Resistance bands are inexpensive, resistance-inducing bits of gym gear that you can carry with you anywhere you go. You can apply it to any workout, any exercise, and up the difficulty on your most basic regimen.
But are they actually effective? Can you build muscle with resistance bands alone? They’re effective, but only if you use them right.
We’re going to go over what resistance bands are, why they’re effective (and when they’re not effective), and talk about the best exercises you can apply them to.
What Are Resistance Bands?
Resistance bands are rubbery pieces of workout equipment. These bands are usually a closed-loop or a strip with a handle on one end. These allow you to add resistance to your workout by having different levels of tension.
When you use a resistance band, you’re requiring your muscles to exert more energy to extend to the same degree that they would need to without a band.
The way resistance training works is by forcing your muscles to work against a resisting force, they adapt by tearing the muscle fibers and growing new muscle volume.
Once the muscle grows new muscle volume, it will be able to accommodate that level of weight (which is why bodybuilders have to work up to larger weights over time).
Resistance bands are extremely compact, easy to carry in your gym bag or in a small pouch in your backpack, and offer a way to upgrade any single workout.
They can also be used for physical therapy, and overall will be the most inexpensive addition to your personal health and fitness arsenal that you’ll ever acquire.
History of Resistance Bands
Resistance bands actually have a fairly interesting history. As we mentioned before, you can use them as a means of physical therapy. Well, that’s actually what their original purpose was.
Patented in 1895 by Gustav Gossweiler, a Swiss inventor, resistance bands were introduced with medical tubing that offered the elasticity that we know today.
Resistance bands were used as a means of muscle rehabilitation to help restore function and gently, cautiously exercise repaired muscle fibers after the early stages of recovery.
They became revered as a path to physical fitness once everyone realized what could be done for their muscles. However, over the next few decades, physical fitness wasn’t exactly on everyone’s minds.
It is believed that the woes of the world (WWI and WWII specifically) made folks forget about a lot of products, and among them are resistance bands.
Cue the 1960s when a personal health trend kicks off, and you start seeing resistance bands crop up again. It began in doctor’s offices and then spilled out into at-home physical fitness, and then had another resurgence in the early 1990s.
Today, they’re a commonly known piece of home gym equipment and are used in physical therapy as well as muscle building and other types of fitness.
Types of Resistance Bands
In total, there are five different types of resistance bands. The principle is the same: increased muscle resistance leads to muscle growth and caloric burn.
But the way that we get those results can vary depending on which type of band you use.
Tube Resistance Bands: Tube resistance bands typically have a loop of rubber on one end, and a handle on the other. This is so you can either slip the rubber loop over the tips of your workout shoes or so that you can attach it to an object and pull it to test your resistance. These are great for oblique workouts and core exercises to train your abs as well.
Power Resistance Bands: Power resistance bands are the most common. You’ll see these in our resistance band buying guide as well because they come in multiple strengths to adjust to your workout, not the other way around. Typically, power resistance bands increase in resistance levels to the point that they can be used to gain serious muscle mass, although those are also accompanied by other exercises as well. These are flexible, useful in multiple situations, and the least expensive type of resistance band you can find.
Figure Eight Bands: Just as you would imagine, these are designed in a figure-eight pattern. You have a handle on the left, one on the right, and two points of contact from each handle that meet a single, solid band in the center. These are the ones you’ve seen before in movies and TV shows when a person will stand in place and extend their arms out to stretch the resistance band as far as it can go.
Hip Circle Bands: These are sometimes referred to as mini power resistance bands. While you can do hip circles with these, they’re typically used to increase upper leg strength and glute strength. You can slip one of these up just past your knees and pull your legs outward (usually in a solid-state stance) to activate muscle resistance. These are often incorporated into multiple workouts, and work well enough on their own with calisthenics.
Physical Therapy Bands: These bands are lighter and stretchier, and designed to help with physical therapy and muscle restoration. These aren’t going to offer the greatest muscle-building results like some other bands we’ve seen, but it’s great for focusing on muscle stability and control.
Resistance Bands: Pros and Cons
Not everything about resistance bands is going to be amazing. Just like with other forms of exercise, there are pros and cons at every turn.
This is what you need to know about resistance bands before you start with them.
Pro – Supports Stabilizer Muscles: You have over 600 muscles in your body, and they rely on one another for support, just like your body relies on your skeleton to stay upright. Some muscles play larger roles than others, but your stabilizer muscles actually help keep those bigger muscles in check, while also helping with your balance. Resistance bands help train these muscles that are sometimes ignored when we focus on larger muscle groups.
