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The Science of Strength Bands

I’ve long been a proponent of training with resistance bands. Learn how this versatile training equipment compares to free weights and why they’re so effective.

The Science of Strength Bands

Looks can be deceiving, particularly when it comes to training with elastic bands. This unassuming piece of equipment doesn’t look nearly as “hardcore” as a loaded barbell or heavy pair of dumbbells. It stands to reason then, that bands are probably great for rehabbing an injury and low-impact workouts for the elderly, but lousy at helping the serious gym rat build significant size and strength, right? Wrong, so very wrong.

Elastic resistance exercise, such as the use of elastic tubing equipment, has been around for almost a century. It was originally introduced as a unique exercise tool and eventually became popular as a rehabilitation device. Today, bands are more than just an entry-level alternative to heavy free weights. They’re now used around the world by elite athletes in all sports—football players, UFC fighters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, you name it—to develop strength, power, speed and even muscle size.

Elastic and free-weight resistance (i.e., barbells and dumbbells) have several things in common:

  • Both provide some form of resistance.
  • Both allow a free range of motion.
  • Both allow variable speed of movement.
  • Both allow progressive resistance.

All four of these properties are critical to ensuring an effective resistance-training routine.

Despite these similarities people would assume, due to the lightweight and “flimsy” appearance of elastic tubing, that free weights are clearly the superior resistance-training equipment. However, studies have shown that muscle activity and peak load during elastic-resistance exercise is similar to that of free-weight training. Research has also found that programs utilizing elastic tubing, elastic bands, and similar devices increase muscle strength and size, and decrease body fat in a similar manner to free-weight training programs. [1][2][7][9]

In other words, your muscle fibers don’t know the difference between dumbbells and elastic bands in a given range of motion—provided the amount of resistance is more or less the same.

Differences Between Bands and Free Weights

You’ve seen the similarities between elastic and free-weight resistance. But there are several key performance-enhancing features that elastic resistance offers that free weights don’t.

More Planes of Movement

Unlike free weights, elastic-band training doesn’t rely on gravity to provide resistance. This increases its potential for use in more functional movement patterns that mimic both everyday and sport-specific activities.

Because free weights rely on gravity, they can only provide resistance in a vertical plane—the direction of gravity. This means that if you do an exercise with a free weight in the horizontal plane—such as moving your hand while holding a dumbbell from the left side of your body to the right side—there’s no horizontal resistance to that movement.

This isn’t the case with elastic tubing. Horizontal plane movements are fair game. Thanks to elastic bands, you can perform exercises such as twisting your body from side to side, sidekicks and punches, as well as movements that mimic a baseball swing or basketball pass, with added resistance. This is especially useful for athletes looking to enhance performance and reduce injury risk.

One study published in a 1998 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine reported that collegiate tennis players who trained using elastic bands significantly increased their shoulder strength as well as the speed of their tennis serve compared to those not using bands. 

Another study—this one from Louisiana State University (New Orleans)—discovered that an elastic-band training program strengthened the rotator cuff muscles of collegiate baseball pitchers better than a program that used dumbbells. 

These horizontal-plane movements also come in handy when performing regular daily tasks like turning your body while carrying a heavy box. People take these everyday movements for granted, but you can easily injure yourself—especially as you get older—if your strength is lacking in the horizontal plane.

Because elastic resistance doesn’t rely on gravity, it’s also possible to redirect the emphasis placed on working muscles during an exercise by changing the line of pull on the tubing or bands mid-set. Research performed at Brigham Young University offered a specific example of this, reporting that emphasis placed on the quadriceps and hamstrings during elastic-tubing squatting and stepping exercises changed when subjects altered the direction of pull

This ability to change emphasis is important for those looking to target specific muscles either for aesthetic reasons or for sport-specific requirements. It’s also important for those with injuries, as shifting the force more to certain muscles can help protect certain joints.

For example, greater hamstring emphasis during squatting or stepping movements (as illustrated in the above BYU study) can help protect certain structures around the knee. This is difficult to accomplish with free weights because, as previously stated, they require the direction of force to be vertical, due to the reliance on gravity for resistance.

Constant Tension

Another benefit of elastic resistance is that it provides continuous tension to the muscles being trained. When you lift a free weight in any direction other than straight up and down, the tension on the muscle can actually be removed at certain points in the range of motion. Again, it comes down to the difference between needing and not needing gravity for resistance.

For example, when doing a biceps curl with a dumbbell, as you curl the weight up, at the very top of the movement the dumbbell is literally falling toward the shoulder. This means that the tension on the biceps has been removed because the dumbbell is no longer being lifted up against gravity by the biceps. When doing a biceps curl with elastic resistance, the tension is present throughout the entire range of motion because the elastic material provides resistance due to its own properties.

As a bonus, elastic resistance equipment is inexpensive, lightweight, and easily stored and transported, despite its ability to provide strong, heavy-duty resistance. On the contrary, free weights must be heavy and cumbersome to provide substantial load. Barbells, dumbbells and weight plates are expensive, too, as they’re typically priced by the pound.

Linear Variable Resistance

Arguably the most definable characteristic of band training is linear variable resistance. What this means is, as the range of motion of an exercise increases, so, too, does the resistance provided by the band.

