Band Specialization: MAXIMIZE These Four Key Principles to BOOST Muscularity & Achieve STRONGER Lifts
Band Specialization: MAXIMIZE These Four Key Principles to BOOST Muscularity & Achieve STRONGER Lifts
By Chris Wilson
The idea of “band” training has been around for years. Back in the day, before all of the oversized rubber bands and green, red and blue tubes we see everywhere, there were Expander Cables. Remember…they were those triple steel coiled objects that had handles at each end? Ads for these were usually found in the back pages of all muscle and strength magazines.
Yes, old school indeed!
Expander Cables were common place at the gym and used in addition to free weight training and machines. They were a great alternative for bodybuilders but they did have one huge drawback…they pinched your skin on certain exercises, like pectoral flyes to name one.
Not that today’s bands aren’t capable of pinching and rubbing your flesh a bit much or pulling out some arm hair here and there…but the coils were just downright painful and had limits to what they could do. However, the concept was revolutionary at the time and the expander cables did a great job at incorporating FOUR KEY principles in weight training:
Time under Tension (TUT)
Range of Motion (ROM)
The rubber bands, tubing and straps that have grown in popularity in recent years, commonly known as bands to most powerlifters and bodybuilders, do an equally good job of delivering results for all four of those above mentioned principles.
Plus, they are much more versatile, travel easier, come in a variety of resistances and are relatively cheap when it’s time to replace them.
To be clear, there are powerlifting bands that powerlifters in particular use regularly to help with strength and speed on their lifts. These bands are used in conjunction with mostly barbell and dumbbell exercises and they are like giant rubber bands.
Most of the other bands you will find in the marketplace either have the handles at each end (or not) and can be used along with free weights or by themselves. They can also be anchored to stationary objects making them user friendly. Regardless of the brand or type, these prominent strength tools function extremely well on their own.
While these rubber strength bands and colorful exercise bands have their differences, the concepts of what they do for the body is very much the same.
With that being said, let’s touch on WHY applying the aforementioned principles in your bands is so effective for helping you gain muscle size, strength or both. I will touch on the nuances of those variables later on.
FOUR Key Principles
Time under Tension or (TUT) is by no means a new approach to weight training and if you’re reading this and unsure of what time under tension means, it’s simply the amount of time your muscles are under tension or in a state of contraction during an exercise. To manipulate this time can completely change the reaction your body has to the resistance.
Using bands in your training, regardless of the load you’re working with, can create a terrific prolonged stimulus to the muscles you’re targeting and deliver “the burn” that many gym goers are looking for. This burn (without getting all scientific on you) is due to the increased blood flow and buildup of lactic acid in the targeted muscle group resulting in or approaching muscular failure.
Keep in mind that the powerlifters out there aren’t going for this burn like the bodybuilders. In fact, many of them don’t ever really feel the burn….it’s not the focus of why they train.
The Founder of Critical Bench, Mike Westerdal, told me flat out that for years during his competitive powerlifting career (2007-10), he NEVER got the ‘muscle burn’ during his workouts. Lifting maximum loads with all-out effort and 5-10 minute rest intervals just didn’t provide that kind of reaction for the body.
Muscle Strengthening and Muscle Building/Shaping are TWO Different Goals
A powerlifter trains for a 1RM (repetition max – max effort lift) strength while the bodybuilder trains for volume to help swell the muscles and cause them to grow in size.
I understand how this can be quite confusing for some but simply, you’re either trying to get stronger in the gym or you’re trying to look better. Now there is the hybrid ‘powerbuilder’ that wants both and that particular category of lifter has certainly gained momentum in recent years. It is important to understand these differences and know why YOU are in the gym to begin with.
What GOALS do you have and how do you want to implement band training?
Goal for Lifter A: Muscle Tone, Size and Fat Loss (bodybuilder)
Goal for Lifter B: Strength (powerlifter)
Goal for Lifter C: All of the Above (powerbuilder)
Once those very important variables have been considered, you can now proceed with your band training. Having direction in the gym is paramount in the search for improvement.
This very nicely brings us into another fantastic aspect of band training and something that has had dramatic results for guys looking to gain strength and that is Accommodating Resistance. My definition of this term is simply adding additional, external tension through a specific range of motion to a desired lift. As the weight is moved through its range of motion, it actually increases in difficulty due to the bands elasticity or slingshot-like effect.
This concept alone has produced some astounding lifts the world over using not only bands but chains (similar concept).
Accommodating Resistance really targets strength and demands that you work harder as you go through as much range of motion as possible. Adding additional bands or increasing the girth of the tubes/straps you’re using can help you decrease the rep work while devoting even more effort to sets of only 3-5 reps, thus having dramatic impact on Max Effort Lifts. But keep in mind that this approach can be helpful with isolation lifts too like curls, side raises and arm extensions.
Again, know your reasons for using bands.
Reverse band training can also be super beneficial for making strength gains. At many gyms, you will see bands hanging from the tops of squat racks and power cages. When doing movements like pull-ups for example, bigger lifters and those struggling to gain strength are able to get in rep work for all kinds of pull-up variations. This method can also be applied to the bench press, bent over rows and overhead press to name a few.
Range of Motion (ROM) is often a topic of conversation at the gym. Some guys need to add some more, some need to decrease and some are on the money (kinds of sounds like the Three Little Bears).
One thing is for sure, everyone’s body is different and due to those unique differences, the ROM will vary.
If I’ve learned anything about the human body in my over 15 years of working with clients, it’s that everyone’s skill set is distinct and you must find a way to maximize their individual ability in the gym while addressing their needs.
Band training can be terrific for stretching the muscles under moderate resistance allowing for improved range of motion while remaining safe and controlled. This can be done very slowly with pauses incorporating the TUT principle from above.
That is precisely why bands of all kinds have become so widely used in rehab facilities, hardcore gyms, fitness centers and especially at home.
Listen, bands are not SCARY. At least, not on the surface. Ask any powerlifter and he may tell you that some of his hardest days in the gym were using rubber bands but just looking at and holding a band is not frightening or disconcerting.
Now just about any athlete has heard the phrase, “speed kills.” Using bands for Speed Work is highly effective at not only making lifters more explosive in their desired lifts BUT it also helps to maintain the integrity of the joints being used.
Moving free weight or machine weight rapidly can certainly be done smartly but over time if the control element is ignored (which we’ve all seen in the gym), injuries can come quickly!
With the use of bands, explosive reps or speed reps can allow the muscles to fire at an accelerated rate while remaining relatively safe. The movement becomes smoother. The idea behind this is that the lifter is working with sub-maximal loads and demanding the fast twitch fibers of the muscles to dominate the lift. This method or style of training actually translates very well to gaining strength with heavier loads for less reps.
Just like a 400 meter sprinter (one time around the track) may spend a significant amount of time on just exploding out of the block, the powerlifter works on speed to help with being more explosive at the most crucial point in the lift, the bottom. Recruiting every single muscle fiber to fire hard and fast making the contraction optimal for a max effort attempt.
Implementing all FOUR of the above mentioned principles when using bands will assuredly allow for muscle growth and strength. Just know your GOALS and stick to a game plan based on those goals in the gym.
BONUS Applications of Band Training
Hey, want a few more PROVEN training techniques with band training that can help with gaining strength and size…sure you do!
Here you go:
- Band training allows you to not only train to failure safely but by decreasing your rest time you can have dramatic impact on your muscle pumping quest. This can be an alternative to increasing resistance by using multiple bands or going to harder/heavier ones. Just cut down your rest periods and work harder!
- Bands can easily be combined with complex strength movements using super-sets or they can sometimes be used FIRST implementing the pre-exhaustion principle. Do multiple sets of band specific exercises BEFORE hitting your traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises. Now you’re really working hard without having to increase the weights.
Guest post by Mike Robertson
There are times when bench press training can feel like an exercise in futility.
I’m definitely not the best bench presser to ever walk the face of the Earth. While my squat and deadlift were always quick to go up, I always struggled with the bench press.
With that being said, I’m constantly reminded of a quote from Brad Gillingham. While I may mix up the numbers, the gist of the quote stays the same:
“If you start with a 200-pound bench press at the age of 20, if you only increase your bench press by 10 pounds every year, you’ll be a 400-pound bench presser by the time you’re 40.”
That little quote has always kept me motivated to keep pressing.
But as we get older, injuries start to creep up. It could be sore and achy joints, or the occasional muscle pull. But if we want to get that consistent 10 pounds every year, then staying healthy is key.
If our goal is to stay healthy and bench press heavyweights for extended periods of time, they are three key areas of the body that we must focus on. Those three areas are:
#1 – The thoracic spine
#2 – The scapula
#3 – The rotator cuff
Let’s examine how efficient training of each of these areas can not only keep you healthy, but keep your numbers going up for years to come.
The thoracic spine
The thoracic spine may still be one of the most misunderstood areas of the human body. As powerlifters, we’re taught to rely on the strong muscle of our lower back. However, if our goal is to not only maximize performance, but to minimize injury, we must improve the extensibility of our thoracic spine.
If you watch any elite level bench presser, chances are they have a high degree of thoracic extension, which leads to a solid setup and big arch. If you’re forced to get all your extension from your lumbar spine, you’ll not only lose some of your arch but you’ll probably suffer from low back pain as well!
The easiest way to improve thoracic extension is to drive thoracic extension on either a piece of PVC pipe, or a foam roller. The exercise is simple: lay the pipe or roller perpendicular to your body around the area of your mid back. Once set up, place your fingertips behind your head and pull your elbows together in front of your face.
Gently brace your stomach, and slowly wrap your upper back around the roller or pipe. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, and then slowly work the roller up and down your upper back.
