If strength training, which focuses in part on building strength, muscles and bone density, seems to go hand-in-hand with bicep curls, deadlifts, push-ups, or daunting-looking machines at the gym, it’s because for many years there weren’t other options. Enter resistance training, a versatile alternative to building muscle strength using oversized rubber bands in conjunction with a combination of targeted exercises.
While the use of resistance bands is often related to post-injury recovery or stretching exercises, their benefits extend far beyond these two options. Whether you’re looking for effective at-home exercising ideas, a more intense bodyweight workout, or variation in your training routine, resistance bands might be the fitness answer you’ve been looking for.
Oversized rubber bands come in a variety of shapes and sizes: Single pieces of rubber to be used by holding the ends with your hands to create the necessary tension, or looped bands that vary in thickness, both options offering similar resistance training benefits.
Wesleigh Louw, endurance coach and head trainer at Body Back Fitness in Johannesburg explains that, “resistance bands are essentially oversized elastic bands. They come in various shapes, sizes and resistance levels that are typically indicated by their colour. The different formats are used for various types of training making them easier to utilise, or attach handles and accessories where necessary”.
The intensity of a workout will ultimately depend on the thickness of the band as well as how far it is stretched. The use of resistance bands is not limited to experienced trainers. Individuals who regularly exercise with weights can add additional resistance training to their routine by wrapping the resistance band around the weights in order to create an additional load. Additionally, first-timers can start with limited resistance and increase the intensity of the exercise as their fitness levels increase.
“Resistance bands are so multifunctional and diverse that professional athletes and elderly people can use them to great benefit,” explains Theo and Yolande Pretorius, owners of a home personal fitness company, Bodydynamics, in Pretoria.
“If you are travelling, doing rehabilitation, or high-level sports performance, resistance bands are applicable to all of these. The muscular benefit would be the fact that the resistance becomes greater as one performs the movement. With a weight, the resistance is constant against gravity, or the machine; with the band, the resistance increases eliciting greater recruitment of muscle fibres, which leads to greater muscle adaptation.”
As opposed to cardio, or aerobic exercises, which works your heart, lungs and circulatory system, strength training uses resistance to induce muscular contraction and build anaerobic endurance, the ability to sustain intense activity over a short period of time. There are a few ways to build one’s strength: Free weights like dumbbells, barbells or weight plates, bodyweight training (squats, lunges and pullups), or resistance bands that can be used on their own, or together with other strength-building exercises.
While free weights have a finite range of resistance – the intensity of the exercise decreases as the end of the movement is reached, leading to a decrease in muscle tension – resistance bands’ intensity increases as the band is stretched further apart.
In addition, Louw explains that resistance bands force us to engage more stabiliser muscles, which are the muscles that help keep you balanced while moving. While our bodies do not have specific stabiliser muscles, the term refers to muscles that are engaged during different exercises, which support the overall role of the main exercise.
Take, for example, a bicep curl: The primary muscle utilised is the bicep brachii (also known as the bicep, which is the large muscle on the front of the arm between the shoulder and the elbow), and the stabiliser muscles used in this exercise would be the elbow and the shoulder. In a squat, the primary muscles used are the glutes (the group of muscles that form the buttocks), and the stabiliser muscles would include the knees, calves, lower back and abdominal muscles.
Depending on the exercise, these muscles contract in order to keep the body stable and strengthening them means additional support within the joints: “[Resistance bands] allow us to perform controlled eccentric movements where we contract the muscle while lengthening the muscle. They are effective at aiding us in stretching muscles and reducing the load with bodyweight exercises when used in the correct manner, which leads to improved mobility,” says Louw.
The resistance band you choose to use would depend on what you are hoping to achieve and which body part you are focusing on: Powerlifters might use thicker bands with greater tension; first-time users should rather go for thinner bands of a lesser resistance.
Resistance bands can be found online at select online retailers. Both MRP Sport, which sells their in-house brand Maxed, and Takealot, stockists of Upowex bands, offer a variety of bands, from light to medium loops as well as sets of varying resistance. However, if you’re looking for heavy-duty bands, thicker bands with higher resistance, to take your weight training to a new level, Rebel Fitness has an extended range of six options to choose from. These retail from R105 to R595, depending on bandwidth and resistance levels.
While recently, commercial gyms are making resistance bands available for general use, according to Pretorius, many trainers are sending bands home with clients, patients and athletes for them to use in their at-home exercise programmes.
When it comes to results, setting a clear goal is the first step. Pretorius notes that, as with any exercise, the devil is in the detail. “If a dedicated programme is followed by an already active individual who is looking to progress, typically 12 concurrent weeks is a good duration point where results can be expected and seen.”
While consulting a personal trainer may lead to achieving your desired results in a shorter time period, YouTube and fitness blogs can also help finding the right exercises for your resistance band routines. From self-help videos made for first-timers to full body workouts using resistance bands, online options are vast and varied with the final choice depending on the intention of the user.
While resistance bands should offer a more stable and controlled workout focused on strength building, the rubber bands can also – when not used properly – lead to injuries, caused by either the snapping of the seamless loop, or the slipping of the band out of one’s hand while under tension. Make sure you are using the correct resistance level and thickness relative to your strength, and wrap each end of the band around either hand at least twice to create greater stability and control.
Used properly, resistance bands can be a great addition to an exercise routine to increase both strength and mobility levels in a more controlled manner. As the bands can be used for many forms of exercises, it may be advisable to consult a trainer. ML
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