Free Weights: The Shortcomings
Free-weight lifting is one of the best ways to increase limit strength, strength-endurance and muscle mass. For most people, this type of exercise will be more than sufficient. However, for elite athletes who need that extra edge, or for those who are perfectionists and want to get the most out of their training, additional methods should be used to compensate for the small shortcomings of regular free-weight lifting.
Free-weight shortcomings? Could that be possible? Yes! Let's take a look at the downside of free weights and how band training can help.
Problem #1: Time Spent Decelerating the Bar
In most sports, an athlete's success is directly dependent on his capacity to accelerate. Strength coaches have long realized this, which has led to explosive free-weight lifting: using moderate weights in classic strength exercises while performing the concentric (lifting) portion as fast as possible.
The problem that exists with explosive lifting using normal exercises is that the deceleration phase can be as long, if not longer, than the acceleration phase. How can this happen if we're trying to lift the weight as fast as possible? Well, the body wants to protect itself!
Nearing the end of the concentric or lowering action, your body will instinctively decelerate to avoid any ballistic shock to the joints and muscles. It's just more natural to slowly decrease speed until velocity is zero than to make a sudden stop from max velocity to zero velocity. Blame it on your protective mechanisms!
Let's take the squat for example. You accelerate when you first start to lift the bar, but acceleration quickly diminishes and deceleration starts as you stand above parallel. And the faster you attempt to lift the bar, the shorter the acceleration phase and the longer the deceleration phase.
By trying to go faster, you're actually increasing the time spent decelerating! This can have a negative impact on your nervous system, which becomes better at decelerating than at accelerating.
Furthermore, the deceleration period occurs in the sport-specific joint angles where acceleration is the most important! Sport scientist D.G. Sale has demonstrated that it's the intent to accelerate the bar that's important rather than the actual speed of the bar that causes neural adaptations. However, if you spend more time decelerating the bar than accelerating it, even if bar speed is fast, you learn bad motor habits.
This is where resistance bands come in. By attaching them to the bar when lifting, you can significantly increase the load during the last portion of a lift. The benefit where acceleration is concerned is that the bands will actually decelerate the bar (because of the increase in resistance). You won't have that preventative deceleration phase because the bar speed will slow down, but you can still attempt to accelerate it as much as possible because of the increased resistance.
The Westside Barbell crew using bands for box squats.
This will lead to more sport-efficient motor patterns by teaching the body to keep on accelerating rather than decelerating as you reach the strongest positions of the range of motion. Pretty cool, eh?
Problem #2: Loading Not Adapted to Mechanical Advantage
Another problem with regular lifting is that the load doesn't change during the movement. This is because you're lifting an object (in this case a barbell or dumbbells) of a constant mass. The problem is that this constant load won't place a maximal stimulation on the body throughout the whole range of motion.
For instance, we all know we're stronger in a quarter squat than in a half squat, and we're stronger in a half squat than in a full squat. This is nothing groundbreaking. But this means that the constant load won't provide the same impact during the whole range of motion.
The problem is, this sort of lifting places the greatest overload in the initial portion of the lift because that's where the relative weight of the load compared to the strength at the specific joint angle is the greatest. However, in a vast majority of sport actions, the most important portion of the range of motion of a joint is that last half or last fourth. This part of the range of motion must be overloaded, but instead it's under-loaded!
A possible solution would be to use partial movements in training (quarter squats, half squats, half bench, half deadlift, etc.) However, this also poses several problems, not the least being the development of strength imbalances.
Another solution is the use of bands, not only with explosive lifting, but with heavy lifting as well. Resistance bands can add anywhere from 25 to 200 pounds of tension per band when fully stretched (depending on the type of band). This will allow you to place a significant overload where it counts, during that last portion of the exercise.
One problem remains with training quantification. How can we evaluate the load at various parts of the movement? Only two weights need to be noted: the weight in the bottom position and the weight at the top. But we still have to establish just how much resistance the bands add at these positions.
A simple way of estimating this is to set up the bands on the empty bar and use a scale. Unrack the bar as if you were going to squat, stand on a scale in the top squat position and note the weight (let's say 445 pounds). Then do the same for the bottom position of a squat (let's say 265).
Now you have to remove the weight of the bar and your body from the values you noted. So if you weigh 200 pounds and the bar is 45, you remove 245 pounds from the values noted.
A. Band resistance at the top = 445lbs (total tension) – 245lbs (BW + bar) = 200lbs
B. Band resistance at the bottom = 265lbs (total tension) – 245lbs (BW + bar) = 25lbs
Now you know that the bands add an additional 200 pounds at the top and 25 pounds in the bottom position.
With this band set-up and a bar weight of 400 pounds, the resistance at the top would be 600 and at the bottom it would be 425. Let's say you perform five sets of three reps with that load. Write down the following in your journal:
5 x 3 @ 600/425 (400)
That means you did five sets of three reps with 600 pounds at the top, 425 pounds at the bottom, with a bar weight of 400 pounds.
Note that you should take the time to measure the resistance the bands give you personally. A taller individual will have more resistance at the top than a shorter individual (the bands are stretched more). Similarly, depending on where you attach the bands, the resistance may also vary. But remember that we always want to have at least some tension in the bottom position. It doesn't have to be much, but it should be more than bar weight.
Additional Benefit of Band Training
Another good thing about using bands is the accentuated eccentric stress they provide. You see, the bands don't just add weight at various portions of the lift. They're actually trying to throw you down to the ground! Thus, the bands try to increase eccentric acceleration.
By controlling this yielding phase, you're learning how to absorb and control an external force of an accelerative nature. Basically, you become very efficient at breaking, controlling and reversing an external load–a fantastic asset for most athletes!
Training Methods for Bands
I already explained much of what there is to know about the training methods used with bands, but just to make it clear, there are three methods typically used:
1. Accommodating resistance limit strength training (max effort method)
2. Max acceleration training (dynamic effort method)
3. Variable resistance training (repetitive effort method)
The accommodating resistance method uses the property of the bands to overload the whole range of motion during a heavy lift, therefore developing strength throughout the whole range of motion.
The max acceleration training method calls for moderate loads lifted with max acceleration. In this case the bands serve to limit deceleration.
Finally, the variable resistance method allows you to perform many controlled reps with a moderate load while placing variable tension throughout the whole movement. This will stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth) much faster than regular weight lifting because the average loading during the whole movement is greater.
Bands are a versatile tool that can be used to serve many different training purposes. However, just like with weight releasers, be careful not to overdo it at first. Bands place a very large amount of eccentric stress on the muscles and this can increase the time you need to recover from a workout. Keep that in mind and throw some band training into your yearly program!
1) Illustrations taken from Physigraphe.
2) JumpStretch and Iron Woody both sell excellent resistance bands.