If you're looking for a way to build muscle with minimal equipment, consider using resistance bands. Resistance bands are portable, inexpensive and versatile, making them the ideal exercise equipment for road warriors and home workout enthusiasts. You can use bands to add load to the most popular strength exercises.
With that being said, you may be wondering if you can use resistance bands to help you build muscle. The answer for many people is yes, but their usefulness is more limited for more experienced lifters who've already built a substantial amount of muscle.
Read on to learn more about when bands are useful for muscle building and when they aren't as helpful, plus how to add them to your workout routine.
Can You Build Muscle with Resistance Bands?
The process of building muscle is known as hypertrophy. It's important to explain exactly how it works in order to understand how to use resistance bands to achieve muscle building goals.
We build muscle through three key mechanisms:
- Mechanical tension: the load and tension placed on your muscles during a set. Using full range of motion and heavy loads increases mechanical tension, which can lead to more muscle growth. Mechanical tension is the most important driver of hypertrophy.
- Muscle damage: small tears and other damage that occurs in your muscles during training. FYI: More muscle damage is created during the eccentric (lowering/stretching) phase of an exercise.
- Metabolic stress: changes that happen inside the muscle, such as changes in blood flow and the eventual buildup of metabolites like lactate. These changes activate hormonal pathways that fuel muscle growth. Metabolic stress is responsible for the pump or burning sensation you feel in a muscle.
You can use resistance bands to create each of these effects in your workouts. However, there are a few important caveats.
Mechanical tension is created by using the heaviest possible bands in full ranges of motion. An easy way to think about this is that if a band feels challenging on a particular muscle, it's probably going to help that muscle grow.
You can also increase mechanical tension somewhat by performing longer sets. If a band feels too easy on a set of six reps, try increasing the reps to eight or 10. Many times, doing more reps will raise the difficulty level to something that will help you build muscle.
One downside of resistance band training is that experienced lifters will have to use lighter loads than they could with free weights or machines. This means people who already have a solid foundation of strength and muscle may have a harder time building muscle with bands alone because they can't generate enough mechanical tension for further gains.
Another potential negative is muscle damage — and therefore the subsequent repairs — is harder to achieve through resistance band training. Nearly all band exercises work by increasing resistance on the concentric ("up") portion of a movement and then decreasing resistance (through relaxing band tension) on the eccentric ("down") portion, where most of the muscle damage potential occurs.
While you can slow some movements down to encourage more muscle damage, this tactic won't work on all exercises. The eccentric portion of exercises like squats, lunges and Romanian deadlifts coincides with the band actually losing all of its resistance. Therefore, you won't be able to induce as much muscle damage using bands on these exercises.
Metabolic stress is fairly easy to create using resistance band training, especially in your upper body. Even the strongest people can get a great pump in certain muscles using light resistance bands at high reps. Bodybuilders have long used high rep sets of banded biceps curls and triceps pushdowns to smoke their arms at the end of a training session.
So, can you build muscle and get toned with resistance bands?
If you're a beginner or intermediate lifter, you can absolutely use bands to build muscle. Focus on using the heaviest possible bands while still using good form and full range of motion during each exercise. Slow down some of your eccentrics and occasionally use higher reps or other intensity techniques to get a pump. Even more importantly, make sure you're eating enough food to support muscle growth.
Experienced lifters who already have a substantial amount of muscle may have some difficulty using bands to target some of the bigger, stronger muscles in their bodies. However, they can still use bands to effectively target smaller muscles in their arms and shoulders, for instance. And, bands can provide a great training effect at home or on the road, even if they aren't substantial enough to help you build muscle.
Benefits of Resistance Bands for Building Muscle
1. They're Portable
Perhaps the biggest benefit of resistance band training is that you can do a muscle-building resistance band workout anywhere. It's easy add bands to your existing home gym and they're the ideal place to start if you don't currently have any equipment. Bands are perfect for days when you want to hit the beach or park for an outdoor workout. You can also bring bands with you when you travel because they take up very little space in a bag.
