June 09, 2021 10 min read

There’s no doubt that deadlifts and bench presses give you a rush, but they’re far from the only ways to build up tons of muscle mass.All your muscles need to get stronger and bigger over time is repeated, novel stress followed by enough recovery time to rebuild themselves.

The science on a molecular level is pretty complicated, but luckily you don’t have to understand any of that stuff for the process to work. Can resistance bands provide the kind of strain needed to exhaust your muscles and rebuild damaged tissue back stronger and larger? Absolutely.

Resistance bands put a constant strain on your muscles throughout the entire exercise and make it harder to cheat. As long as you’re doing them with the proper form, banded exercises are a great way to build functional strength and muscle mass.

Read on to find out everything you gotta know about resistance bands, how they stack up to other forms of exercise, and how to incorporate them into your workout routine in the most effective way possible.

Close up of exercise resistance bands of various colors and weighted pound resistance

Do Resistance Bands Work?

Short answer? Yes.

Explaining how resistance bands work is a bit more complex.Think about working out at its most basic - whatever movement taxes your muscles during regular, everyday movement challenges them to a much greater degree when you add weight.

Lifting your hand to your chest is more difficult when you’re carrying several bags of groceries, for example.Resistance bands operate on the same principle except they rely on the tension of the band rather than adding weights like you would during a strength training exercise. Less elastic bands require more effort from your muscles to move.

Resistance Bands vs. Weight Machines & Dumbbells

“Elastic resistance training is able to promote similar strength gains to conventional resistance training,” according to a 2019 meta-analysis of data gathered during physiological research that ran from 2001 to 2017.

The participants in these various research studies varied from sedentary teenagers to highly active athletes and even people suffering from chronic conditions like COPD. The results inarguably demonstrate that your muscles grow in size and strength when you work out with resistance bands just like they would if you were to use barbells, dumbbells, or workout machines.

Most dedicated lifters use resistance bands in tandem with weights and exercise machines when they plateau or need to push their muscles a little bit further without adding additional weight.

In common exercises like the chest flye, bench press, or even the bicep curl, bands keep straining your muscles at the top and bottom of the exercise, places where without bands your muscles would have a chance to relax.

Depriving your muscles of this break time causes them to sustain more damage. As that damage is repaired, the tissue is made stronger and given more mass to prevent similar injuries in the future. This process is called hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy Training With Resistance Bands

When you train with freeweights or gym machines, the weight pushes against your muscles and makes them work harder. The elasticity of resistance bands serves the same purpose. If you’re trying to promote muscle growth, you need a workout program that will exhaust the muscle fibers you’re targeting.

Continuing until your muscles are completely worn out and you can no longer complete a single rep is called “training to failure” and many bodybuilders swear by it. However, you don’t have to reach complete muscle failure to get hypertrophy to kick in.

There’s significant evidence that high-intensity resistance training builds muscle strength without training to failure. That being said, low-intensity resistance training to failure is more likely to cause comparable strength gains to high-intensity resistance training.

Your muscle tissue is divided into groups by type (slow, fast fatigue-resistant, fast intermediate, and fast fatigable) and then grouped into motor units consisting only of a single type of fibers. These muscle units are also referred to as Type I, Type IIa, and Type IIx. They work with one another to make skeletal motion happen.

Type 1 muscle fibers are slow-twitch and respond to even the slightest amount of weight or exertion, but are also the slowest to fatigue. Type IIa are fast-twitch and see recruitment when the weight is increased, while Type IIx are the last to be recruited by the other two types. Type IIx are the fastest to fatigue and Type IIa are somewhere in the middle.

What that means for building muscle and encouraging hypertrophy with resistance band exercises is that the intensity and speed of your workout matter a whole lot if you want to hit all three types of muscle fibers.

That’s why so many bodybuilding experts aim for total muscle exhaustion by continuing reps with less weight toward the end of their routines - the slow muscle fibers are significantly more resistant to fatiguing and the more sustained exercise targets them without continuing to attack the faster muscle fibers that kicked in and exhausted themselves already.