Pro – Joint Health: Your joints need to be engaged in order to stay lubricated and functional. Resistance bands help engage those joints while also creating dynamic movements that really stretch them out, keeping you nimble.
Pro – Increases Muscle Gain: Resistance bands aren’t enough of a full-body workout on their own, but they can aid your full-body workouts by increasing the resistance on, well, everything you do. This helps you build muscle without having to upgrade to a bigger dumbbell or a new machine. You apply them to increase the total muscle gain ceiling on your current exercises, and that way it helps you get ready when you eventually do decide to upgrade to the next machine or exercise.
Pro – Low-Impact Exercise: Exercise is great and essential to living a healthy life, but when it comes at the cost of damaging your joints, is it really worth the stress on your body? Low-impact exercises help preserve your joints and ligaments, and resistance bands fall into that category. You’re not just training and getting bulkier; you’re actually helping yourself in more ways than you know.
Con – Not a Full Muscle Exercise on Their Own: We’ve established this throughout this article, but it’s important to know that these just up the difficulty without actually being an entire replacement for other strength exercise and resistance training. They’re great, they’re just not going to get you as far as you think unless you use them as an element to your workout instead of being the star of the show.
Con – Bands Can Snap: While it’s not common, and if you use them correctly it won’t happen to you, it’s never off the table. These are rubber bands and are subject to breaking or snapping, which is why you won’t see them used with weights or anything that could potentially hurt you. Resistance bands (save for hip bands) are typically used solo without the addition of other equipment for safety.
Con – Quantifying Results: When you pick up a ten-pound weight, you know you’re lifting ten pounds. When you use a ten-pound resistance band, there’s no immediate measure of just how much resistance you’re under, which is what makes it hard to track. The resistance level depends on your input, which can be hard to nail down especially as fatigue begins later on in your exercise.
Resistance Band Exercises for Muscle Growth
They have their pros and cons, but overall resistance bands are one of the best ways to get in shape and build muscle while toning what muscle is already there. These exercises will get you closer to your fitness goals.
Banded Floor Press: Let’s pretend that your resistance band is a barbell. Lay on your back with your knees pointed up, and hold the resistance band between your hands. Pull your arms down and to the sides, as if you were pulling on a barbell. Make sure you’re looking straight up the entire time. As your arms pull apart, you’ll feel the resistance in your forearms and biceps as well as your back. Repeat for as many reps as possible.
Banded Pullover: You’re going to need an immovable object for this. Secure one end of your resistance band to a fixture, and lay on your mat with your back flat against it. Pop up those knees, and hold the band above your head. Pull in an arc from the top of your body over your torso, keeping your arms straight, and bring the band down towards your abdominal region, then repeat this motion.
Banded Rowing: Sit with your glutes right on the mat, and your legs straight out in front of you. Bring the resistance band underneath both feet and grab the handles on either side. Keep your back nice and straight and your neck neutral so you’re not bending down, and pull your arms back. You’ll feel your elbow poke out and your shoulder blades attempt to meet one another, that’s how you know it’s working.
Bent-Over Row: Rowing is great for your back. Stand on the center of your resistance band, and pull up from either side of the handles. You want to make sure your knees are bent just a little, and your back is at a 45° angle while your neck is aligned and neutral. Pull up so that your elbows push out behind you, and raise your hands until they’re level with your waist. Be sure not to move your neck during the process. Gently release and lower your hands, and repeat.
Face Pull: You have to secure your band to an immovable object, such as a support beam. Wrap it around the beam, grab the other end, and gently start walking backward. Once you begin to feel resistance, you’ve hit a good point. Stand with your feet at shoulder-width apart, keep your knees straight and your back straight. Pull-on the band and move your arms upward just a little as if you’re pulling the band towards your face. If you don’t feel enough resistance when the band is near your mouth/nose, try stepping back further before starting.
Double Foot Single Arm Row: What’s better than using your own feet as counterweights? Put your loop band on the floor, and step into it, stretching your feet out to the left and right. Lean down with one arm and grab the center of the band. Make sure you’re using your other hand to support your knee. Back straight, neck neutral, and then pull up. Just like with other rows on this list, you want to pull your elbows back and keep your torso nice and rigid, with your core engaged.
Overhead Pull-Apart: Hold a band with one hand on either end and hold it over your head. As long as the line is taut, pull on it from either end as your shoulders come down and the band aligns with them. Gently release pressure on the band and as your hands come together, raise your arms again over your head. These can be done win large amounts of reps.
