a typical single-joint exercise. The muscle torque of a single muscle group increases up to around the midway point of its contraction and then starts to decrease again. This means an individual muscle’s strength goes lower-higher-lower as it moves from a stretched position to a fully contracted position. A band’s resistance however always goes from lowest-highest through that same contraction: meaning some exercises will start out being too easy and end up being far too hard, unless we take measures to adjust the exercise, or our performance. The above video gives a good visual context to this and shows how we can adapt exercises with resistance bands to make them better.
Selecting and adapting the exercises
After ordering a set of resistance bands, the next thing that I did was to dig out my copies of Moment Arm Exercise and Congruent Exercise by Bill DeSimone. These are my go to texts on the practical application of biomechanics to exercise selection. The actual exercises detailed in those books are mainly free weight and machine exercises, however the concepts behind the mechanics of exercise are very well-explained enabling the reader to apply the concepts to any resistance source.
Although there are hundreds of potential movements that can be performed with resistance bands, these were rapidly reduced to around ten total exercises once the biomechanics and ability to safely set-up the exercise, get into position and maintain posture are factored in. You may well be able to find a few more appropriate exercises especially if you allow yourself to add anchor points other than the ones allowed for by the kit-supplied door anchor. If you do, tell me what you come up with!
A resistance band workout
1. Straight arm pulldown
Target: Latissimus dorsi
This exercise is effectively a single-joint movement that primarily targets the big muscles of the upper back, the latissimus dorsi. The band is anchored to the top of a door and you will sit in a kneeling position with your torso leaning forward. Distance yourself far enough from the door to ensure there is resistance from the band at the start of the movement. The forward angle of torso-lean helps to match peak muscle torque with the peak resistance torque of the band more closely: easier, harder, easier. Remember to keep your shoulders down and back throughout the exercise.
I enjoyed this exercise once I had figured out the positioning. You may find it preferable to use a split kneeling position (like a lunge position but with the rear knee in contact with the floor) as you increase resistance. That posture will help you stay in place more easily as you use more resistance, as will being positioned on an exercise mat.
Target: Trapezius and rhomboids
Multi-joint pulling movements are problematic with bands, not as awkward as lower body exercises (more on that to come) but certainly challenging. That is one reason I chose a straight arm pulldown above as opposed to a regular pulldown. Nevertheless, I felt we need to have at least one multi-joint pulling exercise in this resistance band only routine.
There are unfortunately no positional tweaks, that I could apply to the row to get around the increasing resistance of the bands. There is however another work around for this scenario: to start performing the exercise only in the final 1/3rd of the movement toward full contraction. You fatigue the hardest portion of the exercise first, then gradually extend your reps as that fatigue kicks in. You then work the middle 1/3rd of the exercise (still attempting full contraction but don’t worry if you don’t get it). This will make the resistance feel more appropriate as you work through a full set. It is a workaround, but it does work.
Have a look at the video to get a better view of what I mean. Sit on an exercise mat to reduce the chances of being pulled forward on a slidey floor or carpet. This is a big multi-joint movement so strong individuals who can pull near bodyweight are going to find they will pull themselves out of position rather than stretch the elastic much. An inverted bodyweight row will suit you better if this happens to you.
3. Chest press
The chest press, light mental relief after the row- because the increasing resistance of the bands in this exercise works somewhat in your favour. We can pretty much mirror a bench press but flip it to the vertical and perform it standing. This can be a good exercise for people not strong enough to perform full push ups. You will need to use a split stance as shown in the video to provide a stable base. As with the row, this is a big multi-joint movement and those who can comfortably do full push ups for 90 seconds are going to be too strong to benefit from this exercise (you will get pulled out of position). Instead stick with the push ups and place a band under your hands and over your upper back to perform a band resisted push up.
4. Side raise
Target: Lateral deltoid
By placing the band anchor at an appropriate height in the door frame and standing in position as shown in the video we can create a very effective side raise exercise that targets the lateral deltoid well. A good exercise indeed that will be suitable for most individuals.
5. Rear deltoid
Target: Posterior deltoid
Another great band exercise when set up correctly as shown in the video. Note that at the start of the exercise the band needs to be parallel to your torso and as you move toward the fully contracted position the band will come closer to your chest. Keep your shoulders down and back throughout the exercise. This one required minimal thinking as it was taken straight from Congruent Exercise.
6. Biceps curl
Another one that doesn’t take too much readjustment when performed as shown in the video! There is some resistance at the start of the movement, mid-way through the resistance gets more challenging where it should and then as the rubber gets tauter, the angle of force reduces (moment arm reduces) mitigating the increasing resistance of the band. Works well enough.
7. Triceps extension
I tried a kneeling version (pushdown) in front of the door, but couldn’t get enough resistance at the start of the movement due to the low height of the handles. I way preferred the standing extension where I could stand far enough away from the door to create a challenging resistance at the start of the movement. Much like with the biceps curl the reducing angle of force as you move toward full contraction helps to mitigate or offset the increasing resistance of the band. You can create a movement that feels quite even in challenge throughout. Do use a split stance as shown in the video to create a stable base.
