Strengthen muscles without leaving home

Not long ago, I impulse-purchased a set of mini exercise bands, thick rubber loops designed to activate muscles when stretched. I was won over by ads that promised they could improve my posture, which is lousy after years of hunching over a computer. They claimed that a handful of quick exercises would straighten my back by “toning muscles” and “sculpting the physique.”

A full-body workout with a $20 set of elastic bands was tempting, since I don’t have the budget or space for fancy fitness equipment.

The benefits of resistance training—comprised of exercises that build strength and muscle—are well known. This type of exercise reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease. With more muscle, you burn more calories and are less prone to injury. It has also been shown to strengthen bones and reduce age-related decline in muscle mass.

Can resistance bands, which are quite cheap, portable and easy to use, serve as a good alternative to a gym subscription?

The concept of elastic exercise bands dates back more than 100 years. Some are long, thin tubes; others, like mine, are thick, flat loops with colors indicating resistance levels. And they have seen a resurgence of late due to the rise of home training due to the pandemic.

Like weights, exercise bands put pressure on your muscle, which over time causes your muscle to adapt and get stronger. The more the band is stretched, the greater the resistance.

However, there are some key differences. Bands don’t rely on gravity, so momentum can’t be used to move the weight into position, which can overload joints and ultimately work less muscle, explained David Behm, professor and scientist of exercise at the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Bands also allow movement in different planes and axes, while free weights limit movement up and down.

Bands can work major muscles in your body just as well as weights, so they provide a full-body strength and endurance workout, said Todd Ellenbecker, a physical therapist at Rehab Plus Sports Therapy in Scottsdale, Arizona, and author of the book Strength Band Training.

Research backs it up. A study of middle-aged women compared ten weeks of twice-weekly training sessions with elastic bands to a similar program using weight machines. The women’s upper and lower body strength were tested before and after the program and the results showed that muscle mass, strength and endurance improved at a similar rate in both groups. A systematic review of 18 studies also found no significant difference in muscle activation levels between those using elastic bands and those using free weights.

Ellenbecker mentioned that she works with athletes of all levels who only use bands for resistance training, “and they are successful and injury-free.” But, as with any type of training, you have to be consistent with your exercise, she added. The American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for building strength recommend training at least twice a week, with multiple exercises and multiple repetitions.

Also, don’t overdo it, he said. “People tend to prefer bands that have more resistance or stretch them too much. It never hurts to start with something light and gradually increase the intensity”.

Gerard Burley, founder and owner of Sweat DC gym in Washington DC, said exercise bands may be the best option for those just starting out in strength training and can help master good technique. For example, a common problem when doing a squat is that the knees bend inward.

“The body is loose and likes to take the easy way out,” said Burley, known as Coach G. A mini band around the legs just above the knees helps prevent this. As you squat, focus on pressing your knees out to prevent the band from slipping, while keeping your head and chest up.

High-level athletes also use them. For example, tennis players often anchor one band to a wall or post and loop the other side around the neck of their racket to add strength and improve the power of their forehand, backhand, or serve, explains Behm. .

The elastic bands also help with exercises that are difficult to master, such as putting your own weight on a barbell with your hands, according to Vanessa Liu, an online fitness trainer and nutritionist who often uses the elastic bands with her clients. In fact, some bands are designed to loop around a pull-up bar for additional support.

But don’t rely too much on them. “Eventually, you’ll want to take the band off and exercise without it,” says Liu.

Also use them to deepen stretching. For example, to stretch your hamstrings, lie on your back with the band wrapped around one foot and gently pull that leg toward you, keeping it as straight as you can.

Body mobility is what allows you to bend over and pick up a box or sit down and stand up with ease. As we age, the connective tissues in our joints change, becoming stiffer and less flexible.

“Some people do banded mobility exercises to improve posture, reduce stiffness, and move more freely and fully,” explains Liu. She often works with clients who have developed stiff shoulders and necks from sitting in front of the computer.

For posture, Ellenbecker recommends an exercise she calls “retracted external rotation,” which works the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder and the rhomboids in the upper back. He takes the band in front of you with both hands, palms up. Slowly extend your forearms out horizontally, as if you were feeling under a desk, while lifting your chest and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Return to the starting position and repeat.

A note of caution: the bands can hit you in the face. Eye injuries have occurred in this manner.

To avoid this, make sure the band is securely attached to an anchor if your exercise requires it, avoid pulling it directly towards your face or head, and check for cuts or tears before use. (You can purchase anchoring devices designed for use with bands. Securing a band around a stable object like a tree, table leg, or post can also work well.)

But in most cases, a broken band poses little risk of injury. In fact, if someone breaks up a band in Burley’s classes, everyone applauds.

“Normally it doesn’t hurt, so we’re like, ‘Oh, you busted it, how strong you are!’” she says.

As for me, I’ve been doing daily strength training with my mini bands for a few weeks now and while it’s hard to say if my posture is improving, I feel stronger and really enjoy my workouts.

Here are five other exercises that could replace the classic weightlifting exercises. With all of these workouts, aim to do two to three sets, with eight to 12 reps (with good form) for each exercise, according to the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines. If you have previous pain or injury, talk to your doctor before doing any new exercises.

Wrap the miniband just above your knees. Lie on your back with your feet flat and your knees bent and shoulder-width apart. Raise your hips as you push your knees out until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees, then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat the exercise. Work the glutes and hamstrings.

Sit on the floor with your legs extended and your back straight. Loop the resistance band around the bottoms of your feet. Grasp the band in your right hand and pull it toward your right hipbone, while squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your back straight. Go back to the starting position. Repeat in the other side. Work your upper back, mid back, and biceps.

Place the mini band around the thighs, above the knees. Slightly bend at the hips and knees. Keeping your head and chest elevated, step to the side while keeping your other leg pressed against the band. Keep moving sideways in one direction in a dragging motion. Repeat the movement in the other direction. Hold the pose as you step, keeping your knees apart. Work your glutes and quads.

This works best with a long looped band. Stand in the center of the band with your feet hip-width apart. One loop of the band should stick out from under the sides of each foot. Squat down and grab each loop. Start the movement by bending at the hips with your back flat and your shoulders above your toes. Keeping your back flat, stand up. As you get up, the resistance should increase. Return to the starting point by bending at the hips. Work your legs, glutes, and core.

Lie on your back with a long band under your shoulder blades. She grabs the end of the bands and, with elbows bent and fists toward the ceiling, extends her arms fully, pushing up as she stretches the band. The movement is similar to a press chest with dumbbells or a barbell. Work biceps, triceps and chest.

Jenny Marder is a senior science writer for NASA and a freelance journalist. She was previously the digital editor-in-chief of PBS News Hour.