Illustration of a woman selling resistance bands out of her trench coat
Elnora Turner

Resistance Band Workouts Are All Over Instagram and TikTok. Do They Work?

Resistance band workouts for people stuck at home have exploded in popularity in the last few months. Here's how to put them to the best use.
October 14, 2020, 5:22pm
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Hey Casey! I have very much enjoyed reading your columns (ever since the Hairpin, RIP). I am curious about your thoughts on resistance bands; are they for real? They seem fake. If they’re useful, what’s the best way of using them? --Micah

While I am deeply tempted to make a call on the fake/real spectrum, I think first we need to talk about what it is that we are actually talking about. Then we’re going to talk about what is reasonable to expect from these products, and then I’m going to talk about how I was using them at home when all the gyms were closed, in a way that I actually sort of liked and it felt Effective Enough.

I’m not really sure where resistance bands came from, but I can say for sure that they weren’t a thing when I was a kid. By the time 2014 or so rolled around, most fitness YouTubers were doing supplemental workout movements with them (also known as “accessories”; if you aren’t sure how those are different from “any movement at the gym at all,” start here). They would do them either after they lifted heavier weights, as endurance-building or isolation movements, or, occasionally, before they lifted heavier weights as warm-up “activation” movements to try and get certain muscles firing before challenging them with harder movements.

Resistance band stuff was particularly popular in pursuit of, as we often say in this industry, “building the booty.” This usually looked like X-band walks, side steps, kickbacks, the now infamous-”donkey kicks” and “fire hydrants” popularized by Jen Selter, and hip abductions. Like I said: moves for your butt, and for a change of pace, some more moves for your butt.

These were mostly done with the tissue-thin, wider, shorter types of resistance bands. I have done these moves; like everyone else, I, too, want a butt, and am afflicted with chronically underactive glutes that make any usage of my butt muscles, which I need for deadlifts and squats, a struggle.

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This wasn’t resistance bands’ only use. The larger, heavier (and more expensive) “super” bands were also occasionally used to create variations for different heavy lifts. Lifters would loop them around their barbells while deadlifting to add more resistance at the top, or around a pull-up bar to loop their knee or foot through to make it a little easier to do pull-ups in volume. This last one I am a big fan of, because it makes me feel like I can do a lot of pull-ups even though I cannot. Anyway, the term “resistance band” can refer to either of these types.

Fast forward to the last six months, and everyone and their mom is selling an at-home resistance band workout on Instagram or TikTok, not to mention the resistance bands you purportedly need for doing those workouts. Invariably, these people are in really good shape, some of them even ripped for the gods. These workouts have become popular to sell because resistance bands, at least the short, thin, wide ones, are pretty cheap, and they frame up easily as at-home workouts that look more interesting, at least, than the standard “at home bodyweight strength training workouts” or “high intensity interval workouts.” Plus, you get to purchase something.

These workouts often make lots of promises, such as “getting a peach emoji butt.” So what is fair to expect from your new set of rubber bands that appear to be keeping the trainers selling the workouts in such good shape?

Resistance bands workouts qualify as exercise

Are they workouts? Sure; any kind of moving can be a workout. The moves that people are doing in the resistance band workouts, done without any resistance bands, are also workouts. Witness this workout from the olden days of 2016, where a fitness influencer is doing a bunch of moves that to which people are lately adding resistance bands, mostly without resistance bands. If you don’t work out much in general, or even if you do, these moves with or without resistance bands will make you sweat, and if you haven’t worked out in a while, will probably make you sore.

Other things that are workouts: Jazzercise, step aerobics, Tae Bo, P90x, Pilates, Zumba, Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons. There’s always something new on the horizon of working out to imply fresh promises of a transformational experience. However,

Resistance bands probably won’t be the transformational experience that fitfluencers want you to believe

Resistance bands alone probably won’t change your body shape or composition significantly; just adding a resistance band won’t change a movement from one that is “moving around, creating sweat” to one that build strength or significant muscle size, for any body part, including your butt. I don’t want to say never, but, they just don’t make many movements meaningfully more challenging, especially not the ones that tend to be marketed to people who are new to working out.

As with any kind of working out, if you keep a caloric deficit (a responsible one, not a self-harm one), the workout may cause you to lose body fat, if kept up for a significant length of time and if you have body fat to lose. But as far as getting a “peach emoji butt”—no.

Building muscle involves lifting heavy weights at SOME point in your life. This means lifting weights as heavy as you can for a few reps for a few very basic movements, eating to repair that muscle so it’s even stronger the next time, and then lifting a few more pounds for the same number of reps at the next session, and keeping up this process of progressive overload as you get stronger.

Eventually, once you’re strong, you can bulk using these newly heavy weights you can lift, eating extra food to build up the size of your muscles, if you want. THIS is how people get bigger anything, whether it’s arms or butts or legs; not by doing some bodyweight squats with resistance bands that add the same 15lbs of resistance to the sides of your knees.

