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Are Bands as Effective as Free Weights?

Iversen VM, Mork PJ, Vasseljen O, Bergquist R, Fimland MS.
Multiple-joint exercises using elastic resistance bands vs. conventional resistance-training equipment: A cross-over study.
European Journal of Sports Science. 2017; 19: 1-10.

Previous issues have detailed the use of elastic bands of varying resistance to provide a complete whole body workout. The advantages of bands include their low cost, absolute minimal space, and portability. Bands are ideal for travel because in minimal space such as a hotel room with a chair and doorway, a wide variety of exercises can be performed.

Bands seem as effective as resistance machines and free weights for single joint exercises such as a lateral raise or biceps curl. What has not been well studied is bands' effectiveness for multi-joint exercises that affect multiple muscle groups and should be a major part of a resistance training protocol.

Iversen and colleagues investigated this issue with four common multi-joint exercises — squats, stiff-legged deadlifts, lateral pulldown, and unilateral rows. There were 29 younger men and women (average age, 25 years) in the study. EMG was used to assess muscle activation in the primary muscles targeted by the exercise and also ancillary muscles. The testing involved two sessions with conventional resistance training performed first and then after an hour break, the same exercises were performed with thera-bands. The first session assessed the lateral pulldown and the unilateral row. At a minimum, three days elapsed before assessing the squat and stiff-legged deadlift. Familiarization sessions for conventional and band exercises were conducted for exact positioning, practice of the two seconds positive and two second negative phases of the repetition, and to establish a 10 RM for each exercise.

The conventional exercises were performed as they typically are in gyms and health clubs around the world. The band versions were performed in a very similar way to the conventional exercises, but with one exception. For the squat, the set-up was different. Participants stood on the bands and then pulled them to shoulder height, and then crossed and held the bands at the chest, similar to a 'front squat'. The starting point was the upright position.

EMG assessments, performed in a state-of-the-art method, showed higher muscle activation for the conventional squat and stiff-legged deadlift than the band versions. The data showed comparing the band versions to the conventional versions, minimal lower activation for the band version of the lateral pulldown and unilateral row, somewhat lower activation for the stiff-legged deadlift, and much lower activation for the squat. Not surprisingly, in examining the EMG data, it was found that the lower activation for the band version of the exercises was mostly seen when the bands were fairly slack, but not when the bands were elongated. The investigators noted that bands are most effective when bands are elongated but thought this would be difficult to achieve with the squat. In addition, it was noted that it was more difficult to assess a 10 RM with bands than with conventional equipment.

Bottom Line:New Evidence

At a minimum, the study indicated that bands do have some efficacy as shown in the EMG data, and are a viable training modality. There are though at least two caveats to consider that could result in more effective training with bands.

It is easy to experiment, typically using multiple bands, to find a reasonable resistance for an exercise. In an effort-based approach to resistance training, there is much less concern, if any, with finding a 10 RM or for that matter any RM. Resistance training with bands can be exquisitely about a high degree of effort. Whether eight, ten, or fifteen repetitions were used in an exercise set with the last repetition to failure, i.e., the last one that can be performed in good form, is all that really matters.

One other advantage of bands is the ability to also experiment and find the most favorable position for performing a movement. When I first began using bands, my squat set-up was the same as used in the study. It was apparent that in the bottom part of the range of motion, there was minimal resistance and, therefore, this set-up was not likely to be very effective. So, I simply changed the position. I stand on the bands and go to a deep, full squat position. I then from that position take the bands and hold them at my sides. In this way, I am making sure that even in the bottom position there is a lot of resistance. I do the same thing to perform the stiff-legged deadlift as well as bent over rows and shrugs.

This study is a start to examine how well bands deliver an effective training stimulus. However, in order to fairly conduct these assessment, the band exercises need to be performed in their optimal set-up for applying resistance throughout a range of motion.