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What Kind of Pump Can I Get from Bench Pressing with Resistance Bands?

They might be rubber instead of iron, but I swear those suckers are still hard to move

If you’re wondering whether or not swapping your dumbbells and barbells with resistance bands is going to constitute an adequate substitution during your bench-pressing activities, the diplomatic part of my brain wants to tell you, “Sort of.”

Here’s why: If you’re using an elastic band of sufficient tension, you’ll probably feel as if you couldn’t possibly elevate the handles of the resistance bands another centimeter at the peak of the bench-pressing motion. In that same instant, you’ll probably be straining considerably to maintain the handles in the precise positions you require them to be in, necessitating tremendous muscle control to keep the handles locked into place. In that respect, there’s adequate similarity between bench pressing with free weights and bench pressing with resistance bands.

That all sounds very reassuring! Time to stop pressing with these heavy weights!

Don’t let your grip on that latex get too comfortable just yet. 

Now that I’ve been diplomatic, please permit me to explain why the answer to the original question could never be an unqualified, “Yes.” 

If you use dumbbells to perform your bench press exercises, those dumbbells weigh the same amount throughout the entire lift — i.e., 80-pound dumbbells don’t magically become lighter and easier to maneuver as they make their descent toward your pecs. In that same vein, they don’t artificially increase in weight and become more difficult to control as they ascend into the peak contraction of the lift.

But what I just described is precisely what happens during a bench-pressing effort with elastic bands — they lose tension at the bottom of the movement, making it very easy to slide your hands all over the place at the points of lowest tension without being penalized by any painful injuries inflicted on you by the weight itself. That’s all well and good if your sole objective is to gain strength right at the point of peak contraction as you initiate that contraction. However, having to train with a consistent, stable weight throughout the entirety of the lift affords your muscles the opportunity to gain power throughout the full range of motion.

But a study proved that bench pressing with resistance bands is just as effective at building muscle as a traditional bench press with weights!

You wish that’s what the study proved!

I can think of no better example as to why it’s crucial to read the entire study instead of just the headline. The study in question was executed while comparing the differences in strength gains between trainees who performed push-ups that were made more difficult through the use of resistance bands, and other test subjects who bench pressed using a Smith machine. To be clear, a push-up is a closed-chain exercise where the body is already supplying resistance against gravity, and the resistance band is increasing the total resistance by supplying increasingly greater amounts of tension the further your body moves away from the ground. 

This is somehow being compared with a Smith machine bench press, which downgrades an open-chain exercise like a free weight barbell bench press into a shell of itself by stripping the bar of its potential for three-dimensional movement and forcing it to move along a fixed plane. Eliminating the bar’s freedom of movement also deprives you of the opportunity to train the function of all of the stabilizer muscles that would ordinarily be tasked with keeping the bar locked in place.

Here’s the bottom line: This study did not make an honest apples-to-apples comparison; it included resistance bands for the sake of making push-ups more difficult by adding an additional form of escalating resistance to a bodyweight exercise, and compared that with the results achieved through one of the easiest ways to execute bench presses. Anyone attempting to suggest that this proves the efficacy of resistance bands with respect to strength-gaining potential needs to spend an afternoon trapped beneath a fully loaded barbell with no spotters in sight.

So resistance-band bench pressing is useless?

Slow down. I didn’t say that exactly. If you find yourself suffering from a dearth of weight-training equipment, and you’ve already maxed out your push-ups, pressing against the resistance supplied by an elastic band can be a solid way of breaking down your chest muscles. Just don’t train under the illusion that what you’re doing is sufficient to replace a fully loaded barbell, because the two things are altogether dissimilar. 

If making use of a Smith machine for bench press is like riding a bike with training wheels, then eschewing weights for resistance bands in that scenario would be like requesting someone to push you while you pedal on a tricycle. Yes, you’re getting somewhere, but you may be vastly overrating how much effort you’re contributing to that journey, and how much that journey is truly benefiting you.