If your image of a powerful muscle workout includes a lot of shiny and expensive equipment at an expensive health club, think again. You can get a full-body workout with a set of rubber resistance bands that costs less than $20 and can be stashed in a drawer when not in use or even packed in a suitcase when you go on vacation.
Rather than using weight, these stretchy tools use resistance that you must move against to strengthen your muscles.
Bands actually can be more effective than hand weights in terms of toning and injury prevention because their constant tension engages multiple muscles simultaneously through the range of motion, particularly the smaller, stabilizing muscles in the back, hips, quads and glutes. And resistance bands can be used to work your leg muscles as well. Try doing that with a dumbbell!
Resistance bands are available in various forms, such as flat strips and tubes with handles on the ends. But your safest bet are minibands—circular rubber bands that loop around the arms and legs. You don’t need to worry about losing your grip…or about strips flying out of closed doorjambs and snapping you in the face…and you can purchase them in multipacks for varied resistance, changing them out as your fitness level advances.
Bands come in bright colors. The resistance tends to increase as the color gets darker. Example: A yellow band offers less resistance than a blue band. Two brands that I like…
Gaiam Restore Mini Band Kit: $9.98 for a set of three bands.
4KOR Fitness Resistance Loop Band Set: $18.95 for a set of six bands.
Resistance Band Workout
The following six moves will work all the major muscle groups in your body. Turn them into a circuit workout by performing them in the order listed, repeating the entire sequence three times. It takes 20 minutes or less, depending on the number of reps.
Do the exercises at least three times per week for maximum benefit. Start with 10 reps per exercise. As you gain strength, increase to 15 reps. Once this becomes simple—probably in two weeks—move on to a higher-resistance band level.
Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, gluteus (buttock) medius, stabilizing muscles around the ankles.
Get ready: Step into the miniband, positioning it a few inches above both knees. Stand with toes forward, feet hip-width apart, creating a bit of tension around the band. Place your hands on your hips to help with balance.
Go: Begin squatting down as if you were about to sit in a chair, but stop midway. As you lower down, contract your abdominal muscles by pulling your navel toward your spine, and gaze downward to ensure your knees are aligned with your second toes, which will keep your hips, thighs, knees and ankles in proper alignment and ensure that the correct muscles are being activated.
Once you are halfway through the squat, press down through your heels to stand up, squeezing your glutes at the top. Be sure to stand fully upright at the top of each rep looking straight ahead with shoulders relaxed and glutes engaged. Strive to maintain outward tension on the band throughout the exercise.
Step it up: Squat all the way down, with knees bent at a 90-degree angle, as if tapping your butt in the imaginary chair.
Muscles worked: Quads, gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, stabilizing muscles around the ankles.
Get ready: Begin in the half-squat position as above with the band a little above the knee. Place your hands on your hips to help with balance.
Go: Step your right foot about six inches to the right (band tension will increase), then step your left foot to the right the same amount (band tension will decrease a bit but should never go slack). Complete 10 steps to the right, then repeat the sequence to the left. Your navel should stay pulled in, abdominals contracted, as if you’re steeling yourself for a punch to the stomach. Doing this will help protect your low back throughout the move. If you do experience low-back discomfort, stand up and try the Side Step with just a very slight bend in the knees.
Step it up: You can grab some dumbbells and do bicep curls as you step to the side to work your arms…or reach your arms up to the ceiling without weights to challenge your balance.
Lying Down Bridge
Muscles worked: Transverse abdominis (the deepest layer of front abdominal muscles—beneath your “six-pack” muscles), rectus abdominis core (the more superficial abdominal muscles—the ones that form the six pack), glutes. If you perform the advanced version, you also will work the gluteus medius, which is notoriously weak in many people and critical for stability when you move, such as walking and climbing stairs, and keeping the body in proper alignment to prevent hip and knee problems.
Get ready: Sitting on the ground, position the miniband a few inches above both knees as in the exercises above. Lie down, bending your knees so feet are flat on the ground, hip-width apart, and heels are positioned so that when you lay your arms by your sides and reach along the ground toward your heels, your fingertips touch or almost touch your heels. Strive to maintain tension in the band throughout the exercise.
Go: Inhale deeply, filling your stomach with air. As you exhale, tilt your pelvis up, pressing your low back into the ground. Now, press down through your heels and lift your tailbone off the ground, followed by your low back and middle back, squeezing your butt tightly at the top. Your butt will be a few inches off of the ground.
Hold for two or three counts before slowly returning down, starting with the middle back, then the low back and finally the tailbone. Rest for a count, then press back up until you complete all reps.
Step it up: At the top of each bridge, open your thighs out and in three times, pushing against the band’s resistance.
Muscles worked: Transverse abdominus, rectus abdominis.
Get ready: Assume the same starting position as in the Lying Down Bridge, miniband above your knees, knees bent, heels close enough to your butt that you can touch (or almost touch) them with your fingertips. Tilt your pelvis so your low back presses into ground.
Go: Place your hands behind your head, and lift your head and neck a few inches off the ground. Pulse up and down through your repetitions without resting on the ground in between. Keep your elbows out, and avoid pulling on your head. Maintain tension on the band throughout.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze
Muscles worked: Shoulders, upper back.
Get ready: Standing with feet hip-width apart, place the miniband around your forearms and extend your arms in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing in but pulling apart from one another to create tension in the band.
Go: Concentrate on keeping your shoulder blades back and down, as if you are squeezing a ball between them. Then spread your arms apart as far as you can. (Depending on your band’s resistance, you’ll be able to move them six inches to one foot apart.) Return to the starting position, not allowing the band to collapse as you continue through all repetitions.
Modified Banded Lat Pull Down
Muscles worked: Lats, core, biceps.
Get ready: Choose a looser band for this exercise. Standing with feet hip-width apart, knees softly bent, place the miniband around your forearms and extend your arms overhead, palms facing in but pulling apart from one another to create tension in the band. Avoid hunching your shoulders as you do this move, and keep your ribcage still throughout rather than bobbing up and down.
Go: Pull your navel in toward your spine, and contract your abdominals as you pull your elbows down to the sides and slightly behind you—almost like cactus arms—as if you were performing lat pulls down at the gym. Return to the starting position. Repeat for all reps.