Updated: May 16, 2020
Without a doubt, the most frequently asked question I receive from my athletes is something along the lines of “how come we do so much band stuff?” Now I’ll admit, I do tend to have an affinity for finding ways to include bands, but as I’ll hopefully illustrate in this article, there’s absolutely a purpose behind "all the band stuff". The variety of ways I apply and utilize band tension is not superfluous or gimmicky, even though sometimes I can certainly understand why it would be perceived as such. But broadly speaking, I think bands have been an underutilized tool in S&C, and that we’ve been shortchanging ourselves when it comes to training application and variety.
Band training, like everything else, has been around for decades. There is nothing nuanced about doing a band-resisted Bench Press or RDL. In the more recent history of strength training, accommodating resistance has been popularized throughout the 80’s & 90’s by way of Louie Simmons and West Side Barbell. Regardless of what you may think of him as a person, Louie has unquestionably been a pioneer to our field in many ways. Louie is typically accredited with popularizing band loading, and primarily with the big three lifts. He’s also (to my knowledge) one of the first strength coaches to really explore the band unloading methods as well. The lesser known fact with all of this though, is that a lot of the band methods Louie has employed were originally designed because he had been through an ungodly amount of injuries/surgeries and found this was a way he could expedite his recovery/strength process. Both the band unloading concept, as well as the water bucket or bamboo bar set-up.
Nevertheless, the basic mechanism behind accommodating resistance is that the tension (or external load) is variable throughout the movement, meaning it will be either heavier or lighter throughout certain ranges of motion. There are several potential benefits to this, but at the forefront is that it challenges the athlete at specific ROM’s that they are particularly weak in. Additionally, it has been suggested that the accommodating resistance optimizes the length-tension relations of the musculotendinous junction (3) by creating more favorable leverage for the athlete throughout the ROM.
There are several other benefits to this conventional application, but I don’t want to spend too much time on that for this article. Just know, this is a fairly well-proven method of training, and has been adopted by most of the top practitioners in the world, at least in some capacity. If you’d like some more background on the basics though, I would recommend checking out this article from one of my favorite social media accounts to follow, SBS. As Max points out in the article, the most beneficial application of conventional band loading may really be for power, not strength work. This is because bands allow the athlete to accelerate throughout the entire ROM, rather than subconsciously decelerating towards terminal end-ranges which is the case with static load. In any event, once foundational strength has been achieved, band overload may be beneficial to maximizing overall strength and power gains.
Conversely on the opposite end of the spectrum, we also tend to see a lot of band exercises in clinical rehab settings. Exercises like mini-band oh flexion for shoulder rehab, and side-lying clamshells for hip injuries are far from new practice. The primary theory for band tension in the early rehab application is to help increase the localized strength of the injured area by strengthening the joint throughout the complete ROM (2). It has also been theorized that the band tension allows for more organic movement and helps to mitigate the use of compensatory patterns when restoring strength and ROM (2).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve considered both ends of the spectrum and worked to find a middle ground for my athletes. Given the nature of my work… “a delicate balance between rehabilitative and performance training” … it dawned on me that I should really look to challenge my thinking on how I can apply band loading in a pragmatic, effective manner. As such, in this article I’d like to focus on the missing realm of applications with bands. I’ve had to get creative over the last three years with a lot of my athletes, and what it led me to realize is simply how damn versatile bands are.
My (UNSUBSTANTIATED) Perceived Benefits Of Band Work:
1.) Optimized muscular load/de-emphasized joint load
As outline above, when we’re using band resistance, the athlete is under more constant tension throughout the entirety of the movement. This, in theory, would suggest a greater demand for muscular activation throughout a complete ROM. I believe that because of this, band tension is engaging the muscle fibers more completely, which I feel helps to optimize the length-tension relationship. Ultimately, this promotes a better opportunity for the proper muscles to contribute in the proper capacity and at the proper time.
Perhaps more importantly, I believe band tension de-emphasizes the joints for a few reasons. Primarily, this is due to a dynamic moment arm providing the joints with a more advantageous lever. Also, considering there are less constraints in movement when compared to a fixed load, the joints are able to move in more of a natural and (complete) rotational manner. Lastly, I believe that band application is more evenly distributed throughout the body, which can help to de-emphasize direct loading on the joint. This last point, obviously, is particularly important for the injured population and in-season athletes.
