By Dr. Quinn Henoch, PT, DPT
I frequently receive questions regarding my thoughts on protocols using banded resistance for upper back and shoulder accessory exercises. Below are examples of what I am referring to.
These protocols are typically implemented with goals of muscle hypertrophy, neuromuscular re-education of shoulder and scapular movement (i.e. motor control, stability, etc), or both.
Bigger muscles are generally stronger muscles. Also, more muscle mass around a joint is typically thought to be protective in nature. So implementing programs such as above with the goal of muscle hypertrophy is warranted – if it is going to improve the performance and resiliency of the shoulder complex. This is, of course, if these programs are capable of providing the stimulus to signal muscle growth in the first place.
Here are three proposed mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy:
This refers to loading or tensioning the muscle under large amounts of load (barbell, dumbbell, etc) through combinations of isometric, concentric, and eccentric contractions. This type of stimulus starts a cascade of physiological events (many of which we do not understand) that can contribute to muscle growth.
In regards to band-resisted exercises, those implements are not going to give you anywhere near the amount of mechanical tension that free weights will give. As challenging as it is sometimes to pull a band to it’s end range, it just does not produce the signaling that a heavy free weight can produce – at least in terms of mechanical tension. Imagine an athlete taking one of the heavier bands above, and doing 5 sets of 5 T’s and Y’s – with the goal of building more muscle. Think it will do much? Five by Five barbell press with 70-85% – yes. Even things like barbell rows, prone rows, lat pull downs, seated rows, etc – yes. Five by Five banded T’s? Nah. It’s just not enough load.
This refers to the micro-damage that takes place in the muscle and surrounding connective tissue from training, and is associated with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is theorized to contribute to muscle hypertrophy as the body attempts to adapt and rebuild more tissue than before to combat damage from subsequent bouts.
Biasing the eccentric phase of muscle contraction (muscle stretch + muscle contraction) has been shown to result in increased DOMS. An example would be performing pull-up negatives, where you lower yourself down more slowly than normal.
In regards to band-resisted exercises: The nature of bands is such that the eccentric portion of the movement is inherently harder to control because of the elastic property of the band. This is exactly why things like banded kettlebell swings have been implemented as a means of active recovery – because the elastic property of the bands effectively eliminate the eccentric portion of a movement.
So, if eccentrics are limited during banded exercise, so is the potential for muscular damage. Yes, you can consciously slow down the eccentric phase of the movements in the pictures above; but because bands are at their highest tension at end range, and hardly any tension as you return to the start position, it is difficult to maintain a steady tempo. I prefer free weight, bodyweight, suspension system, or pulley eccentrics for purposes of muscular damage to stimulate hypertrophy.
This refers to the build up of metabolites (lactate, hydrogen ions, etc) in the muscle as a result of high intensity training. This, again, seems to trigger a hypertrophic cascade. Reducing rest periods between sets can increase metabolic stress. It is the burnnnn that some of you sick bastards love.
In regards to band-resisted exercises – NOW WE ARE TALKIN’. There is definitely some utility here. Those exercises burn like shit – and you can manipulate them as such to increase the effect. For example, as you are moving through reps of your favorite banded exercise, do not let your muscles rest at the end of a rep. Keep tension on them for the entire set, and I promise you will feel some metabolic stress. Combine this with slowing down the tempo of the movement in general, and you will be building up your metabolites like a champ.
Now this is only one theorized component of muscle hypertrophy. So this alone may give you a sick pump, but may not actually grow your muscles all that much (depending on how experienced and conditioned you are). So, superset these things with some of your heavier compound barbell or dumbbell movements to combine the metabolic stress your get with the bands with the mechanical tension and muscular damage you can get from free weights.
Alternatively, if you got plenty of free weight exercise in during a session, then you can knock out your banded stuff at the end of a workout. However, don’t rest too long – because that will negate metabolic stress.
Adding load/resistance will reinforce a movement pattern – whether the pattern is good or bad. That includes the resistance from a band. So, if your goal for implementing these protocols is dynamic stability through the shoulder complex, there is utility as a motor-control teaching tool. They can be implemented as part of your warm up or movement prep. Let’s just make sure we are reinforcing proper movement patterns by:
Maintaining Ribcage Position & Stability Through Trunk & Pelvis
We say it all the time. Ribcage position dictates shoulder function. If you are performing these exercises without first establishing a neutral position through the trunk, than the benefits will be metabolic stress and nothing more.
Look at the picture above. Three out of the four individuals have established a stable trunk position, and are effectively dissociating movement of the shoulder joint and scapula from the ribcage and trunk (reinforcing appropriate motor patterns). You can probably guess which one is not… The woman in the red shorts. She is demonstrating a broken position through her thoracolumbar junction – and reinforcing a movement pattern in which every time she goes overhead or attempts to recruit her lower traps, she will hyperextend through the lumbar spine. No bueno for producing force or proficient athletic movement.
To mitigate this faulty pattern, use a full exhale through the mouth to set ribcage position – then use an inhale through the nose to reinforce position. This should be low to medium threshold, meaning don’t try to hard. You shouldn’t be bracing like you are pulling a max effort deadlift. Watch this video for a visual of the breathing sequence that I am referring to.
Then it is time to pull that pelvis back underneath you. Sometimes we forget about the lower body when performing upper body movements, but the pelvis dictates our base, and its position is just as important as the ribcage. Watch this video for a visual of pelvic position when going overhead.
Isolate Shoulder Joint & Shoulder Blade Movement
Once we have established trunk position, we must be able to dissociate shoulder blade, shoulder joint and upper tspine extension (desirable), without compensating unnecessarily through the low back. It is important to have the neuromuscular control to allow the shoulder blades to slide freely around the ribcage during these types of exercises, but to also know when to fix the scapula and perform the movement through the shoulder joint only. Check out these two videos to understand what I am talking about:
From a rehab standpoint, there is utility for band-resisted exercises early in the rehabilitation phase to increase blood flow to the healing area, and to facilitate muscles that may be victim of pain inhibition or disuse atrophy. The appropriate implementation is dependent on the case.
For healthy individuals, we have to be realistic about these exercises and protocols such as the one referenced to at the beginning of the article. No matter how fancy the equipment or compelling the exercise description, these types of things are not magical potion for injury prevention and performance enhancement; and by no means should they take the place of tried and true methods of human performance. Rather, they should supplement and augment them.
Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Oct 2010; 24, 10
Quinn Henoch has a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Indianapolis. He is the head of rehabilitation for JuggernautHQ and Darkside Strength. His clinic, Paradigm Performance Therapy, is adjacent to the new Juggernaut gym located in Laguna Niguel, CA. Quinn played football at the Div 1-AA level at Valparaiso University as a defensive back. He has also competed in track and field, Crossfit, and powerlifting. Currently, he trains full time as an Olympic weightlifter, and competed in the 2014 American Open and has qualified for the 2015 National Championships as a 77kg lifter.