A few years ago when I was living in Santa Fe, NM, I took a trip to my hometown of Fort Worth, TX. I had been lifting weights for about a year and had stuck to my regimen pretty religiously. I wasn’t about to let a little trip interrupt the training that had led to my strong back, flat abs, and well-defined shoulders.
In order to keep working out on the road, I bought a “portable,” weight set, the kind with hand bars onto which you can screw weight plates of increasing size. The whole thing totaled 45 pounds. This I lugged (along with my suitcase and a backpack) to the airport, to the rental car, to the hotel, and back again. I was so tired and irritated by all the lugging that I never even used the weights once.
If only I had known how easy, inexpensive, and portable exercise bands were, I could have gotten a strength workout in every night, with all of the challenges that 45-pound albatross could offer and none of the lugging.
Exercise Band Primer
Exercise, or resistance, bands are basically long latex or rubber bands of varying stretch resistance. Used properly, training with resistance bands allows you to work your muscles with just as much intensity as with weights. Bands can even be a more efficient workout than using weight machines at the gym because they force the user to engage their core abdominal muscles, as well as the stabilizer muscles surrounding the targeted area.
People at any fitness level can use resistance bands. Simply adjust your number of reps, the exercises you choose, or the resistance of the band to match where you are.
There are three basic types:
- Flat bands are wide, ribbon-like bands often made of Latex. Some are open-ended, and some are loop-shaped. They are very inexpensive, but tend to wear out after about six to 12 weeks.
- Tube-style bands are, as you might expect, spaghetti-like and usually have handles on each end.
- Giant rubber bands look exactly like they sound like, and tend to be pretty heavy-duty.
The bands vary in resistance—some are quite stretchy, and some put up more of a fight. The tube-style bands are generally color coded: Yellow ones offer light resistance; green, red, blue, and black bands each offer a higher degree of challenge.
Choosing Bands and Exercises
The best way to find out which type of band and resistance you should use is to try them out: step on them and pull, try a few exercises. See what feels comfortable yet challenging. Because they are lower in price than traditional weights, you can buy a couple of different bands for different exercises. Heavier resistance bands are good for multi-joint exercises like squats, while lighter resistance works well for lifts targeting smaller muscles, like biceps curls. Once you’ve picked out your bands, there are an endless number of exercises you can do.
Here are a few exercises to try. These work a large number of muscles simultaneously and require very little room to maneuver—perfect for someone who needs a quickie workout in an office, hotel room, or cramped living room.
Step on the resistance band with both feet, shoulder width apart. If you have an open-ended band, hold the handles at shoulder level with your elbows pointed downward, palms facing out. If you have an open-ended band with no handle, wrap the ends around your hands. If you have a loop-shape, hold the band in front of your chest in both hands. Your elbows should be pointed out, at shoulder height.
Start in the full squat position, weight in your heels and making sure your knees are behind your toes. Raise yourself up as you would as in any other squat.
If you have an open-ended band, you can add an overhead press to work your shoulders. As you drop into your squat, push the band upward over your head, then slowly return to your starting position.
Lunges/Lunges with Bicep Curl
Stand with feet hip-width apart, then take one large step back with left foot (between 18–24 inches). Loop the band under your front foot and hold one handle in each hand in an underhand grip at chest level, shoulder width apart. Keep your shoulders square and your back erect. This is your start position.
From start position, slowly lower your body by bending your knees until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Repeat until you feel fatigue, about 8–12 reps, then switch sides to work the other leg.
You can work your biceps by adding a bicep curl each time you drop into lunge position.
Loop the band around your left foot and hold the other end of the band with both hands. For starting position, lean your right shoulder toward your left foot and extend your arms toward that foot.
Then pull your arms and torso up and across your body to the position a woodchopper would be in before chopping with an ax. Execute 8–12 reps and then repeat on opposite side.
Wear and Tear
Don’t forget that each time you use your resistance bands, you should examine them for wear and nicks in the rubber. Bands are generally very strong, but a damaged one can snap.
If resistance band training appeals to you, here are some more resources you might find helpful in terms of choosing movements and exercises.
Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting a new health or exercise regime.
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.