Absolute Zen's Resistance Band Training Guide

You know why I love resistance bands?  Because they’re convenient.

Simply put: Resistance bands let you get more exercise, build more muscle and lose more fat- all while spending less time in the gym.  They can also be used to improve your bench press and squat, so you can overcome sticking points and make faster gainz.

For most of the past two years I was in the gym six days a week.  But for the last two months, I’ve only been going four days a week, and I’ve also been keeping my workouts shorter.  But what’s really cool is, I’ve still added three pounds of muscle in the last two months.  Better yet, I’ve added half an inch to my normally growth-resistant arms.

The reason I’ve been able to gain muscle without going to the gym as much is because I’ve also been doing some resistance band exercises at home.  I particularly give the bands credit for my arm growth, as they’ve made it easy for me to add in high-volume bicep and tricep work, 4-5 days a week.

In fact, resistance bands are an amazing tool for working out at home, at the office, in hotel rooms, or for doing high-frequency training anywhere you need to be.  In this guide, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about resistance bands- what kinds to get, what to use them for, and how to use them.  I’ll show you videos of all my favorite resistance band exercises, and in the end I’ll give you a few resistance band workouts that you can start doing at home.

The different types of resistance bands and how they’re used

Resistance bands are elastic bands that you use for strength training, in much the same way you would use weights.  However, with resistance bands, the resistance comes from elasticity, rather than gravity.  Because of that, the resistance- or “weight” as you’re probably used to thinking of it- isn’t constant.  It increases over the course of any given exercise, as the band gets stretched out more. 

That has to be taken into account when you decide when and how to use resistance bands.  You often can’t just take a barbell or dumbbell exercise, replace the weight with a resistance band, and do the same thing.  A resistance band bicep curl uses different form from a regular bicep curl, for instance.  But more on that in a bit.

First, we need to clear something up: there are several different types of resistance bands, and they’re used for different purposes. 

Therapy bands are used for injury rehabilitation, and often given to patients by their doctors.  They’re a great rehab tool, but they’re beyond the scope of this article.

Figure Eight resistance bands consist of a single band in a figure eight, which you pull on to train your upper body.  Ring resistance bands consist of a single ring with soft handles on either end, and are usually used for lower-body training.  Lateral resistance bands, also known as velcro cuff resistance bands, have a pair of velcro cuffs that you attach to your ankles; you then use the bands by moving your legs apart against the resistance.

These three types of resistance bands are all very limited in their uses, so I won’t be overing them in this article.  Instead, I’ll focus on the two types of resistance bands that are flexible enough to be used for a variety of exercises.

Compact resistance bands are used as a stand-alone piece of exercise equipment for both upper and lower-body training.  They consist of a modular system with a pair of handles, and multiple cord-shaped resistance bands that can be attached to those handles.  Here’s what they look like:

By attaching different combinations of bands, different levels of resistance can be created.  For instance, combining the 3 pound band with the 5 pound band creates 8 pounds of resistance. 

They usually come with a door anchor- a simple cloth loop with a bulky part at one end for attaching the bands to a door.  Some exercises will have you standing on the bands to anchor them, while others will call for you to anchor the bands to either the top, bottom or middle of a door.  Some sets also have an ankle strap for anchoring the bands to your ankle. 

If you know what you’re doing, you can use these things in place of many barbell and dumbbell exercises.  In fact, the right combination of resistance band and bodyweight exercises

My recommended compact resistance bands: Black Mountain resistance band set

Fit loop resistance bands consist of a single band in a loop shape.  These bands don’t have handles, and are shaped like flat straps rather than circular cords. 

There are two distinct ways in which fit loop bands are used.  First, they can be used to assist bodyweight exercises.  By hanging the bands from somewhere above you and then looping your arms and legs into them, you can effectively reduce your body weight for the purpose of that exercise.

Second, you can use them to add variable weight to barbell exercises.  By anchoring the bands somewhere below the barbell, they’ll add resistance to the exercise.  Unlike adding weight plates though, the resistance isn’t constant- it goes up as the barbell goes up.

In other words, the bands modify the resistance curve of the exercise (they do that for body weight exercises too).  This makes them useful for movements like the bench press that have ascending strength curves- meaning your weakest at the bottom of the movement. 

My recommended fit loop bands: Bestope latex bands

The pros and cons of resistance bands

Pro: They’re cheap

A full of of resistance bands can be had for around thirty dollars, and that thirty dollars buys you the ability to do a wide variety of exercises outside of a gym.  If you’re using fit loop bands to modify a barbell exercises, you may need two sets- one for each end of the barbell- but it’s still not much.  You need two bands for squats, but can usually use just one for the bench press.

For comparison, a pair of adjustable-weight dumbbells that go up to 50-100 pounds can cost anywhere from one to four hundred dollars. 

Con: Some movements you just can’t do.

Don’t get me wrong, you can do a lot of things with resistance bands.  But you can’t effectively front squat, or do preacher curls, or javelin presses.  They’ll never be a full substitute for going to the gym.

Pro: They improve the resistance curve of some (usually pushing) exercises

Weights weigh the same amount no matter how high you lift them.  However, resistance bands exert more resistance the further you stretch them- the “weight” increases from the start to the end of a movement.  In exercise science parlance, this is known as an ascending resistance curve.  All resistance band exercises where you move in a straight line have ascending resistance curves; for curved movements like bicep curls, it gets a bit more complicated.

Now, that’s not inherently good or bad. See, your strength also varies between different parts of an exercise-this is known as the strength curve.  Some exercises have an ascending strength curve, meaning you’re weak at the beginning and strong at the end of the movement. 

