Yoga, Pilates, stability balls, and exercise bands always seem to be grouped in the same category, whereas dumbells, barbells, chains, and iron in general are in a league of their own, so to speak. And when the topic is brought up, most men scoff at resistance bands because they’re not made of rusted iron covered in sweat and pain, yet. But is there more to resistance bands than meets the eye? Today I’m going to discuss why resistance bands work for anyone interested in promoting strength and lean muscle mass.

First things first. I’m not saying build a routine solely on resistance bands – everything has a time and place. However, when used in conjunction with free weights, bands can place an overload on your muscles that free weights alone simply cannot. What I’ll be discussing here is the use of bands WITH free weights – not simply mixed into your routine, but rather as part of the same exercise. Example: Loading up a barbell for bench press with 70% of your max, and adding a some extra resistance bands to increase the load.

The main reason I love this type of workout is due to it’s ability to progressively overload a muscle throughout an entire range of motion. You see, as you lift free weights, gravity is pulling against the weights causing them to feel heavy. But as you reach the midway point of a certain exercise, the lift tends to become easier, right? This “sticking point” is where your bone structure and momentum take over in place of your muscle systems. Not only that, but additional muscles kick in to finish most lifts, taking the stress off the intended muscle.

You see, most people neglect the Central Nervous System (CNS) and do not take into account how muscle fibers and the CNS actually interact. Your brain is constantly sending a barrage of signals telling every muscle in your body what to do – some involuntary, meaning you don’t need to think to control it such as your heart beating, and some voluntary such as most skeletal muscles. When you intend to voluntarily lift something, your eyes, brain, hands, legs, etc. all work in conjunction to perform the task.

Your brain processes information obtained from your eyes to determine sizes, weights, etc. and also from your hands and muscles to determine weight and a variety of other physical properties. Upon doing so, you brain then decides how many muscle fibers it needs to recruit to do the job at hand. Our bodies are designed to be efficient, so contracting every muscle from head to toe simultaneously to pick up a pencil would be exhausting, but recruiting one fiber at a time to lift a desk would take a life time. So what happens? Your brain determines an approximate amount of fibers to recruit, and if it needs more, it recruits more, if less it recruits less.

Now with that little science lesson out of the way, we progress to why resistance bands tax your CNS above and beyond what weights alone can do. As mentioned before, momentum, bone structures, etc. all begin to take over and remove some portion of the load at the end of lifts. Picture a barbell curl from the side. Now overlay a clock on the torso of that image with 12 o’clock being at the shoulder, and 6 o’clock at the hip. The range of motion for the curl would be somewhere between 6:00 and 12:00 going clockwise, however once the rep reaches about 10:00, the forces acting on the weight are being partially absorbed by the bones beneath the weight, and not only that, but the direction of the weight is no longer moving directly perpendicular to gravity, but almost parallel with it instead (it’s easier to push a desk across a floor, than to lift it off the floor). So the original goal is to overload a muscle, but at this point, the load is being reduced.

Another illustration for the more experienced lifters is this: If you were to max out on a full squat, the weight would be significantly less than a half-squat for the same reasons listed above. The portion beneath the “sticking point” in a repetition is the hardest part of a lift, and again, once you’ve passed the sticking point, more often than not you have completed the rep. With that being said, if you’re only lifting the maximum amount of weight that you can lift in the bottom half, but you know you’re capable of lifting much more in the top half, free weights alone are limiting the overload you’re placing on your muscles to what you can handle only in the bottom half.

Resistance bands place what’s known as progressive resistance on your muscles. This simply means that as the lift becomes easier, the weight becomes harder – keeping solid tension on a muscle throughout the entire range of motion. This is especially beneficial due to the fact that, as mentioned before, our brains only recruit enough fibers to do the job at hand. So by continuing to overload those muscles, they fatigue, causing your brain to recruit more fibers.

So to break it down:

Overloading more fibers -> fatiguing more fibers -> recruiting more fibers -> repairing more fibers*

The repairing of your muscle fibers is where strength and size come from. Our bodies adapt to added stresses such as resistance training, and in doing so, they increase their ability to handle the stresses. There are a few ways in which your body will do this, either by A) Creating new muscle fibers, B) Increasing the size of the current fibers, or C) a mixture of both. This is why a progressive overload on your muscles is important, and why bands have such a positive affect on weight training.

I hope this article has helped, and if you’re interested in learning more, search around for articles and videos that explain more in depth.

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