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Resistance bands have been around for quite a long time (the 1900s according to this article ).
At first, they were made from surgical tubing and were used as a form of rehab from injury and illness.
For decades they were exclusively used in medical settings, but in the 1990s they became popular with physiotherapists, and in turn, became popular with fitness enthusiasts.
At the beginning of the 21st-century fitness bands exploded in popularity. Today you can find many different forms of resistance bands being used at home and in the gym.
Some resistance bands are literally just sheets of latex while you can also get well-made resistance bands with handles and clips to attach to bars or different handles.
In this article, we will be looking at the different types of resistance bands that are available, and assessing whether resistance bands can help build muscle.
We will also take a brief look at how muscle is built (to better help you understand the process).
The Different Types of Resistance Band
There are many different resistance bands out there.
No matter which type you buy they are all divided into colour codes to describe their level of resistance. The colours are:
- Yellow = The easiest form of resistance band to use. They are very stretchable and are perfect for beginners.
- Red = Medium resistance, yet still relatively easy to use. They are good for arm stretches and light chest work.
- Green = Slightly heavier resistance than red bands, suitable for regular users. Ideal for larger muscles such as chest, back, and legs.
- Blue = Heavy resistance, suitable for experienced users, and for large muscle groups.
- Black = The heaviest resistance. If you are performing partner-assisted stretches then this would be the resistance band to use. Only required for expert users who are working the big muscle groups.
Picking the right colour for you requires some experimentation, and it makes sense to buy 2-3 at first.
This should keep you busy for the first few months of training. But other than colours, there are other ways to categorise resistance bands.
Here is a list of the different types of resistance band available:
- Flat Bands (thin) – Simple sheets of latex that you can get very cheaply. These are perfect for back and chest stretches, and they are very versatile. You can easily chuck them into a gym bag too, making them perfect for taking to the gym with you.
- Flat Bands (thick) – These are more expensive and made from a tougher form of latex. Less stretchy, more durable, and will last you a lot longer. Easy to transport, and great for more experienced users. Often used for pull-ups and dips – something that you could not use the thin bands for!
- Handle Tube Bands – These bands are long elasticated tubes that end in handles. They are amazing for pulling exercises, and for exercises that work the rotator cuffs, and all of the deltoid muscles. They are also excellent for your teres major, teres minor, and your rhomboids.
- Figure 8 Resistance Bands – These can be used to place under your shoes and work as a form of resistance while squatting. You can also use them like the old chest expander machines (ask your dad). They aren’t as versatile as the other forms of resistance bands but certainly have their place.
There are other versions of resistance bands. There are even bungee versions which can be used for parachute running, but these four are the main types.
So pick your band type, and a selection of resistance choices (yellow through to black) and get started.
How to Build Muscle
To build muscle you need quite a few factors to align. You need sufficient resistance to work the muscle past its current ability , you need sufficient protein and calories to fuel muscle growth , you require adequate rest and recovery afterwards , and you need patience and consistency to see results. But this is a broad explanation, this section will go into a little more depth than that.
There are three main mechanisms for hypertrophy (muscle growth). These are mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.
Mechanical tension is basically the scientific term for someone lifting weights. There are two types of mechanical tension, passive elastic tension and active tension.
Active tension is flexing a muscle as hard as possible while performing an exercise, while passive elastic tension is stretching a muscle as much as possible.
Performing an exercise with a full range of motion will allow for optimal mechanical tension. Mechanical tension is vital for muscle growth.
Metabolic Stress is where your muscles are screaming in pain during a set. It’s a build-up of metabolites such as lactate in the muscles. Increasing the intensity of your sets by lifting more weight and more reps will increase metabolic stress.
Muscular Damage is responsible for sore muscles after a workout. Those days after leg day memes? They refer to muscle damage!
Studies indicate that increasing muscle damage can increase hypertrophy. This makes sense if you think about it as you’d need to exercise harder.
However, at a certain point, it can begin to work counter-intuitively, actually preventing muscle gain. It can also prevent you from training the next day if it is too severe. This is why recovery is so important.
