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Can I Replace My Weights with Fitness Bands?

Is it a stretch to think that a piece of rubber can do the same thing as a hunk of iron?

I first discovered the magic of elastic bands while working as a pool coordinator at the Beech Woods Recreation Center in Southfield, Michigan. I worked my way over to the building’s fitness center during a break from the first aid office, grabbed a hold of a set of heavy-resistance elastic bands and felt a pump from my bicep curls that I’d never experienced before. “These are incredible!” I thought to myself. “I’m never training with weights again! Elastic is the new iron!”

Did I maintain my vow to train weightlessly for the rest of my life? Honestly, I doubt I lasted an entire week. Is my opinion of elastic bands as bullish as it was 20 years ago? Not quite. However, I do believe that everyone’s training regimen can benefit from the use of fitness bands from time to time.

I don’t get it: Fitness bands are basically weightless. How can they produce any benefits whatsoever?

Let’s agree on one thing: For all of the benefits that your muscles provide your body in terms of functionality, productivity and traffic-stopping aesthetics, they’re startlingly short on brain activity. This is an indirect way of noting that your muscles have no idea how much weight they’re lifting. All they know is when they’ve powered their way through as many repetitions as they’re capable of completing at the resistance level you’ve handed them, and the moment when they couldn’t possibly execute another rep. 

With that in mind, fitness bands excel in their ability to induce muscle fatigue right at the peak of the movement. This is because the tension of the elastic — and therefore the tension on the muscle — increases the further you progress into a repetition. If you imagine Hawkeye drawing back an arrow shaft and preparing to unleash hell, there’s no greater point of tension than when the bowstring is stretched to its utmost.

So how does this help me?

A few weeks ago, my Instafit cousin Mary asked me how to power through a sticking point in her deadlifts, and I advised her to do rack pulls. This isn’t necessarily because I’m in love with rack pulls, because at this point in my life, I’m not even in love with deadlifts anymore. The reason I advised her to include rack pulls in her training is because they’d help her to crop out the early part of the deadlift movement so that she could gain power in the precise point in the motion where she was getting stuck.

Elastic bands function the same way, inasmuch as the tension is lowest during the early part of the movement, so they can allow you to gain strength at the height of the repetition, and at the peak of the contraction. Essentially, you progress straight to the point where your muscles may have conked out on you while you were lifting your standard weights.

Interesting. Are they any other benefits to fitness bands?

They’re obviously lighter than weights and easier to travel with, so you can potentially pack hundreds of pounds worth of resistance in your suitcase even if the bands collectively weigh less than two pounds. If you can’t get to the gym, and you’re trying to fatigue your muscles in a way that can increase your strength and grow your muscles, the results from several studies demonstrate that elastic bands are capable of delivering those results to you, whether you’re a fitness beginner or an experienced athlete.

Not that they aren’t without drawbacks. Resistance bands provide no tension at all to your training unless they’re anchored to a fixed point. If I scoop up two 50-pound dumbbells and walk around the house with them, my body feels the gravitational pull against those weights from the very beginning, so the simple act of going room to room (essentially performing a farmer’s carry) is beneficial to me. In order to even attempt to replicate a similar feeling with resistance bands, you’d have to attach all sorts of harnesses and bands to your body to an extent that you’ll look like you were webbed up by Spider-Man.

That said, I feel far more comfortable with the idea of my 95-year-old grandmother achieving her resistance training through the use of a weightless band than I do with the thought of her experimenting with different quantities of fixed weight.

But it does sound like fitness bands can’t completely replace my weights.

Not entirely, but that’s because they activate the muscles in different ways. If you’re doing bicep curls with 35-pound weights, the weight remains 35 pounds at the beginning of the movement right through to the point of peak contraction, and clear through to the point where the weight returns to its starting position. By contrast, an elastic band may provide its user with 10 pounds of pressure at the initial point of muscle contraction, but then the equivalent of 50 pounds of pressure at the point of peak contraction. Both are providing specific benefits to your body, but there’s really no adequate one-to-one comparison that can be made.

All of which is to say, just because fitness bands can’t completely replace your weights doesn’t make them ineffective. There are several things resistance bands can’t do as well as weights, and there are specific things they do far more effectively than weights. 

Give them a try, and see for yourself. It’s definitely a stretch — but in all the right ways.

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