(As a technical note: While the classic bro wisdom is that sets of 6-15 reps are best for building muscle size, newer research shows that we may be able to build muscle with a greater variety of rep ranges, anywhere from a few to 30+ reps, as long as it gets you close to “failure,” or a couple reps out from not being able to do any more. But people new to strength-building get strong quickly, and doing the same little weights over and over won’t keep them moving. Also, all things being equal, between falling asleep doing 30 reps and doing 5-15 reps and being done with that set, I know which one I’d pick. Don’t be afraid of hard-enough movements and heavy-enough weights for that, in my opinion.)

If there is anyone in your social media feeds who is honest-to-god maintaining their very lean and muscular physique through resistance bands (and even that’s doubtful; their full-size gym is probably just out of frame where they have the camera set up to film their Resistance Band Workout for a Peach Emoji Butt), I would bet real money that they are only able to do that because they have lifted heavy weights before, and it is easier to maintain strength or muscularity than it is to build it in the first place. If they are openly claiming to have gotten super-jacked from just resistance bands, again, probably they have trained really hard to build muscle, and muscle comes back more easily with relatively less stimulus once it’s been built the first time.

If that’s not also you, you can’t remotely expect similar results. The dots your brain is connecting by seeing this very fit person do a resistance-band curtsy lunges are exciting, and almost certainly the person selling the program and the resistance bands knows that. But those dots are also misleading, or at least skipping over several important steps in the process.

Why does this matter, you might ask; can’t I simply have fun working out with my little rubber bands? I do not aim to stand in the way of anyone having fun; have all the fun you like. I love fun as well! Huge fun-haver and -enjoyer. But I sense that these workouts are sold less on the prospect of “something new and fun to try” than “empty promises of a totally transformed body by just moving around a little bit extra.” I maintain that if more people tried proper lifting, they would find it barely any harder than the average HIIT workout, and they’d sweat a lot less, probably, and get to experience the resulting benefits of feeling like basically a mobile and capable human being more quickly.

The problem facing us all, of course, is that gyms are not reliably available right now, due to the pandemic, and many of us are stuck working out at home. I’ve further heard from many people that in places where gyms are open, mask rules are not being enforced in gyms because states allow exceptions for when the mask “interferes with activity” or in the case of “heavy exertion.” This is simply bonkers and makes no sense; you can very easily wear a mask throughout a whole workout and the peace of mind is worth the very minor possibility that anyone has to shave a few pounds off their heaviest reps for the time being. Everyone needs to relax.

Still, there are smart ways to use resistance bands at home

First of all, if we’re investing in these guys, I highly recommend getting some of the stronger super bands, so you can get more resistance bang for your band buck. These are also less likely to snap violently and unexpectedly, potentially hurting you. If you want bands that go anywhere on your body, they should be the fabric-reinforced kind, not straight-up rubber.

Super-bands can be used for lots of different things. In the highlight above, you can see how I combined them  with an old piece of piping from a hammock that never came to fruition, and by anchoring the super band on a fence and looping the band around the piece of pipe, I could to do things like bigger core movements like overhead presses, rows, as well as bicep curls and tricep pushdowns (technically you can hold the band in your hands to do these, and while you will see instructors do this in the video, frankly, it hurts and you will get sick of it) for 3-5 sets of 10-15. If you get a pull-up bar, which is highly recommended because there’s few good ways to do pulling motions at home without weights, you can loop a band around the bar to support your dead hangs, scapular pull-ups, negatives, or regular pull-ups (depending what’s appropriate for your level of experience with pull-up stuff).

For lower body stuff, in the grand tradition of booty-building, I saved resistance bands for finishing movements at the end of workouts, because they are not the harder meat-and-potatoes movements; they are for when my big muscles are already sort of tired. A super band can add some resistance to those core pieces of my workout, like deadlifts with a suitcase full of books for 3-5 sets of 10-15. But the important part was doing sufficiently challenging movements: For instance, I get way more out of single-leg squats to a chair as practice for doing a pistol squat than, say, body weight squats with a little band added to them.

After those harder movements, I might then do hip abductions with a resistance band or hip thrusts or glute bridges or clamshells at the end, for similar reps and sets.

I am calling resistance band stuff “just a workout,” but that said, I actually did get more out of my few months working at home than “just a workout,” because it gave me time to work on my technique and activation. Now that I’m back to lifting, I notice a difference in how I move. But I already have a lot of practice with lifting heavy and some sense of what I needed to work on; I was never going to get enough weight and volume out of resistance bands alone to really either get stronger or change a lot about how I look, especially completely from scratch. I did get stronger doing some movements, like those single-leg squats to a chair or box or pull-ups or push-ups (ugh), but I didn’t need resistance bands for them.

But I’m on record as saying, whatever is getting you through right now, healthwise, do it. If you can afford the resistance bands and want to try something different, go for it; just be reasonable about your expectations.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.