Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Big Bad Rubber Bands - The Do's and Don'ts of Band Training

In many ways I'm a firm believer in a minimalist, basic approach to working out. I like barbells.  I like heavy weights. I like multi-joint, compound movements. Generally speaking a lot of stuff that is touted by the "functional" fitness community like the BOSU, airex pads and cute little color coded medicine balls makes me cringe. It's not that these things are intrinsically bad, it's that frequently people tend to use them instead of the exercises that you should really be building your programs around.

I used to have an extremely negative view of resistance bands and band training. Frankly it just seemed like some sissy sh*t that would appeal to gym newcomers because of how easy it was. How are you going to hurt yourself with rubber bands? They're so much more welcoming than a bunch of big, scary iron weights. Then I started working at an orthopedic rehabilitation clinic where the majority of resistive work was done with bands, particularly where the upper body was concerned. I had several extensive discussions with one of the therapists there who in addition to being a DPT had a NSCA-CSCS, NASM-CES, NASM-PES, NASM-CPT, ACSM-CES, RKC and was Grey Cook FMS certified. You can look these things up if you really want but they're basically just different exercise certifications. The point is that this guy not only knew his stuff, but was always actively increasing and improving his knowledge of exercise and movement.

He changed my views on resistance band training fairly quickly by identifying the best uses for them. I am going to attempt, to the best of my ability, to recall what he told me so that you guys can put it to use.

Resistance Band Training: The Basics

     Super Bands - These basically look like giant, black rubber bands. I've also heard clients compare them to the belts that are on your car's engine. Either way, they are large rubber bands that typically come in one of two widths and then a variety of different colors which represent different levels of resistance.

    Sports Cords - Also known as JC Bands, a patented product invented by Juan Carlos Santana, one of the premier figures in functional training and the owner/founder of the Institute for Human Performance down in Florida. This is what they look like.

They are great for all sorts of things because you can use the cloth piece to anchor them to just about anything. They also come in a variety of resistances, indicated by the color of the band. 
     Dual Ended Resistance Tubing - These are the resistance bands that have a handle on each end. In my opinion they are merely an inferior version of the sports cord. They're difficult to anchor which makes them difficult to use effectively. They are frequently billed as one of the best pieces of portable fitness equipment. Strictly an opinion, but I think they're garbage. 

     Thera-Band - Last but not least we have Thera-Bands. Like Band-Aid to adhesive bandages, TheraBand is one of those products where their brand name has become synonymous with their product, regardless of the actual manufacturer. These look like long thin rubber bands and are typically sold in rolls of different resistances, once again coded by color. Thera bands are interesting because they're the duct tape of resistance band training, meaning with a little ingenuity you can pretty much make them into anything. That being said, the heaviest resistance of Thera Bands is roughly as heavy as the weakest resistance of JC bands, so they do have their limitations.

There are an infinite number of combinations and iterations of these four types of bands, but these are the main variations you're likely to encounter and the only types of bands I've ever really used to any effect.

Resistance Band Training: The Do's and Don'ts

DO - Use resistance bands for therapy/rehabilitative exercises. In general the resistance curve of a band is the opposite to the strength production curve of our muscles. What this means is that the resistance of the band is highest when we are at our weakest. 

Your muscles tend to produce the most amount of force when they are at about 75%-25% of their total length, with their ability to produce force reduced if they are longer or shorter than that. A resistance band continually becomes more difficult to move the more it is elongated. As a result, if you have a damaged joint resistance bands can be great for therapy because they force you to become stronger where you are the weakest and therefore the most likely to re-injure yourself. We use therabands of different levels for almost all internal/external rotation exercises of the shoulder for specifically this reason. 

Additionally using bands allows you to exercise certain joints with large/complicated ranges of motion (think your shoulder and hip) in a variety of different angles and directions without placing undue stress on the rest of your body. Think about it like this. When you lift a weight, the resistance is always in one direction - down to the ground. You are working against gravity. Therefore, in order to change the force vector you have to change your body position. By anchoring a band in a bunch of different locations and at various heights you can quite literally work your joints/muscles at any angle while sitting or standing straight up. This is another huge part of why bands are an excellent rehabilitative tool.