Combine these three mechanisms together and you have the makings of muscle growth, however, you still require the work of hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, insulin), protein synthesis, and rest before you can see positive results from your training.
Benefits of Resistance Bands
There are a whole host of benefits to using resistance bands. They are cheap (compared to a full set of dumbbells) and can be found for less than the cost of a meal.
They also can be used in small spaces, and unlike most home-based equipment they take up almost no space at all.
You can take them with you when you're going to the gym, or if you are travelling, and unlike a suspension trainer they don't need to be hung up. You can perform hundreds of exercises with them, and change the angle of each exercise with ease.
They are also great if your gym is packed and you can't get to any equipment.
Resistance bands have been shown to be very effective in injury prevention. This is because resistance bands are great at strengthening muscles such as the posterior rotator cuff.
Anyone who has suffered from a rotator cuff injury will be aware of how important they are for many movements.
A study by Page et al (1993) on college Baseball pitchers found that the use of resistance bands was effective at strengthening the posterior rotator cuff .
This was believed to be due to the fact that you can use a resistance band to recreate the pitching motion. This is something you would struggle to do with traditional resistance training.
A similar study by Treiber et al (1998) looked at the effectiveness of resistance bands (combined with light dumbbell training) on tennis performance . Particularly on serve performance.
It was a 4-week study using 22 male and female varsity tennis players.
The study found that resistance bands not only improved performance. but they also improved strength.
Stevenson et al (2010) looked into the effectiveness of supplementing squat training with resistance bands .
Twenty male volunteers performed 3 sets of 3 reps of barbell back squat, one day with bands added and one day without. The bands increased the rate of force development.
This study showed the effectiveness of adding resistance bands to weighted exercises. For example with barbell squats, you would place a resistance band on either end of the barbell, so that it is equally difficult to squat down and squat up. You can do the same with bench presses and shoulder press (and a whole range of other exercises).
Another study in 2006 by Wallace, Winchester, & McGuigan also looked at the effect of elastic bands on force and power during the barbell back squat .
They found that using elastic bands with resistance weights can significantly increase peak force and peak power compared to performing the exercise without bands. It was particularly noticeable during the heavier weights.
A study looking at the effect of resistance bands on the bench press performance also found that resistance bands and free weights combined produced more power than free weights alone .
So as you can see, there are many benefits to using resistance bands to your program. They clearly have an impact on sporting performance and on injury reduction.
They also can be used to improve strength and power in many free weight exercises such as bench press and barbell back squat.
Can Resistance Bands Build Muscle?
Whether or not resistance bands can build muscle depends on many factors, and that means that the answer will not necessarily be the same from person to person.
Two people could perform exactly the same exercises and get completely different results. The purpose of this section is to explain why.
If you are a complete beginner, any exercise you do will in some way contribute to muscle growth – yes even aerobic exercise (running in the park could increase leg muscle size and strength in untrained individuals).
You won’t see amazing results straight away, but there will definitely be some growth. But as a complete beginner, your body will first spend time developing neurological pathways to help you perform exercises better.
For example, somebody who has been training for years could easily perform a bodyweight squat with flawless technique, while a brand new person would struggle. Maybe they would overbalance, or their heels would rise up from the floor, their shoulders would round and their back would not be straight.
This would partly be due to lack of understanding, partly down to lack of strength, but also down to a lack of coordination.
Watch somebody who has never exercised attempting to kick a football or run on a treadmill at a fast pace, and you’ll get a good idea or what we’re talking about.
What has this got to do with resistance bands? Well, a lot of exercises that use resistance bands require a basic amount of coordination and balance.
A band-assisted push up may be quite easy compared to a regular push up. However, when compared to a fixed resistance machine such as the chest press, it is very difficult.
Until you have a certain competence level and your body has adapted to training (usually only takes a few weeks) you will not see any real strength gains from most forms of exercise, let alone from resistance bands.
