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Training with Bands and Pulleys - Part 1: Beyond Free-Weight


Over the last decade, the buzz phrase has become “Functional Training.” The use of many modalities has been proposed to increase the functional aspect of training. These modalities include medicine balls, stability balls, rubber tubing and various pulley systems. Of all of the modalities being used to enhance the specificity of training, one of the most debated is band and pulley training (BPT). This article series on BPT will cover the basic concept behind the use of non-vertical resistance training. We have termed it “non-vertical vector (N2V) training.” We will follow this first part with some sample exercises and recommendations for workouts that have been successfully used in our facility.

When looking at the characteristics of band and pulley training, most conditioning professionals quickly observe the key advantage provided by BPT is the ability to load non-vertical vectors. Although all resistance training involves force vectors, we coined the phrase “N2V training” when referring to BPT because of the ability to load any vector quickly and easily. This is especially true when it comes to loading the net resultant vector associated with a specific movement.

When the body moves, every body segment creates a momentum vector. In many cases, the movement is rotational, in which case angular momentum is created. Most movements in life and sport are a combination of both, momentum and angular momentum. Regardless of the combination of movements throughout the body, running (and other functional movements) deals with horizontal forces, especially when decelerating. Since many functional activities have a horizontal component, it would be advantagous to load this component in order to enhance one’s ability to neutralize and overcome it. Let’s take a look at an example.

A third base player running down a ground ball, hit hard along the third base line, will eventually need to slow down after catching the ball, plant and turn to throw the runner out at first base. Although many vectors are at work in this sequence of movements, on the key factors involved in the success of this athlete will be his ability to quickly decelerate after catching the ball. As deceleration occurs, the center of mass is lowered and the strides begin to reach in front of the center of mass to apply deceleration forces against the ground. What you have is something that looks like Figure 1.

Figure 1

A third baseman running towards the line must eventually decelerate forces that are not vertical. These non-vertical forces are difficult to load with free weight.

The deceleration of this third base man involves overcoming two primary vectors, the horizontal momentum vector and vertical force vector provided by the body’s mass and gravitational pull (Force = body’s mass x gravitational pull). These two major vectors can be combined to provide a resultant vector of force that must be neutralized in order to bring the player to a stop (Figure 2). This resultant vector can be approximated and trained using BPT (Figure 3). By loading this resultant vector we can get stronger at overcoming it. Exactly what angle and load to use is a matter of various factors, such as: speed, stance width, location of the player’s center of mass, etc. Multiple speeds, angles and loads can be trained to simulate different sporting situations and daily activities.

Figure 3

This resisted reaching exercise can be used to train the deceleration needed by the third basemen in Figure 1.

As in the case above, many functional movements can be loaded with the use of BPT. Any movement, from pulling weeds out of the ground to throwing a ball, has a major resultant vector that can be approximated and resisted using BPT. Figuring the major vector of focus can be fun and adds to the specificity and effectiveness of the training. Don’t get caught in the heavy physics of the training. There is some room for error and a few degrees in any direction is not going to kill anyone. One key factor to keep in mind when loading any functional movement is not to use too much resistance. Too much resistance significantly changes the motor pattern of the movement and can lead to the development of inefficient movement patterns. If it smells, walks and talks like the move you are trying to enhance, then chances are you are pretty close to where you need to be. Be conservative, experiment and have some fun with your training – it’s only training, not brain surgery.

Equipment manufactures within the strength and conditioning industry have become increasingly aware of the effectiveness and diversity of vector training. Band momentum and pulley products are starting to make a comeback. Manufactures, such as Ground Zero, now make the Free-Motion line. The Free-Motion line uses pulley systems for most of its major movement pieces (Figure 4).

Figure 4

The Free Motion Line uses pulley systems on most of its major pieces. Here the shoulder press is shown in its traditional application. However, the pulley system allows unlimited exercise selection and application.

We also have a new pulley system, the Versa Pulley, on the market that is based on some really old technology. This pulley system uses rotary inertia to provide a resistance and allows one to explode into a concentric movement without fear a flying weight stack. The rotary flywheel also provides an eccentric load proportionate to the preceding concentric movement. The advantages of using pulleys over bands are a source of great debate among strength and conditioning professionals. Many coaches see the variable resistance of the band as a disadvantage. However, variable resistance provided by bands can be seen in the same positive light as other variable resistance training equipment, such as Nautilus and Universal. Variable resistance can somewhat accommodate the increasing biomechanical leverage of many movements, such as pressing. Additionally, other conditioning professionals also see the ability to perform explosive movements with bands, without flying weight stacks, as an advantage (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Band punching is one of those exercis es that require no active deceleration at the end of the concentric movement. It is great for power development.

Pulleys are seen as “non functional” by some fitness experts due to their “constant resistance” and inability to accommodate fast movements with light-weights (i.e. due to flying weight stacks). Yet, the ability to quantify the resistance is looked at as a positive characteristic of traditional pulley training by other fitness professionals. With all of this being said, one might want to consider that the concept of “constant resistance” is really a misnomer. Although the mass being lifted by a pulley system is constant, the resistance a muscle sees changes with the lever arm and the speed of the movement. Therefore, standard pulleys do not offer constant resistance. They really offer constant mass. The Versa Pulley (Figure 6) design provides an accommodating resistance and variable speeds. Its inertial cone wheel operates like a yo-yo; you unwind it by providing force (i.e. concentric) and it rewinds providing force back to you (i.e. eccentric). This has a very positive impact on power development, since there is no active deceleration at the end of a concentric movement. Various accessories, such as handles, harnesses, and attachments can inspire countless applications.

Figure 6

The MV2, rotary inertia system used by the Versa Pulley is a smooth operating system. It was initially used and described by the Russians.

Bands and pulleys, regardless of brand or characteristic, can be effectively employed to train non-vertical movement vectors. Although there are advantages and disadvantages to all resistance training equipment, bands and pulleys remain an effective tool in performance enhancement training. A wise integration of different resistance training equipment will provide the best diversity and results. Using the right tool for the right application is the final and determining factor in the success of a specific training modality.

The following article will provide the some of our favorite exercises and some programming recommendations. Subsequent articles will illustrate some of our actual workouts using bands and pulleys and hopefully convey a better understanding of this great training tool.

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