2.) Preferable load application for soft tissues (i.e. tendons/ligaments/fascia) (length-tension relationship)
In my experience working with so many injured athletes, a major thing I’ve learned with band loading is that the athlete has an opportunity to modify their position, stance, and sometimes movement execution more freely and naturally. Sometimes this is to bypass pain, other times it’s just a preferred, organic strategy. In either case, being able to challenge athletes under load in new, deeper, and a wider array of movements and positions will ultimately help to increase the strength of the surrounding ligaments. I would also make a strong case this provides a significant benefit for the smaller, stabilizing structures that surround the joint.
As for the tendons and fascia, I feel that the ability to not only apply/tolerate force, but also accelerate through increasing band tension throughout a more complete ROM optimizes the length-tension relationship. This, in theory, would mean the adjacent tendon and surrounding fascia are stressed in greater capacity as well. Do not misquote me here though, and don’t get it twisted, the optimal way for loading tendons (and bones), will inherently be through good old fashion heavy resistance training. This is very much needed as well. However, once foundational methods have been applied or exhausted, or perhaps for athletes who aren’t able to use heavy conventional loads, bands can offer a good ancillary option.
3.) More direct and specific lines of pull/vectors
Again, one of the premier advantages to band loading is the variability in the paths of motion you can create. An easy example of this is something like chop patterns. The number one thing I love about chop variations is, quite literally, just because they work everything that isn’t worked on a bench press or back squat. I have found tremendous value in working beyond cardinal planes and stressing uncommon paths of motion; especially with athletes coming off of injury. This is also what makes bands a preferred option for training the fascial slings as well. Because the slings can often be a little difficult to stress directly in training, creativity sometimes needs to be applied. Using bands to emphasize these fascial slings can be a game changer for increasing core strength, cleaning up compensatory patterns, or simply stressing the athlete in some different ways.
We must recall that at the root of biomechanical human movement we inherently find rotation. The body, in no capacity, moves in a purely linear or unidirectional fashion. As we move into hip flexion, we have accompanying internal rotation of the femur, similarly when we move into overhead flexion, internal rotation moments are present as well. As such, whether working with athletes rehabbing injuries, or working with advanced athletes, we need to sample this in training. Adding an offset band to a split squat or adding a mini band for DB OH carries isn’t just unnecessary fluff. We are effectively building the robustness of the joint and working to fully optimize the joint mechanics by collectively challenging multiple planes.
The final point I wanted to discuss is biofeedback. One thing I’ve noticed the more I experiment with band application is that it provides a great method for letting the athlete receive an increased amount of sensory/proprioceptive input while executing a movement. Because there is a reduced stability with bands as compared to static load, it forces the athlete to be more proprioceptively and kinesthetically responsive throughout the entire body. This is also an underlying weakness for a lot of athletes I’ve worked with, and I think has a great carryover to kinetic force transfer.
Performing conventional movements such as a RFE SS, RDL, or SA OH Press with strictly band tension can drastically change the outcome and/or degree of difficulty. The bands will force the athlete to be more conscious of their path of movement, as they will be able to feel the slight shifts and deviations that occur during movement. This can be both for the independent extremities, or for the collective torso/core. As such, this will likely prompt them to react and respond accordingly at more challenging ranges/angles. When athletes are more aware of their body in space, it can do wonders for confidence. And as we all know, a more confident athlete is often a better athlete.
Practical Uses and Applications:
1.) Unloading/assisting movement
Using bands as a means for unloading a movement is one of the most critically underutilized tools for strength coaches, in my humble opinion. The most obvious group that this method applies for is those coming off injury. No differently than regressing someone by using lighter dumbbells, we can reduce external load for bodyweight movements when bodyweight is too much. This is commonly used for push-ups, and pull-ups, but I’ve also found this to be extremely applicable for a host of others. Step-ups/step-downs, single leg hinging, and split squats are great options for the application when bodyweight movements just don’t look or feel right. This allows the athlete to work at more precise external loads and consequentially mitigates the likelihood for developing faulty or compensatory patterns. Even for those athletes who aren’t injured I feel this application still has its place.
Another good example is building an athlete into a deeper squat depth. Let’s use an athlete coming off a torn ACL as an example, and we’ll say they’re in late phase rehab. What I’ll do here is introduce them to an unloaded goblet squats to allow them to feel a full range squat again, but without quite the demand on that ACL. Muscles, or all soft tissues for that matter, have a spectrum for contractility, I believe that this spectrum should be explored in both directions. Specific to unloading though, this is an effective way of building them back into a full range, barbell back squat. Remember that reasserting confidence is also a huge variable in injury rehab.
Over the years, we’ve seen the use of applying specified tempos (i.e. eccentric/ isometric emphasis) to movements more and more. The research on tempo specific methods creating positive, and specific training adaptations has been fairly well documented. So along similar lines, I feel there is benefit to be held when we create an overspeed effect with movement. Variations such as band assist jumps, band overspeed push-ups, or band overspeed decel step can be highly valuable to sample in your programming.
