Resistance bands are a very cheap and compact way to start working out at home or anywhere else. You can put them in a bag or suitcase and have a travel workout kit or just use them at home. But are resistance bands actually effective at building muscle? Let’s find out.
Resistance bands can be used to build muscle if a sufficient resistance is used and when combined with the correct workout program. The unique strength curve of resistance bands is a good supplement for free weights training. If the two are combined it’ll be more effective than both separately.
What makes them suitable to build muscle, how can you do it and how can you build even more muscle? Keep reading to find out.
Can resistance bands build muscle?
First things first; can you build muscle when using resistance bands?
What builds muscle?
To answer that, we first have to quickly look at what you need to build muscle. There are four things you need to build muscle. Of course you can make this much more complicated but in my opinion these are the basics.
- Challenging resistance
- Rest periods
- Enough repetitions
Nutrition and recovery have nothing to do with resistance bands so let’s forget those. Of course they still have to be in order when you want to build muscle but that’s the case regardless of which type of equipment you use.
Repetitions and rest periods are completely up to you. You can do as many or little repetitions as you want and take the rest periods you want. Again, that’s the case with any type of equipment.
Because of how resistance bands work, they are a bit better to use with higher repetitions (6+). You’ll also perform slightly different exercises with bands than other types of equipment. That’s where programming comes in. All equipment should be used properly and use the strengths of that type of equipment to get the most out of it. Resistance bands are no different.
That leaves the resistance as the last piece of the puzzle. Can resistance bands provide ….. resistance? Of course the word resistance is already in the name ‘resistance band’ so that would be a clear “yes”.
The next question then becomes, can resistance bands provide ENOUGH resistance for you?
In a nutshell, you want to overload your muscle so it gets an impulse to grow stronger. Keep regularly overloading your muscle after it adapted (so slightly higher weight or more repetitions every time) and the muscle will grow.
Can you do this with resistance bands?
Resistance bands come in different ‘weights’ and can be stacked for more resistance as well. The heaviest bands top out at about 200 lbs. However, that’s the peak resistance. If there’s any slack in the band, the resistance will be 0. Just think of resistance bands as big rubber bands. The first part is very easy to stretch and the further you go, the more resistance you get.
That’s why you will usually see a range of resistance on a band. For example; 5-15 lbs. or 40-80 lbs. That’s the range from just tighter than slack to the maximum resistance that band provides.
Is that enough to build muscle? That depends on two different things;
- Training level
Some exercises are easier than others. There are two main categories of movements; Isolation and compound.
With isolation exercises you just move a single joint. This has as a result that you use a single muscle group as the main mover. This really targets one muscle which is why it’s called “isolation.
For this type of exercise you don’t usually need a lot of weight for it to be challenging. For bicep curls for example, 80 lbs. is quite a lot. You can easily find bands that give you that amount of resistance.
Compound lifts mean you move multiple joints in one movement. The best example is the squat. To do a proper squat you have to bend at the hip, knees and ankles. This means you use way more different muscles and therefore more muscle mass than with isolation exercises.
Using more muscle mass means you can move more weight. With a little bit of training, 100 lbs. isn’t a lot for squats. Even complete beginners will be able to squat with 100 lbs. of resistance pretty quickly.
So you might be afraid you can’t find bands that are going to be challenging for you. Luckily it’s possible to stack bands and their resistance. For example using a 100 lbs. and 50 lbs. band at the same time will give you 150 lbs. of total resistance. You can’t use an unlimited amount of bands but 2-4 is possible without it becoming too impractical.
So getting enough resistance isn’t a problem for almost anybody.
That means, provided you get all the other factors mentioned above right, resistance bands can provide plenty of ‘weight’ to result in muscle growth when used.
Effectiveness of resistance bands building muscle
So resistance bands can build muscle, but is it an efficient way of doing so?
Efficiency can mean many things. Resistance bands are small so very space efficient for how much muscle you can do with them. They are cheap so compared to dumbbells and barbells they are very a very efficient way to spend your money for the results you can get.
That means money and space wise, resistance bands are super-efficient. Only kettlebells can compete for efficiency and effectiveness in building muscle in those ways.
But that doesn’t mean it’s time efficient. If you need to exercise 20 hours a day every day for 10 years to see any results, it does build muscle but so slow it’s not very good use of your time.
For beginners, resistance bands are a very good and efficient tool to build muscle. It’s unintimidating
There can be minor differences in how effective different pieces of equipment are but in the end it mostly comes down to how intense you train and how good your program is.
If you want to build a lot of muscle, at some point resistance bands aren’t really going to cut it anymore. Very heavy bands are just not as practical to use. And since progressive overload is necessary to keep growing, after a certain point, free weights are the way to go.
For beginners that is quite a way down the road though.
Until then, you can build a very solid base with resistance bands. Also, that doesn’t mean more advanced weightlifters can’t benefit from using resistance bands. They certainly can but more on that later.