For example, when doing a biceps curl with elastic tubing, as you curl your hand up toward your shoulder, the resistance gets progressively greater. This is due to the physical properties of elastic material, which we’ve all experienced at some point when using a rubber band for one purpose or another: The more the band is stretched, the more resistance it provides.

One benefit of this elasticity is that as the range of motion—and thus the resistance—increases, so does the number of fibers involved in the target muscle. The more muscle fibers being used, the greater the adaptations in muscle strength that can be achieved. This is a benefit free weights can’t offer.

Another valuable byproduct of this linear variable resistance is that in most cases, it better mimics what’s known as the “strength curve of the muscle” than do free weights. A strength curve refers to the way a muscle or muscle group’s strength changes over a range of motion. Most muscles increase in strength over the range of motion until a certain point.

Again, using the dumbbell biceps curl as an example, as you bring your hand toward your shoulder the biceps muscle gets stronger until about the halfway point of the range of motion. Thus, the biceps muscle is weakest at the start of the exercise and strongest at the halfway point. When doing a curl with a free weight, you’re limited to how much resistance you can use by how strong the biceps are at its weakest point—the beginning of the exercise. This means the muscle isn’t receiving adequate resistance at its strongest point in the range of motion.

When performing a curl with elastic tubing, however, the resistance increases with the range of motion. As a result, the muscle is receiving greater resistance at its strongest point to better stimulate strength adaptations.

Many individuals using elastic resistance report that they can feel a difference, such as a stronger burn in the muscles and greater muscle fatigue, as compared to using free weights. Linear variable resistance is to thank (or blame!) for this.

Research studies confirm this anecdotal evidence. One study performed at Truman State University (Kirksville, Missouri) found that athletes who included elastic-resistance bench-press training in their regimens had a significantly greater increase in bench-press strength and power on average compared to those who only utilized free-weight training.

Another study performed at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse reported in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that when athletes used elastic-band training in addition to free weights, they had significantly more leg power than when they utilized only free-weight training.

No More Cheating

Another critical benefit of elastic resistance is that it prevents the user from “cheating” on the exercise being performed.

This is a common practice when using free weights, especially among beginners. 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 of the exercise. In other words, momentum is doing most of the work at this point, not the muscles.

The physical properties of elastic resistance devices simply don’t allow the user to cheat by using momentum. There’s a simple reason for this: Resistance from the band comes from the stretching of the elastic material, not the mass of the equipment as with a barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell. The only way to continue a movement while performing an exercise with elastic resistance is to utilize more muscle fibers to continue stretching the band.

Elastic Bands vs. Free Weights

This table shows the specific benefits of elastic and free-weight resistance. They share much in common, but bands deliver numerous additional features.

Benefit Elastic Resistance Free-Weight Resistance
Provides progressive resistance
Allows variable speed of movement
Increases muscle strength
Increases muscle size
Decreases body fat
Provides resistance in multiple directions  
Provides variable resistance  
Provides constant tension  
Prevents cheating  
Easy to store  
Easy to transport  

Elastic Bands AND Free Weights

And now another study, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, confirms that adding strength bands to free weights can be more beneficial than free weights alone

The researchers had untrained subjects first acclimate themselves to the bench press by training with just free weights on the bench press for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks they tested the subjects one-rep max on the bench press. Then they split them into one of two groups.

Group one used just free weight on the bench press. Group two used about 85% free weight resistance and about 15% band resistance. Both groups trained for three weeks using a total weight on the bench press that was equal to 85% of their one-rep max, or a weight that limited them to about 6 reps per set. At the end of the three weeks they retested their one-rep max and then switched groups for another three weeks.

They reported in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that when the subjects used bands plus free weights they increased their bench press strength by an average of 22 pounds. However, when they used just free weights without bands, they increased their bench press strength by an average of 17 pounds.

This study reported that when the subjects added bands to their bench press they increased their strength gains by 5 pounds more than when they used free weights alone. That's a difference of 30%. And although this study used beginner lifters, that actually makes the 30% difference all the more impressive. Beginners make dramatic changes in strength as it is, but despite this they were able to make even more dramatic strength gains by using bands with free weights as opposed to free weights alone.

Plus, these results are very similar to previous studies in trained lifters that also show that adding bands to free weight exercises results in greater gains in muscle strength. Taken together, the research on bands now confirms that in both untrained and trained lifters, adding bands to free weights dramatically improves muscle strength.

Bottom Line on Bands

Elastic resistance offers several benefits that outweigh (pun intended) those of free weights. These bonus features include functional strength, injury prevention, greater gains in muscular power and explosiveness, and convenience of use—particularly at home or when traveling.  

Believe it or not, though, a program using only elastic bands can also provide the type of results that most people think can only come from free weights. I’m talking about increased muscle strength and size, and decreased body fat. All of this from a lightweight set of rubber bands.

As I said before, looks can be deceiving. Iron isn’t the only way to get bigger and stronger.

For some tips on putting strength bands to use, band-only workouts, and programs that incorporate bands into your weight training, check out my Band Workout Breakdown.


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