Resistance bands may be widely known as a tool for rehab and prehab, but don’t count them out as a key ally in your quest to craft strong, solid muscles. These elastic bands can provide a solid amount of resistance against which you can push and pull to provide you with the ultimate full-body workout.
The best upper body resistance band workout will engage your entire body — yes, including your core and even your legs — in a strength training session that will leave you with a nice pump and primped for hypertrophy. Resistance bands recruit stabilizer muscles throughout your body and provide a steady amount of tension during each rep. That’s ideal for growth.
Whether you’re on the search for home workouts or want to expand your arm workout repertoire without buying a boatload of new equipment, resistance bands are an excellent go-to. Here, you’ll learn how to build your upper body with nothing but resistance bands (and why you should try it). Ready? Let’s get into it.
Upper Body Resistance Band Workout
If you want to build a strong, well-balanced upper body, you need to be pushing, pulling, and rotating.
With a single resistance band, you can accomplish all of the following. But if you want to push yourself even harder, try to access a set of resistance bands — one heavy, one medium, and one minimum resistance. This way, you can customize this workout to your needs as specifically as possible.
- Banded Pull-Up: 3 x 1-minute AMRAP*
- Banded Overhead Press: 3 x 15
- Banded Lat Pulldown: 3 x 12
- Banded Overhead Triceps Extension: 3 x 15
- Banded Biceps Curl: 3 x 20
- Banded Cross-Body Chop: 3 x 10 per side
- Banded Plank with Shoulder Tap: 3 x 1-minute AMRAP
* AMRAP = as many reps as possible
A word to the wise: don’t conflate “as many reps as possible” with poor form. A better way to think of AMRAP might be “as many reps as possible with excellent form.” In this case, having great form refers to moving slowly and with control. All things being equal, the more time under tension you spend, the more muscle-building potential you can develop. (1)
You’re going to get the best workout possible when you bring your banded pull-ups all the way through the top and bottom of your range of motion with every single rep. You’ll engage your core and shoulder muscles most strongly by moving as though through molasses during your plank with shoulder taps. So, do as many reps as you can — but keep the quality high.
Best Upper Body Resistance Band Exercises
Don’t have time for the full workout? Grab a set of resistance bands and craft a strong upper body (while your lower body and core support you) with these exercises.
Whether you mastered the art of an unassisted pull-up many moons ago or are still working on your first unassisted rep, this exercise is for you.
For those who need a more inclusive or beginner-friendly way to do a pull-up, using a heavier band is a good choice for maximum support. As you advance, you can taper down the resistance you use based on what your body needs.
And if you’re more of an old hat at pull-ups, utilize the assistance from a light band to do very controlled and slow pull-ups, focusing on the eccentric (lowering) part of the movement. You’ll get that magical time under tension — and resulting muscle growth — that you’ve been chasing.
How to Do It
- Anchor your chosen resistance band to the pull-up bar by looping the band through itself.
- Step your feet into the resistance band loop, keeping the balls of your feet on the ends of the band.
- Grasp the pull-up bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Grip closer together if you don’t have the best shoulder mobility.
- Initiate the pull by driving your elbows down into your back pockets, engaging your upper back first.
- Continue pulling until your chin comes over the bar.
- Lower yourself back down slowly and with control.
This move is classic for a reason. Biceps curls build that peak in your upper arm, which in turn, can support shoulder strength and mobility. These are both huge factors in cultivating a strong, well-balanced upper body.
Happily, you don’t need dumbbells or an EZ bar to get curling. All you need is a resistance band. To make this exercise more challenging, choose a heavier band and focus on doing slow and controlled repetitions.
For those who are new to biceps curls, grab a light resistance band and practice good form. Engage your core, squeeze your quads and glutes, and avoid swinging your body to yank up the band.
How to Do It
- Step on the inside of a looped resistance band.
- Using an underhand grip, grasp the other side of the band with both hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Bend from your biceps, curling both arms upwards. Hug the inside of your elbow to the inside of your upper arm.
- In a controlled manner, bring your hands back down to your starting position.
With or without a barbell, bent-over rows are incredible back-builders. Since you’ll be doing them from a hip hinge position, you’ll also build a stronger lower back, hamstrings, glutes, and core. So yes, this one is about your upper body — but it’s also a total body-builder.
Pro tip: Roll your shoulders back and down before beginning your first rep. Think about tucking your shoulders away from your ears. This makes the exercise more effective. Use a heavier band than you would with a biceps curl.
How to Do It
- Stand on a heavy resistance band with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hinge from the hips and extend your arms forward, holding the band in your hands.
- Adjust your feet on the band so that there is tension on the band as soon as you grasp it with extended arms.
- Pull with equal tension from each arm, moving your elbows and shoulder blades back. Aim to put your elbows into your back pocket.
- Staying controlled, carefully lower the band back to the starting spot. Maintain your hip hinge and repeat for reps.
Resistance Band Push-Up
Resistance band push-ups are ideal for people aiming to kick traditional push-ups a notch by adding tension to the movement. Even if you’re more of a beginner, you can still do these push-ups on your knees and reap the benefits of the resistance band component.
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No matter your skill or experience level, adding a band to your push-ups will help train you to maintain tension throughout the entire movement. It’s easy to become very automatic with your reps, but you lose out on maximizing the contraction in the “push” component. Adding resistance can help add a mind-muscle connection back to this fundamental movement.
How to Do It
- Using a thin looped resistance band, loop the band around your upper back.
- Secure the ends of the loop around each thumb.
- Assume a plank position, keeping the band in place.
- Lower yourself down, pushing your elbows back and close to the body.
- Rise back up, keeping your body in a straight line.
