Resistance exercise bands, cables or exercise tubing have become incredibly popular pieces of exercise equipment, especially during the last 10 years. This is likely because they are relatively inexpensive, can be used almost anywhere, and there are many effective exercises for everyone from beginners to advanced athletes.
Another thing that makes exercise bands appealing is that resistance tubing workouts put less strain on the body (especially your joints) than traditional weight workouts. People typically experience much less stiffness and soreness following a cable workout than a workout with barbells, dumbbells, or weight machines.
Exercise bands also have the benefit of allowing your muscles and joints to move through their full range of motion without any restrictions. Many machine and barbell exercises force your body to follow a set path, which may not allow natural joint movement throughout the motion. This can put unnecessary wear and tear on your body, especially when using heavy weights.
I do not want to imply that exercise bands are always better than weights, because you can accomplish some things better with weights, such as increasing strength and muscle mass. Exercise bands are a different type of resistance and cable exercises have their own strengths and weaknesses.
A primary difference is that cable resistance changes throughout an exercise, where as a bar or other weight remains constant. When a cable increases in length, the resistance increases as well, so cable exercises start off easier and become more challenging as the cable is stretched. Having the tension increase may sound like a bad thing, but it is actually useful during a number of exercises.
For instance, during a squat, moving the weight from the bottom position requires a lot more effort than moving the weight the last few inches at the top. When squatting with exercise bands, the cable resistance is lowest during the toughest portion of the squat and the resistance increases as you rise up. Therefore, the cable resistance more appropriately matches the difficulty of the exercise throughout the movement.
Other exercises, such as rowing movements have a different pattern of difficulty and the cable resistance is lowest when the exercise is easiest and most difficult during the toughest range of motion. In these cases, the toughest range of the exercise gets worked very well and the easier range of the motion may get very little benefit.
Fortunately, many exercises have an increase in difficulty similar to that of a cable. However, even when the exercise difficulty does not match the linear increase of the cable, it does not mean the exercise is necessarily bad. It just means that you need to perform a different exercise to work the range of motion that did not feel challenging during the cable exercise.
Many people have biases against either exercise bands or traditional weights, but the reality is they are great compliments to each other. While exercise bands may not offer the same strength building stimulus as weights, especially for trained athletes, they allow you to perform exercises in ways that are difficult to do with traditional weights.
Take the bench press exercise as an example. A traditional bench press involves laying on a bench and pushing weights away from your body. This exercise does a good job of working your chest, shoulders, and triceps, but many other muscles are not used much.
When using exercise bands, bench presses are usually performed in a standing position, which makes the exercise significantly different. Most notably, the core muscles (abs, back, etc.) have to work to stabilize your body or else you will not be able to press effectively. This is useful for strengthening and toning your core muscles, as well as teaching them to work in a functional way.
The downside to cable bench presses is you have to use significantly less weight than you would with a traditional bench press, since you do not have the bench for support. If increasing muscle strength is your goal, then a traditional bench press is more effective, but if you want an exercise that works your chest, shoulders, core, and other stabilizer muscles, then the cable press is a great exercise that can easily be worked into any routine.
Another benefit to exercise bands is they are available in a wide variety of shapes and difficulty levels, so you can choose the products that work best with the type of workouts you like to perform. For example, if you frequently use an exercise ball, bosu, or step, you can find exercise bands made for those pieces of equipment. However, even if you have just a basic cable, you can still use it with most equipment. Look at the accompanying video for demonstrations using various types of resistance tubing.
If you have not used resistance tubing/exercise bands before it is important to know that even though most resistance bands look alike, they are often not the same. Naturally, some exercise bands are thicker and harder to stretch (provide more resistance) than others, but exercise bands vary in quality as well. It may not seem like the quality of tubing/bands would vary much, but there is a noticeable difference between some brands.
Poor quality bands do not stretch evenly and you will feel inconsistent increases in tension when they are lengthened. These bands also tear more easily and definitely do not last as long as better quality exercise bands. There are so many different brands available that it is not possible to discuss the quality of each brand, but there are some general recommendations to help you out.
It is a good idea to purchase resistance tubing/exercise bands from stores that specialize in fitness products whenever possible. This does not guarantee great quality, but products from fitness stores are generally better than those sold in large chain stores. Fitness stores and websites also have a larger selection of products. Interestingly, a lot of good quality exercise bands only cost a little more than poor quality exercise bands and they are a better deal in the long run due to their increased durability.
Finally, it is also important to consider some of the other differences between bands, such as the length and type of handle/grip. In general, shorter bands exercise bands are not as versatile as longer exercise bands, because longer exercise bands can be used for one arm exercises or two arm exercises (holding one end of the cable in each hand). On the other hand, if you exercise in a small space, then a short cable may be a better fit for your needs.
When it comes to the handle or grip of a cable, there are many varieties from plastic handles to leg attachments, or even no grip at all. Different handles allow you to perform different exercises, but do not forget to think about comfort. Some exercise bands have padded handles while others are just exposed plastic. Some people are fine with plastic handles, but most people think it is definitely worth it to pay an extra couple dollars for padded handles and the extra comfort they provide.
Resistance tubing/exercise bands are among the most basic pieces of exercise equipment, but there is still a lot to consider when buying and using them. However, regardless of your health and fitness goals, exercise bands can be an inexpensive and effective addition to your training program.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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