Variable resistance training, or VRT, has been a fixture in powerlifting for decades. In this context, VRT specifically refers to resistance training with elastic bands or chains attached to a barbell, mostly in the squat, bench press, and deadlift exercises. These are not thera-bands or machines with lumpy cams; we’re talking about real-deal exercises with bands or chains creating load in addition to the traditional plates. It is referred to as VRT because the resistance changes throughout the movement, increasing as the lifter approaches the lockout. VRT can also be called accommodating resistance, as the resistance is accommodating the “strength curve,” meaning the resistance is greater in the range of motion which the lifter is usually stronger.
You might be thinking, “but if I’m already stronger in that range of motion, why the hell am I training it? I don’t get stuck at the top!” There are two components to power generation, force and speed. We all know force is necessary for moving serious weight, but speed, and momentum, is often overlooked. If you get stuck about 3 inches off the chest in the bench press, then that 3 inches can be used to generate momentum to help press through the sticking point. VRT emphasizes maximal power generation through the entire range of motion – you have to work harder at the bottom to get through the top. This can be achieved by working both sides of the power equation, force and speed.
Speed training, or dynamic effort training a la Westside Barbell, uses submaximal loads with the goal of fast bar speed, and it is an underutilized tool for many intermediate level lifters. Everyone knows lifting heavy can make you stronger, but few realize lifting fast can make you stronger too. The first research study I ever conducted compared a traditional 6-week strength and conditioning program to the exact same program with bands added to the squat and bench press exercises once per week on the dynamic effort day. The group with added bands had greater increases in strength than the traditional training group. More recently, Soria-Gila et al. found that in 10 out of 11 studies researching VRT, the VRT group experienced greater improvements than traditional training.
So how do we use bands or chains? First, load is important. Somewhere around 30% of 1RM from band tension currently seems ideal for speed training with 40-60% 1RM as traditional free weights. When I say 30%, I mean 30% at the top, or at the bands longest length during the lift. At the bottom of the lift, the band or chain ideally is providing very little to no tension. However, you do not want the band to go slack more than 1/2 inch from the bottom of the range of motion. If you do not know the tension of your bands at particular length. You can pull a MacGyver and figure it out by hanging a weight from the band and measuring its length with a tape measure. To fine tune the tension, you can wrap the band around the bar a few times. Second, great gyms will have squat racks and benches with band pegs, but other times you can secure them to a dumbbell or the bottom of the rack. Make sure it’s a heavy dumbbell; if it comes off of the floor, that’s called crazy bells, and that’s fun, but it’s not what we’re doing – get a heavier dumbbell. On the bench press, you can also wrap the band underneath the bench. It’s a bit more precarious and awkward, but it gets the job done. Third, always remember that this is SPEED TRAINING. Move the freaking bar like you mean it. For 2-5 reps, 3-8 sets.
For strength training (i.e. max effort method) with accommodating resistance, add 10-25% 1RM as band/chain tension to 80-95% free weight. 3-5 sets. 1-5 reps. This is the same setup, just a different application. For strength adaptations, both bands and chains are great, but I favor chains or chains with a light band. Conversely, I will always use bands over chains for speed training due to their multiplicative nature. Let me explain. Bands will get harder faster, and chains will get harder at a constant rate. For example, for every inch a band is stretched, it will increase in resistance by 1lb for the first inch, 1.5lbs for the second inch, 2.5lbs for the third inch, 4lbs for the fourth inch, etc. but chains will always add 2lbs per inch it is raised from the floor. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers, but you get the point. I also like bands because you can use them against gravity as well as with gravity.
What I’m talking about is called reverse bands. Not only does this get your ego yoked, but it’s a great tool for getting mentally and physically comfortable under near-max loads as well as work on power development out of the hole in a manner more akin to heavy lifting. It similarly accommodates a strength curve, but instead of adding variable resistance in the concentric, it variably removes load as you descend. For reverse bands, it should be obvious from the name, but you attach the bands to the top of the rack instead of the bottom. Then you toss another plate on the bar and legally change your name to Billy Badass. Use bands this way if you fail in the hole, off the chest, or off the ground. This means you suck at changing direction in the squat/bench or at initiating the pull in the deadlift and can help fix it with the reverse band exercise. That being said, if you have bad technique, then reverse bands will not help you much – fix your technique! The reverse band exercise is also great for improving bar speed with heavy loads, and leading up to a 1RM test or meet for building comfort with heavy, supramaximal weight.
Now we know VRT can help you get stronger and more powerful, but what about bigger? I’ll change the exercise here to meet a bodybuilding application and discuss the leg press. We all had a friend or classmate growing up that thought it was awesome to half-rep a few hundred pounds on the leg press. If you didn’t have one, you might need to check your range of motion next time you leg press. Anyway, the point is that the top half of a leg press is easy-peasy. As a result, we don’t really need to keep pressing very hard once we get out of the bottom to complete the lift, and in fact it is discouraged to press so hard that the sled flies off of our feet. What can we do? I think you know. We can accommodate the strength curve. Using bands, we can increase the load selectively at the easy range of motion to make it harder at the top and get a better contraction in the quads.
In short, bands make you faster, stronger, and bigger, and you should really start using them in your training.
- Joy, J. M., Lowery, R. P., Oliveira de Souza, E., & Wilson, J. M. (2013). Elastic bands as a component of periodized resistance training. J Strength Cond Res.
- Soria-Gila, M. A., Chirosa, I. J., Bautista, I. J., Chirosa, L. J., & Salvador, B. (2015). EFFECTS OF VARIABLE RESISTANCE TRAINING ON MAXIMAL STRENGTH: A META-ANALYSIS. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jordan Joy is currently a Research Coordinator at the MusclePharm Sports Science Institute. He is a CISSN certified sports nutritionist and CSCS certified strength coach. Jordan has his MS in Applied Nutrition with Northeastern University and is pursuing his PhD in Human Performance.