Resistance Bands for Faster, More Powerful Athletes

Articles Strength and performance Training / 12 June, 2018 /

By Stephane Cazeault

When it comes to sports, we often hear the saying “speed kills”. Strength is the base of athletic performance, but strength alone cannot make you the best team sport athlete you can be. If you can get a lifter to be strong and fast, then you have a trainee with true athletic potential. As a strength and conditioning coach, providing a structured training plan that will help your lifters become faster will drastically improve the level of success of your athletes.

I remember back when I was studying exercise science at the University of Montréal, one of my courses was Gymnastic Level 1 where we learned the basics of gymnastics coaching. During one of the classes, the professor organized some type of contest to display strength and power. The drill entailed having two guys sitting on the floor with our backs against each other and our knees bent at 90 degrees with our feet planted firmly on the floor.

After an audible cue from the teacher, we had to explode into our opponent and try to bring him down using only our legs and back. I firmly believed this was going to be a done deal and that I would crush everyone since I was known as the “weight training guy”. I did pretty well until I was matched with an actual high ranked college level gymnast. At the time I was around 185 lbs (84 kg) and my opponent was about 150 lbs (68 kg). With my bodybuilding training and my size advantage, I truly thought I’d dominate the battle.

As soon as I heard the verbal cue from the coach, I was smashed down to the ground. I was blown away by how powerful he was and how fast he could generate this level of strength. It’s at this point in time that I realized what rate of force development was and how far off the speed-strength continuum my bodybuilding training had gotten me. I always liked size, but I was also fascinated by being powerful. If I wanted to build better athletes, it was time for me to review my approach to weight training.

One of the greatest attributes to possess as an athlete is the ability to exert maximal forces rapidly. In strength training, this concept is called the rate of force development. High levels of maximal strength are extremely important for athletic success as it is highly correlated with the ability to apply explosive forces. The drawback to exerting peak torque through maximal voluntary contractions is that it is time dependent.

Most athletes will be able to reach peak force in 300 milliseconds. In most team sports, actions require around 200 milliseconds. For these athletes, it becomes evident that improved maximal strength is a great determinant of performance as the nervous system has time to produce relatively high levels of peak forces before the action is deployed.

With movements characterized by extreme speed, for example sprints require 80 to 90 milliseconds to produce its action, maximal strength becomes less relevant as the athlete has a much shorter time to create high levels of force. The efficiency from movements of this magnitude is highly determined by the contractile properties of the muscle fibers.

In fact, the twitch properties of fast-twitch fibers are greatly faster than the slow type I fibers, so a trainee with predominantly slow-twitch muscle fibers is at a great disadvantage when the goal is to improve the rate of force development. For this reason, the use of fast training methods becomes much more important when trying to increase the recruitment of high threshold motor units.

Understanding that to a certain extent, maximal strength is a positive determinant of speed, as a coach the training program needs to use methods and techniques that will enable the lifter to progressively improve rate of force development. At this point, the goal of the training program is to teach the nervous system to exert high levels of forces at an improved speed.

There are multiple methods and techniques that can be used to improve speed-strength. I like to define dynamic training methods as evolving through a continuum. With weight training exercises, the intensity continuum ranges anywhere from 30% to 70% of 1RM while plyometric methods can implement loads varying from 0% (bodyweight) to 30% of 1RM.

The velocity of the movement will be inversely correlated to the intensity level. There are techniques that require higher loads and less speed while others have greater needs for speed and less for load.

The simplest way to improve power is by forcing acceleration of a load via compensatory acceleration to create near maximal tension. As the force demand diminishes from the start of the movement to full extension, it is advisable to compensate by creating added tension over the course of the concentric contraction by increasing barbell velocity. 

Intended maximal concentric acceleration can go a long way in increasing force output and recruitment of high threshold motor units, but at a certain point, the intent to accelerate is not enough and actual bar speed becomes necessary to the training process.

