Can You Get Bigger Muscles with Resistance Bands?

For good health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that all adults do strength training exercises two times a week. That exercise can take many forms, including using resistance tubing or bands. Resistance bands can help you gain muscle and strength -- but might not cause the same amount of muscle activation and growth that other forms of strength training can provide.

Ideally the bands will be just one part of your training regimen. (Image: OSTILL/iStock/Getty Images)

How You Build Muscle

To make a muscle bigger, you have to overload that muscle. That creates small tears in the muscle fiber where new muscle tissue can then grow. Even lifting your own body weight overloads your muscles -- and so do resistance bands. In one study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, resistance tubing was found to be just as effective in activating the quadriceps during the concentric or "up" phase of a knee extension exercise as using a weight machine. During the eccentric or "down" phase of the exercise, however, the weight machine did result in more activation -- but the researchers did still conclude that resistance tubing was a "feasible method" for achieving the activity that could lead to muscle hypertrophy. Researchers in two other studies involving older adults found that when bands are combined with wraps or straps that restricted blood flow, muscle growth or muscle activation -- which can lead to muscle growth -- did occur.

Different Bands, Different Results

Resistance bands come in varying levels of tension, making it possible to progressively increase the amount of tension you're using. When you're just starting out with strength training, you might use a band designated for beginners. Over time though, your muscles will become adapted to the additional load. To continue achieving the muscle overload that results in muscle growth, you'll need to move up to a band with even more tension. It's the same with free weights; when lifting a certain weight becomes easy, it's time to move up to a more challenging weight.

Good Up to a Point

For the beginner or average exerciser, resistance bands will probably provide enough tension to help you start to build muscle. Like free weights, the goal when using the resistance bands is to create muscle fatigue toward the end of a set of about 10 repetitions. If your muscles don't feel fatigued by the end of the set, you'll probably need to move up to a band with more tension. Since the advanced bands still only provide about 100 pounds of resistance, the advanced exerciser is probably going to reach a point when the bands are just going to be too easy. For those people, using actual heavy weights may be the only way to continue making muscle gains.

Using the Bands

If you're convinced that using resistance bands are the right thing for you, check out the ratings scale for the brand you're using, and pick a tension level that corresponds to your level of fitness. When in doubt, choose the band with less tension. Two days a week, perform three to four exercises for the upper body and three or four for the lower body, doing one set of each to start. Upper-body exercises could include biceps curls, triceps extensions, chest presses and lat pulldowns; lower-body exercises can include squats, hamstring curls, and leg abduction and adduction exercises. Since different brands have different straps and handles, it's important to consult the manufacturer's user guide for information on the proper ways to use the bands. After you've been using them for a few weeks, add a second set, and then a third set after several more weeks. After that, it's time to move up to a more advanced-level band or on to exercises involving dumbbells, barbells or weight machines.

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