Lots of people argue about the most optimal approach for building muscle, but none of that matters if you aren't consistent with your workouts. The ability to strength train in any situation can make the difference between hitting your muscle building goals or not. Bands are the perfect training tool to take the gym with you wherever you go.
2. They're Inexpensive
Bands give you more bang for your buck than most other pieces of exercise equipment. Even the highest quality bands are significantly cheaper than dumbbells or kettlebells, for instance. You could easily purchase a full set of bands at different resistance levels for under $100. This means that you can use bands to build muscle even if you're training on a budget.
3. They're Versatile
Some types of equipment only really work to train a few movements or muscles. As you'll see below, you can train all the major movement patterns using bands. Bands can also be applied to nearly all of the most effective muscle building movements. You can get a lot done with very little equipment.
4. They're Self-Limiting
You won't be able to use as much load when training with bands versus free weights. Although this can sometimes be a downside if you're a stronger lifter looking to build muscle, it can also potentially keep you safe.
Bands are not inherently safer than other pieces of equipment. But because it's pretty hard to use a band that you truly aren't ready for, you're less likely to end up injured. For example, it's easy to put too much load on a barbell and try to back squat it. It's much harder (if not impossible) to do the same thing with a banded squat.
Injuries can still happen when training with bands, so take your time to learn how to do exercises correctly and increase load and volume gradually. When in doubt, ask a coach or trainer for help.
Types of Resistance Bands for Building Muscle
You may have noticed that resistance bands come in different shapes and sizes. Certain bands are better at targeting certain muscles. For the best muscle-building results, purchase bands from each of the following three categories.
1. Long-Loop Bands
There are two types of longer resistance bands: those with handles and those without. The latter group of bands resembles a giant oval or circle. These bands come in a variety of thicknesses, which affects how heavy the bands feel.
Thick round bands place heavier loads on your body and are ideal for compound exercises (which work multiple muscle groups at the same time), like squats, lunges, Romanian deadlifts and rows. More experienced lifters will definitely need some thick round bands in their collection to continue building muscle.
Thin round bands use lighter loads. You can use these for compound movements if you're newer to strength training. They're also great for exercises that require less load, like band pull-aparts.
It makes sense to have at least one thick round band and one thin round band in your collection. This will allow you to train a variety of movements and accomodate discrepancies in upper-body and lower-body strength.
Our Favorite Long-Loop Bands
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $23.99
2. Bands With Handles
Handle bands look like long straight lines with a handle at each end, occasionally with an additional attachment piece in the middle that allows each side to move independently of the other. Some handle bands use removable handles, which allow you to change band resistance or combine multiple bands using a single pair of handles. Others are fixed at one weight.
Handle bands are particularly useful for upper-body exercises. It's much easier to do overhead presses, biceps curls, triceps extensions and lateral raises using handle bands as opposed to long round bands.
It's also possible to use handle bands in place of longer round bands. For example, instead of looping a round band around your shoulders for squats or lunges, you could hold a band's handles up at your shoulders. The downside is that this position is less stable, which will ultimately limit how much load you can use.
Just like with round bands, you'll have more effective muscle-building workouts if you purchase several handle bands at different resistance levels.
Our Favorite Bands With Handles
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $24.97
3. Mini Bands
Mini bands are short versions of long round bands. They're only a few inches long and use much less resistance than longer bands. This is important because you need lighter loads to perform the exercises for which mini bands are best suited.
Although they're more limited in use than longer bands, mini bands can be great at helping build muscle in your glutes, hips and core. You can also use them to train your upper body if you don't have longer bands available.
Stay on the lighter side when purchasing mini bands. They're usually placed around your feet, ankles, thighs or arms, so a little bit of resistance goes a long way.
Most mini bands are made of thinner material than other types of bands. For this reason, they tend to break faster, so it makes sense to purchase some backups.
Our Favorite Mini Bands
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $19.95
4. Bonus: Door Anchor
You can train your entire body with bands alone. However, you'll be able to perform a wider range of exercises if you also purchase a door anchor. This is a small accessory that you shut in a door frame, allowing you to attach bands at different heights. Think of it as creating your own version of a cable machine using bands.
