Posted 1 month ago

The “why” and “how” behind banding machines

Over the past couple of years, you may have noticed an ever-growing trend: adding bands to machines. You may think that it’s just some new-school bodybuilding faff, or that it just makes machines look cooler and is in fact, pointless. Either that, or you simply don’t understand the rationale behind banding up a machine. Therefore, this article aims to explain the “why” and the “how” of using bands when training, and some key points to consider before you incorporate banded exercises into your rotation.

Why bother?

In order to understand why bands might be useful, we first need to consider what we are trying to achieve by lifting weights, and how some weight-lifting machines are designed.

As bodybuilders/physique athletes, when we’re training, our main focus is to break down muscle mass. To do this most effectively, we want to work a muscle through its complete lengthened and shortened range. As such, when we lift weights, we are continually going through motions that shorten and lengthen our muscles; crucially, as we are doing so, we are trying to create as much tension as possible in the target muscle group. This means that our focus is placed on recruiting and activating as many muscle fibres as we possibly can for each rep.

The key here is that when you accurately recruit more muscle fibres, then the load you are lifting becomes easier to move. This is because more muscle activation works like more soldiers in an armed force – if you’re only deploying half your troops, then the work you’re doing is harder than when you deploy the whole team. The same goes for your muscles: you can see how consciously recruiting 85-90% of your muscle fibres in a target muscle group will enable the load to move better and easier. Importantly, the more muscle fibre recruitment we get when lifting heavy, the more muscle fibre breakdown we’ll get.

In layman’s terms, More breakdown = More growth. Thus, if you want to put yourself in a position to grow as much as possible, this is something you want to make happen!

So why does this matter when it comes to banding a machine? Well, if we go back to lengthening and shortening muscles, what we know is that different muscles are actually stronger/weaker and certain points throughout their contractile range (movement range). If we take the quads as an example, when we fully bend (Figure 1) or fully straighten the quads (Figure 2), the muscle is at its weakest points. By that I mean its ability to produce force against the weight that you’re lifting is weaker than at stronger points (mid-range). This is why you will fail a hack squat at the bottom or realise your leg extensions set is done when you cannot straighten your legs fully.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Alongside the consideration that muscles can be weak at the extremes of their contractile ranges, machines can sometimes be designed in such a way that they get heavier and lighter at certain points of the movement. This is where things get interesting.

Some machines are designed so that the load gets lighter at the muscle’s weakest points, which allows us to initiate contraction better with that given muscle, create tension and elicit more breakdown through that move. Equally, if it gets heavier at our strongest points (mid-range), then we know that the muscle can handle and produce more force. More load in those areas elicits more breakdown and thus, more growth like you’ve read earlier. 

HOWEVER, not every machine is designed to match our muscles’ strength profiles. As such, when machines do not provide this feature, we can use bands to do modify exactly that. On top of that, we can also band machines so that we have a constant challenge throughout the lift, equalling a more effective stimulus to grow new muscle.

How do you use bands?

Banding from the top
This is what we’d usually call “reverse banding”. I’ve included an example below with a hack squat. When considering the thought process behind reverse banding it, we understand that as we enter the bottom range of the movement, our quads are weaker at producing force because they’re fully lengthened.

If we attach a band to the machine from the top (Figure 3) the band will pull upward right as we enter the bottom range (Figure 4). In doing so, the band will create and/or allow for a drop off in load at the point where our quads are weakest – that is, the machine becomes lighter at the bottom, matching the weaker point of the muscle’s contractile range. As such, this creates an increased ability to initiate with the quads themselves. Critically, as we exit the bottom, the band’s tension becomes null – that is, at the mid-range, which is where we’re strongest, we’re able to fully overload the muscle. All of these factors contribute to more muscle breakdown and more muscle growth.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Banding from the bottom
You may have seen me and the team band certain movements from the bottom of the machine, such as the leg press depicted here (Figure 5). The rationale behind this is a little bit different to what you have just read above.

When we band the leg press from the bottom, the exercise inherently becomes harder. Specifically, as we push the leg press away from us (Figure 6), the bands pull back towards us, ultimate forcing us to create more muscular tension in a position where we are neither weaker nor stronger. There will also be a bit of an extra pull as you flex your knees in lowering the pad, but the bands will become null at the bottom

Figure 5

Figure 6

Are bands for you?

Although you have just read that bands may help you train your muscles more effectively and efficiently, you might be wondering if you should add them into your training rotation. I personally didn’t use bands for the first few years of my bodybuilding career, and if you’re at the start of the journey, I might recommend that you do the same.

However, the stronger you get and the longer you do this for, bands would be a welcome addition to your training. Not only will you have all the benefits listed above, but your joints will also thank you for it. If you’re planning on training like a bodybuilder for a long time, you want to maintain as much joint integrity as possible. How many times have you heard an old school body builder talk about their ‘bad knees’ or ‘bad shoulder’? Exactly. I’d still recommend you train hard, just train smart, and you’ll be able to do this for a very long time – as such, don’t be attached to old school bodybuilding ideas and be open to giving bands a go.

In summary, we can use bands on machines to make it harder for our muscles in contractile ranges where we are strong, and/or lighter in ranges where we are weaker. Both scenarios can provide a better stimulus for new muscle growth and it will also save your joints in the long run.

If you are unsure of where to band a machine or which strength of band to use then be sure to click the button below, sign up today and the team will be able to help you with that.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons