This cheap exercise gear can take your workout to the next level
Build your strength—and be gentle on your wallet—with resistance bands.
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Resistance training is an important part of any fitness routine. It can build strength, change your body composition, protect your bones, and improve balance. And there are a lot of ways to go about it, from bodyweight training to dumbbells to medicine balls to sandbags.
Another strength-training method worth your consideration? Using resistance bands. I’m an ISSA-certified personal trainer and the owner of an online coaching and training business with over 10 years of experience helping my clients improve their lives. Last year, when gyms were closed and people were trying to build out home gyms, getting your hands on any kind of weights became virtually impossible. Because of this, I advised my clients to skip the long delivery times and inflated prices and add a set of resistance bands to their collection.
In fitness, a lot of terms can mean more than one thing. For example, the word “dumbbell” describes a weight designed to be held in one hand, but it can refer to ones of varying load, ones made of iron, or ones encased in rubber, as a few examples. This is also true when it comes to resistance bands—you may have a stretchy item at home that’s ostensibly intended for fitness, but aren’t quite sure what it does and how to use it. Here’s what you should know about resistance bands and how you can work them into your workouts.
Benefits of resistance bands
Resistance bands allow you to work the same muscle groups you would use to exercise with free weights or specialized machines at the gym. The bands have an advantage over free weights and some machines because they allow a constant resistance over the full range of motion. For example, if you are working with free weights to do bicep curls, the resistance is created by gravity, so resistance is greater during the upswing of the curl (when you are working against gravity) than it is on the downswing (when you are being assisted by gravity, but also resisting it so you don't just drop the weight). With bands, the resistance is constant as long as the band is being stretched, which forces you to use more muscle groups, and helps to improve your coordination and balance as you build strength.
Bands also offer more affordable pricing than most resistance-training items, as well as better ease of use and more flexibility. You can also use them in conjunction with other equipment—for example, you can put a mini band around your ankles while working out with a step platform. Because of their size and light weight, they can easily be packed to take on the go for an outdoor training session or in luggage to take on vacation.
How to start working out with bands
Before we jump into how to get started with incorporating bands into your fitness routine, let’s discuss repetitions and sets. In the most basic of definitions, resistance training is the concept of adding a load to an activity. This load can be body weight, strength-training equipment (like bands), or any object you choose to lift. The important thing here is that it is better to pick a repetition range based on your goals, not based on prescribed general advice. For most people looking to build general strength, you should be able to do about eight to 10 challenging reps with good form. This should take you about 45 seconds to complete. If you are able to do the exercise faster or you feel you could do many more reps, your resistance is too light for this goal.
As with any workout, you’ll want to begin a resistance band session with a warm-up—dynamic exercises, such as leg swings, skips, arm swings, lateral lunges, and knee hugs are all good options. The warm-up will prepare your body for the activity that is coming next.
For ultimate portability: mini bands
Mini bands are small loops made of rubber, latex, or elasticized fabric, often placed around the legs or grasped between the hands. The rubbery ones are tried-and-true for adding challenge, while fabric ones, also known as booty bands, promise the same results in a more durable form and may be more comfortable to use if you're wearing shorts (though I haven’t personally used those). Due to their size—typically 10 inches to a foot in diameter—mini bands are best used for exercises where you don't expect to stretch the band beyond about two feet in length.
Exercises to try: The single-leg deadlift is one of the best full-body exercises for improving balance and strength—and you don’t need a heavy kettlebell or barbell to do it. Try a version using a mini band by looping the band under one foot and grasping the other side of the loop with both hands—and don't forget to do the same number of reps on the other side.
Another mini band favorite: jumping jacks. On their own, this exercise gets your heart rate going, and with a band, it'll fire up your outer thighs. To do, place the band around both legs, just above the knees or ankles—never place a resistance band directly on the joint. Perform a jumping jack by jumping your feet outwards while reaching your hands up overhead and together. Jump back to the start position and repeat. This is an intermediate exercise, so make sure you're comfortable with the resistance before diving into it.
Gear recommendation: The Fit Simplify resistance bands set comes with several resistance levels so you can determine which level of challenge is appropriate for you. They’re much less expensive than a lot of strength-training equipment, so it’s low-risk fitness investment. As a bonus, the set includes a travel bag, making them portable and easy to store.
