Many coaches are surprised that I use elastic resistance, as I am usually a barbell and medicine ball type of coach. The truth is, I find that some resistance band exercises are great for athletes, not just because they can be done at home, but because they are very practical and effective at the gym or track. Typically, we see a huge list of fluff exercises polluting the internet—usually single joint replacements to dumbbells. It’s okay to add surgical tubing or elastic bands as a replacement when in a jam, but due to the properties of rubber, we can’t do every exercise perfectly.
In this article, I cover the cream of what I do with resistance bands and explain why slight modifications are sometimes better than doing the classic versions. Conversely, I include many “old is gold” type exercises, and I make a case why they should always be in a program.
The Benefits and Limitations of Elastic Resistance
Any time I write a “Top X” type article, I encourage those adopting new exercises or standard ones to slow down and think about what may change in their environment when they start tinkering. Resistance bands are not ideal for everyone, and, let’s be honest, they will eventually break down, and this poses risk. My biggest fear with bands is the threat of a band snapping and affecting someone’s vision, so I purposely made this list eye-friendly.
Every exercise on this list passes the literal “eyeball test” if you use open-style bands or tubing. Cased or wrapped bands or tubes are popular now, and they diminish risk by creating an enclosure around the band to reduce possible damage. Most exposed bands are at risk of snapping from the elements breaking the rubber down, but sometimes they just snap due to a manufacturing error. I bring up safety first, as it should always be a priority.
Generally, the benefits of elastic bands are that they are cheap, lightweight, and very versatile. What makes them useful is always what limits them in the real world, because every benefit has a limitation. What you can do with athletes using elastic resistance is very restricted, as plenty of exercises need resistance early, but rubber has little resistance until it’s stretched.Because the resistance band requires length to increase force, you will have to buy multiple bands or change the exercise altogether to challenge athletes, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I have a disdain for accommodating resistance because of coaches who don’t know what they are doing and fail to calculate the torque on the joint system they are loading. While it sounds complicated, if you are going to use band resistance, you need to quantify the expected load on the body, as the band type (resistance) and distance of the motion will determine most of the strain. Because the resistance band requires length to increase force, you will have to buy multiple bands or change the exercise altogether to challenge athletes. Generally, gravity-based solutions are necessary, and exercises must be selective.
Shop for Quality and Value Over Price
I want to be careful not to hype products, as many of them are actually made by the same manufacturer and just feature different logos for marketing purposes. In this section I want to be clear about different types of resistance bands, ranging from bungie to belt, tubing to strip, and loop or true band options. In addition to these types of elastic resistance, I have to be upfront that rubber products will require constant vigilance because companies may be tempted to go with lower-priced manufacturing techniques that could cause a decrease in quality. Rubber is not all the same, as durability is based on which composite blends are included.I’m a big believer that every athlete should have their own band for stretching, and facilities need to have industrial-grade products for specialized purposes, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Also, small nuances such as attachment accessories and handles can render a fine product junk or turn a solid product into a must-have. I am a big believer that every athlete should have their own band for stretching, and facilities need to have industrial-grade products for specialized purposes. Included in this list are the products and brands I use now, but if a better option exists, please feel free to comment in the discussion section below. Don’t compromise quality for price, as it’s easy to find something cheaper—it’s harder to find something of better value.
About the List – Some Caveats
Many coaches will come at me in disgust because they feel other exercises deserve a mention. While I’ll point out that this is an opinion piece, please take into consideration that I have thought long and hard about this for months. This is a collective list from multiple coaches, not just me, as I prefer to survey the minds involved with coaching day-to-day and learn from others.
The heart and soul of this article is a compendium of the best resistance band exercises that you are justified in taking the time and effort to have your athletes do. This list includes restoration, rehabilitation, strength movements, and even ways to teach athletes to move better. Finally, I only included exercises that make the band the priority, so don’t expect barbell-enhanced exercises. Now that the foundational information is done, let’s get going.