Our Favorite Door Anchor
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $10.99
Best Exercises for Building Muscle with Resistance Bands
Add the following eight exercises to your workout routine to build muscle with resistance bands.
1. Banded Squat
- If you're using a long-loop resistance band, stand with one end of the band under your feet and the other end looped around your shoulders. If you're using a handle band, stand with the band underneath your feet and hold a handle in each hand positioned in front of your shoulders.
- With your feet hip-width apart and brace your core. Focus on keeping your feet rooted into the ground and your core tight the entire time.
- Slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to lower toward the floor. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
- Lower down as far as comfortable, or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
- On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing. As you stand, lower your arms back to your sides.
2. Banded Reverse Lunge
- If you're using a long-loop band, stand with one end of the band under one foot and the other end looped around your shoulders. If you're using a handle band, stand with the band underneath one foot and hold a handle in each hand positioned in front of your shoulders.
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward.
- Step back behind you with the foot that isn't holding the band while simultaneously bending your other knee and lowering your hips. Keep your torso straight.
- Stop when your front knee is at a 90-degree angle and your front thigh is parallel to the floor (or as close as possible).
- Pause slightly and press into your front heel, squeezing your glutes to stand up, while bringing your back leg back to the starting position.
3. Banded Romanian Deadlift
- Stand upright with the band underneath your feet, feet shoulder-width apart. Hold onto one end in each hand. You'll probably need to significantly choke up on the band to find the right amount of resistance.
- Initiate the movement by bending your knees slightly. Keep your chest tall as you reach your hips back behind you. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Reach your hips back as far as you can without rounding your low back or your shoulders.
- Finish the rep by driving your legs into the ground and returning to the starting position.
4. Banded Seated Row
- Sit on the ground with your back flat, legs straight out in front of you.
- Loop one end of your long band around your feet and hold the other end in both hands, arms straight in front of you. Choke up on the band as needed to find the right amount of resistance.
- On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades together and row the band toward your torso, bending your elbows to a 90-degree angle.
- Pause here for a moment, then extend your arms again.
5. Banded Chest Press
- If you don't have a door anchor, you will loop the band around your back and underneath your arms. Hold one end of the band (or a handle) in each hand positioned in front of your shoulders. Choke up on the band as needed to find the right resistance. If you have a door anchor, set it up at about chest height and take few steps away from the door.
- Initiate the movement by pushing your hands out in front of your chest. Push until your arms are fully extended and do not shrug your shoulders.
- Finish the rep by relaxing your arms and bringing your hands back to your shoulders.
6. Banded Biceps Curl
- If you're using a handle band, stand with the middle of the band under your feet and a handle in each hand. If you're using a round band, stand with one end of the band under your feet and the other end in your hands. Choke up on the band as needed to find the right resistance.
- Keeping your elbows close to your sides, curl the band up to your shoulders.
- Pause here for a moment, squeezing your biceps.
- Lower the band back down to your sides.
7. Banded Triceps Pushdown
- This movement requires a door anchor positioned in the top of your door frame. Alternatively, you can attach one end of a band to a sturdy object, like the top of a power rack or chin-up bar.
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and grab onto the band with your hands up by your shoulders. Choke up on the band as needed to find the right resistance.
- Press down on the band as you straighten out your arms.
- Extend your arms fully, while maintaining the same position with the rest of your body and keeping your elbows in place by your sides.
- After your elbows are fully extended, bend your elbows again to relax tension on the band.
8. Band Pull-Apart
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees soft (rather than locked).
- Hold a resistance band with one hand near each end, at a comfortable shoulder-width distance apart.
- Reaching your arms straight forward with your palms facing up, pull your shoulders back and down to activate your back muscles and rotator cuff. (Starting in this engaged position helps with proper alignment.)
- While maintaining the shoulder blade retraction, pull the band apart at the same speed and force with both arms at the same time.
- Pull as wide as your mobility allows while maintaining your posture. Hold the extended position for one breath, then slowly release the movement back to the starting position.