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Training with elastic bands

More than just a gimmick

It wasn’t until a few years into my own little weightlifting adventures that I was first exposed to the use of elastic bands for strength training. Back then they were pretty much exclusively used by diehard powerlifters who would hook them up to their barbells, but like with any gym tool the tide eventually turned to fashion. Most gyms now have at least a few sets of bands hanging around, but unfortunately they are rarely used for more than a half-assed hamstring stretch. I personally think that things don't really become interesting until you start attaching these bands to barbells, so allow me to explain the why and when.

Bench pressing against bands

Elastic bands originally didn't really evolve beyond the land of stretching and light rehab training until American powerlifting guru Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell came up with the idea of hooking them onto barbells. The concept is simple: when the barbell is lifted, the bands stretch, and thus resistance increases (see photo or video to grasp the idea). Since most people tend to be weaker at the bottom of their lifts - like down in the hole of a squat - elastic bands allow you to match resistance with the amount of force that you are able to produce in a particular portion of the lift. Lighter at the bottom, heavier towards the top. The obvious question then is: when is this useful?

A prime case for band use is when dealing with top end weakness in a particular movement (for more on this topic, read this article and this one). The classic go-to here is usually to additionally train the top part of a movement with partial lifts - like when pressing off high pins. Unfortunately this method often yields poor results, simply because partial lifts tend to alter technique too much. Looping a few bands around the barbell will circumvent this problem by providing a similarly targeted 'overloading' of the top part, while still allowing for a full range of motion movement to be performed.

Another good use for bands is when training for explosive strength. Many will try to accomplish this by lifting light weights at high velocities. However, when applying this technique on classical lifts like the bench press, acceleration is only trained partially. Imagine driving a 40kg barbell up as fast as possible when your maximum strength allows for twice as much. While you will naturally be accelerating at the start of the lift, the bar speed will quickly be so high that a big part of the motion will actually consist of decelerating the barbell and trying to come to the soft lockout that protects the elbows. Instead of learning to put the pedal to the metal, you are then essentially training how to pump the brakes.

"Elastic bands allow you to match resistance with the amount of force that you are able to produce in a particular portion of the lift."

By now you might have already grasped that the increased resistance provided by elastic bands will allow for continued maximum force production all the way through to the top, which eliminates excessive deceleration. But this is only part of the added value for explosive strength. Due to the elastic nature the bands will actively accelerate the barbell when it is lowered. Quick lengthening of a muscle makes for a stronger subsequent shortening contraction, so these rapid banded descents will actually help you to move faster - even in spite of the higher resistance.

Alright, this was already quite a bit of information, so I'm going to cut it short here. Originally my idea was to write a comprehensive article that also covered the proper setup and choice of bands, but that would simply be too much information to cram into one article. If you would like me to follow this article up with a part two that contains the practicalities of band choice and setup: let me know. But I hope that in the mean time you feel inspired to go beyond your regular rehab work next time you bring out the bands.

Good luck!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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