Additional intensity recruits the faster-twitch muscles, the ones that also fatigue the fastest. The slowest muscle fibers are recruited no matter how much weight you use, so if you want to keep them working after the faster fibers are worn out you have to cut weight.

That’s where resistance bands come in. Because they keep constant tension on your muscles throughout the full range of motion of the exercise, bands help those slower muscles work harder. This evens out the workout routine and prevents the need for long reps to exhaustion at the end.

Two Types of Hypertrophy

You can increase the functionality of your muscles just like you can improve their outright strength. When muscles need to get to work, they get energy from glycogen that’s stored right in the muscle. Hypertrophy that makes muscles better at storing this glycogen is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

The first kind of hypertrophy that increases the strength and speed of your muscles is called myofibrillar hypertrophy. Lifting more weight for fewer reps promotes myofibrillar hypertrophy while high-volume workouts are better for concentrating on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

This is an important consideration when you lay out your weekly and monthly workout routines. High-volume training is less likely to wear you out and thus requires less recovery time than lifting heavy weight. So you need to balance a few days per month of single-rep max outs with regular workouts at lower weight ranges.

Progressive Overload

Another crucial element for encouraging hypertrophy is progressive overload. Progressive overload is the process of steadily increasing the amount of weight and reps as well as the kind of exercises in your workout routine.

As hypertrophy builds strength in your muscles, additional weight or resistance will be required to cause muscle damage again. Alternatively, you could be capable of more reps as you get stronger and add more rather than increasing the weight you use. Most important is varying the exercises in your workout routine.

Your muscles get used to certain types of movement as well as specific amounts of weight, so if you want to keep them from adjusting to your routine and attack them from new angles, you’ll need different exercises. It’s also wise to use variations of the same exercises - for example, both push-ups and one-armed push-ups, bodyweight rows, or diamond push-ups.

Resistance Band Training with Bodyweight Exercises

When you don’t have the time or resources for a personal trainer or you simply prefer to work out in a home gym or in quick intervals of spare time, resistance bands are optimal. They’re lightweight and you can change up the amount of resistance to make the workout more or less challenging depending on your fitness goals.

But you also need to make sure you’re completing all your bodyweight exercises the right way during a resistance band workout. As your reps and sets become easier, you need to either do more sets, use a more challenging variation, increase the resistance level of the band you’re using, or some mixture of all three approaches.

Let’s take a look at banded push-ups as an example. Banded push-ups are a great bodyweight workout for targeting some of the most important muscle groups in your upper body, adding some cardio benefits to your routine, and, to a lesser extent, activating your abs and core muscles.

Man doing push-up using a elastic band at the gym

How to Do Banded Push-Ups

In case you’re new to fitness or a bit rusty on the proper form for push-ups, here’s a very brief rundown of the basics:

  • Kneel on the ground and then lean forward to place the palms of both hands on the floor. They should be directly beneath your shoulder blades and your hands should be directly underneath your wrists.
  • Support your lower body weight with the toes of each foot. There should be a straight line running through your neck down to your heels. Look slightly forward to get your neck in the proper position.
  • Bend your elbows so that your body moves closer to the floor. Continue until your elbows are at right angles and your chest is hovering just above the ground.
  • Push through your palms to raise back into the starting position and complete one push-up.

When you use a resistance band to make push-ups more challenging, you should have a loop band that is large enough to run from one palm to the other by going up the arm and over the upper back between the shoulder blades.

As you continue doing push-ups as either a warm-up or part of your regular fitness routine, you’ll notice that the same number of reps won’t affect you the same way. It’s a great thrill to reach a new high in your banded push-up count and to keep working toward that goal it’s necessary to keep challenging your body so your muscles keep building strength.

If you want to make strength training exercises more difficult, you simply increase the weight and increase your reps. But for bodyweight exercises, what can you do? One of the greatest benefits of resistance bands is that they offer a quick way to make bodyweight exercises more challenging without having to hold heavy weight in an awkward position.

