Strength bands

Strength bands, also known as resistance bands  are not just big elastic bands that sit in the corner of your gym collecting dust or solely used as a stretching aid (although this is a good use for them!). If used in the correct manner strength bands can be used to aid your performance in any sport and in the gym. They can be used to add resistance to a variety of exercises which target the upper and lower body.

What makes the strength band such a good training tool? Well, it can be used in two ways – to increase or decrease the resistance at certain points in the strength curve (see below).

Strength bands 1

Pictures locations on the graph refer to corresponding diagram numbers showing the squat.

SquatDepth

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The strength curve highlights an ascending pattern. This means you can apply more force as you extend/lift the weight (during the concentric contraction). For example, you would be able to lift more weight from position 2 as opposed to position 4 on the squat picture above. The maximal strength area on the curve is where the sticking point occurs, at the bottom of the range of movement.

*The sticking point could be defined as the position where the resistance can’t be overcome by the strength of the muscles. This is either due to a certain muscle weakness or a disadvantageous biomechanical position (a joint angle where force production is lower).

In the real world, the muscle lifts the bar, thus imparting a degree of acceleration to it. When you enter a “weak zone,” it becomes impossible to accelerate the load because of either a muscle weakness or the joint angle. What happens is that the bar will start to decelerate.

As we start lifting the weight from the bottom of the strength curve (around the sticking point) we move through the phases of the strength curve – maximal strength, strength-speed, power, speed-strength, speed. The resistance will feel easier to lift the further you move away from the maximal strength point on the strength curve. For example:

–       picture 4 is the bottom range of movement in the squat – most likely the sticking point – from here we start to move along the strength curve.

–       Maximal strength is used to move from picture 4 to picture 3 – during this portion of the lift the weight moves slowly

–       Strength-speed is around picture 3, the weight starts to move a little quicker as we are past the sticking point

–       Power, Speed-strength is around picture 2 on the curve. The weight starts to feel lighter and you now start to lift the weight quicker than in the previous part of the lift.

–       Speed is around picture 1 – where you are at your strongest.

So what does a resistance band do to the strength curve? The resistance band is part of the variable resistance training ‘gang’ – along with chains) The idea is to minimize the sticking point as Anderson et al. (2008) state ‘a more uniformity distributed external resistance would allow for greater loading at positions of greater leverage’. This means that at the bottom of the lift the weight is lighter and as you lift the weight the resistance gets heavier – following the overload principle.  Soepe et al. (20011) believe that strength band allows for higher forces and power outputs compared to free-weights alone.

Research has looked into this: the idea of there being greater muscle tension developed during each repetition. This is because the band is at its optimum tightness at the top of the movement, which means it has an effect on both eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phase of a lift. The band is pulling you down, so you resist the movement – lowering under control, taking about 3 seconds, you then power up through the concentric part of the lift – around 1 second ‘under control’ – as the weight is lighter you can lift the weight quicker from the bottom part of the lift (the sticking point), as you lift the weight the resistance increases.

Israetel et al.’s (2010) results found – ‘when equated for total work, squats with strength bands elicit higher force, velocity, power, and muscle activity during the first part of the eccentric phase and latter portion of the concentric phase when compared with squats without strength bands’.

‘Thus squats with strength bands resulted in kinetic and kinematic pattern similar to that of ballistic movement used for power training. This might indicate the benefit of elastic bands during the squat for maximizing power output, but this is speculative at the this time’

Anderson et al. (2008) results showed that combined training (strength bands around a barbell with weights) improved the bench press by 8% over a 7 week period, compared to 4% for the free weight group; back squats improvement of 16% in the combined training group compared to 6% for the free weights group; power improved by 60 watts for the combined resistance group and 23 watts for the free weights group.

Shoepe et al. (2011) reported improvements of 18% for the free weights group compared to only 10% for the combined resistance group. Squats showed almost an equal improvement with the combined training group showing improvements of 31% whilst the free weight group showed improvements of 33%.

In Shoepe et al. (2011) study the strength bands were used to add between 20-35% of the total prescribed training loads. For example, if the prescribed load was 80kg then load on the bar would be 80kg in the free weights group and the variable training group would have 64kg on the bar with the strength bands making up the other 16kg –so at the bottom of the movement the weight is 64kg and at the top of the movement the weight is 80kg. Anderson et al. (2008) study also used 20% as the ‘average resistance’ as the variable resistance varies throughout the range of motion.  Israetel et al. (2010) study looked at increasing the amount of weight the strength bands added, which was almost all of the resistance. They used a 20kg barbell and added bands so the resistance was 50kg and then 100kg at the top of the squat. The free weights exercises then were performed using a barbell mass (resistance) equivalent to the average force extended during the resistance band exercises.

The research shows that combined resistance training (bands and barbells together) does have a place in the training plan – but this again would appear to be time dependent. Adding strength bands to a barbell work (squats and bench press) would appear to have a place in a periodised plan (see post on Periodised Training), however should not be used for every session during the week. This is because strength bands are another useful training tool and should be used by intermediate and advanced lifters, in my opinion. In a periodised plan they would appear to have place in the power phase of training – as people can power up from the bottom of the lift as the resistance is at its lightest. Avoid making the resistance of the bands too heavy – above what you can usually lift. The research shows the bands to have potential if used as 20-35% of the overall resistance – this means you can power up – if the overall resistance from the weight plates and strength bands is too much, the speed of movement will be the same – slow – as if you just had weigh plates making up the total resistance.

