Resistance Bands – Can Work Chest and Shoulders Better Than Free Weights?

May 13, 2010

Okay, so today I was doing some research online and my goal was to do another article on working the upper chest. This was inspired by an excellent post over on John Romaniello’s blog. John put up an outstanding post about 3 creative exercises to work the heck out of your upper pecs (click to read that article). I was going to add in my 2 cents and expand upon this article, but something else happened. John mentioned that one of his friends, Bret Contreras, did EMG testing for various chest exercises to find out which exercises targeted parts of the chest best. The results were surprising!
[I went to see Iron Man 2 this past weekend with my girlfriend and saw the previews for the A-Team. Bradley Cooper plays “Face” and it looks like he got in pretty darn good shape for that role. I have a feeling people are going to ask how to get in the Bradley Cooper look in the near future. Anyway, all the characters look cast well and I’m excited for this movie.]

I Went Over to the Dark Side to Find This Research

Okay, so I like to joke that and are the “dark side”. To be honest there is a ton of great info on these sites, but the forums are a bit out of control and they push the roided’ out look pretty hard. I typically stay away from these sites, but John Romaniello peaked my curiosity with his chest workout post…darn you John! His friend Bret put up two fascinating articles over on Tmuscle (formerly T-nation). One article was a study to find out the best chest and tricep exercises and another was for the best shoulder and trap exercises.

Bret Measured Electrical Activity of Muscles During Exercise

Here is how he describes what he was measuring:

EMG measures the electrical activity of muscles during exercise. While EMG doesn’t directly measure muscular tension, the two should be very similar (although slightly off-set), as the electrical activity that EMG measures is simply a measurement of the nervous system’s signal to the muscles. Increased EMG activity is indicative of the nervous system’s attempt to produce more muscular force. (That’s a good thing, by the way.) I used a Myotrace 400 from Noraxon to measure the EMG of every exercise.

Measuring Isometric Contractions as a Baseline

Before electrical activity of each exercise was examined, Bret measured how hard a muscle could contract isometrically. Subjects could simply flex their muscles as hard as possible or push against an immovable object. The goal was to flex the target muscle hard and get an EMG measurement. This measurement is called Maximum Voluntary Contraction…or MVC for short. All EMG readings for an exercise are compared to your MVC as a percentage. So if barbell curls got the same reading as simply flexing your bicep, your activation percentage is 100. If the EMG reading for your biceps for barbell curls was half of your MVC reading, your activation percentage would be 50.

Measuring “Peak” Activation & “Mean” Activation for Each Exercise

Peak activation is simply the highest recorded electrical activity of a muscle on a lift. Mean activation is the average electrical activity during a lift. When you perform a barbell bench press, for instance the average activation (“Mean” activation) reading might be 110 (10% higher than your MVC reading), but your maximum reading (“Peak” activation) during that lift might be 150 (50% higher than your MVC reading). I hope this isn’t getting too confusing. It took me a couple of times reading to get a full understanding of what this meant.

So Can Resistant Bands Work Better Than Free Weights?

I won’t make a bold statement like that (makes for a good title though). I will tell you this…I was extremely surprised how favorably resistance band exercises compared to free weights. Let me show you the exercises that came out on top for pecs and delts.

Upper Pec:
Mean – Mid Pulley Crossover, Band Push Up, JC Band Press
Peak – DB Incline Press, Guillotine Press, JC Band Press

Mid Pec:
Mean – DB Bench Press, Floor Press, Fly
Peak – Guillotine Press, DB Bench Press, Fly

Lower Pec:
Mean – Weighted Dip, Blast Strap Push Up, Guillotine Press
Peak – Guillotine Press, Fly, Weighted Dip

Front Delt
Mean – Seated Behind Neck Press, Seated Military Press, Incline Press
Peak – Seated Behind Neck Press, Standing DB Military Press, Incline Press

Mid Delt
Mean – Band Face Pull, Lateral Raise, Seated Behind Neck Press
Peak – Band Face Pull, Lateral Raise, Cable Lateral Raise

Rear Delt
Mean – Band Face Pull, Bent Over Rear Delt Raise, Prone Rear Delt Raise
Peak – Band Face Pull, Bent Over Rear Delt Raise, Hanging Row

So I Am Going to Add Resistance Bands Into My Routine

I have had good intentions for a long time to add in some resistance band work, but just thought they were more about convenience and not as effective as lifting weights. Two exercises in particular that interest me are the “JC Band Press” (for upper pecs) and “Band Face Pulls” (for rear and side delts). I guess I have put off using resistance bands because the type of resistance feels a little odd to me. It is obvious that I need to drop this excuse and add in some resistance band work. Here’s an awesome video that Bret made showing the top 50 resistance band exercises…

[I love Youtube! Seriously, this short video is outstanding and valuable. To see the full post about this video head on over to this post on his blog: Top 50 JC Band Exercises.]

