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Are TheraBand elastic bands as good as weights to strengthen muscle?

By Phil Page, PhD, PT, ATC, CSCS, FACSM March 27, 2017

It’s well established that we all need to perform muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week whether you’re young or old1. Elastic bands and tubing have been used for over 100 years for muscle strengthening exercises in fitness, sports and rehabilitation. Still, many think weight machines and free weights are more effective at building muscle. So which is best? In short, the answer is, “Both weights and bands can build muscle!”

What does the science say? There are several research articles from around the world that have compared weights and elastic resistance. Researchers in the United States2 compared the strength curves of TheraBand elastic tubing to free weight dumbbells during a shoulder abduction exercise. They found that both the elastic and isotonic resistances produced a “bell-shaped” strength curve, similar to muscular strength curves, where muscle works it’s hardest at the middle part of the range of motion. The strength curve of both exercises showed that the resistance stimulus to the muscle was similar throughout the motion. Italian researchers3 confirmed that TheraBand resistance provides a similar strength curve to weight machines, further noting the versatility of elastic resistance compared to weight machines.

Danish researchers4 compared TheraBand resistance bands and free weight dumbbells during 3 upper body exercises commonly used in rehabilitation. They compared the electromyographic (EMG) muscle activation at the same intensity levels (measured by perceived exertion) during the 3 exercises. The researchers found no significant difference in muscle activation between the elastic resistance and isotonic resistance exercises, noting that both were equally effective.

In addition to providing similar levels of muscle activation, elastic resistance can provide equally effective strength gains as weights5. Researchers in Spain randomly assigned middle-aged women into 3 groups: TheraBand resistance, weight-stack machines, or a non-exercising control group. The 2 exercise groups performed the same exercises at similar intensity levels using either bands or weights. Both exercise groups significantly improved their strength and body composition, and there was no significant difference in the improvements between groups.

Based on the research, it’s clear that elastic and isotonic resistances are equally effective for strengthening exercises for fitness or rehabilitation. In fact, Malaysian researchers6 concluded that elastic resistance “can be suggested as an affordable and non-gym based exercise device which has the capacity to provide an appropriate high resistance stimulus to meet the training requirement of athletes.”

So what can you do to incorporate elastic resistance in your fitness routine? Simply put, any muscle can be exercised with elastic resistance. There’s no limitation to a fixed motion like a machine, or movements restricted to gravity. Bands and tubing can be used virtually anywhere from the gym to the house, to the hotel room and even the park. It’s recommended to strengthen large muscle groups for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions at least 2 times per week. Use a resistance that allows you to complete the repetitions to an exertion level somewhere between 6 and 8 on a scale of 10. As you get stronger, you can increase the resistance of the band by moving to the next color in the TheraBand color progression.

There you have it. Exercise Everywhere! In addition to its effectiveness and versatility, the lower cost and more efficient use of space make elastic resistance an excellent choice for resistance exercises.

Sources:

1. Haskell WL, Lee IM, Pate RR, et al. Physical activity and public health: updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(8):1423-1434.

2. Hughes CJ, Hurd K, Jones A, Sprigle S. Resistance properties of Thera-Band tubing during shoulder abduction exercise. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1999;29(7):413-420.

3. Biscarini A. Determination and optimization of joint torques and joint reaction forces in therapeutic exercises with elastic resistance. Med Eng Phys. 2012;34(1):9-16.

4. Andersen LL, Andersen CH, Mortensen OS, Poulsen OM, Bjornlund IB, Zebis MK. Muscle activation and perceived loading during rehabilitation exercises: comparison of dumbbells and elastic resistance. Phys Ther. 2010;90(4):538-549.

5. Colado JC, Triplett NT. Effects of a short-term resistance program using elastic bands versus weight machines for sedentary middle-aged women. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(5):1441-1448.

6. Aboodara SJ, Shariff MAH, Muhamed AMC, Ibrahim F, Yusof A. Electromyographic activity and applied load during high intensity elastic resistacne and nautilus machine exercises. J Human Kinetics. 2011;30.