Training With Bands: Ninja Tool of Strength Coaches

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Mary Kay
Mary Kay
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Ever wondered if elite strength coaches share all of their best tips on social media, or if they keep some of their best training secrets for their clients?  Of course, they do, and one of those ninja tips is the use of bands.  Yep, those wobbly, elastic strings aren’t just rehabilitation and dynamic warm-up tools, they’re also effective strength building tools.  The reason coaches like them is because of their ability to completely stress and fatigue muscles without adding excessive loads.  Specifically, when you integrate 2 different forms of resistance (e.g., horizontal and vertical resistance) into 1 exercise, it creates a “hybrid tension” effect which is MORE stimulating to muscle growth than traditional weightlifting exercises.  Never heard of hybrid tension before?  Read on.

Benefits of Hybrid Tension

Imagine doing a chin-up and pulling your bodyweight up until your chin is above the bar.  Now, imagine doing the same movement but with bands around your ankles and a partner gently pulling the band and your legs away from the pull-up bar.  What’s the impact?  In order to keep your body in a vertical path, you have to focus on two things:  overcoming gravity and keeping your body upright as you pull up.  In short, an exercise that employs hybrid tension is much harder to do.

‘Hybrid tension’ is not just harder, it also activates and recruits more muscle fibers across 2 planes of motion thereby creating GREATER MUSCLE STRENGTH AND GROWTH.  (Barbell and free-weight exercises, in comparison, create resistance in just one plane of motion.)  A secondary benefit is the ‘stretch’ in the band has the added effect of changing tension across a movement pattern, which can be accelerated or decelerated to build up FAST, EFFICIENT REFLEXES.  This is why many strength coaches include band training into their clients’ programs.  If you consider that our body has to deal with forces, momentum and ground reaction from many different angles throughout the day, teaching the body to handle fast and slow movements under different types of tension is helpful for both athletes and adults.

Types of Bands

There are a variety of resistance bands out there, but the three most popular types are:

  • Looped Resistance Bands – Look like a giant rubber band and are commonly used in powerlifting and sports performance workouts to help build explosive power and strength. 
  • Elastic Band Tubes with Handles – Used for bodyweight exercises to help rebuild muscle and/or recover from injury or surgery.
  • Mini Bands – Are small, flat, looped elastic bands that are placed around the wrists, thighs or ankles and are used to help correct muscle imbalances and/or improve movement quality.

How much resistance you’ll get is determined by the thickness and/or stiffness of the band and how far it’s stretched, but generally, the wider the band, the more resistance it has.  Also, of the 3 types, looped bands and mini bands are the ones that are combined with free weights to create hybrid tension.

Applications of Band Training

While most of us have seen exercise videos demonstrating the use of bands for a) bodyweight training and b) dynamic stretching (aka to prepare muscles and joints for work), here are 3 other applications of bands in adult strength training.  They are:

  • Perfecting the Squat
  • Power/Speed Development
  • Hypertrophy Through Maximum Fatigue

Perfecting the Squat.  The squat is the one exercise that draws out muscular/postural imbalances like no other exercise.  And while many use the squat to develop the quad muscles, the truth is the squat is highly dependent on the glutes which kick in once the hips drop below the knees or past 90 degrees.  Brad Schoenfeld, wrote a great scientific article titled The Biomechanics of Squat Depth.  In the article he mentioned research has shown how maximal gluteal activation occurs with full depth squats.  Partial squats had 16.92 ± 8.78% gluteal involvement; parallel squats had 28.00 ± 10.29% gluteal involvement and full depth squats had 35.47 ± 1.45% gluteal involvement.  The key takeaway being that a “full depth” squat develops both the quads and the glutes when executed correctly.   If you watch most people squat, however, you’ll find an abundance of partial squatters, a handful of parallel squatters and a rare few of full depth squatters.  Why is this?

