Over the past 12 years or so since Louie Simmons' article, the emergence of latex or rubber band resistance has gained steady acceptance and widespread use in gymnasiums. The purpose of this article is not to describe the use of the “lighter” seemingly ubiquitous exercise or therapy bands you see every day in most gyms but to look at the heavier resistance latex bands.
The force you have to exert to lift a barbell or dumbbell (or any implement or object) is typically equivalent to the mass of that object. But this force or kinetic profile can be altered by some specific strategies. Attaching heavy resistance bands to the barbell or dumbbell to provide extra elastic resistance is one such strategy. By attaching latex band resistance on the ends of the barbell (or dumbbell, but I will use the word barbell throughout for brevity), we can increase resistance throughout the range of motion of the repetition. For example, the athlete pushes upward in the bench press or squat and stretches the large rubber bands attached to each end of the barbell. As the barbell proceeds further into the range of movement, the more the bands stretch and so the greater the elastic resistance that is applied to the barbell. This allows the athlete to explode upwards and continue to apply high force much later into the movement. This is called accommodating resistance as the increasing resistance closely resembles or accommodates the human strength curve (e.g., we are stronger at lock out in the squat, bench press or deadlift than we are at the bottom of the lift).
Benefits of Band Usage
Anyone who performs resistance training can benefit from heavy resistance bands. Athletes undoubtedly will enhance their strength and power. Older, former athletic clients who like to lift heavy but whose joints don’t like the battering they receive from six RM and heavier weights also tend to like using the bands. With bands combined with barbells, they can still lift three to six RM regularly, but the band resistance portion means less weight (though not resistance), and it appears that this makes it a lot easier on their joints in the bottom position of exercises like bench press, shoulder press, tricep extensions, squats and so on.
Athletes and the average aesthetically inclined trainer who wants muscle development can benefit from some of the strategies outlined below. So trainers of these clients typically employ some band work like I will describe below. (The biggest other group who are using bands are the trainers who train their client in parks and outdoor exercise/recreation settings and people who travel and do their workouts in hotel rooms. This use of resistance bands will be covered in Part 2 of this series.) The bands are providing heavy resistance for push ups, squat, lunges, step ups, curls, presses and so on but also providing assistance to allow many women or heavier clients to perform multiple rep chin ups and dips. Don’t think that because the bands provide some assistance in some portion of the movement the chins or dips are easy. Instead, you just do more reps and work harder in different places in the range (i.e., they accommodate your weaknesses in the strength curve when used in an assistance method).
Type and Strength of Bands
There are bands available that apply different stretch forces or resistances, ranging from a few kilograms to nearly 80 or more kg of force. Generally, the first three sizes (#1-3) will typically be all you need (see Figure 1 and Table 1). The bigger bands are really just for the behemoths of competitive powerlifting. Most bands were originally 41 inches (1 meter) long, but there are now some variations. Please be aware of this when purchasing bands.
Figure 1 - Iron Woody brand of resistance bands numbers 1-7. Sizes #1-3 suit most trainers.
The exact resistance the bands exert is determined by 1) hanging weights from the band to get it to stretch to the same length that it will be during whatever lift you are doing or 2) setting up an empty barbell with the bands attached and placing the barbell on a digital scale that itself has been placed upon boxes so that it is at the same height as will occur during the lift (see Figure 2). Merely subtract the barbell mass from the digital scale reading to determine the amount of force the bands are exerting at that point in the range. This is the best and easiest way.
Table 1 - The estimated maximal force contribution of the four most popular sizes of bands
#1 White Iron Woody band
Up to 15 kg of resistance
#2 Red Iron Woody band
Up to 23 kg of resistance
#3 Blue Iron Woody band
Up to 35 kg of resistance
#4 Green Iron Woody band
Up to 50+ kg of resistance
A point of debate is how to consider the augmentation to resistance delivered by bands, as the stretch force they impart varies throughout the range of motion. For this article, I will base band resistance on the total band contribution at the point just prior to lockout. So a bench press with 30 kilograms of band resistance may actually have zero band resistance when the barbell is at the chest, 15 kilograms by halfway to lock out and 30 kilograms just prior to lock out. So I will consider this as 30 kilograms of band resistance. Some other coaches describe this augmentation by the average of 15 kilograms. Please beware of these differences in determining band augmentation when considering the work of other coaches.
As a quick recommendation I always suggest strong males use #2 bands for most upper body exercises (using either a single or both bands, depending on the exercise and how they are setup) and #2 or #3 for squats and deadlifts. Most females and less strong clients get most benefit from #1 and #2 bands, again using either a single or both bands, depending on the exercise and how they are set up. Remember the bands should provide at least a resistance of 10 percent 1RM to “shock” the body.
Figure 2 - Determining the band resistance contribution for the squat. The same procedure can be used for bench press or most exercises.
How bands are set up (as well as which size) can affect how much resistance they offer. For example, Figure 3 shows how to secure and “choke on” a band to a dumbbell, which is used to anchor the band before attaching it to a barbell. If instead of one dumbbell two are used, then the anchoring base is broadened, and the bands will be stretched more during a lift and exert more resistance. Another method is to choke the band around the barbell and then stretch the band down to loop over the anchoring dumbbell on the floor (see Figure 4). For safety reasons, please chock the dumbbells with small plates to ensure they don’t roll around (see Figure 3). Figure 5 shows how a band is secured onto the barbell and then under the bench press. This creates a very broad anchoring base and can add 20 to 23 kilograms of resistance for the #2 red bands depicted. In this case, only one band per barbell is required.
Figure 3 - Choking on a band to a dumbbell to secure it at an anchor point. Note that small weight plates are used to chock the dumbbell to stop it from rolling.
Bands can also be secured to squat racks or bench presses to provide a horizontal resistance component to training. This is one of the main but rarely used advantages of bands: the fact that they can exert resistance in any plane, but that weight resistance only ever provides vertical resistance, despite what you do with the weight. Figures 7 and 8 depicts an athlete doing dumbbell (for vertical resistance) step ups with horizontal band resistance. This is a great combination of vertical and horizontal resistance for athletes who have to run and/or jump (i.e., basketball, volleyball. etc).
Figure 4 - In this case, the bands are choked onto the barbell and then looped over the dumbbell to anchor them to the floor.
So exactly how the bands are secured depends upon the exercise. Two bands are needed for some exercises like the squat, incline press or Romanian style deadlift with the bands secured or looped over the barbell and secured or looped over an anchor such as a dumbbell, multiple 20 kilogram plates or even a toaster rack on the floor. Other exercises like the bench press, upright row, curls and so on can use one band secured directly under the lifter. Some bands are secured to an upright and placed around the athlete’s body during step ups and lunges to provide horizontal resistance. The methods will vary but always consider safety and have an adequate (heavy and non moving) anchor.
Figures 5 and 6 - The band is looped under the bench and over the barbell. The lifter inserts his arms into the loops and then grips the bar as per usual.
Obviously, the range of movement also affects the band resistance. Taller or longer limbed individuals experience greater band resistance if the anchoring strategy used is the same as for a shorter counterpart. Consequently, measuring band resistance using the methodology of Figures 2 and 3 is recommended if you are to introduce band training during heavy strength training.
Figures 7 and 8 - The dumbbell step up and band resistance (the band is choked around the bench press). Bodyweight and the dumbbells provide the vertical resistance while the band adds a more horizontal force component. The exercise can be started with one foot on the box or with both feet on the ground. This is a great exercise for athletes who have to run and jump.
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