What Are Your Thoughts on Resistance Bands?

I would love to hear some opinions on this. To me the feeling is completely different than lifting weights. I haven’t really given them a fair shake. I have talked about them in my newsletter a bit, but never took the plunge and implemented them into my routine. I look forward to hearing some different viewpoints on the subject.

Note: Here are the links to the guest posts Bret did on Tmuscle: Inside the Muscles: Best Chest and Triceps Exercises , Inside the Muscles: Best Shoulders and Trap Exercises

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{ 82 comments… read them below or add one }

alex June 27, 2011 at 3:21 pm

you should check out JourneyGyms resistance band equipment. They have a portable suitcase with attached bands of assorted resistances.

flat stomach exercises July 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Resistance bands may be simple, but they really do work.

ElasticMan August 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Resistance bands work really well but some simply refuse to see that they do. We cling to what we know and cherish to the extent of blinding ourselves to other methods. Don’t forget that looks can be very deceiving….

David December 7, 2011 at 4:42 am

I use resistance bands in addition to free weights and have seen some good results. The massive amount of eccentric overload you can get with bands plus the increased ROM on a lot of exercises provides a nice change up to the regular routine.

Dude1984 December 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm

I have been using bands for a while. It wasn’t that long after I began using them that I went to use them exclusively. Bands on their own are really good. Combined with free weights they are awesome. When I go FW w/ RB, I go heavy bands with light to medium free weights.

With the bands that I use, they have a graph that shows resistance of each band for x amount of inches you move them. I emailed the manufacturer to get more details and they responded:
β€˜β€™To achieve the full resistance of our Fitness Cables you need to stretch the cable 2 times its resting length.
For example let’s say you are using a 5ft long R8 cable. To do an arm curl you would step on the cable with both feet. Let’s assume there would be about 1 foot of cable between your feet. This would leave 2 ft on either side going up to the handles.
To get the full 80lbs of the R8 cable you would need to now stretch the 2ft on each side to 4 ft by the end of the arm curl. So if you were able to freeze yourself at the point where your hand is up by your chin at the end of the arm curl the length of the cable from the handle to the floor would need to be 4ft long. This would mean each arm is doing 80lbs of resistance.’’

Based on rate of change, you would need to move the resting length 100% to get the full resistance amount.

brian December 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

If you get resistance bands make sure you buy ones that are multi layered and off a lot of resistance, the cheapo sets on ebay are rated falsley and offer little to no resistance unless you use them all at once. I recommend a look at the ElastiTone bands (google them), the best dam bands at a good price that you will find, they are awesome, offer up to 135.5 Kilos of resistance, and i have seen good results with them. If you can do 20 curls with the orange band they will refund all your money to! im up to 15 curls then my arms fail lol,

Tim February 22, 2012 at 6:40 am

I am a strong believer in resistance bands. I am no body builder, so I can’t say whether you can get “big” with them. That has never been my aim. At age 54, and with a few injuries received during 21+ years in the military, I was looking for a way to burn fat, gain strength and build what muscle mass I could. I picked up a set of Bodylastics bands about a year ago, and have been using them about 4 times a week ever since. I have never had a band break on me and I am absolutely amazed at the results. I have lost about 30 pounds of fat and put on 20 pounds of muscle. They are awkward at first, but you have to stick with them. Once you get comfortable with the routines, you start noticing results quickly. I will never pick up a weight again.

ElasticMan March 19, 2012 at 5:52 am

Lately I have been using the Lifelineusa chest expander. It has two handle grips that you can use three resistant bands with. I have found that doing exercises with these, i.e pulling them apart in various different forms to be much more challenging than any of my free weight routines such as flyes or benchpress. I also find that the bands offer a challenge all of the way throughout the exercise ROM and I can feel it in my chest.

BigBruvOfEnglandUK May 6, 2012 at 7:22 am

Great article. I am a big fan of elastic resistance and we have a message board devoted to the subject. I have posted a link to your article on our message board

tony January 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm

gorilla bands the best ive found these things are beast

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