 

Exercises

X Walks

– Take a strength band and step in the middle of the band, with both feet, cross it over and hold the other end with your hands (the band should now resemble an X figure)

– Bend slightly at the knees, athletic position (same as Jonny Wilkinson when lining up a kick), pull the band to just above the waist and hold tight, shoulders down, core tight and elbows tucked by your side

– Keep your left foot still and push your right foot out to the side around 3/4 m, then bring your left in, no closer than shoulder width apart

– Perform the desired number of repetitions one way and then repeat going the other way

 

Hip Bridge

– Start lying on your back. Hook the bands around your left heel, up around your waist and hook under your right heel.

– Have your knees bent up towards your glutes and feet positioned so your feet are pointing towards the ceiling, feet hip width apart

– Squeeze your glutes and raise your hips and lower back off the floor – until your knees, hips and shoulders are parallel (avoid hyperextending)

– Hold this position for several seconds and return to the start positing under control – keep the glutes squeezed – repeated for the desired number of repetitions

 

Hip Flexion

– Hook the strength band around the bottom of a cable column/squat rack

– Facing forwards place one foot in the band, so the band is positioned on the top of the foot against your shin.

– Walk out until there is enough tension on the band for you. Use a pole or body bar to assist with balance if needed

– Slowly lift your knee up as high as you can go – try to the thigh at least parallel to the hip

– Maintain a straight back and avoid leaning to the left/right or hiking your hip up

– Pause at the top of the movement for 2-3 seconds then control back to the start

 

Hip Extension

– Hook the strength band around the bottom of a cable column/squat rack

– Place one foot in the band walk out until there is enough tension on the band for you. Use a pole or body bar to assist with balance if needed

– Facing backwards place one foot in the band, so it is positioned around the bottom of your ankle

– Take several steps backwards until there is enough tension on the band for you. Use a pole or body bar to assist with balance if needed

– Slowly take your leg backwards, contracting the glutes as you do

– Take the leg back as far as comfortable for you whilst maintaining a straight back and avoid bending the knee

 

Assisted Pull Ups

– Wrap the band around the chin up bar

– Step up onto the step and pull the resistance band down, placing one knee in the bad and grab hold of the chin up bar

– Place your over knee in the band and pull yourself up – assisted by the band – until your neck is just above the bar

– Slowly lower, under control, until your arms are full extended – repeat for the desired number of repetitions

 

Push Up

– Take the band behind your back, across the middle of your shoulders, place your hands in the ends of the bands, kneel down and maneuver yourself to the start position

– Laying on the floor, toes pointed, hands in line with your chest, elbows at 45 degrees from the shoulders. Keep the core engaged

– Press up to the full range of motion, keep the core tight and body moving up and down together – avoid the hips dropping

– Lower under control to the point where the chest touches the floor, keep the core engaged and head in line with the spine

– Repeated for the desired number of repetitions

 

 

Bench Press

– Before adding your weights attach a strength band over the barbell and secure at the end of the grip. Pull the bar down and wrap around the peg at the bottom of the rack – the more wraps the more resistance you add – repeat both sides. Then add the required amount of weight

– Lie back on a flat bench. Using a medium width grip (a grip that creates a 90-degree angle in the middle of the movement between the forearms and the upper arms), lift the bar from the rack and hold it straight over you with your arms locked- be careful the bands are not too tight or weight too heavy as this will pull you down. This will be your starting position.

– From the starting position, breathe in and begin coming down slowly until the bar touches your middle chest – resistance will be at its lightest

– After a brief pause, push the bar back to the starting position – the emphasis should be on speed even when the bands tighten and add resistance as you push up.

– Focus on pushing the bar using your chest muscles. Lock your arms and squeeze your chest in the contracted position at the top of the motion, hold for a second and then start coming down slowly again.

– Repeat the movement for the prescribed amount of repetitions.

 

Squats

– Before adding your weights attach a strength band over the barbell and secure at the end of the grip. Pull the bar down and wrap around the peg at the bottom of the rack – the more wraps the more resistance you add – repeat both sides. Then add the required amount of weight

– This exercise is best performed inside a squat rack for safety purposes. To begin, first set the bar on a rack just above shoulder level. Once the correct height is chosen and the bar is loaded, step under the bar and place the back of your shoulders (slightly below the neck) across it.

– Hold on to the bar using both arms at each side and lift it off the rack by first pushing with your legs and at the same time straightening your torso – take care as the tension of the bands will pull you down

– Step away from the rack and position your legs using a shoulder-width medium stance with the toes slightly pointed out. Keep your head up at all times and maintain a straight back. This will be your starting position.

– Begin to slowly lower the bar by bending the knees and sitting back with your hips as you maintain a straight posture with the head up. Continue down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor

– Begin to rise from the bottom of the squat by pushing the floor with the hello or middle of your foot as you straighten the legs and extend the hips to go back to the starting position – as you stand the resistance band will tighten and increase the resistance. Look to keep a constant speed as the resistance is added.

– Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.

References
Anderson, C, E., Sforzo, G, A., and Sigg, J. A. (2008). The Effects of Combining Elastic and Free Weiht Resistance on Strength and Power in Athletes. Exercise and Sport Science.  22 (2) : 567-574.
Israetel, M. A., McBride, J, M., Nuzzo, J, I., Skinner, J, W., and Dayne, A, M. (2010). Kinetic and Kinematic Differences Between Squats Performed With and Without Elastic Bands. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24 (1): 190-194.
Shoepe, T, C., Ramierz, D, A., Rovetti, R, J., Kohler, D. R., and Almstedt, H. C. (2011). The Effects of 24 week Resistance Training with Simultaneous Elastic and Free Weight Loading on Muscular Performance of Novice Lifters. Journal of Human Kinetics. 29 ; 93-106.

Mark Beresford is a personal trainer who specialises in strength and conditioning training. He works at the University of Sussex


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