Can resistance bands increase muscle size and strength?

Posted on April 14, 2020

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(Last Updated On: April 14, 2020)

This was originally written for another site, edited with some corrections and relevance, as I thought it might be useful during this time when so many are doing home workouts.

Sure they can.

The following study had three groups of women.

  • Step Aerobics (SA)
  • SA for 25 minutes + Resistance Training (SAR25)
  • SA for 40 minutes (SA40)

The resistance training was solely done with bands. Training was 12 weeks.

I boxed the relevant groups, and then subboxed the relevant attributes for this question- the group who used resistance bands and the group who did step aerobics for 40 minutes i.e. the two groups who worked out for the most similar amount of time:

resistance bands improving strength and body composition

Credit: Resistance training combined with bench-step aerobics enhances women’s health profile

We can see just doing the step aerobics even improved 1 rep-max shoulder strength, but adding the band resistance training improved strength metrics even more. So, yes, resistance bands can help improve strength and muscle size.

The point here is not to get hung up on this specific study or the specific numbers. It’s a small study so we shouldn’t read too much into it. The point is the body responds to resistance. Whether that’s weights, your bodyweight going up and down steps, or bands. In one sense, all we care about is if the body is having to fight a resistance often enough.

Beyond that, any solid resistance training program would work e.g. muscle groups hit twice per week, regularly trying to engage in progressive overload.

The key for bands is using ones which are strong enough. A good place for these is EliteFts. Their bands get quite strong.

Another key can be the ability to incrementally load the bands. To some degree, this can be simple: increase how stretched the band is. However, making the jump from one band at one strength to another at a higher or lower strength can be cumbersome and not an exact science.

If you’re healthy, it’s no big deal. Play with it. Worst comes to worst, go with the “does it feel harder?” test.

If you’re beat up, this can be tough. If you have a sensitive shoulder, you really don’t want to accidentally, significantly, increase the load of an exercise. This is more true with bands than typical weights, as bands can fling you around in a way a e.g. cable machine will not, which means potentially greater injury risk.

Without turning this article into a primer on how to work with bands, when in doubt, it’s better to load too little than too much. In general, whenever I have a client introduce themselves to bands, I lean towards higher reps, to help insure they don’t go with too strong of a band initially. If you know you have to do 20-30 reps, you’re less likely to pick a really strong band.

My experience has also been to avoid the tubing type of band. They’re more likely to snap, leaving people feeling much more uneasy (many have had a bad experience or have heard of one), where people won’t exert themselves the same. You can wrap PVC pipe on an EliteFts band if you want to make a handle. Or wrap a towel around the band if gripping the band doesn’t feel great.

EliteFts’ bands are commonly used in powerlifters. Westside Barbell, perhaps the strongest humans on the planet, use bands often. If you’re in the know and wondering, force curves are nothing to worry about.

“Relative to other stages, the terminal range of motion of many exercises, like a squat and bench press, involves little force. Nobody gets stuck during a squat the last six inches. Once past the sticking point, the latter portion of the range of motion is never maximally worked. You can quarter squat more than you can half squat. If we’re going to criticize bands for what they lack in providing at the bottom of a rep, we need to concurrently criticize free weights for what they lack in providing at the top of a rep. (And no one has trouble getting strong muscles and bones from free weights!)”

More details if desired, such as how bands can improve bone density as well, EliteFts chart of band strengths, etc: https://b-reddy.org/2016/03/25/can-resistance-bands-improve-bone-density/

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