Using bands for an overspeed effect is something that’s most commonly implemented in power or peaking phases of training for higher level athletes. Although I don’t personally feel like this is something that should be strictly relegated for elite athletes, I will say that doing overspeed work for athletes who can’t bench their bodyweight or squat twice their bodyweight, we’re probably not going to get much out of it.
The basic principle behind overspeed is to reduce the athlete’s body mass effectively allowing them to execute movement “faster than they could” at bodyweight. More technically speaking, what we’re doing here is shortening the amortization phase of plyometric action and forcing the muscles to contract at a faster velocity (1). This ultimately can have positive benefits on the muscle’s contraction speed, along with optimizing firing synchronicity and improving a muscles’ parasympathetic response (1). I would also add that this is a good training application for the ligaments and tendons as well, as they appreciate going through full ROM at higher velocities with a reduced load from time-to-time.
Likely the most common application for me personally, I absolutely love using band tension to create an additional frontal plane force vector. This can be applied for just about any common exercise you can think of, but I will most commonly use this for push-ups, planks, crawls, lunges/split squats, and deadbug/birddog patterns. The primary reason for using this application is to increase the demand for core engagement and emphasize creating stiffness or tension during movement execution. In my opinion, this not only creates an increased demand physically, but also cognitively/proprioceptively. Introducing a frontal plane stimulus to a sagittal-based action is a subtle, but great way to increase demand for motor control and cognition. There is benefit here for almost any athlete, but particularly those who are younger or more novice and have yet to understand their movement very well.
I would also make an argument that this offset band application does wonders for the deep core muscles. As we know, the deep core muscles such as transverse abdominis (TA), internal obliques, multifidi and QL are all major players in athletic movement and function. The primary role of these muscles is to brace and create stiffness that helps to stabilize the spine and pelvis for executing movement. Using this offset band set-up can help to teach this deep core bracing and perhaps more importantly allow the athletes to feel it for themselves.
The final application I wanted to touch on is using bands as a means to create oscillatory and/or perturbation type loading. Let me be perfectly clear before diving in on this- I’m well aware of what the research says (which is basically nothing) … but again, I’ve just seen too much success with this in person to be convinced or feel otherwise. My hope is that over the next few decades we can create ways to better study and understand the fascial system, there is so much left to be desired with understanding fascia. But in any event, I don’t think the primary benefit to this method is for muscles per se, but rather, the fascia and the nervous system.
I don’t want to come off like I’m selling snake oil here, but I swear there is tremendous value in this application. I look at it like this, the human system (especially the nervous system) is like a river… where the width of the river is our ability to tolerate movement variance, the depth is our fatigue resistance/capacity, and the current is our contractility or speed of muscular contraction. When we perform movements with this perturbation factor, I believe it simply helps build robustness and increases the athlete’s ability to respond to movement variance and deviation. This, in theory, should then make them more resilient to unplanned, responsive type actions that are seen in a multitude of ways in just about any sport.
I feel that the proprioceptive and receptor mechanisms are also heightened by using this application. Think about doing a BB overhead carry with static loading, and then think about the water bucket set-up. Gait function is no longer a subconscious activity when using the water bucket because everything (throughout the body) needs to be alert and more receptive to external input. Improving proprioceptive response or function is a critical variable in injury susceptibility, and this is a simple way to address it during training.
Side note- If you’re not too familiar with what fascia is, how it works, or how to train it, I cannot recommend Anatomy Trains (Thomas Myers) or Fascia Training (Bill Parisi) highly enough. Probably the two most profound training books I’ve read in the last 5 years.
Finally, I’ll use bands is to emphasize inertial and impulse forces. Exercises like the Jammer throw, Band Anti-Movement, and Dynamic Palloff press all have beneficial effects on the fascial, nervous system, and deep core muscles as well. Just as we train athletes to generate and maximize force output, we equally need to stress force management/ acceptance/tolerance. By using the bands in this fashion, we can generate rapid, unpredictable external forces that demands the athlete to create stiffness and rigidity throughout the body. This is again another fundamental variable in most team-based sports and combat duty that we need to account for in training.
All in all, the general point should (hopefully) be that there are a shit ton of ways that you can utilize band tension in training. Depending on who your predominant population is, obviously the training level/ability of the athlete and space and equipment availability are all corresponding factors here. But I would encourage you to challenge your conventional thinking on bands, and work to include some new or different ways of application. As always, test with yourself and your co-workers first, then athletes second. I’m always available to provide clarity on