I spoke about overhead squatting in another article, and scarecrow presses are great for teaching the movement pattern and preparing the shoulder. I will cover external rotation patterns next, but this is a great bang-for-your-buck warm-up, not an alternative to overhead lifting. Due to the line of resistance, athletes should know the amount of vertical load is compromised, and that it’s more of a patterning exercise than a strength movement. What is key is that you can decide to press in different ways, so it’s not the same as the 1080 Quantum movement I shared in another article. Finally, the exercise is arguably a better preparation exercise for the shoulder; perhaps a regression or earlier stage exercise.
Video 1. Many variations to the scarecrow press exist, but this version is typical. You can use alternative motions and positions, but the goal is to work the stabilizers of the shoulder.
I like the scarecrow movement for overhead squatting, but I prefer it as a way to teach early-stage shoulder mobility and scapular stability. To be upfront, much of the shoulder stabilization hype from excessive corrective exercise comes from “easy responders” or patients with poor exercise history. Much of the corrective exercise hype was intended to sell more exercise videos or courses, so conventional exercises may be most of the corrective programming that is necessary.I like the scarecrow press for overhead squatting, but I prefer it as a way to teach early-stage shoulder mobility and scapular stability, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I am not an absolutist or purist, so I do include rudimentary exercises that foster better function, but no guarantees exist with injury reduction. You can do all the horizontal pulling and arm care exercises you want, but athletes will still get hurt, and don’t get me started with referred pain. A fair expectation is that doing this exercise will help bridge to other exercises. It will not fix “dysfunction” or solve a lazy or obscure diagnosis like “impingement symptoms.”
Standing External Rotation
The first response from those who have tried or seen the Proteus system is that the amazing 3D resistance is very smooth and extremely precise. The issue is we live in a world with gravity, and, eccentrically, the system is well-suited as a comprehensive solution for the therapy market. Like I mentioned earlier, the system is great for early-stage shoulder return to play, but it’s lousy for lower body training. I see the value in the system for overhead athletes, but not everyone will have specialized options.
The truth is, pound for pound, an elastic band will be able to create similar adaptations, provided you have multiplanar sets as it can’t replicate curvilinear resistance. Fortunately, most comprehensive programs will load the shoulders ballistically in such a way that assistance exercises with bands will be good enough to close the gap. You will never get the same results head-to-head with one exercise, but a comprehensive program may wash out the advantages.
Video 2. External rotation must be polished before adding body motions. Creative coaches add side steps and body contortions to increase recruitment of the rotator cuff, but only after mastering the basic motion.
If you look at the EMG readings of rotator cuff movements, you will notice the mean and peak values are often displayed as indicators of recruitment. We have to be careful, as peak activity values don’t mean peak force or peak results. I am convinced that Proteus will be a leader in shoulder care in the future, but if you don’t have one, you need to be creative.
Using three sets in three planes of motion can help recruit the various muscles around the shoulder with slightly different overload patterns. External rotation can start with strict conventional methods and become progressively more dynamic and specific to the needs of the athlete. I am not a fan of extreme pursuits, so a perfect arm care program usually means a compromise with the rest of the body, and programs that exclude specific demands on joint systems usually just hope the genetically gifted rise to the top. Some interventions are recommended, but don’t expect miracles in overhead sports.
Overspeed Eccentric Heidens
I have talked about my problems with the Heiden exercise before, and I used the Exogen to clean up the bad habits of athletes who fishtail the rear leg too much. Sometimes I allow the non-support leg to contribute to motion for some sports, but I frankly find side-to-side motion a potential problem if athletes can’t keep their free leg ready and close to the ground. In addition to the mechanics of the regular exercise, propulsion using resistance bands is the bane of my existence.
Video 3. The goal of the band is to increase the speed laterally coming back after bounding out. Cue the athlete to drive out, tap back, and fight the forces created.