Well, if you ask most partial squatters, they’ll tell you that squatting too low hurts their knees or back or both.  But this is not the real problem.  The real problem is usually poor hip and/or glute activation, and a simple trick to help correct this issue is to use mini bands.  The approach involves securing a mini band around your legs, just above your knees and then performing the squat with just 70-75% of your 1RM for 6-8 reps.  The band resistance forces the lifter to drive their knees out and activate the outside of the hips, which will stabilize the knees (preventing knee valgus) as well as help activate the glutes.  Likewise, as you develop stronger hips and glutes, you’ll be able to handle heavier loads when squatting.  Makes sense, right?  You cannot improve strength and power if you cannot first stabilize and control a movement under tension.

Now, the technical name for this type of band work is Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT), and it’s often used by physical therapists and coaches like Dr. John Rusin for rehabilitation programming and the improvement of movement patterning and quality.  But I think the terminology muddies the water.  The truth is a movement pattern can look clean on the outside and still engage the wrong muscle chain.  Similarly, the absence of pain is not a good enough indicator.  Properly executed movements under tension, will feel good and not so good through a ROM, depending on how muscles crisscross your body, and this changes as we age.  Hence, you absolutely need exercises that help the brain become aware of what a “good” movement pattern feels like in the body, an creating “hybrid tension” is by far the best tool I’ve come across.  

Workout Example (Lower Body)

Warm-Up:  A) Low Box Jump (2 x 5) and B) Banded Crosswalks (2 x 10 Steps/Each Way)
A) BB Back Squat (5 x [email protected] Seconds)
B) Banded BB Pause Squats (2 x [email protected] Seconds).  Use ~75% of the weight used in your work sets for exercise A.  Place a mini band around your legs and position just above the knees and squat normally.  Focus here is to go as low as you can and hold for 4-5 seconds without concaving the knees or leaning over.  Then, drive through your heels to stand up.
C1) BB Box Squat (3 x 10-12).  Sit on the box or bench for a full second before standing up.  Rest 60 seconds before C2.
C2) Leg Curl (3 x 12-15).  Rest 90 seconds before C1.
D1) Leg Press (3 x 15-20).  Rest 60 seconds before D2.
D2) DB RNT Reverse Lunge (3 x 10/Each Leg).  Secure a band to a power rack and to one leg, just below the knee.  Focus on keeping hips and knees stable (no internal or external rotation) throughout the movement.  Rest 90 seconds before D1.
E1) Cable Jump Frog Squat (3 x 10).  Do D1 and D2 with no rest between exercises.
E2) Cable Squat (3 x 10).  Rest 90 seconds before D1.
F) Abs – Your Choice (3 x [email protected] Seconds)

Power/Speed Development.  Life is really all about accelerating or decelerating force quickly, and without a doubt, bands are the safest way to practice moving weight at different speeds.  The two most popular methods are simply called the ‘heavier’ and ‘lightened’ methods.  With the heavier method (popularized by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell), bands are attached to bottom supports and then to the sleeves of the bar so that tension is never released (such as with the bench press and overhead press).  Because of this, a quick start is impossible and locking out a heavy weight is really tough.  The lightened method, on the other hand, involves anchoring the bands at the top of the power rack with a slip knot and then attaching to the bands to the sleeves of the bar thereby creating an almost weightless bar.  This allows the lifter to move more load quickly while developing tremendous power at lockout.

Now, if you’re wondering if fast or slow presses is appropriate for the general population, a 2016 study in the Strength and Conditioning Research Journal tried to address this question with a group of, rugby players.  In the study, they compared the use of free weight resistance (FWR) with elastic band resistance (EB) for the bench press and found that a) EB + FWR not only increased the range of concentric movement in which the barbell is accelerated (35% STRENGTH IMPROVEMENT), maximal VELOCITY (aka speed) also IMPROVED by 17% as compared to the FWR group.  The conclusion being when a load is accelerated through a bigger range of motion, it results in improved speed-strength and thus helpful to power/speed-focused sports.