But after those 2-4 weeks, your body will have mostly adapted and you will start to see strength gains. This is how new lifters are able to double or even triple their bench press within such a short period.
But what about new(ish) lifters who want to start using resistance bands. Well, there is absolutely no reason why resistance bands cannot help someone increase muscle size.
Both directly and indirectly (we’ll explain this in a second). Any bodyweight exercise can be used to increase muscle size, provided that the difficulty and the volume is enough to cause metabolic stress.
One bodyweight squat may not lead to any muscle gains, but what about one thousand? What about if you performed one thousand squats every day for a month?
So once you have the ability to train at a high intensity with resistance bands, you can absolutely use them to build muscle – particularly at the beginning.
Resistance bands can also indirectly help you. Certain exercises such as dips and pull-ups are incredibly effective for building muscle, and thanks to weighted belts they can constantly be made more difficult so that you are always able to increase mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.
But these exercises are very difficult to perform, and there are precious few options to make them easier.
If you can’t perform one pull up, then how are you supposed to increase any of the mechanisms for growth? You can’t, you instead need to make the exercise easier. This is where resistance bands can come in useful.
A resistance band can help you perform a pull up by reducing the amount of weight that you have to lift. It is an excellent way to build up strength and improve technique.
It can also help you improve your bodyweight dips in the same way.
Once the resistance bands have built your strength and capability in these exercises you will be able to perform them properly and continue to increase your strength and muscle size.
But what about well-established lifters? To increase muscle size you need to increase mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. To do this you need to constantly be challenging yourself.
With resistance exercises, you can do this by increasing the tension (using a tougher, less elastic resistance band). But eventually, you will have mastered even the most difficult resistance bands.
What then? All you can do then is increase the number of repetitions you perform of each exercise. So if you were doing 20 resistance band squats then you could increase this to 21 or 25. But soon your body will adapt to that.
At a certain point, resistance bands, and bodyweight exercises will stop leading to muscle gains. This is why you don’t see powerlifters like Eddie Hall performing resistance band workouts.
Considering that the majority of people reading this will probably not be anywhere near as strong as Eddie Hall the limitations of resistance bands are inconsequential. But it should be noted all the same.
Resistance bands offer a whole host of benefits. They are cheap to buy, can be taken anywhere, and are perfect for beginners/intermediate lifters. Even more experienced lifters can benefit from using resistance bands.
Bodybuilders often use resistance bands to create a pump just before a competition, where space behind the stage is limited. They may also use them while travelling, as it’s not exactly easy to transport a set of weights with you as you jet set from competition to fitness conventions (or whatever it is that bodybuilders do during the year).
One thing that should be made clear though. Resistance bands alone will not lead to significant muscle growth – certainly not long term.
We’ve had this same issue with bodyweight training promoters. Claiming that a bodyweight routine is as effective as weights training when it comes to building muscle. This is not true.
Resistance bands will help an untrained person build muscle, but only for a certain amount of time.
At some point, the trainee’s muscles will require more intensity than a resistance band can realistically offer.
You could get yourself an amazing physique with resistance bands alone, but it would not be more impressive than the physique you could build combining resistance bands and traditional weights based training.
One thing that should be mentioned however is the over-reliance on resistance bands that have started to occur as the hype increases.
These days you can find people who are using resistance bands and foam rollers for 20-30 minutes prior to working out. In the belief that this will improve their performance.
It might (though the foam rollers are definitely overrated) but if you are spending 60 minutes in a gym and have a 20-minute warm-up you are now forced to rush the actual session itself. Your rest times will have to be shorter, and you might have to cut back on volume, as a result, you won't get as good a workout as before.
In a gym, it is a good idea to use the resistance bands sparingly, take advantage when you can but don't rely on them too much.
A heavy deadlift will still beat a resistance band-assisted press up when it comes to strength and fat-loss.
Don’t limit yourself to one training tool, don’t become too niche. Also, don’t turn your nose up at resistance bands. You could seriously be missing out!
Remember, good nutrition, plenty of rest and a good quality muscle building supplement can aid your efforts too.