DO- Use resistance bands as a way to help break through plateaus. If you are having trouble performing pullups, looping a super band to the pull up bar and then placing a knee or a foot through the loop can help you work a movement that would otherwise be out of your reach. You can also use them to help you improve your bench press or your squat. Frequently power racks will have anchors along the floor for bands so that you can loop them over the barbell and then attach them to the ground. Exposing your body to a different kind of resistance (bands are variable resistance, as discussed above, as opposed to free weights, which do not change in resistance level) means a different kind of stimulus, this may be just the change your body needs to break through that plateau.

When used this way bands help to develop not just strength but power, your ability to produce force and to do so quickly. Because the band is increasing in resistance as you move, it has a natural braking effect on your movement. Forcing yourself to combat this braking effect of the band helps your nervous system to fire in such a way that you significantly improve your power production. This is great for any athlete or someone just looking to change up their routine. It should be noted (although it may be obvious to some of you) that when you first switch to bands you should also significantly decrease the weights you use for these lifts until your body becomes accustomed to this type of training. 

DO - Use resistance bands as an alternative form of cardio/ as a warm- up. I use bands with my in-home clients all of the time because they offer a simple and portable type of resistance. In general I try to focus on body weight or suspension training if we're going for strength or muscular hypertrophy, but I will frequently use circuits of different resistance band exercises to challenge their cardiovascular systems. A really simple circuit would be something like alternating sports cord rows followed by alternating sports cord chest press followed by a sports cord squat pull down. Each exercise would be done for 30s-1 minute and the circuit would be repeated 3-5 times before moving on to the next complex.

Sports cords are also great as a warm up tool because they allow you to mimic movements that you may be doing in your program (rows, presses, pull downs, etc) at a much lower resistance and with a little bit more speed. This helps you to get your blood flowing, raise your body temperature and prime your nervous system with the movement patterns you're going to be working on. It's also fairly common practice in powerlifting circles to use either a band resisted deadlift or a band resisted squat that is performed explosively to prime your CNS for a maximal lift or new personal record attempt. 

DO - Use sports cords for core training. Due to the variability of options in anchoring the sports cord, you can perform movements that would otherwise be fairly difficult to set up. Two of my favorites are hi-low and low-hi chops with core rotations coming it at a very close third. 
One of the nastiest core exercises I've ever come across is also one of the most simple. Attach a sports cord to something that is about waist height. Now position yourself as if you're going to do a core rotation with your body perpendicular to the anchor point. Extend your arms from your body fully keeping your hands roughly in line with your belly button. Now side step away from the anchor point. Once you can't walk any further, hold that position for 10-30s. Repeat. Trust me, it sounds easier than it is. 

I suppose it bears mentioning that theoretically you can do these things with a cable column but resistance bands offer a more constant resistance, even if you go quickly. If you move quickly with a cable column you may "jump" the weight, allowing you to cheat a bit by using momentum.

DON'T - Use resistance bands as a substitute for the real thing. I can't stand watching people standing on some tubing and doing shoulder presses or standing inside a super band with it looped under their feet and over their shoulders and doing squats. In a pinch if yo have no other options I suppose it is better to have some resistance rather than none at all, but don't get comfortable using resistance bands to replace real exercises, because they can't.

DON'T - Get too creative. Sometimes I see people doing complicated martial arts or what looks like an interpretive dance number while holding bands anchored to two different points and standing on one foot. It may look impressive to you but remember what I always say - basic human movements and their mastery trumps EVERYTHING. Is what you're doing with those bands natural in any way? Will you ever use that type of movement other than right now? Then why are you wasting your time? Functional fitness should be just that, functional. If the exercise you are doing has no real crossover then it is anything but.

DON'T - Get carried away. Resistance bands are an excellent tool when applied in the appropriate manner. That doesn't mean you should be incorporating them in every exercise or even every workout. If you're getting stagnant and you want to mix it up, by all means, give it a shot. If you're injured and you need a low impact, easily transported mode of resistance again, by all means try it. Just be reasonable. They are meant as a supplemental training tool, no more and no less. 

That's pretty much it. The take home for this is simple. Resistance bands can be an excellent complement to a well rounded program, but focus on the basics first. Bands are meant to help you squat and deadlift more, not to replace them entirely, at least not from where I'm standing. is the site that we ordered most of our bands and such from back at the clinic. They can be a little pricey but overall it is a very solid website for all sorts of fitness equipment and educational tools. Definitely at least worth a look.

Good luck and good lifting.