Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Part one: The Growth Process, highlighted the route we need to take in order to grow in holistic and original ways. It discussed the value and the importance of living in The Grey Area. The purpose of part two of this article is to initiate The Growth Process, and as we know from part one, the first phase involves creating a deeper understanding; it just so happens that today’s topic of discussion is very large rubber bands.
If you haven't done so, go check out Part One: The Growth Process here:
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with athletes of all ages, and to have found success using elastic resistance (big rubber bands) to load various movements. The next question I must ask myself is why? I wanted to use this article as a means to helping myself (and hopefully yourself) understand this loaded one-word question: WHY? Before we dive in, it is important to note, I used part one of this article to drive home one central point, arguably the most important of this article: Bands are not the magic beans. We have already covered the fact that there is NOT one correct solution to the majority of problems. Bands have simply become one of the potential solutions, one of the tools I’ve been able to place on my tool belt, let’s dig deep and ask why...
To begin, what does it mean to variably load our movement? The majority of weight room based movements are constantly loaded, that is, you put 135 pounds on the bar, and complete the entire movement with that weight on the bar - it does not change. Elastic resistance differs in the sense that the actual load being placed on the body is going to vary as you complete the movement.
Three of the primary reasons for variably loading movements and making use of elastic resistance are:
Safer Joint Loading for Longevity and Strength Gains
Increased Power Production
Increasing horizontal force absorption/production through horizontal loading
Safer Joint Loading for Longevity and Strength Gains
With many movements completed inside the weight room (and by no means is this an absolute generalization, but many fall into this category) our biomechanical and neuromuscular system will get stronger as we move through the concentric phase: the rising out of a squat, the push of a bench press (or push up) and the rising of a deadlift are just a few examples. Let’s use the classic push up as an example for purposes of this article. As I push away from the floor, the biomechanical properties of the human body allow me to get stronger the further away I can get my chest from the ground. Think about it, where do you normally fail a bench press rep? Probably within the first few moments after touching your chest. Why do you think meatheads in the weight room are doing half reps? It is in part because they are eliminating the toughest positions within the movement and therefore can push more weight. The “sticking point,” as it’s often called, occurs in usually the first few moments after initiating the push and it is due to a multitude of factors including:
Increased external torque being created by the external load (in our push up example, this is our body weight)
Decreased internal torque production abilities
The speed of muscle elongation and contraction
Elastic energy being dissipated during the eccentric loading of the movement (1)
There truly are a number of factors that cause these moments of weakness, "sticking points," and so the question is, how do we, or should we, train around these weak positions?
By applying a variable loading scheme we can do two things to combat these biomechanical and neuromuscular factors. First, we can decrease the load placed on our body during these “sticking points." Because these moments represent our weakest positions, they are inherently also our most vulnerable and therefore susceptible to injury. Here, muscles find themselves in a state of tension and joints are maximally stressed at large ranges of motion. By being able to decrease the load in these positions, but still maintaining the overall work being completed (see next paragraph), through a variable resistance loading scheme, we put joints in safer positions and decrease the overall stress our body’s are undergoing.
Secondly, variable loading allows us to increase our overall work being completed during each repetition. Based on principles already discussed, we know that the human biomechanical and neuromuscular properties cause the dreaded “sticking point.” For discussion sake, let’s break up the movement into two parts, the weaker first part (containing the “sticking point”) and the stronger second part, everything after the “sticking point” (we'll call part 2). When we complete these movements with a constant free weight, it is impossible to maximally load part 2 while simultaneously working part 1 at maximal capacity. To put a different way, if we load part 1 maximally, part 2 is left with unused potential (as it is biomechanically stronger). If we want to load part 2 maximally we can’t complete a full range of motion because that load cannot make it through the weaker part 1. Therefore, one potential solution is to variably load the movement. With it, we can accommodate for the weaker part 1 and increase the load as we move through part 2, thus, adapting the load to accomodate for our weaker and stronger positions. Now, based on the loading scheme alone we have allowed the athlete to increase their overall work being accomplished on each rep, and are doing so while loading vulnerable joint positions safer.
Increased Power Production
If we look even more deeply at the variability being offered by the resistance band, we will notice that it is more of a curved variability. The load is going to increase at a slightly decreasing rate until max tension is obtained. By comparison, other forms of variable resistance, like chains, offer a linear variability (the load increases at a constant rate). Free weights, like dumbbells, offer no variability.
While all tools benefit athletes in different ways, the loading experienced by those using resistance bands causes a few nuances when looking through the lens of power production. First, the bands elasticity accelerates the eccentric phase, or the lowering of the movement. For example, while standing prior to squatting, the bands are fully stretched (see picture above). Once you initiate lowering, the bands' elasticity is going to force you to lower quicker than you normally would without the bands. This will cause an increase in our stretch shortening cycle activity and therefore greater power production (10). Essentially, the stretch shortening cycle is the way our muscles are loaded during the eccentric phase of a movement, and subsequently, can create a powerful concentric muscular contraction due to the loading experienced. The faster and more powerfully we can load our muscles (bands can increase this), the more powerful the following concentric muscular contraction is going to be. Think of it one more way for me. Which would be more painful: 1.) A rubber band being snapped on the back of your hand from six inches away, or 2.) A penny being dropped on the back of your hand from a height of six inches? The rubber band accelerates toward your hand faster than gravity, and thus hits your hand faster and more powerfully. Bands do the same thing when we use them in our loading scheme; they accelerate the eccentric portion of the movement, eliciting a greater muscular loading effect, and therefore a more powerful concentric muscular contraction.