Why would someone use resistance bands for ballistic activities? If it’s a strength exercise, accommodating resistance is fine, but a lateral leap is an explosive movement, so it should be free of artificial deceleration qualities. In addition to summation of forces and velocity problems, Heidens are about landing, and I prefer to overload the landing with speed and teach eccentric deceleration rather than a bizarre concentric overload.Overhead eccentric Heidens are more for land sports, while lateral box bounding is clearly GPP and the slideboard is ice-hockey-specific, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Now, I realize many coaches will ask what the main difference is between Heidens and lateral bounds with Russian boxes or slideboards, as all three exercises look different. My point is that the overspeed eccentric Heidens are more for land sports, while the other two options are clearly either GPP (lateral box bounding) or ice hockey specific (slideboard). Whatever you decide to do, make sure you coach it up to the best of your ability. I prefer using time intervals after athletes master repetition schemes, since duration increases the likelihood of bad habits.
Dryland Stroke Pulls
The irony is that I did dryland stroke pulls for swimming, but I found they weren’t very valuable for the sport when most athletes need intensity and not repetition. Swimming is known for the large volumes of yards or meters done day in and day out, so why pile on more repetitions? I prefer loaded pull-ups for swimming: just enough specificity to become valuable on paper, but not so much replication that it doesn’t create capacity or intensity overload.
Using surgical tubing in the 1930s was a clever idea at the time, but it’s not my cup of tea, due to the exercise being lower resistance in the earlier pull phase based on what we know today. So why do I still use it? It’s a great general conditioning exercise that adds some benefit to outside sports where athletes need to keep training when joints need a break, especially in the lower body.
Video 4. Use cords for imitating the butterfly stroke, as it’s a nice change from conventional exercises. Swimmers that have limited pool time have used cords for years, but I like them more for athletes needing some variety with purpose.
My main contention is that athletes should perform the exercise with a solid hinge posture. Yes, swimmers sometimes perform the real swimming movement—butterfly or other stroke simulation—with flexion of the spine. The argument I make is that we are not trying to mimic everything in training, just find areas we can overload and get a change that shows up later. I like doing rhythmic patterns for technique with intervals only after the athlete can do 10 reps perfectly. I would rather see 10 x 10 than 50–100 junk repetitions.
Those who are strong in the upper body and need capacity will benefit from circuit-style training, but they should never let the tubing dilute their peak strength and power qualities. If you don’t have time for resisted pull-ups, don’t add in fly work at all. If you want to make a circuit really fresh and novel, the addition of fly pulls is a nice plus.
Neck Oscillations or Pulses
Strengthening the neck isn’t hard, but you do need a plan and consistent dedication, or you will neglect it. I wrote a very convincing article about neck training last year, and it covers the general principles of neck training. Later, SimpliFaster posted another article on neck exercises with the Iron Neck, and this article includes an encore review. This is not a bang-for-your-buck exercise or replacement of a collective approach to monitoring, but it is something an athlete can do on their own safely and effectively.
Video 5. The Iron Neck device includes an elastic cord for resistance, and one favorite of mine is stiffness jumps while wearing it. The reason I like the exercise is that the pulse adds a lot of constructive demand to the neck, and prepares it for rapid bracing.
Now comes the pulse or oscillation discussion. We can’t prepare for concussions by exposing athletes to head trauma and expect that the SAID principle will work with head trauma. What we can do is challenge the system with different but similar stimuli and hope that capacity and a little bit of luck work out. Oscillations or pulses are not perturbations that have unexpected timing, they are just general rhythmic contractions that enable a muscle group to learn to brace rapidly. General strengthening of the neck is the foundation. This is a way to get a combination of both and also serve as homework for athletes who need more than just a few partner extensions and flexions.
Supine Floor Pulls
Pilates floor work will either hit a home run or fall flat for athletes, but this oblique variation has a lot of value for athletes if done properly. The key is teaching an athlete to recruit the muscles of the trunk, not focus too much on the limb movements. I shared some core training ideas earlier and included the oblique fly in the kneeling position as a good foundation exercise. Supine floor pulls are much harder, as they incorporate the lowering of the legs and add range or variation to the upper body.