8. External shoulder rotation
We are on a roll, this is another exercise described in Congruent Exercise, all you need to do is get your set up positioning right as shown in the video and you have an effective exercise for the infraspinatus. Nice way to finish up the upper body.
The above 8 exercises make for a solid upper body routine, that’s a pretty significant tick for the space saving, highly portable and relatively inexpensive bands. Onward, next lower body… and here is where things get tricky. A quick search around the internet will produce a myriad of lower body exercises for bands. Unfortunately, most of them are biomechanically poor and unfixable, or they are exceptionally difficult to set up, to get into position and maintain posture during. This makes many potential lower body movements downright uncomfortable or even worse, unsafe.
I was almost tempted to quit the bands at this point, but I had set myself the challenge of creating a full body routine with bands so with that in mind, here goes. If I had to:
9. Hip abduction
Target: Gluteus medius
This is workable, you can make sure that the band provides some resistance at the start of the movement. There is little however, that can be done to alter the effect of the increasing resistance of the band. An option is to use the same tactic as we did in the row: work the area closest to full contraction first and then gradually extend the stroke of the movement as fatigue sets in.
Target: Gluteus maximus
I firstly tried the squat standing on the bands with a hip belt, very uncomfortable. I trialled it with handles held by my shoulders, a massive effort to get the handles up there with squat-worthy resistance and the forward pull through the torso was distracting. I gave it a shot with hands down by my sides, no way near enough resistance. Ineffective, uncomfortable and unsafe was all I was getting from my various squat experiments. Without a permanent floor anchor or a very heavy dumbbell to attach the bands to (both solutions outside of the constraints I had set myself for this article) suitable squats are challenging. A hip belt and a safe anchor point on the floor that you could attach the bands to and stand directly over could make for a good squat. As it stood, squats were very nearly out of the picture altogether. This is a pity as bodyweight squats are a favorite of mine.
The best exercise I was finally able to come up with is a sort of squat/deadlift hybrid, and you do need a hip belt suitable to attach the bands to. In this exercise as you can see in the video you attach the door anchor to the bottom of the door and the bands also connect to your hip belt. You then walk carefully forward until you can feel significant resistance in the band without being pulled out of place, then you go about performing a regular squat type movement. As you start to sit back into the squat you will notice a fall-off in the tension of the band- this is ok as the further you sit down the more challenging the exercise becomes from bodyweight alone. As you stand back up out of the squat and your hips travel forward you will begin to feel the resistance from the band again, and it will continually increase as you continue to extend the hips. This increases the emphasis on the glutes, over a regular bodyweight squat. There can be a temptation to over-extend the hips in a forward thrusting movement when you feel the resistance/support of the band kick-in, it is important to avoid doing this. You can however stand up a little taller/closer to knee lockout than you would with a regular bodyweight squat, as the glutes are still being exposed to significant resistance.
Doing the above will bring a little more glute stimulus to a squatting movement. Is it worth it? Debatable, if you can safely get into the start position, perform the exercise correctly and safely de-load at the end of the exercise, then maybe. Otherwise I suggest it is better to do a regular bodyweight squat instead and precede or proceed it with the next exercise instead.
11. Glute Bridge
Target: Gluteus Maximus
This is another one that is a bit of a stretch! The regular glute bridge is already hardest in the fully contracted position. Placing a band over your hips to push into is only going to make the hardest part harder still and do little to increase resistance where it is needed most at the start of the movement. Unless, you game it a little by deliberately holding the band tauter (pulling your hands apart and tightening the band across your hips) at the start of the movement and slackening off a little as you approach full contraction. That is however quite a lot to think about and do in a short range of motion whilst being able to mentally focus on the prime mover. With dedicated practice, it could perhaps be done if you are determined to workout solely with resistance bands!
The bottom line
If I were to perform a resistance band only workout the exercises above and the sequence I have presented them in is what I would do. I am happier with the upper body portion of the routine, than the lower body portion. Also, I have not included any direct exercises for the abdominals as it is likely that maintaining posture against the resistance of the bands during the above exercises will provide enough of a challenge.
Making bands work for you
If you decide to experiment with bands take as many sessions as you need to figure everything out: where and how you are going to set up and anchor the exercises safely, your positioning, appropriate resistance levels and how you will safely de-load when fatigued at the end of each exercise. Always follow the manufacturers set up and safety guidelines, and check for damage to bands, straps, handles and anchors regularly.
Once you have got all this set and you are confident in your ability to use the bands you can begin to perform the workout in a HIT manner. If any of the above exercises don’t work for you simply replace with an appropriate bodyweight, free weight or machine exercise.
For individuals who are strong and vigilant enough to maintain correct posture throughout these band exercises, but not so strong that the band resistance becomes impractical (if you find you pull yourself across the room rather than stretch the bands on the multi-joint exercises) then bands can make for a useful training tool. They take up very little space, pack up small, weigh next to nothing and can be used almost anywhere.
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