Are resistance bands alone enough to build a good physique?
Can you build a good physique with only resistance bands? The producers of resistance bands would certainly want you to believe that since their using fitness models to sell them. Does that mean you can look like them if you just use those bands?
Mind you, we’re talking about fitness models here, not top level professional bodybuilders.
I can with 99% certainty tell you that those models didn’t get that physique by only using resistance bands. Most of them will use other equipment for growing muscles. (free weights are the most popular). Fitness models will also have a stricter diet than almost anybody else to keep their abs and other muscles clearly showing. On top of that, many fitness models (especially men but quite a few women as well) will use certain substances that make them look a lot better than the average person.
So will you look like them just using resistance bands for 15 minutes a day like the ad says? No you won’t. But neither will any other type of equipment. Looking good takes hard work and discipline no matter what equipment you use.
Can you build a better physique than you have now if you’ll start using resistance bands?
Absolutely. Like other types of fitness equipment, they are absolutely going to make you look better naked if used correctly. It’s all going to be in your programming and your lifestyle besides exercise.
Building muscle and losing bodyfat is going to improve your physique dramatically. Both are possible with resistance bands.
Resistance bands vs. free weights
Ok so you can build muscle and improve your physique with resistance bands. But are they as effective as free weights?
What are free weights?
If you don’t know, free weights are weights that aren’t attached to anything and therefore can move anywhere if you don’t control them. In general dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells are considered “free weights”.
You could argue that resistance bands are free weights because they don’t have a set pattern and also have many of the benefits of free weights like having to use many stabilizer muscles. Resistance bands don’t have much weight in and off themselves so while they might be free, they aren’t ‘free weights’. But since you’re probably not very interested in semantic discussions, lets’ look at the biggest difference between bands and weights.
What’s the difference between resistance bands and free weights?
Obviously, there are differences in how they look, how to use them, how much space they take up and how much they cost. But that’s not the biggest difference.
The biggest difference is the resistance curve.
Free weights feel the heaviest in the lowest position of a movement. Their actual weight doesn’t change but because of biomechanics, the top part will feel a bit easier. Think about a squat. What’s heavier? The part where your bum is the closest to the floor or the last bit to lock out? The lowest position is going to feel the heaviest and most exercises are similar.
Resistance bands increase in resistance the further you stretch them. That means you invert the strength curve. When using them. It’s lighter at the bottom and gets heavier near the top. That’s means your muscle gets loaded in a different way.
That’s not necessarily better or worse, just different. As long as the intensity is similar, you’ll get similar muscle growth results. However, training to build up a muscle with free weights doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to lift the same weight with resistance bands and vice versa.
Can you combine resistance bands with free weights for extra muscle?
So I can hear you thinking (yeah it’s THAT loud); Will I get better results if I combine free weights AND resistance bands?
Yes, you will. You will get the best of both worlds. You can overload your muscles at the bottom of a lift AND at the top. This is going to overload your muscle more and therefore has the potential for more strength and growth.
There are actually two ways to do this;
- At the same time
The first way to use free weights and bands for extra muscle growth is to use them at different times. You do a workout with free weights and after that you do similar exercises with resistance bands.
You could do it in the same workout or even on a completely different day. As long as you do both in equal amount and at similar intensity levels, you will get a good combination of benefits.
It also allows you to perform more repetitions throughout the week for the same body part. That in itself is good for muscle growth.
Alternatively you can do a heavy free weights workout (Heavy resistance, low repetitions) and a band workout that’s the other way around (Lower resistance, high repetitions). Notice is wrote ‘lower resistance’ not, ‘low resistance. It should still be challenging.
This will improve muscle growth in two ways;
- Training the different strength curves and so targeting your muscle in two different ways.
- Increasing the total amount of sets and repetitions you work out that muscle.
This approach will definitely give you better results than using either bands or free weights separately.
Using this approach is very suitable for beginners. Not only for the reasons mentioned above but also because it’s a bit simpler than the next approach.
Combine at the same time
Instead of doing a similar workout with two different types of equipment, you can also use them at the same time.
For example, let’s say you’re squatting. You loop one side of a resistance band around the barbell. The other side that hangs down you connect to the power cage. (many cages have pegs to attach bands). Of course you want to do this on both sides of the barbell.
You want to set up the band in such a way that there is no to very little tension on the band in the lowest position of the exercise. Then when you’re slightly past the heaviest (feeling) point, the resistance band starts building tension. This way you keep the resistance more even throughout the range of motion.
Of course you can experiment with different resistances.
This is a technique that’s not really suitable for beginners and is best done by people that have some more experience and built up more strength and control. Good exercise form is crucial when doing this. Also, because it will feel a lot heavier to lock out the movement, start at a lot lower weight than you would without the bands.
Even though you want to set up the bands in such a way there is no tension on them at the bottom of the exercise, the extra resistance up top might be more than you expect.