Strength can improve many measures of sports performance and reduce the incidence of injuries during athletic tasks. Subsequently, increasing strength is of interest to strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers in the weight room. Strength is traditionally developed through constant resistance training (CRT) using free weights. With lifts that fall on the ascending strength curve e.g., bench-press, back-squat, and dead-lift (Wilson & Kritz, 2014). The challenge for practitioners is to efficiently develop a client’s strength to allow for optimal performance to be realised. Therefore all appropriate training modalities should be considered for inclusion in training programmes. Currently garnering attention as a training modality that can significantly enhance strength development is variable resistance training using elastic bands (VRT-B) (Ghigiarelli et al., 2009). When bands are attached to free-weights, the lifter is challenged by the variance in tension throughout the entire range of motion (ROM) (Kuntz, Masi, & Lorenz, 2014). Some have questioned the efficacy of VRT-B, arguing that there is limited loading potential compared to CRT. Therefore, some researchers believe that there is limited potential for optimal muscular and neural adaptations to present (Aboodarda, Ibrahim, Mokhtar, Thompson, & Behm, 2012; Stevenson, Warpeha, Dietz, Giveans, & Erdman, 2010). The purpose of this review is to evaluate and discuss the body of research on the use of VRT-B for enhancing strength development in comparison to CRT. To conclude, practical applications and suggestions for future research are discussed.
The suggested effects and benefits of VRT-B
When conducting CRT with ascending strength curve lifts, acceleration of the load (and therefore average force) is negatively affected due to the sticking point, which is mechanically disadvantageous (Anderson, Sforzo, & Sigg, 2008). The most significant expression of strength occurs at the beginning of the concentric phase, with decreases in force evident after that as the bar approaches maximal displacement (Anderson et al., 2008; McMaster, Cronin, & McGuigan, 2009). Here, the lifter experiences a mechanical advantage due to multi-joint torques. The most considerable force-producing capabilities are in this position (McMaster et al., 2009). The depletion of force experienced during CRT is sub-optimal, with greater adaptations likely to occur if the load could be varied throughout an entire ROM (Andersen, Fimland, Kolnes, & Saeterbakken, 2015).
Researchers suggest that VRT-B can vary the load throughout an entire ROM, altering the kinetics and kinematics of lifts, and complementing the ascending strength curve (McMaster et al., 2009; Wilson & Kritz, 2014). As the band deforms, higher accelerations are experienced early in the concentric phase. Higher accelerations result in superior average force production due to the progressive recruitment of high threshold muscle fibres and motor units, allowing for more significant expressions of strength at or near full-limb extension (Anderson et al., 2008; Israetel, McBride, Nuzzo, Skinner, & Dayne, 2010; Kuntz et al., 2014; McMaster et al., 2009; Wallace, Winchester, & McGuigan, 2006; Wilson & Kritz, 2014). Additionally, the eccentric portion of the lift is also more challenging due to the bands pulling on the bar and increasing the eccentric loading (Anderson et al., 2008; Israetel et al., 2010; McMaster et al., 2009; Wallace et al., 2006). Hypothetically, VRT-B is a more beneficial training modality to develop strength due to the heightened presence of high-threshold muscle fibres and motor units. It is thought that training with bands can increase firing rates and improve motor unit synchronisation (Kuntz et al., 2014; McMaster, Cronin, & McGuigan, 2010).
Effects of VRT-B on strength development
The first observation from the literature is that many studies managed to provoke improvements in strength, as noted by increases in strength test measures for bench-pressing and back-squat – 1, 3 and 6RM. Five studies investigated the effects of VRT-B on recreational men and women from varying age ranges and with different levels of resistance training experience. Andersen et al. (2015) observed 25% and 23% improvements in maximal strength in VRT-B and CRT groups, respectively. In contrast, Bellar et al. (2011) witnessed a 2.39 kg greater increase in strength of the VRT-B group over the CRT group, and this finding was statistically significant. Greater improvements across the board were observed by Bicer, Ozdal, Ackan, Mendes, and Patlar (2015); this was also the case for Muller et al. (2009). The one exception was Shoepe, Ramirez, Rovetti, Kohler, and Almstedt (2011) who despite inciting strength enhancement in both groups, observed the most significant improvements with CRT.
There were only two studies that investigated the effects of VRT-B on athletes. Both studies investigated the effects of a 7-week macrocycle on strength, each demonstrating more considerable strength improvement in the VRT-B groups within the respective studies. Anderson et al. (2008) periodised training across a spectrum of loading assignments – 72-98% 1RM. Irrespective of the training intensity, contribution to overall tension from bands remained constant at 20% (Anderson et al., 2008). 1RM bench-press improved 8% in the VRT-B group as opposed to 4% in the CRT group and back-squat strength increased by 16% in the VRT-B group with CRT only improving by 6%. Ghigiarelli et al. (2009) prescribed undulating periodisation over 7-weeks with two heavy sessions early in the week, followed by two lighter sessions later in the week. While not statistically significant, the VRT-B group did boast the most considerable improvement in 1RM bench-press strength, 8% as opposed to the 5% increase in the CRT group.
