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Okay, Okay, I Changed My Mind About Resistance Bands

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

A few weeks ago, listlessly emailing with my friend Pemi about the “amorphous soup” of our days, she wrote me from Michigan: “I am here, replying to emails too late, cooking. I just bought a pink sexy resistance band, influenced I was by Nazanin Mandi’s Instagram.” This report was followed by a classic :( expression. Feeling influenced by Nazanin Mandi’s Instagram is an old familiar feeling :), though seeing a resistance band that was coveted, called “sexy” even; this was surprising.

To my mind, resistance bands — those thin, latex infinity loops that smell like rubber cement — are what my physical therapist sends me home with. Sometimes I get one from her in a new color and thickness, which I take as a beaming compliment about my devotion to stretches. I use a resistance band five days a week, but I’ve always scoffed at them in any context outside of a rehabilitation ritual. How do resistance bands work? They’re so flimsy! Flimsy enough for me to use on my most fussy, crybaby muscles! Certainly, they wouldn’t be useful for my tough, strong muscles! Like anything doctor-ordered, resistance bands seemed remedial, boring, and un-fun.

It’s great that I love to be wrong in general, and especially this summer, when I learned I’ve been very misguided about resistance bands.

“Resistance bands allow us to be really clever,” says Dr. Kelly Starrett, a coach for people who happen to be Olympic gold medalists and NBA players. “Something like a pull-up could seem binary: Either I’m strong enough, or I’m not. Then I don’t do it. But if you add a band, you can rig it so that you can start to interact with the movement. It democratizes strength.” If you pull against a resistance band, it will make a workout harder, but if you let the resistance band pull and support you, it can make a challenging routine suddenly accessible. There are bountiful strategies all over the internet, says Starrett, for using a resistance band to make harder or easier work out of anything. “You’re talking to a person who maybe owns a hundred bands,” Starrett says.

Along with dumbbells, holographic mirror machines, and bikes, quarantine has led to a new surge in the acquisition of resistance bands as people stock up their home gyms. “During COVID, with people trying all these new things, I’ve had new people who have come in with all sorts of accidental injuries, including from resistance bands,” says Dr. Nicole Haas, a physical therapist and researcher in Boulder, Colorado. She often sees people who use extremely thick bands and then suffer shoulder injuries. I understand this mistake very much; bands really do seem too slight to work! “It’s not as easy to figure out as you think it should be,” says Haas.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the resistance band. They may look innocent but they pack some serious punch,” says Elise Ntoumenopoulos, who owns an Australian fitness studio, the Movement Society, developed around the use of resistance bands. “Resistance bands are the more versatile cousin of traditional weights,” she says. The Movement Society instructors explain that the bands have an amplifying effect on each movement; they bring all the muscles involved to a party. For example, if you were doing a Pilates bridge — lying on your back, raising and lowering your hips — you’d be focusing on your butt (“back pocket muscle”) and the back of your thigh (hamstrings). With a resistance loop around your outer thighs, you’re pulling in hip abductors, your side butt, and involving more of the thigh to push outward — so you suddenly are working with the entirety of your seat.

Resistance bands, to their credit, are a lot tougher than they look. They’re the pip-squeak of fitness tools, but they’re vicious. And their slightness is one of their greatest assets. Briohny Smyth, flexible wunder-beast and much-beloved yoga-fitness instructor for the yoga studio Alo Moves, prizes bands for being versatile, portable, and cheap: “They don’t require too much space, time, money, or props.”

Resistance bands intensify feeling by pressing onto the edges of things. They create boundaries for you to push against. Especially in the endless days of amorphous soup, it’s great to know where the edges are. Bands make things harder, but it’s always surprising how they make things harder. The day after I used a band for some arm pulls, I could never have predicted which muscles they would strike. Suddenly, little muscles I barely knew about felt like they were made of lighter fluid that caught fire every time I moved.

To avoid overdoing it — if that’s not your thing — trainers say to always start with a lighter, looser band with each exercise. If it feels way too easy after a few repetitions, then you can move up a notch in difficulty. Also, if you’re using a band to warm up, always go lighter, rather than exhaust your muscles early on.

Resistance bands are tough in a way that free weights aren’t, because they don’t have the same relationship to gravity, says physical therapist and endurance coach Kate Ligler. Weights are challenging when you pull them up and down, but you can pull on a rigged resistance band any which way (side to side) and it will get tougher the harder you pull it — the more a band is stretched, the more it will resist.

And Ligler adds, it doesn’t have to be a band to be a band. “I love clever, at-home substitutes,” she says. If you run into a resistance-band shortage, “anything with an elastic waistband would likely do. If you’ve got an old pair of gym shorts, cut the bottom portion and just use the band.” It’s certainly not sexy, but we can’t all be the Nazanin Mandi of exercise gear.

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