The allure of weight machines is strong: They take the guesswork out of any exercise, making them the easy choice. Unfortunately, easier isn't always better. Moving along the machine's fixed path restricts the number of muscles you're able to hit with each rep, which limits your results.
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Enter: resistance bands.
"Exercises done with a resistance band rather than a fixed machine will typically require more overall stability and control from other muscle groups in order to perform them well," says Hannah Davis, CSCS, owner of Body By Hannah Studio in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Resistance band exercises mimic everyday functional movements a lot better than their machine counterparts. And they challenge your muscles differently than weight machines — or even dumbbells.
"The further we stretch the band, the more tension we're adding to a movement, so right off the bat, it's increasing tension from start to finish," says Mathew Forzaglia, certified personal trainer and founder of Forzag Fitness on the NEOU App.
You can easily adjust tension on the band by increasing or decreasing the distance between your hands or feet. To maximize the effectiveness of any resistance band exercise, make sure you feel tension in the band throughout the entire movement. Control the movement from start to finish, and avoid letting the band take control, Davis says.
And unlike weight machines, resistance bands are portable, affordable and require no gym membership. Try these five resistance band exercises in place of machines to elevate your arm workouts and add variety to your routine.
1. Instead of: the Overhead Press Machine
Do: Resistance Band Shoulder Presses
- Sit on a bench or chair with a resistance band looped under your seat. Grip one end of the band with each hand in front of your shoulders, palms facing forward.
- Brace your core and press your hands toward the ceiling, until arms are fully extended.
- Pause and slowly return your hands to your shoulders.
- Repeat 12 to 15 times.
The overhead press machine locks you into a fixed range of motion, taking other muscles out of the game. Swapping out the machine for a band not only targets the main muscles of your shoulder (deltoids, mainly) but will also challenge your core and smaller, stabilizing shoulder muscles at every phase of the movement, but especially at the top of the rep, Forzaglia says.
2. Instead of: the Reverse Fly Machine
Do: Resistance Band Pull-Aparts
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold a resistance band in front of your chest at arm's length, palms facing the floor.
- Without bending your arms, squeeze your shoulder blades together to pull the band apart, until your arms are straight out at your sides. Adjust your hand position to increase or decrease resistance.
- Return your hands in front of your chest and do 12 to 15 reps.
To make the move more challenging, perform your reps while seated, which focuses more of the work on your upper body.
Like the reverse fly machine, resistance band pull-aparts target the oft-neglected posterior (rear) deltoids. But thanks to the instability, band pull-aparts get higher marks because they engage your core and upper back muscles, which help you sit and stand upright, Forzaglia says.
3. Instead of: the Biceps Curl Machine
Do: Standing Resistance Band Rotating Biceps Curls
- Step both feet on the center of the resistance band so your feet are shoulder-width apart. Grip one end of the band in each hand with your arms down at your sides, palms facing in.
- Keeping your elbows tight against your sides, curl one hand toward your shoulder. As you curl, rotate your wrist so your palm always faces your body. Squeeze your biceps at the top of the move.
- Lower your hand back to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side. Do 12 to 15 reps per arm.
To really set your biceps on fire, focus on pulling your pinky up toward your chest at the top of the curl, Forzaglia says.
The seated biceps curl machine forces you into a fixed position, which may or may not allow your biceps to move through a full range of motion. But switching to a banded version offers a freer position, Forzaglia says. This allows you to achieve a greater range of motion, which recruits more of your biceps in every rep.
4. Instead of: the Triceps Extension Machine
Do: Resistance Band Overhead Triceps Extensions
- Sit on a bench or chair with a resistance band looped under your seat. Grip the ends of the band with both hands behind your head, elbows bent at 90 degrees.
- Brace your core, keep your ribcage down and press your hands toward the ceiling, until your arms are fully extended.
- Pause and slowly return your hands behind your head, elbows bent 90 degrees.
- Repeat 12 to 15 times.
Using a band for overhead triceps extensions helps you focus on your position better, helping you avoid the hunched-over shoulders that are so common with the machine version. Doing this exercise standing also challenges your core and smaller stabilizer muscles, Forzaglia says.
5. Instead of: Close-Grip Chest Presses With the Smith Machine
Do: Banded Triceps Push-Ups
- Start in a high plank with a resistance band looped behind your back, one end on the floor beneath each hand. Your hands should be directly under your shoulders.
- Brace your core and bend at the elbows, pulling your arms in close to your sides to point your elbows back. Slowly lower yourself to the ground.
- Push through your hands to return to start.
- Do 12 to 15 reps.
If regular push-ups are a struggle, elevate your hands or drop to your knees.
Banded triceps push-ups work more major muscle groups than Smith machine presses, and they'll set your triceps on fire by adding tension to the hardest part of each rep. "These are the most miserable thing ever, because at the bottom you're like, 'Oh, no problem,' but then at the top, it becomes the world's toughest push-up," Forzaglia says.