Bands for Bodybuilding

Bands for Bodybuilding

Disclaimer - If you can’t afford new clothes, you should probably stop reading now. Applying the principles in this article could leave you needing to purchase a whole new wardrobe. But, hey, that’s a good thing!

What are Jump Stretch Bands?

Chances are you’ve heard of people using bands in the gym, but may not know what the benefits are or how to use them (and no, we’re not talking about music).

Popularized by Westside Barbell legend Louie Simmons, bands have been helping powerlifters get bigger and stronger for years, but until recently, very few bodybuilders have experienced what bands can do for them. This article will show you how to use them to your advantage.

But first, what the heck is a jump stretch band, anyway?

Quite simply, they’re giant rubber bands.

They’re most commonly used in strength training by securing one end to a stationary object and the other end to the collar of a standard barbell. The beauty is in their simplicity. Just like the smaller rubber bands you use in daily life, the more the jump stretch bands are stretched, the more resistance they provide. This increasing resistance, when used in combination with strength training, is known as accommodating resistance. What the bands do is transform a barbell into something akin to cam-based resistance training machines (think Nautilus® machines).

A Quick History Lesson

Arthur Jones, the creator of the Nautilus® training machines, was essentially the first man to incorporate the concept of variable resistance into strength training.  He did this by running a chain over a cam which was shaped like a nautilus shell (hence the company’s name).

Legend Mike Mentzer on the Nautilus Pullover machine

The chain was secured to a variable weight stack on one end and a movement arm on the other.  When the trainee lifted the weight by pressing or pulling the movement arm, the chain traveled over the rotating cam.

The changing diameter of the cam altered the movement, thus altering the torque and resistance provided by a given load. The primary function of the cam as Jones designed it was to increase the load when the working muscles were in their strongest position and decrease it in the weakest, thus eliminating the inherent flaw of barbells known as the “sticking point” (the point in the movement where the perceived load is the greatest based upon the pull of gravity and/or musculoskeletal leverage). This allowed for maximal stress to the muscle.

Like Jones, Dr. Fred Hatfield (a record-setting powerlifter) looked for a way around the limitations of barbell training and championed a concept known as “compensatory acceleration”.

His idea was to have the lifter literally push harder on the barbell as the exercise got easier in an attempt to overcome the leverage-induced decrease in resistance. Theoretically, this made the exercise more effective in achieving muscular overload, which is crucial to gaining muscle.

Dr. Fred Hatfield hitting a big 1,003lbs Squat

The idea was good, but was limited in practice by the fact that the lifter pushing harder throughout the range of motion still did not eliminate the sticking point. He had the right idea, but not the tools to execute it.

Enter the Band

Bands work similarly to a cam in that they both vary the resistance and increase it when the lifter is in the strongest position. Think of a barbell squat: after getting out of the bottom position (the “hole”), the lifter encounters a brief sticking point. When he moves past the sticking point—thanks to leverage—the perceived load gets lighter (anyone who’s ever done a squat before knows that you can partial-squat a whole lot more than you can full squat, since the sticking point is eliminated).

However, when bands are added to the squat, they increase the resistance as they are stretched.  This forces the lifter to push hard against an ever-increasing load through the entire range of motion (ROM), thus dramatically increasing the overload effect.

While bands do not eliminate the sticking point, they do very little to increase the load until after the lifter has pushed through it.

A Short Story of What’s Possible

By now, the benefit of bands relative to bodybuilding should be obvious.  Bands allow the lifter to fully work the involved muscles in nearly all barbell movements. The increase in size and strength when using bands can be dramatic.

My personal experience with their use plainly illustrates this fact.

I recently began to incorporate bands into my leg training.  I did so primarily by using them with box squats to varying heights (normally parallel or below).  The bands my training partners and I most commonly used provided 200+ pounds of resistance at the top of the squat. Because of the way they were secured, they provided little resistance at the bottom of the movement when we were on or near the box.  Starting a few inches above parallel, the bands began to “kick-in,” providing progressively greater resistance as we neared lockout.

Here is a video of the morning crew at Westside Barbell, Box Squatting with Resistance Bands:

The difference the bands made in our training was staggering. For instance, when un-racking the barbell and walking out with the weight, the pull of the bands forced us to use tremendous effort just to control our movement, much more so than with just a barbell on our backs. In addition, when we worked up to a fair amount of barbell weight (450 pounds +), the load on our backs in a standing position was nearing or exceeding 700 pounds.  Getting used to this load made our return to squats without bands incredibly easy in that 400-500 pounds of pure barbell weight now felt like nothing on our backs.

The use of bands for just a couple of months forced my upper legs to grow over 2 inches.  I literally grew out of my work slacks and added nearly 20 pounds of body weight during the same period. The growth was explosive, as was my increase in strength. During my stint with band training, I also experienced the most amazing pumping of my quads that I have ever felt!  This pump was the result of a superset of leg extensions and regular (not box) squats with bands.  The combination was lethal, with the bands increasing the intensity exponentially. In truth, the pump was so ridiculous–and painful–that we could only get through the superset once.

