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What are exercise resistance bands and why would I use them?

Exercise resistance bands are lightweight and stretchy and often made from latex rubber. They can be a useful and inexpensive tool to use as part of an exercise program. They are sometimes referred to as strength bands, exercise bands, tension bands, toning bands or physical therapy resistance bands.

exercise resistance bands
Exercise travel kit

Elastic exercise bands can provide varying levels of resistance. This makes them an excellent alternative to using dumbbells, barbells or machine weights. I mostly use mine when I’m travelling. They don’t take up any space in my bag and I can pull them out and use them anywhere. My resistance band was one of three workout tools I decided to bring with me when we began our location independent lifestyle. The other two items were a yoga mat and a trigger point ball.

There are endless ways you can use resistance exercise bands. They are sometimes used in yoga and Pilates classes, physical therapy sessions, as well as muscle conditioning exercise classes.

In this blog post I’m going to cover over quite a few exercise ideas for you. Some exercises I prefer to do without exercise resistance bands. Others I prefer to do with the bands. If an exercise doesn’t quite feel right for you, then move on. Perhaps that exercise is not quite right for you, or you need some one on one coaching.

I’ll also share some other useful information about where to buy resistance bands and information about the different resistance band colors. Before we go any further, why don’t you bookmark this page so you can use it as a reference each time you want to do a workout with your exercise resistance bands.

What do the colors of the different exercise resistance bands mean?

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Exercise resistance bands come in various colors. The color determines the level of tension in the band. However, you can create more tension in your band by one of three methods:

  • Moving your hand placement on the band
  • Wrapping the band around your hand or wrist
  • Doubling the band over (this makes it really tough!)

I’ll explain more about these methods when we get to the exercise section.

If you’re purchasing rubber exercise bands, you’ll want to consider what color(s) to purchase. The thing is, the tension level of the colors varies between brands. Therefore you’ll need to check the strengths with the particular brand you’re purchasing.

As a general rule, the easiest colors are usually yellow, and then red or pink. Green comes next, and then blue. At the strong end of the spectrum is black, and then some brands go on to offer even stronger options of silver and gold.

If you’re a beginner, you’ll start with the lighter tension bands. If you’re stronger and more advanced, then you’ll generally use the ones with higher tension. You may find that you’re best using a stronger band for larger muscle groups, and a lighter one smaller muscle groups.

Remember that you can always adjust the resistance level of any given band. When I went traveling I wanted to pack as light as possible. So all I brought were two exercise resistance bands (in case one breaks). Both of them are the same strength. I went for blue, which is considered medium-strong. I find I can do all my exercises fine with this strength. For a few exercises I double the band over.

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Where to buy resistance bands

The first step is to purchase one, two or more exercise resistance bands, if you don’t have any yet. Physiotherapists or personal trainers often sell them. You can also buy your resistance band online.

If you’re after the best resistance bands, well it’s probably a matter of personal preference regarding what you’ll like best. Beginners may want to opt for exercise resistance bands with handles because they’re much easier to grip.

As a traveler, I have latex resistance bands with no handles (every bit of space counts!). I’m also experienced in using them for a variety of exercises. Amazon have a huge range of exercise resistance bands. There are plenty of options to purchase a whole set of colors. That way you can use the most appropriate tension band for each exercise. You can also progress your way through the various colors.

General exercise guidelines for using exercise resistance bands

  • As with any workout, warm up before and cool down after any resistance based exercises you do.
  • Breathe continuously and never hold your breath.
  • Challenge yourself as appropriate with the exercises, but you shouldn’t feel pain.
  • Quality of movement should always be emphasized over quantity. Maintain good posture and keep your core muscles strong while doing the exercises.
  • As a starting guideline, aim for 10-15 repetitions of each exercise. You can complete more than one set if you’re feeling energetic or you’re more advanced.
  • Please ask a trainer or physical therapist if you’re unsure whether the exercises are right for you. Remember that this is not an individualized program.

Workout option 1:

Upper body resistance band workout

I’ve decided to focus on an upper body resistance band workout. This is because there are loads of great resistance exercises you can do for your lower body that don’t require anything other than your body weight.

Seated Row (back, rear shoulders and biceps)

exercise resistance bands
Start position
exercise resistance bands
End position

These first two exercises are probably my biggest go-to resistance band exercises. This is because it’s difficult to work the upper back muscles effectively with body weight alone. Dumbbells, barbells, machine weights, or a pull up bar is usually needed. But not when you’ve got your exercise resistance bands in tow!

You can do this at home sitting on the floor, couch or chair.  Double the band over if needed.  Focus on leading back with the elbows, and keeping elbows close in to the side.  Squeeze shoulder blades together as much as possible and keep shoulders back and down.

Bent over row – advanced (back, rear shoulders, biceps)

exercise resistance bands
Start position
exercise resistance bands
End position

Only for intermediate and advanced exercisers. This is because you need to understand how to properly activate your core muscles and protect your lower back.

Bend forward at the hips without bending your spine, make sure your belly button is drawn in (abs strong), and then pull the band back by bending the elbows.  Keep elbows close to your side and squeeze in between your shoulder blades.  Shoulders should stay back and down throughout.  Aim for the band start/finish position to be at the height of the knees (a little lower is ok) and for the hip position to stay stable throughout (i.e. no moving up and down as you draw the band up).  Note:  the band may need to be doubled over to create enough resistance.

Chest press – chest, front of shoulders, triceps

exercise resistance bands
Start position
End position

I don’t normally do this one myself, as I find that push ups are more effective. However, using exercise resistance bands to work the chest is an excellent option for beginners. Remember you can adjust the resistance on your band by adjusting your hand placement or wrapping the band around your hands. If you do wrap it around your hand, ensure you keep your wrists strong. For more of a challenge, double the band over.

