We’ve been in quarantine for a few months now, and chances are, those 20-pound dumbbells you’ve been lifting might not feel as challenging as they used to be. But because of the recent shortage of exercise equipment, it can be hard to come by a heavier set of weights. Plus, you might not exactly be jazzed about turning part of your living room or bedroom into a home gym.
Fortunately, all you need to level up your heavy lifts is a good ol’ resistance band.
“When working out outside of a traditional gym, many people don’t have access to heavy weights, so adding resistance bands can be a great way to add more resistance without having to purchase additional bulky weights,” says Tatiana Scott, a certified personal trainer based in Houston, Texas.
Here’s how it generally works: You take one or two resistance bands and loop them onto a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell, and perform the movement with both the weight and the resistance of the band. Sound tricky? No worries—keep reading for more tips on how to pull this off, plus why you should.
Why You Should Add Resistance Bands to Your Weights
Adding resistance bands to your weights can help create the feeling of extra load you would otherwise get from lifting heavier weights. Why is that important? In order for your muscles to get stronger and grow bigger, you need to push them past their threshold for strength—a process known as progressive overload. Progressive overload involves the process of continually challenging your muscles with heavier weights, more reps and sets, or changing the tempo and intensity of the exercise (such as fewer reps but longer counts).
When you lift the same amount of weight for more than several weeks, your muscles will hit a plateau in growth and begin to adapt to the load, making the exercise less challenging. But by increasing the weight and intensity of the exercise, for instance, your muscles fibers will break down and inspire more growth, increasing your strength potential. Incorporating resistance bands in your lifting routine can help add this load and intensity when you can’t reach for heavier weights to do so.
“When many people think about building muscle, they traditionally think of only lifting heavy dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells. What many people don’t know is that you can progressively overload with resistance bands as well,” says Scott. “Just like weights, resistance bands come in different levels of resistance. To practice progressive overload, you would simply choose a band that has more resistance as others begin to feel lighter over time,” she says. Or, in this case, add a resistance band to a dumbbell move to create more resistance.
Enhance Tension Throughout Movement
Resistance bands also reinforce tension throughout the entire exercise, demanding you to move with more control, especially during the eccentric phase, aka the downward phase of a movement.
“With traditional weights alone, simply going up or down too far in the movement can release the tension that’s on the muscle. But when you add a resistance band—as long as it’s tight—you can create constant tension throughout the range of motion of the exercise,” says Scott.
Case in point: In a bicep curl, you likely feel a release of tension during the eccentric phase (when you’re lowering the weight back down). “Your muscle doesn’t have to work as hard to lower the weight like it does to lift it. But by adding a resistance band to your dumbbells, you now have constant tension on the muscle, even during the eccentric phase,” she says.
Perfect Your Form and Range of Motion
Resistance bands are particularly great to use in reactive neuromuscular training (RNT), says CJ Hammond, a NASM-certified personal trainer with RSP Nutrition. RNT is a technique that uses outside resistance or cueing tools to neurologically “turn on” an automatic response from your muscles, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). If you have issues performing an exercise with proper form or aren’t activating the right muscles during a move, RNT can provide a way to correct those faulty movement patterns. “RNT increases your range of motion, builds symmetry in the movement, and lengthens, strengthens, and improves isometric stability in the antagonist muscle groups of the muscles you’re targeting,” explains Hammond. A little anatomy lesson: In every movement, there are agonist and antagonist muscle groups. The agonist muscles are the primary movers of the exercise (doing the majority of the work), and the antagonist muscles are the opposing muscles. When the agonist group contracts, the antagonist group relaxes.
For example, in a squat, the agonist muscles are your glutes because they are the primary mover, and your hip flexors are the antagonist muscles—the opposing muscles. “If you lack the ability to get into a squat, training the antagonist muscle groups will create a stable movement which will increase your possibilities of improving that movement,” says Hammond. RNT exercises are also designed to help improve your joint stability, making them a staple for rehab techniques after an injury, he says.
For example, in the Instagram video below, the resistance bands are anchored above the weight via poles and are looped around the barbell. This places special emphasis on the isometric hold at the bottom of the squat to improve stability in the hips while also recruiting the glutes.
Improve Muscle Strength & Definition
Adding resistance bands to traditional lifts will also increase muscle fiber recruitment while doing the exercise, says Hammond. “The benefits of recruiting more muscle fibers will improve both performance and the aesthetic look of the muscle,” he says. That’s because lifting heavy weights works your fast-twitch muscle fibers. Unlike slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are built for endurance activities like running, fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited during quick, explosive movements, such as heavy lifts. These muscle fibers are responsible for creating muscle size and definition, so if you want to have a more toned, sculpted physique, leveling up your lifts with resistance bands is the way to go.
How to Add Resistance Bands to Your Weights
Now that you know the benefits of adding a resistance band to your strength training routine, you might be wondering when you should start using them. “You will know it’s time to add a resistance band to your strength exercise when it becomes easy to perform. You might be aware of the FITT concept: frequency, intensity, time, and type. As your muscles begin to adapt, it’s a good idea to switch up one of these variables,” says Scott. “Adding a resistance band is a great way to change the intensity.”
When it comes to choosing the right resistance, Scott and Hammond both advise starting light and working your way up to more resistance. “When working smaller muscles in your upper body, you can generally increase the intensity just by incorporating a light or medium band. But when strengthening larger muscles, such as your quads and glutes, a medium to heavy resistance band would be appropriate,” says Scott.
As you get stronger and can complete several reps of an exercise with ease, you can increase the resistance level of your bands. “Focus on making sure that you can maintain a certain tempo through the reps and sets before using heavy bands,” says Hammond. Some bands also include info on their labels about how their resistance level translates into weights, so look out for this and keep it in mind when choosing a band.
Using a heavy band too quickly can lead to injury, a break in form, and loss of control over the weight. “Resistance bands are very good at helping with muscle recruitment but are unpredictable at times. Trying to expedite results without mastering the movement pattern or sticking to a tempo can become dangerous,” explains Hammond.
When adding bands to weights, such as a pair of dumbbells, it’s also important to make sure that you evenly distribute tension from the band on both sides, says Hammond. This ensures that you’re not loading one side heavier than the other, creating muscle imbalances.