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 resistancehigher resistance is accomplished by making the rubber thickerbut 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:
Yellow: 2.9 pounds
Green: 5.6 pounds
Black: 8.1 pounds
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.
You can do more exercises with tubes and bands than you can with dumbbells. You can stand on them and do upright and bent-over-rows, lateral raises, front raises, overhead presses, and biceps curls; attach them to doors and do rows, trunk rotations, pull-downs, triceps kickbacks, pectoral flies, and abdominal work; use them with a partner for any of the above exercises (fun if you use a training partner); and attach them to your legs to work your hips, thighs, and gluteals (buttocks). You can invent your own exercises if you're creative and get a full-body workout if you desire. Commercially available workout guides and videos are also available to help you learn how to effectively work out with tubes and bands. Additionally, many fitness centers offer strength training and other classes that include workouts with tubes and bands.
Ask for an instruction sheet when you buy tubes or bands, and make sure to order a door strap to attach the tubes to a door. I prefer having two door straps so that you don't have to switch them between tubes. The strap is important because you can do rows, pull-downs, flies, and many other exercises when the tube is attached to a door (it mimics a high- or low-cable pulley machine this way). I mentioned earlier that I prefer the tubes to bands because of the handles. Handles make it easier to hold the elastic, so whether you buy tubes or bands, make sure that they have handles. As for what colors to buy, I suggest buying a set of four different colors to get you started. The idea is that you will get stronger as you use them and so you want the next color handy when you're strong enough to go to the next level. Plus, even at the beginning, you'll need different tensions for different exercises (you can lift more with biceps curls than you can with lateral raises). Ask the salesperson for assistance if you're not sure. A set of four typically costs $20 to $25. If you want an economy approach to getting stronger, you can buy just two different colors and double them up to increase the resistance (use a green and yellow tube together).
Tubing and bands are sold at sporting goods stores and many online sites. Search online for competitive pricing using the terms "exercise tubing," "exercise bands," and "exercise tubing or band videos." Keep in mind that vendors may use different names for the same product, so you may see tubes and bands called "resistance cords," "exertubes," or something similar, but they all function in the same way.
Go for It
Tubes and bands are safe, convenient, portable, versatile, effective, and inexpensive ways to do resistance exercise at home or on the road. I pack them every time I travel and use them at home when I don't go to the gym. They're great for a quick five-minute resistance exercise break, after a brisk walk, for a full-body workout, or in the gym to supplement your dumbbell or machine work. Be creative and use them consistently, and no doubt they will help you increase your strength and tone.
Enjoy your workout!
Below is a beginner program with tubes or bands. The program is broken up by muscle group and is designed to be performed three days a week. You can modify the order of exercises or days you work a specific muscle group if you like. Select tubes or bands with which you can do 10-15 repetitions to fatigue and do one to three sets per exercise. It's time to increase the tension when you can do more than 15 repetitions. Make all movements slow enough to feel a burning in the muscle.
Muscles grow during rest days, not training days, so you need to leave enough time to recover. You may only need two days of rest between sessions, but if you train very hard you may need as many as three or four days. You'll know if you need more rest if you're tired at your workout, your strength is diminishing, you find it difficult to get through the entire workout, or you are chronically sore. Listen to your body, and you'll get good results.
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Here's the program.
Day 1: Chest and Triceps
- 1. Attach tube to a door at chest height.
2. Stand with your back to the door holding the handles.
3. Put one foot in front of the other for stability.
4. Lift handles to chest height, elbows back, palms facing floor, and press straight away from chest.
5. Return to starting position.
Chest fly (like a cable fly at the gym)
- 1. Attach tube to the door
at chest height.
2. Stand perpendicular to the door with right side closest to door.
3. Stretch right arm out toward door with tube handle in one hand.
4. There should be tension in the tube.
5. Lean forward so torso is parallel to floor.
6. Pull arm across front of body with elbow slightly bent.
7. Repeat for left arm.
1. Attach tube to door at eye level.
2. Hold handles with elbows bent 90 degrees at your side.
3. There should be tension in the tube.
4. Extend arm down by straightening it so that your hands end by your hips, and then return to starting position.
Day 2: Back and Biceps
- 1. Attach tube to door at chest height.
2. Put one foot in front of the other for stability.
3. Hold handles with arms stretched out in front toward door with tension in the tube.
4. Pull tube so that your elbows end up behind you (like rowing a boat) and then return to starting position.
- 1. Hold handles with arms straight down along your sides and stand on
tube so that it is securely under your foot and can't snap up (you should wear
2. Bend elbows and lift the forearms up.
3. Elbows should remain still.
4. Return to starting position.
Day 3: Shoulders and Legs
- 1. Stand on tube so that it is
securely under your foot and can't snap up (you should wear shoes).
2. Hold handles with arms straight down along your sides, palms facing inward.
3. Stand on tube so that it is securely under your foot and can't snap up (you should wear shoes).
4. With elbows bent slightly, lift arms out to side and stop when hands are at chest level and arms are parallel to the floor.
5. Return to starting position.
- 1. Same as lateral raise except lift arms to front.
2. Stop when hands are at chest height, and then return to starting position.
- 1. Stand on tube so that it is securely under your foot and can't snap
up (you should wear shoes).
2. Bring hands up over shoulders with elbows bent at side.
3. There should be tension in the tube.
4. Hold handles still and squat down as if you were trying to sit down.
5. Make sure knees stay behind toes (if your knees end up in front of your toes, it will strain your knees).
6. Return to standing position.