Upper Body Resistance Band Warm-Up
Warming up doesn’t mean running a marathon before your actual workout. Instead, the idea is to activate the muscles you’re about to use so that they’re ready for action. To do this, you’ll be working through different ranges of motion to make sure that your chest, shoulders, arms, upper back, and core are all ready to get after it.
Here is a short warm-up sequence to do before getting to the entrée (er, the workout).
- Banded Shoulder Circle: 10 per direction
- Band Pull-Apart: 15
- Banded Side Bend: 10 per side
Perform this complete circuit two or three times total, moving slowly and intentionally throughout each rep. Don’t forget to breathe deeply.
Benefits of Upper Body Resistance Band Workouts
Resistance bands invite you to spend more time under tension, which is a recipe for muscle growth. These tools can also give your joints a break while giving your upper body the exposure to the wide range of motion that it needs. Plus, you can take these bands anywhere. As if you needed more reasons to get your sweat on.
Better Rotation and Range of Motion
Whether you’re incorporating them into a warm-up, cool-down, or the heart of your workout, exercise bands can help you access ranges of motion that your upper body needs to stay limber.
Because resistance bands allow you to move through various ranges of motion and rotations that aren’t so easily available with free weights, research suggests that training with bands can help you become more flexible and rotate better. (2) This may translate into better performance in certain sports and activities of daily living.
Easy to Use
Unlike a rack of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells, resistance bands are easy to toss into your gym bag and go. You can take them cross-country as you hike the Appalachian Trail or pull them out in your living room on a rainy day. They’re an accessible and affordable piece of exercise equipment that can make working out less intimidating.
As long as you’re able to anchor them to a stable base (looping them around a door handle and securely shutting the door works well in a home), you have a wide variety of exercises in your hands each time you pick up a band.
Besides using resistance bands for upper body workouts, you can also use them to pump up your leg day or during core exercises. Just like a free weight, a resistance band can be used for a dizzying amount of workouts.
Use them to spice up your bodyweight workouts when you’re on the road, or add bands or chains to create accommodating resistance to your barbell workouts. With such a portable, relatively inexpensive, and accessible piece of equipment, the possibilities are pretty much endless.
How to Work Out Safely with Resistance Bands
Nervous about trying resistance bands? Don’t be! With a little guidance, you’ll be a natural. Check out these three important tips to stay safe and get a great workout in.
Avoid Damaged Bands
The best resistance bands are safe resistance bands. This may seem obvious, but it’s still worth noting: Don’t use a damaged resistance band. A torn or partially cut band could mean injury if it snaps at a critical movement.
It might seem worth risking it, but you don’t want your face to find out the hard way about a partially torn band during a simple warm-up set. Only use resistance bands after you’ve carefully inspected them for damage.
There are two good reasons to go slowly when using resistance bands. One, time under tension is an important component of muscle building. (1) It’s not all about the weight on the bar, or even having a bar at all. The longer the muscle is under tension, the more resistance you generate in a movement. And the more resistance you generate, the more your muscle can grow.
Instead of loading up with external weight, resistance band exercises require you to move slowly as a form of progressive overload rather than simply sliding more weight plates onto the bar. You’ll develop a lot more discipline, strength, and muscle when you move slowly.
But it’s not only about your gains. Resistance bands can be very dangerous if used quickly in an uncontrolled manner. Even if they aren’t previously damaged, resistance bands can snap and hurt you or others around you.
Anchor to Something Stable
Before beginning any exercise, anchor your band and check it twice. Maybe three times for good measure. Anchoring your resistance band to an unmoving object — think, a squat stand or power rack — is necessary for staying controlled and safe during your workout.
In addition to avoiding the dreaded snapback, anchoring helps you get a more consistent resistance level for each movement.
No Need for Weights
If you have access to a fully-stocked home gym, by all means — use your barbells and dumbbells to your heart’s content. But don’t sleep on the benefits of resistance band training. To build a well-rounded, fully mobile, and strong arms, chest, and shoulders, you’ll want to break out this upper body resistance band workout every now and then.
Even if you’re not on the road, sprinkling resistance band training into your workout program will give your joints a break while providing an extra challenge for your muscles. And if you are on the road, good luck trying to fit your barbell in your duffel bag. Instead, don’t forget to pack your resistance bands — you’ll never miss another workout again.
Still have questions about resistance band workouts? We’ve got answers.
Can you gain muscle with resistance bands?
Take advantage of the band’s accommodating resistance — it’ll maintain a resistance at multiple ranges of motion that you won’t get as easily from free weights. Move slowly to maximize your range of motion, especially in eccentric portions of lifts, and you may well experience muscle growth.
You can also use bands to add additional resistance to free-weight exercise with barbells or dumbbells, therefore boosting potential muscle gain.
Are bands better than weights?
Neither is better than the other. Free weights and bands are both excellent choices for a wide variety of lifters.
However, resistance bands can be a better choice for some people. If you have a nagging injury or just want to give your joints a break, resistance bands are a low-impact alternative to weights. They are also superior if you’re traveling with access to minimal equipment.
Still, free weights are a fan favorite for a reason. They offer a more targeted approach to muscle growth and create a straightforward approach to progressive overload. When you need to make a lift more challenging, you can simply increase the weight. With free weights, it’s easier to increase and decrease your overall load at will, which is useful for max strength-building.
- Burd NA, Andrews RJ, West DW, Little JP, Cochran AJ, Hector AJ, Cashaback JG, Gibala MJ, Potvin JR, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. J Physiol. 2012 Jan 15;590(2):351-62.
- Seguin RC, Cudlip AC, Holmes MWR. The Efficacy of Upper-Extremity Elastic Resistance Training on Shoulder Strength and Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports (Basel). 2022 Feb 14;10(2):24.
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