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Big Bad Bands
Ask any successful lifter what works best, and he’s likely going to tell you that anything will work, but not forever. With that in mind, it’s imperative for all lifters to have an extensive toolbox from which to draw when it comes to building size and strength.
Everyone knows about free weights. Bodyweight-only training has been around for centuries. We’ve got Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley trying to sell Total Gyms, and Tony Little screaming in our ears about his damn Gazelle. However, not many people are preaching the virtues of training with resistance bands – most likely because people aren’t aware of how versatile a set of implements they are.
Before we get to the good stuff, I should mention that we’re not going to be talking about the little therabands the physical therapist gave your grandmother. Sure, they have value for her, but we’re looking to give you a resource to take your training to the next level. With that said, all the uses I outline below will utilize one or more of the following:
- Mini-band (1/2” thick): 5-25 pounds of tension, depending on amount of stretch
- Light band (1-1/8” thick): 30-50 pounds of tension
- Average band (1-3/4” thick): 65-85 pounds of tension
- Strong band (2-1/2” thick): 80-100 pounds of tension
- Monster band (4” thick): ~200 pounds of tension (most of you will never see a monster band, let alone use one)
The more stretch, the more resistance the lifter receives. Conversely, in a “reverse band” set-up, the more the band stretches, the less weight the lifter handles.
Accommodating Resistance: Defined
I could go into a tremendous amount of detail about the biomechanics of various strength curves in the body, but the focus of this article is on the practice of band training rather than just the science. With that said, here’s what you need to know about accommodating resistances:
- On all lifts, there will be portions of the movement where you are always particularly strong. Examples include the top of a squat, bench press, or curl.
- On other lifts, however, your strong point might not be so easily predicted. For example, many lifters are weak off the floor on the deadlift, while others are weakest at lockout.
- Ultimately, when using a fixed resistance, the amount of weight we can move is limited by the weakest portion of the movement. If you can ¼ squat 800 pounds but only take 135 out of the hole, you’re only going to squat 135.
- Obviously, we need to strengthen the weakest portion of the movement to bring up the entire lift, but we don’t want to undertrain the strong portion. This portion of the movement allows for a lot of muscle tension that can build size, strength, and confidence with heavy weights.
- We can use accommodating resistances in various ways to overload both the strong and weak portions of the lift, thereby avoiding one of the downsides of free weights: fixed resistance.
- In addition to bands, one can use chains and weight releasers to incorporate accommodating resistances into training.
With all this in mind, let’s get to the what, when, and how of training with bands.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Before we really get into the accommodating resistance end of the spectrum, I think it’s important that I first mention that bands have tremendous merit in applying resistance in planes of motion where gravity doesn’t “help the cause.” Typically, these are prehab or rehab-type exercises; gravity-affected free weight movements will always be your bread and butter for size and strength gains. Nonetheless, these band exercises deserve a role in your “stay healthy” arsenal. Here are a few examples:
Bands for Stretching
Not to be overlooked are the stretching merits of bands; after all, they are called “Jump Stretch” bands! There are dozens of stretches that bands can assist – especially in those who aren’t flexible enough to get themselves into position to stretch.
Bands for Hypertrophy work
Bands can also help to give you more bang for your buck on each rep, as the resistance is matched to the strength curve on various exercises, allowing for extra overload throughout the duration of each rep. Here are a few examples:
Incline Dumbbell Press (band looped behind the back and then held in the palms)
Glute-ham Raises (band looped around the neck and then attached to the GHR base)
Bands for Dynamic Effort (Speed) Work
In other words, if I’m doing speed bench presses, I know that if the antagonists (in this case, the biceps/brachialis/brachioradialis, lats, infraspinatus, teres minor, teres major, posterior deltoid, rhomboids, trapezius, etc.) to the pressing muscles don’t decelerate the bar at end-range, I’m going to really do some damage to my joints. It’s one reason why bench throws are good for training power; by letting go of the bar, you reduce the need for deceleration.
When you incorporate bands, the added resistance at end-range takes care of much of the deceleration for you; you just have to push like crazy and focus on maximum speed. The value of learning to accelerate through the entire duration of muscle action cannot be overstated; far too many athletes “get lazy” in the strongest points in the range of motion and just use momentum to carry them through. Bands keep you honest.
Dynamic Effort Box Squats (can also be done with free squats)
For deadlifts, your best bet is to rig the bands up to a Jump Stretch platform. I’ve seen some lifters do these by standing on the bands as they pull, but it isn’t nearly as effective. Those of you without a Jump Stretch Platform might have to be creative – or just work with chains and/or weight releasers.
Speed Deadlifts – Jump Stretch platform
Bands for Max Effort Work
Using bands for max effort work isn’t as common, but it’s definitely done – usually in a different contest. That is, the band is actually deloading rather than loading the bar. The reverse band bench press is a good example. As you can see, the bands are looped over the top of the power rack; they’re actually deloading the weight so much that we can suspend an empty barbell from the bands.
Ideally, the set-up is such that the bands get loose just as you reach lockout – meaning that you’re holding all the weight at the top, but a lesser amount at the bottom (where you’re weaker).
This approach can also be used with deadlifts (attach bands to safety pins on the side of the rack) and squats (top of the rack). I’ve tried it with good mornings, too, but I took a huge chunk of flesh out of my hand and was nearly decapitated. You might want to stay away from that version.
Bands for Body Weight-only Deloading
Bands aren’t only for those in rapid pursuit of world records and freaky physiques, though; they also have a tremendous amount of merit for beginners. There are several instances where bands can help individuals out with body weight only exercises. Here are a few examples:
Assisted Chin-up (band looped over bar and around leg)
Assisted Pistol Squat
While bands are a tremendous addition to any training program, it’s important to remember that when used to apply resistance, they impose an exaggerated eccentric overload. As you may or may not know, the eccentric portion of muscle action is the component of movement most highly associated with muscle damage. Likewise, applying band resistance on top of free weights can really do a number on your joints if you don’t take a break from it every so often. As such, I recommend that people avoid squatting, benching, and deadlifting against bands in anything longer than three-week cycles. After three weeks, give it a rest and go with straight weight. If you feel like you need to use some accommodating resistances during that down time, chains are the way to go.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that on certain exercises, individual weak points will be different. For instance, some people miss their deadlifts off the floor, and others miss deadlifts at lockout. Band work would be a lot more valuable for the lifters who struggle at lockout, as the bands allow them to overload this portion of the strength curve (whether they’re pulling against bands or doing reverse band deadlifts). Conversely, the “floor missers” are better off with straight weight pulls from a deficit. The take-home lesson is to evaluate your weaknesses and plan accordingly; don’t force band training into your program unless it’s truly justified.
With all that said, bands add outstanding variety and offer numerous benefits to training programs for athletes and weekend warriors alike; give them a shot and have some fun!
For great deals on bands, check out Perform Better
Written by Eric Cressey
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