Video 6. Dead bugs and other mat exercises can incorporate different leg and arm patterns, limited only by the imagination of the coach. Make sure the cords are used to enhance the exercise, not distract it from recruiting the muscles of the torso.
I consider this exercise to be advanced if the athlete is not allowing lordosis or losing control of the pelvis. It’s not a postural exercise, but it has helped athletes with weakness in the lower abdominal area improve their ability to hold a posture at high speeds. Most core exercises are endurance options; they don’t really add a way to overcome the forces or utilize the momentum of the pelvic engine.The supine floor pull isn’t a postural exercise, but it has helped athletes with weakness in the lower abdominal area improve their ability to hold a posture at high speeds, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Another key component to this exercise is comfort for the lower back, so use a yoga mat or similar surface. A hard floor or concrete isn’t great, and I have seen coaches use large benches and treatment tables. The main goal is to find a way to stabilize the high amounts of force by increasing the demand of the exercise rather than trying to add negligible demand to planks. The supine floor pull is a great exercise, and I am sure you will find value in doing it with nearly any athlete.
BFR Hip Extensions
Some coaches have asked about ways to improve hamstring or glute development using blood flow restriction (BFR) devices, and the BFR hip extensions is only one of the many options. It’s nearly perfect for early-stage rehabilitation, when more aggressive options are frankly too much for an athlete. I don’t know how much change to hip extension muscles to expect, but this exercise does get some gluteus maximus recruitment.
I don’t like training the hip flexors with bands, mainly because the resistance is hard to set up alone. Simply adding hip extension repetitions here and there, specifically twice a week, is worth it for healthy athletes as well. I prefer using BFR with bands, as they work perfectly together, namely because low load training and occlusion methods are harmonious.
Video 7. I don’t get why BFR is not more popular with fitness, as it literally takes light resistance exercises and adds a boost. With limited equipment and options, athletes can use heavy elastic resistance to improve hip extension strength when combined with plyometrics.
In addition, I choose hip extension exercises over hip flexion activation drills, as the athletes who have poor psoas and hip flexor strength are usually those who spend too much time foam rolling and not enough time on their feet. Those with poor hip flexor strength and control are likely those who spend too much time in the weight room and not enough on the track or in open space, as I learned from coaches who managed to have great hip flexor development with their athletes without resorting to isolation or activation exercises.Use BFR with band training as much as you can if multi-joint exercises aren’t possible, or as a way to overload the movement if other adjustments aren’t feasible, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Like I mentioned earlier, BFR is great for early-stage rehabilitation or times where conventional training may not be an option. This exercise is not a primary training solution, so I would not use it in groups or place it in a program as a main exercise. I recommend using BFR with band training as much as you can if multi-joint exercises are not possible, or as a way to overload the movement if other adjustments are not feasible. Some coaches are uncomfortable using BFR, and that is fine—it’s not for everyone. Athletes and coaches need to decide if adding occlusion training is a wise choice. Based on the results I’ve seen, it’s worth incorporating.
Prescribed Hip Traction Self-Mobilizations
I advocate using bands for hamstring and lat stretches, but traction of the hip does give an athlete relief if they feel beat up, and a medical professional believes it will help. This is actually the most controversial of all exercises as it’s a hip mobilizer, a capsular stretch that requires medical evaluation. It should not be used blindly or freelance. I personally do not prescribe any self-mobilization training anymore, as most of the time athletes use sports medicine exercises to manage an error in training.
It may sound overly critical, but if you utilize a lot of corrective exercises or prophylactic drills, something needs to change, and an athlete needs to be evaluated. The labrum of the hip is not a joke, and I see far too many coaches literally prescribe therapy exercises without a diagnosis or even a real evaluation. Mobility and self-care exercises have exploded, but injuries and pain have not decreased to match the popularity. Therapy researchers have questioned corrective exercises and movement dysfunctions, and that is a good thing, but mobility should not have a safe haven because it sounds benign.