You can try to balance free weights or dumbbells on your back during a push-up, for instance, but it’s a lot easier to wrap a resistance band around your shoulders.

Replacing Weight Training with Resistance Bands

Not everyone has time to hit the gym on a regular basis. Maybe it’s just not your vibe or maybe it’s so crowded you can never get access to some of the machines anyway.Luckily, resistance bands build muscle just as effectively as these machines and heavy weights do.

You might need to invest in a gym membership if you want to make Mr. Universe someday, but for the vast majority of people who just want to shed excess body fat and build a reasonable amount of muscle mass, resistance bands and some free weights will do just fine. 

You’d be surprised what weight training exercises you can incorporate into a home workout with resistance bands. The shoulder press is a great example. Many people use barbells or dumbbells to perform the overhead shoulder press, but you can use a resistance band for similar results.

Here are a few of the best strength training exercises you can replace with banded variations:

1. Shoulder Press

Rather than reaching for a weight set for your shoulder presses, invest in a large loop band or else a few tube bands that have handles on them. To do the banded shoulder press, all you need to do is stand on one end of each band and take the other in your hands with an overhand grip. Start with your elbows at a 90° angle and then raise your arms straight above your head. Slowly bring them back down to complete one rep.

2. Lat Pulldowns

The classic move for building strength in the latissimus dorsi, lat pulldowns have their own machine at most gyms. But you don’t need weight plates and cables to target your lats.

Set up an anchor point near the ceiling or use a door frame to hook your resistance band. Kneel on your knees with the band in both hands and your arms completely outstretched toward the anchor point. Pull the band toward your shoulders and return to the starting position to complete one rep.

3. Band Pull Thru

Kettlebell swings are a fantastic exercise for building strength and coordination throughout your entire posterior chain, including important muscle groups like the glutes and hamstrings.

However, kettlebells themselves aren’t always the most portable option.

Replacing the kettlebell swings with these banded pull thrus is easy as long as you can establish a low anchor point somewhere. A vertical bar could work in a pinch.

Once you have the band fastened securely, stand with your back to the anchor point and hold onto the band with both hands. The handle or the end of the loop should be between your legs. Walk away from the anchor point until the band is taut.

Hinge forward at the hips and let the resistance band go back toward the anchor point, then reverse the movement. This motion mimics the kettlebell swing and it doesn’t allow momentum to make the exercise easier on your muscles.

4. Deadlifts

Deadlifting with a barbell is a great full-body workout and the banded version gives you similar benefits without the need for heavy equipment. Stand on the center of a large loop resistance band or the end of two separate bands with each foot. Take the other end in your hands while hinged over as if you were about to pick up a barbell. Straighten your knees and stand up straight and then reverse the movement to get back to the starting position.

5. Dumbbell Rows

Most people use dumbbell rows to target their rhomboids and lats. You can skip the dumbbells with banded bodyweight rows, which are similar to lat pulldowns and can replace pull-ups in your workout routine if you don’t have a sturdy horizontal bar available.

The best resistance band for bodyweight rows is a tube band with handles, although you can also use a large loop band if you prefer. Attach the center or the end of the band(s) to a high anchor point and then step backward with the other end(s) in your hand until you feel the tension in the band.

Lean back without taking the soles of your feet off the ground. You should be able to lean back and let the resistance bands support your bodyweight. Pull yourself as close as you can get to an upright position without moving your feet, then slowly let yourself go back into the starting position.

Conclusion:

Resistance bands are an essential piece of gear for anyone who wants to build some serious muscle mass or just stay in shape. They’re convenient, easy to use, and they are as effective as weights and workout machines at encouraging hypertrophy to build strength.

Next time you don’t have time to hit the gym or you want to get in some quality fitness time at home or the office, reach for resistance bands and try a few of the exercises discussed in this guide. With the right form and an effective supplement, you’ll be able to get ripped in no time.


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