Solely focusing on the concentric portion of the movement (rise of the squat or the push of the push-up), because of the loading experienced while using bands, an athlete is forced to accelerate through the entire concentric phase. If they are unable to produce power in all positions during the movement, the bands rapidly increasing tension will cause the athlete to fail the rep, or at minimum they will find themselves decelerating. As the athlete rises, any momentum is going to quickly dissipate unless they learn how to produce power at every moment of the concentric phase.
Blue = Chains
Green = Banded Condition
Black = Free Weights
The (0,0) point of this graph represents the bottom of the squat, pushup, deadlift. The Y Axis represents the amount of load on the body. The X Axis represents the time through the concentric phase. (11)
Notice in the graph, the bands and chains loading immediately following concentric initiation (0,0) will be lower than that of free weights. The green/blue lines representing bands/chains in the image above, are below the black line initially. This lighter load does two things:
Allows the athlete to produce huge amounts of power rising out of a variably loaded movement.
Loads vulnerable joint positions much safer (see a few paragraphs ago)
“Accommodating elastic bands also elicited greater mechanical power output during the acceleration subphase because the subjects were able to move the barbell more rapidly in the acceleration subphase.” (2)
Increasing horizontal force absorption/production through horizontal loading
How often do athletes reach max velocity in sport? The answer is rarely. For elite sprinters, it takes 55-75 yards to reach maximum velocity (7). For reference sake, a basketball court is only 31 yards long. The Green Bay Packers averaged 5.8 yards per play in 2018 (9). Go-Pack-Go. Soccer players spend on average only 1.4% of their game time “sprinting” (Running at a speed more than 8.3 m/s) (8). Baseball bases are only 33 yards away from one another. The point is, athletes are constantly accelerating and decelerating in sport as there simply isn’t enough time/space to reach max velocity on a consistent basis . Knowing this, most coaches would agree the key to starting and stopping movement is horizontal force production (3,4,5,6). So the question becomes, how can we load our athletes using horizontal vectors in order to increase their ability to create and absorb horizontal force?
Free weights like dumbells, kettlebells, and barbells primarily can only be used to load our body’s vertically; they are all dependent on gravity. If you remove gravity, these tools would be rendered useless. Fortunately for astronauts, if they choose to take a band with them into space, they will have no problem applying load and maintaining strength levels. Bands do not depend on gravity, they depend on elasticity. Because of this, we can connect them at the hip level, eye level, ground level, and use them at varying angles of pull. This means, not only can we load vertically with bands (as seen in the prior paragraphs) but we can now load our body's horizontally. By placing a band around our hips (seen in the picture below) we are doing two things: 1) We are forcing our athletes to absorb greater horizontal forces as they move with the tension of the band. 2.) We are forcing them to produce greater amounts of horizontal force when they move against the tension of the band. For example, in the exercise pictured below, I took a leaping hop into the angled board. During this hop the band tension pulled me, accelerating me towards the board. This extra force/load being placed around my hips demanded a larger horizontal stopping force (increased horizontal force absorption). From the position pictured, I needed to produce enough horizontal force to combat the band and get back out to where I started (increased horizontal force production). Absorb force → Produce force.
Let's wrap this up all neat and tidy now. Yes I use bands; pretty often. The three reasons outlined above, as well as many more outside of those, provide the foundation for why bands could be a valuable tool on your tool belt. No we do not need to use bands to become better athletes. In fact, I can think of some instances where we may be better off without them.
The purpose of this article was to 1.) Demonstrate how The Growth Process begins with the process of understanding and 2.) Help facilitate a deeper understanding on one particular subject, today’s just happened to be resistance bands and where their potential value arises from. The next step is to internalize (externalize) this information and ask, how can I apply this to myself (my athletes)? Just like a speed ladder, some may see bands as a necessary tool, while others may laugh at the site of them. Neither is right, nor wrong, they just sit at different points of the Rubber Band Spectrum. Always remember: Understand first, ask WHY, and then proceed to think critically. I have outlined some of the reasons WHY I believe there is value in using elastic resistance, and while I lean closer towards the pro-bands side, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to question why, or ask, is there a better way, because there more than likely is. It is only through this process of diving into The Grey Area, questioning and attempting to understand deeper that we can empower growth in ourselves and in others.
About the Author:
I graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a business degree in accounting and a minor in exercise science. Further, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to intern under two highly experienced strength and conditioning coaches (the man Austin Jochum being one of them). I have trained athletes, both men and women, ranging from middle school, to collegiate athletes, to those 65+ years young. Covering a wide spectrum of the human athlete, I have learned something different from each one of them. I played football all four of my years at the University of St. Thomas, as long as we consider being a kicker, "Playing Football." I have always had two central passions: Learning and human performance. Because of this, I will be attending graduate school, pursuing a masters degree (and potentially a PhD, we'll see what the bank account thinks of that idea later) in Kinesiology. After that, I will be pursuing a future in understanding deeper and empowering growth; the vehicle of that future is still to be decided.
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