Summer is here – are you ready?
Most people want to lean out (or stay lean) this time of year, but they make one crucial mistake: ditching the gym to train outside, upping their cardio in the hopes it will negate the calorie-laden BBQ foods and beers they’re consuming at cookouts.
The idea that more cardio will help you lean out is a myth that needs to jump off a cliff.
To get and stay lean, you must prioritize strength training. But heading indoors to hit the weights can be a mental battle when the weather is nice or your travel plans have you crossing four different time zones a week.
Enter the simple resistance band. These bad boys are compact enough to pack in your carry-on and can help you take your workouts into the great outdoors. They’re affordable, too. You officially have no excuses to skip your resistance training workouts.
But how can you train effectively without weights? Look no further. This is your definitive guide to building lean, toned muscle without stepping foot in the gym this summer.
Are Resistance Bands The Same As Free Weights?
Resistance bands, dumbbells, and barbells are simply tools – your results depend upon how you use those tools to carve lean muscle from whence there was none.
Do yourself a favor: pick up a quality set of bands in a variety of sizes. Bands of different thickness offer varying levels of resistance. A lighter band may be better suited to upper body or isolation work, while a thicker band will provide extra resistance for your lower body.
You can perform any free weight exercise with resistance bands. Resistance bands have one major advantage over using free weights, however. That advantage is accommodating resistance.
Unlike regular free weights, exercises become more challenging as your resistance band stretches. This makes the end-point of an exercise extra effective since your muscles must work harder to overcome the extra resistance of the stretched band. Chalk up a “win” for resistance band training.
In order to build lean, toned muscles that you can proudly show off at the pool this summer, you must follow a couple of simple principles of hypertrophy: volume, time under tension, and progressive overload.
Put simply, this is the amount of work you do in a training session. It can be expressed as “sets x reps” to determine the total number of repetitions each muscle group completes. You will want to use a high-volume approach to sculpt lean muscle.
Time Under Tension
This refers to the amount of time a muscle is contracting and relaxing while you perform an exercise. The ideal TUT for hypertrophy is about 60 seconds. It helps to lift with a particular tempo to achieve this muscle-building stimulus. Sets of 8-12 repetitions utilizing a 2-1-2-1 tempo (lift and lower for 2 seconds, pause in the contracted and stretched positions for 1 sec, respectively) are ideal, as each rep will take about 6 seconds, and sets of 10 fall perfectly into the 60 second TUT range.
Your body adapts and responds to new challenges; once you’ve adapted to a particular exercise or workout, it no longer takes as much effort to complete the task, so your body stops adapting. Because of this, you’re going to have to progressively increase the demands you place on your body in order to trigger new muscle growth.
With weights, this can be as simple as adding more weight to the bar each workout. With bands, you won’t be able to progress the same way. But you can still add sets and reps, increase your time under tension, and incorporate density training to drive progression. We’ll cover all of those methods below.
Resistance Band Training 101
Training with resistance bands is essentially the same as training with weights. The main difference is that bands don’t come in 2.5# or 5# increments. They’re rated for a general resistance level (usually “light,” “medium,” “heavy,” etc). This can make training with bands somewhat more subjective.
Know this: the further the band stretches, the harder the exercise will become, especially toward the end of the movement. To increase the difficulty of any banded exercise, all you have to do is step further away from the point to which you’ve anchored the band.
Let’s take the single-arm band row, for instance. Loop the band around a sturdy anchor point, such as a squat rack or fence post. Take a few steps away from the anchor point, and attempt a horizontal row with the band. If it feels easy, take a few more steps away from the anchor point. This will instantly make the rowing exercise harder because the band is stretched out more.
Because you can’t create progressive overload by adding weight to the bar, you’ll have to keep note of which band you use. The black band in the above rowing video is the “light” band for the set I’m working with. In my training plan, I’d build up volume (sets and reps) and work on standing further away from the anchor point until I’m strong enough to use the “medium” purple band.
Another way to progress band exercises if you can’t quite go up to the next resistance level is to double up on two lighter bands. Using two black bands for the row would be slightly easier than jumping up to the heavier purple band.
Again, this is subjective, and depends on the set of bands you’re working with. You may have to play around with the equipment available to you until you find the right combination of bands for each exercise. Just remember to keep progressing the difficulty of your workouts, and you’ll continue to make gains.
Two great strategies to amp up your band training routine are iso-holds and density training.
We talked about how time under tension is the biggest driver of muscle growth. A simple and brutally effective way of increasing the time your muscles are under tension is to incorporate iso-holds into your training.
This simply means pausing for longer than usual at the contracted position of each exercise. With the banded bicep curl, you would curl the resistance band normally, then pause for an extended count at the top. Try five to ten seconds to start. Focus on squeezing your biceps as hard as you can for during that time. Then, lower the band back to the starting position and knock out the rest of your set (another 8-10 reps).
Another awesome intensity-boosting technique is to use timed sets. If time under tension drives muscle growth, you might as well work off a timer to get the most out of your workout, right?
Set a timer for sixty seconds, since this is the optimal TUT timeframe. Perform a set of band pull-aparts until time runs out. Count your reps. Rest, then repeat for another sixty seconds. Your goal is to beat the number of reps you got in the first set. Doing more work in a given amount of time means you’re increasing the “density” of that set, which leads to building dense muscle.
The Ultimate Lean-Out, Tone-Up Resistance Band Training Program
If you only have access to resistance bands, you CAN still build a lean, toned body this summer. Here’s a sample program to get you started. You should train 3-4 times per week. Simply alternate between Workout A and Workout B.
A three-per-week schedule could look like this:
Monday – Workout A
Wednesday – Workout B
Friday – Workout A
A four-per-week schedule could look like this:
Monday – Workout A
Tuesday – Workout B
Thursday – Workout A
Saturday – Workout B
3A) Banded bicep curls 3×15 with 5-sec iso-hold on first rep
3B) Banded tricep pushdowns 3×15 with 5-sec iso-hold on first rep
End with conditioning of your choice – jump rope, sprints, etc.
1A) Pull Throughs 4×10
1B) Push ups* 4xMax
*Loop a resistance band under your hands and across your back to increase the difficulty
2A) Pull-ups 4xMax or band pulldowns 4×12
2B) Piked push up 4xMax
End with core work of your choice.
The “Secret” To Making This Plan Work For You
Look, resistance bands are great. You can use them to build and maintain lean muscle so you look great at the pool. The principles in this article give you everything you need to know.
Okay, make that two secrets:
- You cannot out-train a bad diet. Exercise some self-control at your next barbecue and stick to an appropriate calorie intake level.
- The workouts only work if you stay consistent. Set aside 3-4 days per week to train. Pack your resistance bands when you travel. And bookmark this article so you can always access the workouts.
Armed with the principles I’ve shared with you today, you have the perfect blueprint for maintaining a beach-ready body, no matter where your summer takes you.