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Join the Resistance (Bands)!

Woman exercising with resistance band.

Strength training is a great way to get into shape and reduce stress, but using weights requires either a trip to the gym or investing several hundred dollars. A popular alternative is resistance bands, long elastic bands, typically with handles on either end that can provide the muscles the same workout as a set of weights. In the words of Linda Sholl, DPT, a physical therapist with University of Utah Health, "carrying weights with you is cumbersome. Carrying bands is just easier."

When to Choose Resistance Bands

Unless you want to engage in some heavy-duty bodybuilding, resistance bands are a great choice for those who want a quick, efficient way to work out, or those who are in need of physical therapy. There are several different kinds of bands to choose from, but a good rule of thumb when buying is that heavier, thicker bands are best for bigger muscle groups, like legs, lats, and glutes, while thin bands are better for smaller joints and muscles. Different band manufacturers often have a color-code system where lighter, brighter colors are used for thin bands and darker colors or black are used for heavier bands.

How Resistance Bands Work

There are three types of movement that, when understood, enhance how we see exercise. The primary movements are concentric and eccentric. As Scholl describes it, "Concentric is picking up a box and putting it on a shelf. Eccentric is lowering that box to the counter."

In other words, concentric motion is a shortening of the muscle while contracting it. Eccentric motion is lengthening the muscle while contracting it. It's producing motion vs controlling motion. The nature of resistance bands allows them to speed up eccentric resistance, which strengthens muscles and allows for greater control.

The third type of motion, isometric, is when your muscles are working, but not moving, or "holding a box in mid-air"

How to Use Resistance Bands

As is the case with most exercise, there are different ways to do the same thing that produce different results. For example, if someone wants to engage in anaerobic exercise, which is defined as short exertion, high energy movements, they would use thicker resistance bands and do sets of 2-3 reps. Someone who prefers endurance exercises would use a thin band and engage in a lot more reps, usually 12 or more per set.

Those who want to participate in strength focused exercise would find a balanced set of resistance bands and do sets consisting of 8-10 reps. You know when you've found the right balance when reps 8,9, and 10 are difficult to finish. If this is the case, you will be building muscle in the most efficient way.

How to Avoid Injury

Although resistance bands may seem less intensive than free weights or weight machines, it is still possible to be injured while using them. In order to stay safe while exercising, there are several tips you can follow.

  1. Check Resistance Band Integrity: This should always be the first step. A quick examination of each band for cracks, holes, or other problems can prevent a broken band and the wild, chaotic injury-causing mess that would follow.
  2. Attach Bands Properly: When attaching a band to something like a doorknob, do not rely on knots. A better way is to create a loop and slide it over the anchor point. This prevents breakage and slipping.
  3. Maintain Lower Body Posture: When working with resistance bands, keep your hips even with your knees positioned directly over your ankles. When bending over, bend at the hips first. In this way, you avoid slipping or moving muscles in a way that may cause a sprain.
  4. Position Upper Body Properly: Sit with your head over your shoulders, looking forward as much as possible. Keep your head and shoulders over your hips. Keep your shoulder blades down and back. This opens up the chest and helps create a more balanced standing position.
  5. Breathe: Do not hold your breath. Exhale each time you are engaged in the effort phase.