It is apparent that VRT-B positively impacts strength development. Subsequently, training with bands is an alternative training method that can be used to develop strength in lifts that fall on the ascending strength curve. Percentage band contribution to the overall training load varied among studies with 15% (Bellar et al., 2011; Muller et al., 2009), 20% (Anderson et al., 2008) and a range of band tension between 20-35% (Shoepe et al., 2011). A percentage contribution of 20-35% is recommended by McMaster et al. (2009) which differs to recommendations by Kuntz et al. (2014) who state 10-15% is best for provoking strength gains. Too low a contribution may prove to be ineffective. Too high a contribution is likely to result in a ceiling effect (Kuntz et al., 2014). 20% seems appropriate; particularly in the athletic population as this has been proven effective in division 1-AA collegiate athletes (Anderson et al., 2008). For practitioners, many gyms have access to resistance bands. The use of bands can be explored to help clients build strength, break down a plateau in strength, and to provide some variety to a client’s training plan. Future research should look to quantify optimal band tension. Effects on different athletic disciplines should also be investigated. Including isometric tests to measure strength improvement at different angles in a ROM, would also help further our understanding of this training method.
Aboodarda, S. L., Ibrahim, F., Mokhtar, A. H., Thompson, M. W., & Behm, D. G. (2012). Acute neuromuscular and hormonal responses to resistance exercise using variable external resistance loading. Journal of Exercise Physiology, 15(6).
Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Kolnes, M. K., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2015). Elastic bands in combination with free weights in strength training: Neuromuscular effects. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2932-2940.
Anderson, C. E., Sforzo, G. A., & Sigg, J. A. (2008). The effects of combining elastic and free weight resistance on strength and power in athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(2), 567-574.
Bellar, D. M., Muller, M. D., Barkley, J. E., Kim, C. H., Ida, K., Ryan, E. J., Glickerman, E. L. (2011). The effects of combined elastic and free-weight tension vs. free-weight tension on one-repetition maximum strength in the bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(2), 459-463.
Bicer, M., Ozdal, M., Ackan, F., Mendes, B., & Patlar, S. (2015). Effect of strength training programme with elastic band on strength parameters. Biology of Exercise, 11(2). doi:10.4127/jbe.2015.0095
Ghigiarelli, J. J., Nagle, E. F., Gross, F. L., Robertson, R. J., Irrgang, J. J., & Myslinski, T. (2009). The effects of a 7-week heavy elastic band and weight chain program on upper-body strength and upper-body power in a sample of division 1-AA football players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(3), 756-764.
Israetel, M. A., McBride, J. M., Nuzzo, J. L., Skinner, J. W., & Dayne, A. M. (2010). Kinetic and kinematic differences between squats performed with and without elastic bands. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(1), 190-194.
Kuntz, C. R., Masi, M., & Lorenz, D. (2014). Augmenting the bench press with elastic resistance: Scientific and practical applications. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 36(5).
McMaster, T., Cronin, J., & McGuigan, M. (2009). Forms of variable resistance training. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 31(6).
McMaster, T., Cronin, J., & McGuigan, M. R. (2010). Quantification of rubber and chain-based resistance modes. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(8), 2056-2064.
Muller, M. D., Bellar, D. M., Muller, S. M., Ryan, E. J., Bliss, M. V., Kim, C. H., Glickman, E. L. (2009). Bench press strength gains with and without elastic bands: A 13-week training study. Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, 41(5). doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000353464.60189.bf
Shoepe, T. C., Ramirez, D. A., Rovetti, R. J., Kohler, D. R., & Almstedt, H. C. (2011). The effects of 24 weeks of resistance training with simultaneous elastic and free weight loading on muscular performance of novice lifters. Journal of Human Kinetics, 29, 93-106.
Stevenson, M. W., Warpeha, J. M., Dietz, C. C., Giveans, R. M., & Erdman, A. G. (2010). Acute effects of elastic bands during the free-weight barbell back squat exercise on velocity, power and force production. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(11), 2944-2954.
Wallace, B. J., Winchester, J. B., & McGuigan, M. R. (2006). Effects of elastic bands on force and power characteristics during the back squat exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(2), 268-272.
Wilson, J., & Kritz, M. (2014). Practical guidelines and considerations for the use of elastic bands in strength and conditioning. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 36(5).
Nick is the Senior Tutor and a curriculum developer at Fit Futures Academy and was previously in this role with Fit College NZ. Nick is a former representative football player for Auckland. After experiencing many overuse injuries throughout his youth, Nick decided to study sports science in 2010. He has since completed a Bachelors’s degree in Sports Science and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Strength and Conditioning at AUT. He holds an Australian Strength and Conditioning Association Level 1 certification. Professionally Nick has worked in many capacities ranging from Gym Instructor to Strength and Conditioning Coach. At the high-performance level, Nick briefly trained a snowboard cross athlete for Snow Sports in Wanaka (HPSNZ). More recently, Nick spent some time at New Zealand Football under the tutelage of Juan Roman. Here, Nick was instrumental in developing periodisation plans and researching training load and injury management. He spent last season as head of strength and conditioning and assistant football coach for the men’s reserves at Uni-Mount Wellington Bohemian Celtic F.C. Nick has a young family and, in his spare time, enjoys playing video games, reading, drawing and watching/studying American football.
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