Workout Example (Upper Body):  Strength/speed training is now a staple of athletic and individualized training programs.  A typical upper body workout might include:

Warm-Up:  A) Single-Arm KB Overhead Walk (3 x 20 meters/each arm) and B) Single-Arm KB Rack Carry (3 x 20-30 meters)
A) Rope Face Pull-Aparts (3×[email protected] Seconds)
B)  BB Slight Decline Bench Press (5×[email protected] Seconds)
C1) Banded Dynamic Effort BB Bench Press (10×4).  Attach resistance bands to the bottom of rack and then onto the sleeves of a barbell.  Use ~75% of the weight used in your work sets for exercise B.  Focus on explosive push and a 1 second lock-out at top.  Rest 60 seconds before C2.
C2) Plyo Push-Up (10×4).  Rest 90 seconds before C1.
D) Pull-up ([email protected]).
E1) Banded Russian KB Swing (3×15).  Slip-knot one end of the band on the handle of a kettlebell and then anchor the other end of the band beneath your feet.  Note how much or little of the band you secure beneath your feet dictates the band resistance.  Focus on exploding and moving the KB with the glutes and hips.  Control the weight down and/or resist the urge to let the KB just fall down.  Rest 60 seconds before E1.
E2) DB Pullover on Flat Bench (3×10-12).   Rest 90 seconds before E2.

Hypertrophy Through Maximum Fatigue.  Very often when lifting weights, the smaller muscles tire out first and cannot support a weight through a full range of motion (aka reach failure).  Adding a band to a free weight movement, however, allows a muscle to be maximally lengthened during the eccentric movement, which in turn creates conditions to CONTRACT BETTER and MORE FULLY during the concentric phase of the movement.  As IFBB Professional Mark Dugdale says, “I see quicker growth when a fatigued and massively pumped muscle is fully stretched.”  But it’s not just about the stretch.  By using hybrid tension in the super-set” or “giant set” training technique (2 or 3 exercises performed back to back with no rest), a lifter can extend a work set, supercharge cellular volumization (aka “the pump”) while maximizing muscle overload and growth of antagonist muscle pairs. 

Superset Examples: 

Bench Press (3×10) s/s Banded Chest Machine (3×10 or AMRAP)BB Deadlift s/s Band Resisted Trap Bar Deadlift (Lower Handles) (3×10 or AMRAP)
BB Row (3×10) s/s Banded DB Bent Over Row (3×10 or AMRAP)
BB Back Squat (3×10) s/s Banded DB Goblet Squat (3×10 or AMRAP)

Giant Set Examples: 

Partial DB Lat Raise with Pause (2×10) g/s Banded DB Front Lat Raise (Neutral Grip) (2×6-8), g/s DB Lat Raise (2×10 or AMRAP)
Partial BB Behind the Neck Press (Wide Grip) (2×10) g/s with DB Arnold Press (2×10) g/s with Banded
Close Grip Bench Press (2 x 10) g/s Decline KB Skull Crusher (2×8-10) s/s Banded Triceps Pull-downs (2xAMRAP)

Two caveats here.  When using bands for increased hypertrophy, you have to be careful not to overdo it.  The bands produce a large amount of concentric and/or eccentric overloading and thus can cause excessive soreness.  So, start with one FW/BR superset or giant set and then build up to 2 in a single workout but no more than that.  Or if the volume is too much, another expert tip is to incorporate what Louie Simmons calls “mini workouts” throughout the day … such as doing a lot of band press downs, a lot of band crunches, or a lot of banded squats / lunges, etc. whenever you have the time.  Don’t even worry about following a specific set or rep pattern.  Just focus on getting a strong contraction.  When you train frequently with low stress exercises, you’ll get a nasty pump which is what creates those beautiful, plump muscles.

Summary

If you’re looking for ways to maximize your time in the gym, then creating hybrid tension (with the use of bands) is definitely something you should add to your iron toolbox.  It not only teaches the body to be dynamically and re-actively stable (aka stabilize loaded joints while moving), helps improve speed-strength, it accelerates hypertrophy gains because FW + BR exercises work a bigger cross section of muscles than you would with free weights alone.  And the nice thing is you don’t have to do any special programming.  Just adding 1-2 banded exercises to compliment your daily workout focus will make a difference!