Video 8. Self-care with mobilizations is not something I recommend a lot with my correspondence athletes, mainly because it creates a dependence in the modern athlete. I usually have mobility prescribed by sports medicine, thus reducing complications in the long run.
So, what’s the purpose of this exercise? I don’t think the exercise will result in a lot of biomechanical change, but it does offer some small amount of motion—millimeters, to be honest—to a hip that may feel tight. I don’t think the traction does much, but the entire process of moving into various movements does change local pressure to the joint.
That small change to the joint space feels great to some athletes, but I do get concerned that being overly fixated on mobilization can expose athletes to possible nocebos and other ventures down the wrong path. I also don’t like “capsular manipulation” seen as essential to everyone. Thus, I only recommend having this prescribed by a therapist periodically, not as a routine for recovery from training or similar.
Foot Band Squeezes
After an ankle sprain or foot injury, sometimes direct intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscle training is necessary. Coaches and sports medicine professionals want foot training to fix problems, but the reality, like ankle mobility, is you can only restore function. It would be great to see foot training result in ridiculous cutting ability and massive gains in speed and jumping, but the truth is that small muscles are stabilizers, not propulsive components to locomotion. The foot does have some spring-like qualities, but those structures don’t change much because you stand barefoot on balance devices or walk around on your toes. I do agree that some barefoot training benefits athletes, but not at the magnitude that online education wants you to believe.
Foot band exercises help turn on muscles the right way and add just enough strength to ensure the restoration of normal function, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Video 9. Most coaches see this exercise as an adductor exercise, but it’s really a foot strength movement. I prefer a sock only, but wearing shoes is fine provided it’s a minimalist model.
The way the foot band squeeze works is fairly simple. The forces medially encourage the foot to resist collapsing, thus creating a dome during stance. I will say this without question: The exercise is great for restoring the foot, but don’t expect to turn athletes who are not athletic into freaks or expect the exercise to solve medical conditions. It’s not a performance drill; it’s just one exercise that helps turn on muscles the right way and adds just enough strength to ensure the restoration of normal function.
One of the most obvious benefits of resistance bands is reversing the intent of the equipment and using it for assistance. Assisted pull-ups have been around for decades, and there are two options that I use. You can attach a band to the bar or the rack, but both only work well if the technique is solid.
Video 10. Assisted pull-ups have different options, but the classic knee support is popular for good reason. Other set-ups exist, such as bands placed horizontally at the feet or attached to the soles vertically.
Some coaches jump immediately into eccentrics for athletes who are unable to do five or more repetitions of chin-ups or pull-ups, but I like a few weeks of assisted pull-ups if the athlete can do double-digit reps so they learn good habits. Like the squat, the first thing that usually goes with vertical pulling exercises is range of motion. Assisted pull-ups are popular and timeless, but the devil is in the details.
If you elect to attach the band to the bar, it’s a little more difficult to get the exercise to be consistent with the assistance, but it’s great for high schools that depend on the pull-up stations from gym class. Those with squat racks can attach the bands near the feet of the athlete without risk of a snap-back, but be aware that athlete heights will make it impossible for heterogeneous populations to share stations. An athlete who is 6’4” will not be able to work with an athlete who is 5’6”, so keep that in mind.
Selectively Add Bands to Your Program
Don’t feel pressured to include any of these 10 exercises; just rethink how you use bands and make sure you know how to use the right movements, not just the most popular. I sometimes don’t use an exercise for years if the entirety of a program already solves the needs of a potential gap, so don’t stress about forcing any programming in your training. Bands are timeless solutions for coaches and athletes, so incorporate them when you see fit.Bands are timeless solutions for coaches and athletes, so incorporate them when you see fit, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Athletes can do all of these exercises alone, so they have an opportunity to get additional work done or be empowered to take their training further without the need of a spotter. Eventually, a new crop of exercises or old options will likely result in changes to my list, so make sure you experiment and make the changes you feel will take your athletes to the next level.
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