When and How to Add Resistance Bands to Your Barbell Workout

As if the major compound lifts — the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press — weren’t difficult enough, we have a tweak that'll leave you gassed: adding resistance bands. The added resistance kicks in at the top of your movement, making it increasingly difficult to complete each rep. The result is more power and explosiveness than you've ever had before. 

Benefits of Adding Bands to Barbell Exercises

“Adding bands to standard lifts, such as the bench press, works to aid in two important principles,” say Chris Clough, an elite personal trainer. “First, time under tension, and second, increasing load at the apex of the lift — the furthest point from the original starting point as the band stretches.” This is significant because during traditional training, the apex of the lift often signifies a decrease in tension — it’s when your working muscles get a bit of a breather between repetitions. But when you add resistance bands to the barbell, the tension increases at the top of the movement, removing the built-in “break,” and forcing your working muscles to continue to contract.

Functionally, adding bands to the barbell can help you push through workout plateaus while safely developing strength. “If you think about a bench press, you can only move so much weight if you’re not strong enough to push it up from the bottom,” says Stephen Box, a trainer and owner of Stephen Box Fitness & Nutrition. “Bands allow you to use a lighter barbell weight and still build strength by applying constant tension to the muscle.”

The same principle applies when it comes to working on power and speed — you can explosively shoot up from a squat with good form by using a lighter plate load, while continuing to increase resistance throughout the movement by adding bands. And as the bands stretch, creating instability, they force you to further engage your core and the stabilizing muscles of your shoulders or hips.

When to Start Using Bands

Banded barbell exercises aren’t for everyone. In fact, all the trainers interviewed for this piece agreed — this is an advanced lifting technique. “It isn’t really needed until you hit a plateau,” says Richard Wilcock, a strength coach and studio owner. “If you’re increasing weight on your lifts every couple weeks, there’s no need to use bands, as you’re progressing naturally.” But if you hit a wall you just can’t seem to overcome, that’s when you should start adding bands.

How to Get Started

The trick to adding bands is twofold: First, you need to make sure you secure the bands correctly — the last thing you want is to get snapped in the face with what amounts to a giant slingshot. Attach one band to each side of the barbell, secured between a plate and a weight clip to ensure it doesn’t come loose, then attach the opposite side of each band to a heavy, fixed object, like the squat rack or bench press.

Second, significantly reduce the amount of weight you typically lift. “I recommend using the lightest band available and an empty bar for a warm up set just to get used to the changes in resistance,” Wilcock says. “After this, progress to about 80 percent of what you’re aiming to work at to see how it feels.” Since the band is adding resistance to your lift, you shouldn’t expect to start with your typical load.

If you’re ready to give it a try, Wilcock points to the following exercises as a good place to start: