Band Training: Get Ready To Break Plateaus!

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You watch the big guy on the other side of the gym literally blast 400 pounds off his chest. You mumble to your training partner, “He must be taking something to move that much weight so fast.” To your surprise your training partner tells you, “No man, he’s clean.” I used to think the same way about some lifters until Bob Youngs and other Westside devotees introduced me to band training. Now it’s the other guys in the gym who are saying that I must be taking something, and if you follow the ideas in this article, they’ll be saying the same thing about you.

Early Exposure

I first read about training with bands on various email groups and then I was fortunate to learn a little more about them through Mel Siff’s Supertraining list. I was curious as to why so many big and strong guys were hooking up giant rubber bands to Olympic bars and lifting weights with them. However it wasn’t until I started training with some guys from Westside Barbell that I really found out how to use bands effectively. Now I add them into my training at certain stages when I want to emphasize explosive strength.

Limitations with Traditional Weight Training

Most guys go into the gym and just lift weights without a real plan of attack. Over time they make some progress, but eventually they hit a plateau. Amazingly they stick with the same program even though they are no longer getting any results. Other guys may cycle their training to some degree by starting out with sets of ten reps and then increasing the weight each workout while they drop the number of reps. Ultimately this approach can also lead to frustrating plateaus. It’s clear that there is a need to do something different, but most guys just don’t know what else to do. I’m going to give you another strategy that can expand your training horizons. It’s called band training and it’s not easy, but the results are worth the efforts. Performing a bench press or squat with band resistance requires that you move very fast or you may not be able to perform the full range of motion. Band training also addresses a safety issue that one must consider when training with free weights. Normally when you try to accelerate the bar in an exercise like the squat or bench press, you have to slow down at some point before full extension of your knee or elbow. If you don’t, you run the risk of hyperextending the joint or causing injury. When you attach one end of a band to a fixed object and the other end to a bar, you create a situation where as you are lifting the weight, the force required to complete the movement increases. This allows you to move the bar in a squat or bench press as fast as possible with a reduced risk of hyperextending the knee or elbow because as your mechanical advantage increases in the movement, the tension in the band increases.

Selecting and Using Bands

There are all kinds of elastic products available including bungee cords, elastic tubes, and elastic bands. The bungee cords are inexpensive but they do not stretch as far as the other products. You can attach them in series to get more range, but this can be awkward. The elastic tubes are not always convenient to attach. In my experience using all of the above, I found the elastic bands worked the best. They can be stretched many times their original length so you won’t have to worry about stretching them too far in typical weight exercises. They are basically just giant rubber bands, so the ends are convenient to attach to the end of a barbell. They come in different widths, with the larger widths providing more tension.

If you’re like most guys, then you’re just a big kid at heart. When the bands first come, you’ll probably want to do every single exercise known to man in the first workout, but hold back young grasshopper. First let’s cover how to hook up the bands. There are lots of exercises that you can do with them, but this article will cover suggestions for two common movements: the squat and the bench press. In both cases you want to set up one or more bands on each side of the bar running perpendicular to the ground and directly under the bar at the start position. If the bands are not set properly then one side may have more tension then the other and as a result the bar may move towards one side as the lifter performs an exercise. Most guys take a block of wood about 4″ x 4″ x 12-16″ long and place a 2″ x 4″ x 4″ block on each end of one side. The blocks rest on the ground with the 2″ x 4″ sections touching the floor and the 4″ x 4″ section on top. You can make grooves on the top side of the 4″ x 4″ section so that two heavy dumbbells can rest in them. Now you have a stable base to attach a band to. You simply loop the band around the block and then through the other end of the band. Then take the open end and hook it up to the barbell. Make sure to have someone hold the center of the bar to prevent it from falling off an upright. If you are squatting or benching in a power rack and there are crossbeams at the bottom, you may be able to hook the bands to them as well. You can determine the tension generated by the bands by placing a scale under the bar at the bottom and top positions of a movement. Just be sure to deduct the weight of the bar and anything else you use on top of the scale.

Sample Workout Routines

A popular strategy is to do 8 sets of 3 reps of a particular exercise with the bands. Research indicates that the optimal load for generating mechanical power can vary from 30-60% of the maximal weight lifted for that movement. Most guys arbitrarily use 45-50% of their maximum bench press or squat. A better strategy would be to find out your optimal load on an individual basis. You can do this by going to a human performance lab at your local university, hooking up a device such as an accelerometer to the bar, or even timing the speed of a rep using a stopwatch. It all boils down to using the best combination of force (weight + band tension) and velocity to yield maximal power. If you consistently strive to improve your power for a given movement, you will develop explosiveness that everyone will envy. Here is a bench cycle that you will use for 7 weeks. You should know your maximum bench press (1 RM) in order to calculate the loads to use. This program tells you what to do just for the bench press exercise. You can perform one other chest movement in the same workout and one other triceps movement. The second chest workout of the week you can perform other chest exercises. On your band bench workouts always try to move the weights as fast as possible. At the end of the last workout, try a new max bench. You should see a major increase.