This exercise is effective whether it’s used pre-workout, post-workout, or simply throughout the day to loosen up your upper back. Not only will better thoracic extension spare your lumbar spine, but it will also improve your upper extremity biomechanics as well. This simple tip could be the difference between a healthy body and jacked up shoulders or elbows.
The Upper Back
Once thoracic extension is in place, it’s now time to lay the foundation for a big bench press. In this case, a thick and stable upper back will allow you to maximize your bench press poundage’s.
The key, however, is not only maintaining stability through your upper back, but to build strength and mass as well.
When setting up to bench press, the name of the game is stability. The upper back is crucially important, and we need stability in both scapular retraction (pulling the shoulder blades together), as well as scapular depression (pulling the shoulder blades down).
Basic stabilization exercises such as prone I’s, prone T’s, and prone Y’s may not look like much at first blush. However, these exercises focus on recruiting the appropriate musculature to stabilize our scapula. Far too often, we’re forced to use big, prime mover muscle groups to not only produce motion, but prevent it as well.
Instead, our goal should be to strengthen our stabilizers so they are on par with our prime movers. When we do this, we allow our prime movers to do the job they’re best at – move heavy weights!
Once we build the basic stability with low-level activation and recruitment exercises, it’s time to really focus on strength and muscle mass throughout the upper back.
We know that big, compound movements are ideal when it comes to building muscle mass. However, we need to develop strength both in horizontal pulling movements, as well as vertical pulling movements.
Exercises such as chest supported rows, dumbbell rows, and low cable rows are fantastic for building width through the upper back, as well as strength and stability in scapular retraction.
When rowing, think about pulling through your elbows, and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Dorian Yates used to say that if you can’t hold the midpoint contraction for a second or more, you are simply using momentum to lift the weight. This couldn’t be truer in our case, as a maximal bench-press often lasts anywhere between five and 10 seconds. You need that maximal contraction.
Instead of massaging your ego with ridiculous poundage’s, make sure to use the appropriate muscles, and really focus on squeezing at the midpoint of each repetition.
In contrast, chin-up and pull-up variations are ideal for not only training scapular depression, but also for building our lats. The lats are critical for controlling the weight, as we will use to help actively pull the bar down to our chest when bench pressing. This “active” pulling helps maintain our stability and control on the negative portion of the lift.
Much like the row, we still need to focus on pulling through the elbows to initiate the contraction on vertical pulls. However, at the bottom, instead of pulling the shoulder blades together, we should be focused on actively pulling them downwards. Pavel describes this as pulling your shoulder blades into your back pocket. This is the essence of scapular depression, and it’s something that many trainees often struggle with.
The Rotator Cuff
The rotator cuff is the final piece of our puzzle. While many of us know that the rotator cuff is important, far too often rotator cuff training is quickly forgotten. Rather than taking a few extra minutes at the end of a session to train the rotator cuff, we leave it as an afterthought and figure we’ll get to it the next work out.
Exercises that emphasize the pecs and lats strengthen the internal rotators of the shoulder. To help maintain muscular and structural balance at the shoulder joint, we need to incorporate external rotation work in our programs.
Standrard exercises such as external rotations on the knee, or side-lying external rotations can get us started. However, I also like bigger bang exercises such as face pulls where we not only train external rotation of the shoulder, but we also get some upper back strength/stability as well.
Bringing it all together
One of the best times to get healthy and lay a better foundation is the off-season. Here are some simple tips to help regain structural balance, and put you in an optimal position to start training for your next meet or competition.
First and foremost, start your upper body workouts with a heavy pulling movement first. If you’re used to always pressing first, leading off with a pull-up or rowing variation will allow you to get more out of these exercises. You won’t be as fatigued as you normally are, and you’ll be surprised at how much more energy you have to train these lifts. With my powerlifters, we’ll often do this for the first 2-3 months of their off-season just to make sure we’re putting an emphasis on upper back strength and stability.
Along those same lines, the off-season is an ideal time to place an emphasis on all the little guys such as our rotator cuff, our scapular stabilizers, etc. Remember, the little guys are important for stabilizing the joint, and allowing the prime movers to do what they do best – move heavy weights. If we don’t bring our stabilizers up to par, we’re never going to see improvements in our primary lifts.
Whether your goal is to set a PR in your next powerlifting meet, or just be the biggest bench presser in your gym, the tips above can help take you to the next level.
Take a few weeks (or months) and build them into your next training cycle. I promise, you won’t be disappointed with the results.
About the Author
Mike Robertson has helped clients and athlete from all walks of life achieve their strength, physique and performance related goals. Mike received his Masters Degree in Sports Biomechanics from the world-renowned Human Performance Lab at Ball State University.
Mike is the president of Robertson Training Systems, where you can find tons of free blogs, podcasts, and even register for Mike’s free newsletter.
Mike is also the co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training, which was recently named one of America’s Top Ten Gyms.