Bands and Bodybuilding: How to Use Them!

One of the basic tenets of muscular hypertrophy is time under tension (TUT).  Meaningful TUT involves both time and stress. In other words, in order to optimally stimulate hypertrophy, the musculature must be stressed with a relatively heavy load over a period of time. Bands increase the TUT with all barbell exercises by maximizing the stress to the involved musculature over a greater portion of the ROM on each and every rep.  Therefore, a given number of reps with bands equates to more work done by the muscles.  Bands increase both efficiency and intensity, which are two of the most important factors in increasing muscular size.

If you’ve never used bands, the idea of adding them can be a bit intimidating. The first question most lifters have is how to secure the bands. I think the best way to become comfortable with using bands is to begin with simple exercises, like squats and bench presses.

Below is a video demonstrating how to properly set up a pair of bands with a typical squat rack:

Below is a video of my training partner Justin Tooley and I speed squatting last week - 10 sets of doubles for me with 420 lbs on the safety squat bar and green bands:

A Sample Routine

Training with bands places a tremendous amount of stress on both the musculature and connective tissues. As mentioned above, you should incorporate the bands within the parameters of conjugate variety.

Conjugate variety involves alternating exercises by body part weekly, bi-weekly, or every three weeks.  The idea is that even a small variation in a movement has a very different effect on the nervous system, and CNS burnout is a prime driver of overtraining.  Altering exercises regularly allows you to train at a higher intensity level consistently. This will help to optimize your results and prevent overuse injuries.

The following routine can be followed for a three-week period. After three weeks, you should switch the primary exercises. The primary exercise (by body part) is indicated by a star after the name (e.g., Bench press*).  The use of bands will be noted by the word “bands” after the exercise name (ex. Bench press – bands).

The exercise name is followed by the number of sets and reps as follows: Bench press – bands: 10/10/10*/10*

Each number is the number of reps to be done for that set.  Sets are separated by a slash.  Sets with an asterisk after the rep count should be taken to concentric failure.  So, in the above example, 4 sets of 10 reps of bench presses (using bands) are to be performed with the first two sets as warm-ups and the last two taken to concentric (or positive) failure.

Monday:

  • Squat* – bands: 10/8/8*/8*
  • Leg Press: 20* (perform these in a slow and controlled manner with a full ROM)
  • Hamstring Curl: 10/15*/15*
  • Stiff-Legged Deadlift (off a 2-4” platform for a greater ROM): 10/20*
  • Ab Crunches: 20*/20*
  • Standing Calf Raises: 15*/15*

Tuesday:

  • Bench Press* - bands: 10/8/6*/6*
  • Incline Dumbbell Press: 20*/20*
  • Superset Triceps Pressdown & JM Presses (see video for JM Presses): 15 reps not to failure on the pressdowns (choose a weight with which you could get 20 reps) followed immediately by 8 reps to failure on the JM Press.  Do this for 3 cycles with about 2 minutes rest between cycles.

Thursday:

  • Curl Grip Chins: 2 sets to failure with body weight
  • One Arm Dumbbell Rows*: 8/8/15*/15*
  • Seated Cable Rows: 12*/12*
  • Dumbbell Shrugs: 15*/15*
  • Standing Ab Crunches Using an Overhead Cable: 20*/20*
  • Seated Calf Raises: 10/15*/15*

Friday:

  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press*: 10/8/10*/10*
  • Superset Dumbbell Lateral Raises with Bent Over Raises: Perform 15 reps to failure of each exercise with no rest between.  Do the side laterals first.  Perform two cycles of this superset.
  • Standing Barbell Curl: 10/10/10*/10*
  • Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 15*
  • Two Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extensions: 10/15*/15*

Wrap-Up

By now, you’ve seen the power of bands, what they can do for your strength, and how they can help you build muscle quickly. Like many workout-related things, bands are simply a training tool (albeit a very effective one) and should be used as a change of pace to provide variety to your workouts and to help you hit your muscles in ways that simply aren’t possible with barbells, dumbbells, or cables.

Finally, although they can be a bit intimidating, the sheer size and strength gains you can achieve by using a few rubber bands is worth the learning curve. So swallow your pride and do yourself a favor by picking up your bands here (Westside Barbell) and get to training!

And, as always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the discussion thread below!

Written by Chris Mason

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - Building Muscle & Size with Resistance Bands discussion thread.

About Chris Mason

Chris Mason is an author, trainer, and nutritionist. He has published articles in Iron Man, Athlete, Planet Muscle, and Powerlifting USA magazines as well as several online websites including Crossfit.com.

In addition, he has worked with top flight professional strength athletes on both their nutritional and training regimens. Chris is also the co-founder of AtLarge Nutrition. He is actively involved in all aspects of the business to include product formulation.

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