Reverse Fly: These are spectacular for your shoulders. All you have to do is put both feet down in the center of the band while it lays on the floor. But here’s a twist: you’re going to grab the opposite handles so it crosses over the toe box of your shoes. When you stand, these will cross your lower legs. Bend your knees, bend at the hips with your neck level, and pull your arms up and apart, paying special attention to your breathing rhythm the entire time.
Standing Row: Take a band that has two separate handles and pull it around an immovable structure. You want the center of the band to pull against the structure, so you can walk backward while holding both handles. Once you feel some resistance, stop, put your feet at shoulder-width apart, bend your knees, and keep your neck straight. Pull your arms back while your torso stays in place and row. You’ll feel this in your shoulder blades before too long.
Overhead Pull-Apart: Pretty much straight to the point with this one. You put your arms out in front of you, grab the resistance band with both hands with a space in between, and raise those arms above your head. You pull apart as much as you can, gently lean back into the starting position, and then bring your arms back down in front of you. Repeat this to help build your arms. This exercise is great because it’s entirely adaptive to how you want to do it, so you can pull hard or start off gently.
Rowing: Yeah, you can basically emulate a rowing machine (kind of) with resistance bands. Put the loops over your shoes and sit with your legs flat. Using just your arms without moving your abdomen, pull the bands and point your elbows out as if you were rowing, just be sure that when you let go you ease out so you’re working those muscles in the opposite direction as well.
Bicep Curls: Stand on the center of the band, and on either side, hold onto the band with your hands. Curl your hands through the center loop, and from there pull up as if you were lifting dumbbells. It’s not going to feel like you have two 20 lb weights in each hand, but it will offer excellent resistance and get those biceps pumping.
Banded Front Squat: Yeah, you can squat with a resistance band, and it looks pretty awesome. Step inside of the entire band so that both feet are over the band, and the other half of the band is stretched out over your palms while you hold your elbows out (facing forward). Get your neck and spine neutral, and then lean down into a squat position. The only awkward thing about this is that you’re going to feel the squat more when you come back up than when you go down, but it works pretty well even so.
Banded Lunges: Step in the center of your band, preferably one with a handle, and put your arms upright by your side. You want your elbows out and your palms to be near neck level. Hold each handle of the band so that the band travels on the outside of your arms, not the inside. Perform a standard lunge by leaning down with your banded leg, and using your non-banded leg to dip down into the motion. You’ll feel this when you come back up, and it will add an extra fair deal of resistance to build those calf muscles.
Banded Hamstring Curls: Your hamstrings are important, we all know this, but they’re probably not getting enough love. For this, you have to lay flat on your back with your arms sprawled out in front of you, and have your ankles banded on one end of your resistance band, while the other is tethered around an immovable object like a smith machine or a pillar. Pull your legs upward towards your glutes and pull tight. The tricky part with this one is being far enough away from the structure in the first place, but it all comes together.
Resistance Bands vs. Weights
Resistance bands are not a replacement for weights. They are meant to supplement your resistance/strength training and train muscles that you might not normally engage with as often, but you’re not going to look like Arnold just from using resistance bands.
Weights offer gravitational resistance, while resistance bands offer directional resistance. To be clear, resistance is good either way, but your muscles respond differently depending on the type of resistance.
That’s why bands will work out muscle groups that deadlift doesn’t, and vice versa.
If you want to bulk up, use weights. If you want to tone your body and work on stabilization, use resistance bands. You want a novel idea? Incorporate both into your exercise regiment, and you’ll become a toned Greek God. Beefy muscles are good, but all-over muscle growth is even better.
Keep in mind that weights are more associated with strength training and resistance bands are more focused on calisthenic-related exercises.
Ultimate Resistance for a Toned Body
Resistance bands can aid in muscle growth and add some minor muscle-building power to your workout, but they’re not a replacement for weights or full-body resistance training.
Think about resistance bands as adding a level or two of difficulty to exercises you’ve already become accustomed to.
Adding resistance bands can add 5% to 20% more difficulty to an exercise you’re already familiar with depending on how you apply them and which strength you use.
You should absolutely get in the habit of using them, just don’t expect intense gains. Every little bit helps, and resistance bands can take your workout one level higher.
Justin Rodriguez has spent most of his adult life inspiring people to take their fitness more seriously. He is not new to the business of providing practical solutions for those looking to set and smash their fitness goals. From sharing professional tips and tricks to recommending awesome products, Justin Rodriguez helps just about anyone who wants to get the best out of their workout routines.Having gathered a lot of experience both in and outside the gym, Justin Rodriguez uses DSW Fitness as a medium to show you exactly how to get that great-looking body with toned muscles you’ve always wanted.