Best Resistance bands are convenient to store and easy to travel with, relatively inexpensive, and perfect for home fitness. But can you build or tone muscle with resistance bands alone? The answer isn’t a straightforward yes or no. Keep reading to learn more about building muscle with resistance bands, and why success depends heavily on the details.
About Building & Toning Muscle
First, what do we really mean when we talk about building muscle or toning? Usually, a different image comes to mind when we hear ‘bulking up’ versus ‘toning,’ but our muscles don’t know the difference. A sufficiently stimulated (then fed and rested) muscle does one thing: it grows. Toned muscle is that which is revealed thanks to low body fat.
So when we ask if resistance bands are good for toning, what we’re really asking is if resistance bands can build muscle and burn fat. The short answer is yes. The more complicated answer? It depends. First, let’s take a look at what we need to build muscle and burn fat;
(1) intense exercise, (2) the right hormones, and (3) a smart diet.
1. High-Intensity Exercise
To build muscle and burn fat, there’s no better method than high-intensity exercise1 You may have heard weight lifting is best for muscle growth while cardio is best for fat loss, but it’s just not true. Too much cardio stimulates hormones2 like cortisol, which can prevent muscle growth and break down muscle.
Resistance bands can offer muscle-building and fat-burning high-intensity exercise if the bands are strong enough and the workout is sufficiently challenging. To grow, muscles must reach the point of fatigue, and that requires a heavier load than most elastic resistance bands. We’ll discuss the exceptions later.
2. The Right Hormonal Environment
Effectively changing your body composition requires the right hormonal balance. We already mentioned cardio creates a hormonal environment that works against our muscle-building efforts. Hormones are also the reason most women don’t experience the same muscle growth as men.
Resistance band workouts, when sufficiently challenging, stimulate3 a hormonal environment that promotes fat loss and muscle growth. Still, the key phrase there is ‘sufficiently challenging.’ Lightweight bands don’t provide enough force to trigger a growth or hormonal response.
3. Effective Diet
All the resistance band training in the world won’t tone your muscles if you eat four donuts for breakfast every day. An improper diet negatively affects the hormonal environment and can leave the body starved of the nutrients it needs to recover from movement and build muscle.
To build muscle and burn fat, one should aggressively eliminate excess sugar and carbs, while maintaining a protein surplus to feed muscle recovery and growth. Paleo, keto, and carnivore diets are especially suited to complete the triad that’s necessary for more muscle and less fat. Want an extra beneficial hormonal boost? Add in intermittent fasting.
More Muscle Mass With Variable Resistance
If your goal is to run a marathon, you might not want to forgo cardio. But if your goal is to bulk up while losing body fat, meeting the 3 conditions above will get you there. With a proper diet as your foundation, high-intensity exercise with resistance bands will take care of the rest. But how?
It’s a myth you need to lift weights to bulk up. You might be surprised to hear resistance bands are far more effective4 at building muscle than weight lifting alone. When we lift weights, we’re limited by the amount of weight we can push or pull when the body is in its weakest position. For example, with knees deeply bent at the bottom of a squat.
Once we push past this initial weak point, we gain strength and momentum as we go through the movement. The weight, however, stays the same. Thus we’re limited by what our weak range can handle, and not at all maximizing what our strongest range could sustain. In fact, we may be missing out on up to a sevenfold difference5 in potential.
Variable resistance, in the form of resistance bands, changes all this. Variable resistance offers a strength curve that mimics what the body is naturally capable of. Forces are a little lighter at the bottom of your deadlift, and a little heavier as your hips power through near the top. These variable forces result in greater muscular growth in far less time than traditional weightlifting.
This is the proven theory behind variable resistance. Whether or not a small rubber tube with a triangular handle on one end offers the necessary force to generate muscle adaptation is another question.
You Need the Right Resistance Band
You must lift heavy6 if you want to build muscle mass. There are two primary ways to achieve this using resistance bands; use weights in addition to your bands, or find yourself some extremely strong bands. Let’s take a look at both options.
Resistance Bands with Weights
Studies7 show adding resistance bands to classic free weights increases the effectiveness of the lift. However, it has no advantage over using resistance bands alone.
In studies8 comparing the use of resistance bands to the use of weights alone, the variable resistance group continued to outperform the weights-only group.
If lifting weights is important to you, resistance bands will improve your strength in this area. But if it’s purely building muscle you’re after, rest assured you could forego the gym membership and see the same results with resistance bands alone.
Resistance Bands Alone
When using bands alone, however, there’s still one problem. As we’ve been alluding to, not all resistance bands are capable of offering the resistance necessary to trigger muscle growth.
Band strength is typically given as a range, for example, 5–25 pounds. This refers to the range of resistance that’s available when the band is at rest and when it’s fully stretched. It’s not an exact science, as resistance also depends upon variables such as your arm or leg length.
For the detrained athlete, band strength is less of an issue initially. But for a trained athlete to reach the intensity needed for muscle growth, an extremely strong band is needed. In theory, such a resistance band would work just fine on its own in building muscle. But gripping a thick band with the hands soon becomes difficult. Grip, wrist, and ankle strength become the limiting factor for executing most movements, making the use of thick bands alone unsafe and impractical.
The solution? Use your bands with weights or try something entirely new, the X3 bar.
The X3 Variable Resistance Training System
X3 is a simple device that makes training with resistance bands both safe and effective. This minimal piece of equipment combines what we love about free weights with the benefits of resistance bands for maximum muscle gain and fat loss.
X3 attaches to the band of your choice with a 21.5-inch barbell and a small steel plate on which to stand. This solves the problem of slipping bands and awkward grips, allowing you to move in a similar fashion to traditional weightlifting, but with the benefit of powerful variable resistance.
The setup maximizes the amount of force one can produce for a high-intensity exercise that stimulates the right hormones for fat loss and muscle growth. Combine X3 with a proper diet and you’ve found the most efficient way to build muscle and lose fat.
So can resistance bands build and tone muscle? Yes. But you’ll need a practical method of working out with some very strong bands, and you’ll need to pair that work with a smart diet.
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