We all know that barbells are the ultimate training tool! Right? Are you sure? A systematic review and meta-analysis and some influencers might suggest otherwise. Let’s have a look at this research and more importantly – what this means for you and your training!
Note: If you don't care about the study, you can skip to the part application part below and the sections on the pros and cons of bands - I won't be offended.
SAGE Open Medicine published a recent systematic review and meta-analysis on training with bands for resistance versus traditional resistance training (e.g., machines) for building strength in a variety of populations (Lopes et al., 2019). A meta-analysis is where researchers look for all the studies on a particular topic that fit their search criteria. Then they statistically analyze the results of all these studies together. The idea is to get a good understanding of the overall research trend on a given topic.
The researchers looked for randomized controlled trials (one group uses bands, the other traditional training) that measured the effects on muscular strength. They used eight studies in their analysis. These studies combined gave them a total of 224 subjects ranging from 15-88 years of age. The subjects included middle-aged patients with coronary disease, fit females in their early 20s, teenagers, older patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and university students. The length of the studies ranged from 4-12 weeks (average 7.4 weeks). Most studies only looked at a few exercises (e.g., squat and bench press). PEDro score (a scale of 1-10 for methodological quality – the quality of how the study was conducted) ranged from 5-8 out of 10 (average 6.4). The results found that for gaining strength, neither bands nor traditional training was superior. But wait…
A meta-analysis is often considered to be at the top of the food chain when it comes to sources of scientific knowledge. However, a meta-analysis is only as good as the available studies. This meta-analysis has only eight, moderate-quality, short-duration studies. None of the subjects were advanced lifters (nor was there any mention that subjects had previous training experience). As a result, you are likely looking only at beginners (remember, anything works for a beginner) or at best those with little training experience. Only one study used athletes. This meta-analysis said that the subjects were soccer players. However, when I looked up the study it was done on American college football players. The study did not compare bands vs. free weights or machines. The study really compares using a barbell only for speed bench press to adding bands or chains to the barbell (both of which were shown to be helpful for improving peak power) (Ghigiarelli et al., 2009). This study should have never been included in the meta-analysis as it investigated adding bands to barbells, not using only bands vs. traditional resistance training.
Influencers on social media trying to promote themselves as “evidence-based experts” are often quick to through around studies like this as ironclad “proof”. However, when you read the full article (not just the abstract), you see what the research is actually saying. In addition, without real-world training and coaching experience, you can miss the actual implications of research and how (if at all) you can apply it to your training.
Application – You and Your Training
- For the general fitness population, there is limited, moderate-quality data that suggest training with bands can help improve your strength – at least in the short term.
- If you are an experienced lifter or athlete, this research has little (if any) relevance for you.
- Understand the pros and cons of bands and use them when appropriate for you (see below).
Pros of Using Bands
- As we just looked at in the research, bands can work (at least in the short term for beginners)
- Relatively inexpensive
- Light and very portable – excellent for travel
- May be less intimidating than free weights for some people.
- Provide a high level of tension when a muscle is in its shortened position
- Provides extra tension at the top of pressing and squatting exercises when you are mechanically stronger and the exercise feels easier.
- Bands may be helpful for improving the mind-muscle connection. Personally, whenever I use bands (which is not that much), I do feel a strong mind-muscle connection. This could be helpful before going into traditional free weight or machine exercises.
- Bands are great you don’t have other training equipment. If you did not have barbells, dumbbells, or machines, you could do push-ups with band resistance (if needed), single leg squats, and then use bands for rows, lat pulls, curls, triceps, shoulder presses, side raises, and leg curls). You could even use bands to help add additional load to push-ups and squats.
- Bands are quite joint-friendly. Unlike a barbell, bands (along with dumbbells and suspension straps) allow your joints to freely go where they naturally want to go. This can reduce joint stress.
- There is anecdotal evidence (real-world, not academic research) from powerlifters that triceps band pressdowns are good for elbow health.
- Bands make great cable alternatives for group training. When I worked as a university head strength coach, I trained large groups of athletes at the same time. We had neither the space nor the budget for multiple cable stations. As a result, we often used bands for accessory exercises (i.e., we used barbells for the main movements) such as triceps pressdowns, face pulls, pull aparts, and abs (e.g., Palloff press).
- Bands can be added to barbells to help improve power as I mentioned above (Ghigiarelli et al., 2009). One advantage of adding bands to barbells for speed work is that you can continue to try to accelerate the weight to the top. You don’t have to slow down at the top like you would if you were using a barbell without bands attached.
Cons of Bands
- Mismatched strength curve for pulling exercises. The beginning part of a row, pull-up or pulldown when your arms are extended is the easy part of the exercise. As you pull your hands closer to your torso, it gets harder. The problem with using a band for pulling exercises is that the band gives you the least tension when your arms are extended (and you are in your strongest mechanical position) and then the most tension when your arms and pulled in and in your weakest mechanical position. Tip: Use barbells, dumbbells, cables, body weight (e.g. chin-ups, inverted rows), or machines for upper-body pulling exercises if they are available. However, if bands are your only option, don’t sweat it. Pulling exercises are so important that it is far better to do them with bands than to not do them at all.
- Less tension in the stretch position. Recently there has been a lot of talk in the evidence-based training community about stretch-mediated hypertrophy. There is some evidence to suggest that training muscles in their stretched positions is very effective (and possibly superior compared to training in the contracted position) for muscle growth. Bands provide less tension when your muscles are in a lengthened position and more as your muscles shorten. Tip: If you can use barbells, dumbbells, cables, or machines, you will get more tension on the muscle in a lengthened position and probably a better growth stimulus. Tip: If you only have bands, you may find that using a lighter band from a more stretched position may help you get more tension in the bottom position when your muscles are fully lengthened. For example, instead of doing band triceps pressdowns standing with a thick band, try a moderate band and go from your knees.
- Bands age fast. If you buy bars and plates, they can last a lifetime (and you will need to put them in your will for your kids). Bands weaken with use and thus place less tension on your muscles. Tip: If using bands, always check to make sure there are no tears or frays. Be willing to buy new bands as needed.
- Bands are harder to progress (remember you must progress your training to progress your body). With a barbell, you can add 5 pounds at a time to the bar. If you get a set of micro plates, you can increase weight by as little as 0.5 pounds. With bands, you will have to stay with the same band tension longer and then increase to a different band.
- Tip: If using bands, buy several bands and varying tensions. Use a double-progression method and keep a training log (be sure to log band colors). For example Workout 1: 8 reps with blue band, Workout 2: 10 reps with blue band, Workout 3: 11 reps with blue band, Workout 4: 12 reps with the blue band (increase band tension next time), Workout 5: 8 reps with blue band + red mini band (now progress reps up to 12 and then add band tension).
- While are not “optimal”, bands can still work. Consistent, hard, progressive training trumps inconsistent “optimal” training every time!
- Consider all your available training tools and pick the best one for each exercise to get the job done!
Ghigiarelli, J. J., Nagle, E. F., Gross, F. L., Robertson, R. J., Irrgang, J. J., & Myslinski, T. (2009). The effects of a 7-week heavy elastic band and weight chain program on upper-body strength and upper-body power in a sample of division 1-AA football players. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 23(3), 756–764. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a2b8a2
Lopes, J. S. S., Machado, A. F., Micheletti, J. K., de Almeida, A. C., Cavina, A. P., & Pastre, C. M. (2019). Effects of training with elastic resistance versus conventional resistance on muscular strength: A systematic review and meta-analysis. SAGE open medicine, 7, 2050312119831116. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050312119831116