You don’t need to buy a load of bulky, expensive dumbbells to get stronger from home – resistance bands can help you to build muscle without the potential injury risk. Here’s how.
Resistance bands are relatively cheap, portable, and they provide fitness gains to rival heavier pieces of equipment. Sounds too good to be true, right? Wrong. As the old saying goes, good things come in small packages – and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to band workouts. For years, these colourful pieces of rubber have been overlooked in favour of heftier dumbbells (after all, if you place a flimsy-looking band next to a chunky 10kg weight, you’d be forgiven for thinking the latter is going to have more of an effect). However, for most goals, these two pieces of kit are on a par.
“Resistance is resistance, whether you use a rubber band or a dumbbell,” explains personal trainer Ciara Madden (AKA Ciara London), founder of Body By Ciara. “The training principle is progressive overloading, so putting your muscles under any kind of repetitive strain or stress.” These bands work to condition and build strength in muscles in exactly the same way traditional weights do: under tension, our muscles experience micro-tears which, as the body repairs these, grow and become stronger. Furthermore, they’re a great option for both beginners and more experienced lifters alike. “They’re a good way to build yourself up,” Ciara continues. “The resistance band is kind of the lightest weight you can get but at the same time, it has versatility – you can stretch it as far as you want to, or physically can.”
But the benefits of bands go beyond simply allowing for progressive overloading. Here are five reasons to give resistance band training a go:
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1. Same gains, less effort
A number of studies over the years have found bands offer similar outcomes to traditional weights in terms of muscle activation, muscle strength, fat loss and overall exercise performance – with results remaining consistent among both men and women and occurring in both upper and lower areas of the body (confirming that bands are useful for more than just building a Kardashian-esque bum).
In some instances, the bands are even proving to be superior to weights: Norwegian researchers claim that we experience higher muscle activity in the biceps, deltoids and lats when choosing bands over dumbbells, while French scientists have found that bands may offer identical results to weight workouts with significantly less effort. These findings aren’t of any surprise to Ciara, who says that after spending lockdown working with resistance bands and moderate dumbbells, “I’d be tempted to say that I personally feel in the best shape I’ve ever been in. It shows me that resistance bands and light weights do the job; you don’t need to put your body under the stress.”
2. Lower risk of injury
Using free weights such as dumbbells can come with an injury risk; in fact, they tend to be at the root of around half the injuries experienced in gyms. Bands, on the other hand, tend to have a much lower risk. “It’s actually a bit safer to use bands, especially if you’re not very familiar with moves,” states Fran Flin, personal trainer and founder of Flin’s Fitness. When using dumbbells, she says that “form can get pretty bad quite easily and quickly”; although that can also happen with resistance bands, “it tends to be that you’re either doing it right or you’re doing it wrong.”
That being said, if you want to really progress those fitness gains, resistance bands can only take you so far. “You get to a limit [with bands]. Although you can keep pushing up, there’ll come a point at which the band is so thick that you won’t be able to get the range of movement anymore,” Fran says. “You can strengthen muscle and get a good lift and tone, but you’re not going to physically build, build, build on top of that without super heavy weights.”
3. Park friendly
A massive benefit of resistance bands is how portable they are. Instead of pitting weights against bands, we should view them for what they are: “a different type of working out,” Ciara advises. “You’re not necessarily going to get the same results with a resistance band that you’re going to get from a 100kg squat but if I go away on holiday, I take my resistance bands everywhere and I still get a killer workout.” The same is true of box rooms and park workouts – you don’t need a lot of space or a car to transport them.
It’s also worth saying that they tend to be much cheaper than weights. You can get a set of five from John Lewis for just over £20, compared to about £30 for one 10kg dumbbell (so £60 for a pair) from BLK BOX.
4. Heart healthy
It’s not only fitness levels that using resistance bands boost; working them into your workout regime can have positive effects on other areas of health, too.
In comparison to aerobic training, resistance-based exercises have been shown to have a greater impact on factors including insulin sensitivity, cholesterol levels and lean body mass. More specifically, though, researchers in China discovered that regular, consistent training with bands enhanced bone metabolism and oestrogen levels in perimenopausal women.
A US study found that exercising with bands could assist in lowering blood pressure, while banded workouts have also been linked with improved balance and flexibility. In other words, you don’t have to lift heavy to get healthy – low impact resistance work is just as beneficial as a brutal workout with much less stress.
5. Mood boosting
It’s not just our physical health that can benefit from some regular resistance training; working with bands can improve our mental health too. Korean scientists claim that resistance bands can help with better stress management, while other studies have associated resistance band workouts to lower rates of depression and improved cognitive performance. So that’s a win-win all round!
Choosing a band
Resistance bands aren’t a one-size-fits-all piece of kit – a fact that often puts people off using them. So, how should you go about getting your hands on some?
First up, there are different types of bands to choose from, with the three most common being looped bands, tubular bands (often with handles on each end) and flat stretches of elastic. The one you use often will vary according to the exercises you’re doing. Looped bands, for example, are best for getting those glutes fired up, while tubular bands can be used for both lower and upper body exercises. The flat strips are ideal for arm workouts.
Next, you have to look at tension. Bands tend to be available in light, medium and heavy. To determine which strength to go with, Ciara advises to move through them “exactly the same as you would with weights. Start light if you’re a beginner, or if you’re a bit more confident, go for a medium. I wouldn’t suggest anyone starts with a heavy.” Fran also proposes buying a couple of different bands of varying tensions and thicknesses, especially if you’re just getting started. “If you choose a band that’s too light, you’ll get to 25-30 reps before you even start to feel an overload… [and] then you’re not going to bother with it again.”
Finally, take note of the material. While thinner rubber is fine for tubular or strip bands, when purchasing a loop band, go for thicker ones that merge rubber with fabric – they’re far less likely to roll up and disrupt your movement.
5 exercises to get you started
Shoulders: Gripping a tubular or flat band, stand with your hands extended out in front of you at shoulder height, shoulder-width apart. Extend/pull outwards, for three sets of 10 reps.
1. Triceps: 3 x 15 reps
Grip a flat band, with hands about hip-distance apart. Raise and tilt your arms over your head so one elbow is bent pointing upwards, and the other hand is at hip level on the opposite side of your body; then pump the top arm up and down. “I normally do single reps for 15, and then move onto double pulses for the same count,” reveals Fran.
2. Abs: 3 x 20 seconds
Ciara recommends using a looped band to take the classic bicycle crunch up a gear. “Put the band around your feet and extend your legs,” she says. “As you extend your legs, your lower abs are working.” Go for three rounds at twenty seconds each.
3. Glutes: 4 x 30 seconds
Thought squats were tough enough already? Position a looped band halfway up your thighs, squat down, hold, and take three side steps (before going back again). Do as many as possible in thirty seconds, and repeat the set four times.
4. Ab/adductors: 3 x 10 each side
With the band looped halfway up your thighs, lay on your side. Keeping your legs straight, lift the top one up and down (but don’t let it touch the bottom leg before it goes back up). Do three sets of 10 lifts, then roll over and repeat.
5. Shoulders: 3 x 10 reps
Gripping a tubular or flat band, stand with your hands extended out in front of you at shoulder height, shoulder-width apart. Extend/pull outwards, for three sets of 10 reps.
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