To do this resistance band chest exercise, sit or stand in a comfortable position with an upright posture and place band around back of shoulders, under shoulder blades. Begin with elbows bent in to the sides and hold one end of the band in each hand. Extend elbows by pushing hands forward at shoulder height.  Keep shoulders drawn back and down throughout, then release back to start position

External rotations – rotator cuff

exercise resistance bands
Start position
exercise resistance bands
End position

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles deep in the shoulder joint. If you’ve ever injured your shoulder, it was probably this group of muscles. Their role is to keep your arm bone in your shoulder socket during motion – pretty important stuff! They’re very important for stabilizing the shoulder joint. These external rotations will help your shoulder stability, whether you’ve had a prior shoulder injury or not.

Both this exercise and the following one are what we call isolated exercises. That means they’re targeting a smaller amount of muscle mass than the two compound exercises above. Therefore you’ll need comparatively less resistance on your band.

Sit on one half of the exercise band and hold the other end with your opposite hand. Bring the lower half of your arm out as far as you can to the side. Keep shoulder down and ensure elbow stays in by your side as you bring the arm to the side.  The wrist stays straight and strong. A good way to keep it in is to put a small hand towel between your elbow and side, and ensure it doesn’t drop down. Then repeat on the other side.

Seated pull backs – upper back

exercise resistance bands
Start position
End position

Start in a seated position with the legs bent, the band placed around the bottom of the feet, and one end of the resistance band in each hand.  Draw shoulders back and down and draw belly button in.  Pull arms straight back on an angle.  The shoulders should stay back and down throughout and you should squeeze into the muscles of the upper back

There are a number of other exercises you can do for your resistance band arm workout. I’ve focused on a few good functional, compound exercises, plus a couple of isolated exercises for posture and stability. You can also perform a lat pull down, shoulder press, front and side raises, tricep extensions, bicep curls and more. The ones I have chosen are those that I consider most effective for the general population. I particularly focused on drawing the shoulders back by strengthening the back muscles because it’s an area of neglect in many programs.

Workout option 2:

Pilates resistance bands workout

Pilates resistance bands are just the same as regular resistance bands. I like using them as part of my Pilates workouts because they give me more control with the exercises. This enables me to focus on technique and control. Here is an example of a Pilates resistance bands workout.

Shoulder rolls

exercise resistance bands
Start position
exercise resistance bands
End position

Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight. Place the band across the back of your shoulders and hold on to each end of it. Extend your arms in front of you with shoulders drawn back and down. Roll the shoulders forward, then up and back so you’re making a full circular motion. You can also repeat a set with forward circles if you like.

Torso twists

exercise resistance bands
Start position
Middle position
End position

Start in the same position you were in for the first exercise. This time extend both arms out to the sides while you keep your shoulders back and down. Twist your torso to the side whilst keeping both sit bones planted down. Return to center. Release elbows back in and then repeat other side.

Roll backs

exercise resistance bands
Start position
Middle position
End position
Optional extension

I love using exercise resistance bands for Pilates roll backs, They provide me with much more control and the ability to use better technique. Start as pictured with the band under your feet and one end in each hand. Draw your belly button in, scoop your pelvis under and roll slowly down your spine. The goal is to round your back so that you roll down one vertebra at a time. For this exercise, if you add more resistance it will make it easier.

Keep going until you’re as low as you can go without resting your shoulder blades down. At this point, if you’re advanced in your practice, you can add an optional arm extension to the side, as in picture four. Make sure you keep the shoulder down if you do this one. The elbow can remain slightly bent if required. Repeat on both sides if you are doing the extension.

Then slowly roll back up, again curving the spine and working through one vertebra at a time. Sit up straight, back into the start position. If you’re after a resistance band abs exercise, this is a great one to do. Remember that control and technique and most important. Only go as low as your experience level allows.

Leg circles

exercise resistance bands
Position 1
Position 2
Position 3
Position 4
exercise resistance bands
Beginner option
exercise resistance bands
Beginner-intermediate

Lie down on your back with the band around your foot as pictured. It’s quite advanced to have both legs extended. Therefore you can keep the bottom leg bent if required. Alternatively, place the band around the back of the thigh so that both legs are bent.

The goal of this exercise is to keep the core muscles strong and both hips down on the ground. It’s very easy to rock from side to side, but try to keep your body centered. Start by making small circles with the top leg. The movement comes from the hip joint. Then repeat in the other direction. Once you’ve got the hang of that, make the circles bigger, as pictured. Remember that it’s important to keep both hips on the ground. If you find they’re lifting off, keep your circles small until you’re more advanced. Repeat the circles in the opposite direction and then change legs.

Back extensions

Start position
exercise resistance bands
End position

This is a wonderful exercise to finish with. It helps to counter the other exercises where your body has been in a flexed position. It’s time to extend and lengthen it out!

Lie on your stomach with the band across your back and one end in each hand as pictured. Slowly lift your upper body up with control. At the same time, extend both arms out to the side. As you lift, try to keep the buttocks relaxed so you can really work on targeting the lower back muscles. Keep your head in line with your spine as you lift. Then lower slowly with control.

There are many more Pilates resistance band exercises, but these should get you started! I’d love to hear how you get on with these workouts, so please leave a comment in the box below!

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4 Comments

  • Elise

    I love exercise bands and really appreciate seeing these exercises. Thank you.

    • Elly McGuinness

      You’re welcome Elise – glad to hear they will be useful for you

  • crystal

    This is super helpful because I have one of these but have a hard time figuring out how to use it.

    • Elly McGuinness

      Glad to know it will be helpful for you Crystal. I hope the exercises work well for you:)

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