For the greatest exercise variety: handled tubes
These rubber-based tubes have built-in or removable handles on both ends that provide a better hand grip as you pull. Because of this, they can serve as stand-in for exercises that usually call for dumbbells. Just remember that you'll need to create tension from the other end, either by attaching the other handle to something else, such as a door anchor, or by stepping on or looping the band around your feet.
Exercises to try: The banded upright row is a great move that targets a bunch of different muscles, including your core, back, and shoulders (though skip this one if you've had a shoulder injury, unless you get the OK of your doctor). To do, stand on the center of the tube, and grasp the handles, palms facing your body, pulling up close to your chin. Bring back down and repeat.
Another option is the resistance band chest press. For this exercise, loop the band around a sturdy object at chest height. With your back to the object, grab a handle in each hand and step forward until there's no slack in the band. Your hands should be at your chest with your elbows up. Press the handles forward and together at the same time, then return to the starting position.
Gear recommendation: Durability is key when choosing to add equipment in your home gym, and the Coobons resistance band set has proven to withstand both private training sessions and group class workouts. Many of my clients purchased this set during COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions, and about a year and change later, the bands are still in use.
Get the Coobons resistance band set for $22.99
For the most resistance: looped superbands
Remember how I said equipment can often have more than one name? Well, here’s a great example. Monster bands are also called super bands which can also be called strength bands. But no matter what they are called, these bands made of a thick latex are great for compound exercises (or exercises that mimic everyday movements). They offer more resistance and a (much) larger diameter than similarly styled mini bands, so they’re ideal for people at a more advanced fitness level. Superbands can also be used for assisted pull-ups, a use that's been popularized by CrossFit.
Exercises to try: A reverse lunge and press using a superband is a great move to work shoulders, arms, core, and legs all at once. Start by standing with feet together on the band, with the band in both hands at chest height. Step one foot back and descend into a reverse lunge as you press the band directly overhead until your elbows are straight. Return to the start position by driving through the front foot, bring the hands back down to chest height, and repeat an even number on both sides.
I also like doing tricep pushdowns with superbands at the end of a workout to target the upper portion of the arm and ensure muscle fatigue. To do a tricep pushdown, secure a band to an anchor point above head height. Grasp the band in both hands, keeping your elbows by your sides, and extend your hands down towards the floor while keeping your elbows in place. Slowly return to the start position and repeat.
Gear recommendation: As a fitness director, I know how important it is to have durable bands on hand that both members and trainers can use as a part of a fitness program. The Power Systems strength bands fill the bill and have lasted through hundreds of uses. They come come in a variety of resistances, from “extra light” to “super heavy,” so consider trying a few to see which ones make the most sense for you. Typically, you will want a heavier band for lower body-dominated exercises such as squats and deadlifts, and a lighter one for upper body work like overhead presses.
For stretching and strengthening: Non-looped bands
If you’ve ever spent time with a physical therapist, you’ll recognize these bands. Non-looped bands are made of thin latex (even thinner than most mini-bands) and don’t offer much resistance, which makes them a great option for getting into deep stretches or, yes, for rehabbing after an injury (on a doctor's recommendation). However, you can also implement them into strengthening workouts as well.
Exercises to try: Pull-aparts, sometimes called T-pulls, target the posture muscles of the mid back and rear shoulders. This exercise is good for everyone, but especially people who find that their shoulders are starting to round forward, perhaps from age or sitting at a computer all day. To start, stand upright with arms extended straight out in front of you, holding the ends of the band with both hands. For more tension, bring the hands slightly closer together. Perform a reverse fly motion, moving your hands out toward your sides, keeping arms straight and parallel to the floor, then return to the starting position and repeat.
Banded seated rows work your mid-back and core. To do with an unlooped band, sit on the floor with both legs extended in front of you. Place the center of the band over the balls of your feet, and hold onto either end with your hands, with enough tension that the resistance already feels taut. (If the band feels like it might slip off your feet, cross it like an X.) Sitting up tall, row your elbows back so they pass your waist. Slowly release to start. Repeat.
Gear recommendation: I recommend buying unlooped bands from Theraband in a bulk roll, so you can cut the length of the band you would like to work with. The typical length to cut the band is six feet; however, you can adjust this to be longer or shorter based on your height and what feels comfortable. Out of all the different bands, these are the ones that you will likely replace most often because the material is thinner and the sweat from your hands can cause the band to get sticky and wear down. The good news is that this takes several weeks to a couple months to happen depending on frequency of use—and, with this Theraband option, you get a 6-yard-long roll.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.