Exercise Tubing and Bands

Author: Richard Weil, M.Ed., CDE
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

You've probably seen them in the gym, advertised on TV, in exercise videos, or in fitness magazines. Rubber exercise tubing and bands are terrific alternatives to dumbbells and other resistance exercise equipment. They are inexpensive, portable, pack well for road trips, won't dent the floor or mash your toe if you drop them, and you can perform every dumbbell exercise with them and more. The difference between tubing and bands is that bands are flat sheets of thin elastic rubber, usually six to eight inches wide, and come with or without a handle, while tubing is round and almost always sold with handles. My experience is that tubing is easier to use because of the handles (a big plus), plus they tend to last longer than bands.

Do They Work?
No one has studied tubing or bands head-to-head against dumbbells or weight machines to see which is more effective for building strength, but most fitness professionals agree that you can gain strength using tubing and bands. That's because any activity that causes the muscles to contract against resistance will elicit a training response. In other words, you'd get stronger pushing, pulling, or lifting bottles of water, cinder blocks, dumbbells, or your own body weight. Tubing and bands are just another device to help you get the job done. Whether they are superior to dumbbells or weight machines is unknown, and so we'll have to wait for researchers to answer that question, but I think it's fair to say that you can get a training effect if you use them.

Green, Yellow, Blue, Red, Purple, Black: How Much Weight Am I Lifting?
Tubes and bands come in different colors to represent different resistance—higher resistance is accomplished by making the rubber thicker—but since manufacturers use different color coding systems and typically provide no information about the level of resistance of each color, it's hard to know how they compare to dumbbells and machines in terms of weight. In other words, are you lifting five pounds with a yellow tube or 10 pounds with a green band?

One of the difficulties in identifying the amount of resistance is that tension in rubber changes as you stretch it. For instance, the tension in an exercise tube when you first start to pull on it during a biceps curl is less than when you fully stretch it. In fact, some research shows that tension is not constant in the tube until it is stretched beyond 50% of its starting length, while other research shows that tension may not be constant until the elastic is stretched more than two and a half times its original length. The mechanical stretch properties of elastic vary based on thickness, age of the rubber, how much it is used, how quickly it is stretched, and other factors, and so it's difficult to quantify with certainty the "weight" of each tube or band that you stretch.

However, in one well-executed study, researchers were able to quantify the weight-equivalent of tubing and bands using sophisticated strain gauges. They measured tubing and bands from the Thera-Band Company (yellow, red, green, blue, black, and sliver tubing; yellow, green, and black bands) and stretched them under many different conditions. They found the following when the elastic was stretched to twice (or 100% of) its starting length:

Bands

    Yellow: 2.9 pounds
    Green: 5.6 pounds
    Black: 8.1 pounds

Tubing

    Yellow: 0.5 pounds
    Red: 3.0 pounds
    Green: 4.7 pounds
    Blue: 6.5 pounds
    Black: 7.2 pounds
    Silver: 10.5 pounds

Stretching each tube and band another 100% in this study yielded about one and a half times more tension, so when the green tube was stretched to 200% of its original length, the weight equivalent was approximately seven pounds. Keep in mind that not all manufacturers use the same color or quality of rubber, so these values are specific only to the tubes and bands used in the study. Also keep in mind that rubber loses its elasticity after many uses. One study showed that tension started to decrease slightly after just 50 full (100%) stretches, while in another study it took 500 stretches to reduce the tension in the bands and tubes by 12% and 6%, respectively. Whether you will notice the difference is hard to say, and so you should pay attention to the resistance over time. You can purchase new tubes or bands if you notice the elasticity decreasing, or alternatively, increase the tension by wrapping them around your hands a few times and shortening them. Shortening the elastic increases the tension (another benefit of tubes and bands).

Using Tubing and Bands
Your fitness goals will determine which color tube or band to use. Select a tube or band that you can lift eight to 12 times to fatigue if strength is your objective, and a tube or band that you can lift 12-15 times to fatigue if endurance and tone is your objective. Keep in mind that there is crossover in benefits, so if you lift eight to 12 times for strength you will still get toned, and likewise, if you lift 12-15 times for endurance and tone you will still gain strength. The important point is to work to fatigue on all sets, no matter how many repetitions you do, to gain benefits.