One of the principles of exercise selection is that you want to match the strength curve to the resistance curve- so an exercise with an ascending resistance curve should also have an ascending strength curve, for instance.  If the strength and resistance curves are matched, the exercise will be equally difficult across all segments of the motion, have no particular sticking point, and will optimally work those muscles which are the prime movers for that exercise.

So which exercises have ascending resistance curves?  In general, they tend to be ones where you’re pushing the weight away from your body, like the chest/bench press, overhead press, or squat.

Con: They mess up the resistance curve of other (usually pulling) exercises

So this shouldn’t be hard to figure out- if resistance bands work well with exercises that have ascending strength curves, they probably suck with exercises that have descending strength curves, right?  Yes.

In general, that means pulling motions.  Think about chin-ups- when you reach failure, you usually make it most of the way up, but then can’t get your chin over the bar.  Or rows- you usually make it about halfway, then can’t bring the weight all the way to your chest, unless you’re using a row machine with a camshaft specifically designed to match the resistance curve to the strength curve.

Resistance bands don’t just leave this problem unfixed; they exacerbate it by giving you more resistance where you’re weakest and less resistance where you’re strongest.  There is a way to somewhat mitigate this (more on that later), but it will never not be a problem.

Pro: They’re lightweight and easy to transport

A set of resistance bands weighs about two pounds.  The Black Mountain compact resistance bands go into a bad that’s the size of a small purse, while the Bestope fitloop bands are so small they could be stuffed into the pocket of most gym pants.

That makes resistance bands perfect for travellers.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken a set- maybe one set of each- on my nine-month backpacking adventure last year.

Con: Lack of support/bracing inhibits some movements

Remember how I said resistance bands offer an optimal resistance curve for stuff like the chest press?  Well, the bad news is that if your chest press is really strong, you’re going to have a lot of trouble doing resistance band chest presses. 

There’s no back support, so what you’ll end up doing is pushing yourself back towards the anchor point.  Yes, you can brace yourself by standing in a lunge position, and you could go with a lower resistance and high rep range, but that only takes you so far.

Similar problems occur with most heavy compound movements in which the bands are anchored, rather than being held in place by you standing on them.  You don’t have chest support for the mid row, or a leg brace for the pull-down.  It’s no an issue with stuff like shoulder presses where you’re pressing upward though, since in those cases the resistance is mostly pushing you down into the ground rather than back towards the door.

In my estimation, this really becomes a problem if you can do an equivalent gym exercise- bench press, cable rows, pull-downs, etc- for more than your body weight.  If you’re overweight, female, or a total newbie, this probably won’t be much of a problem for you, but for intermediate to advanced male trainees, it limits what you can do with resistance bands.

Rules for adding resistance bands to barbell movements

If you want to use fit loop bands to modify barbell movements such as the squat and bench press, follow these three simple rules.

Use the band to add weight, not subtract it

The normal way to add resistance bands to a barbell exercise is to anchor them to the bottom of the bench/cage/squat rack, so that they’re pulling down on the barbell and adding weight.  If you’re in a power cage you could instead anchor them to the top of the cage, so that they assist the movement by pulling upward.  DON’T DO THIS.

I’ve seen one person do this in person, videos of people doing it on YouTube, and people talking about it in forums.  You can probably guess what’s wrong with this, but just so we’re totally clear:

If you do it that way, you have to load the barbell with more weight than you could otherwise lift.  So…what if the bands break?  Now you’re holding a weight, possible with an asymmetrical load if you have separate resistance bands for each side, that’s about 20-30% heavier than anything you could actually lift. 

I’ve never seen resistance bands break, but they all come with warnings that you should replace them every few months to prevent breakage.  Don’t take the chance of getting squished.

And while this is technically a risk when using fit loop bands to assist bodyweight exercises, I don’t see a problem with that- at worst you’d fall slightly, but you wouldn’t get crushed under a four hundred pound barbell.

Start out light

Another safety rule.  If you’re adding bands for the first time, you’re about to do an unfamiliar exercise.  A bench press with bands doesn’t feel quite the same as a regular bench press.

With that in mind, don’t go heavy the very first time you add bands.  If you’re doing sets of six or less, lower the weight ten or twenty percent to begin with, until you get used to using bands. 

Replace about 20% of the weight with bands

20% is usually the optimal amount of variable resistance to use if you want to match the resistance curve to the strength curve.  That is, if you replace 20% of the weight with resistance bands providing the same amount of resistance, you should find the exercise becomes equally difficult at all points. 

So for instance, if you normally bench press 205 pounds, you would lower that to 165 pounds, and add a 40 pound resistance band.  At least, if you’re working in the weight-rep range.

If you’re benching 205 for five reps, you would instead lower the weight to 145 or even 125 pounds, while adding the same 40 pound band, and then add ten pounds after every couple of sets.  By the end of that first session, you’d be back up to the weight you actually want to use.

Rules for incorporating standalone resistance bands

Hold yourself steady

Make sure you’re standing in such a way that you won’t knock yourself off balance when pushing/pulling the bands.  If you’re standing on the bands, keep your feet next to, and parallel to each other.  If the exercise calls for you to stand on the bands with only one foot, or keep them anchored to a door, stand in a lunging position to maintain your balance.

If standing on the bands, go barefoot or wear flat-bottomed shoes

Most shoes will damage the resistance bands.  You want shoes with a soft, flat bottom, and little or no tread.  Wrestling shoes are ideal for this.  But since I always use my resistance bands at home, I just go barefoot, and that’s what I’d recommend for anyone doing this at home or in the office.