One system that I like to create compensatory acceleration of the ascending strength curve movements is the use of barbell implements. The most commonly used implements are resistance bands and chains. When these implements are applied correctly they can make a substantial difference in your quest to develop power.  

For the purpose of this article, I would like to illustrate how to optimize the implementation of resistance bands to increase the rate of force development.

The common mistake that most trainees make when using resistance bands is too much barbell load. For example, if a lifters 6RM is 330 lbs on the squat and the trainee decides to add light-tension resistance bands to the barbell for 5 sets of 6 reps at 330 lbs, the 6 reps will be performed at a very slow speed since the weight is a maximum RM load.

While this method might be useful to elicit a hypertrophy response because of the exposure to longer time under tension, the slower velocities detract from the training effect from compensatory acceleration.  

An alternative to using bands for power output is to start with a barbell load between 50% to 70% of 1RM for sets between 4 to 8 repetitions with a tempo of 2-0-X-0. Over time you will progress by increasing band tension.

Here is an example of how to periodize band use over multiple exposures:

  • 50% of 1RM for 8 reps with light-tension bands
  • 60% of 1RM for 6 reps with light-tension bands
  • 70% of 1RM for 4 reps with light-tension bands
  • 50% of 1RM for 8 reps with medium-tension bands
  • 60% of 1RM for 6 reps with medium-tension bands
  • 70% of 1RM for 4 reps with medium-tension bands
  • 50% of 1RM for 8 reps with high-tension bands
  • 60% of 1RM for 6 reps with high-tension bands
  • 70% of 1RM for 4 reps with high-tension bands

Using this 9-step progression will ensure that barbell velocity is appropriate for the expression of power.

Favor a 2-0-X-0 tempo to make use of the increased stretch-shortening cycle potentiation from the added tension promoted by the elasticity from the bands pulling the weight back eccentrically. This will improve rate of force development in the early stage of the concentric contraction.

As with anything in training, a systematic and progressive approach to the implementation of special techniques will always lead to higher training potential. The training level of the trainee will dicate the progression of band use over a training phase. Resistance bands should not be used with a beginner lifter as strength is a priority over developing power. An intermediate lifter should have more consistent exposures to training methods while the advanced athlete can have more abrupt progressions.

Here is an example of a 3-week mesocycle for an intermediate lifter using bands for the squat with a 1RM of 300 lbs:

Week 1

Lower Body  
Squat 5 x 8 @ 150 lbs (50% of 1RM) with light-tension bands

Week 2

Lower Body
Squat 5 x 8 @ 150 lbs (50% of 1RM) with light-tension bands

Week 3

Lower Body
Squat 5 x 8 @ 150 lbs (50% of 1RM) with light-tension bands

Here is an example of a 3-week mesocycle for an advanced lifter using bands for the squat with a 1RM of 400 lbs:

Week 1

Lower Body  
Squat 5 x 8 @ 200 lbs (50% of 1RM) with light-tension bands

Week 2

Lower Body
Squat 5 x 6 @ 240 lbs (60% of 1RM) with light-tension bands

Week 3

Lower Body
Squat 5 x 4 @ 280 lbs (70% of 1RM) with light-tension bands

As each level of athlete advances through their training years, they would simply progress through the 9 steps with any phase in which the resistance bands are used for speed-strength purposes.

Speed can make or break a team sport athlete. Understanding how to improve rate of force development of qualified athletes will drastically improve their rate of success. Get strong first and then learn how to apply force faster. There are many different training modalities to use with dynamic training, in this article we have covered using resistance bands to accommodate the concentric resistance of ascending strength curve exercises.

Remember to do so with a load that allows you to actually move the bar quickly with force. Be conservative with the load and be patient with your progressions and you will reach higher levels of power output over the course of your training career.  


Stéphane has spent the last 24 years perfecting his work. He has a strong formal academic foundation, earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from the University of Montreal. Stéphane recently published his first book, 66 Strategies to Program Design.In his career Stéphane has personally trained professional athletes in football (NFL), baseball (MLB), and hockey (NHL). Stéphane’s passion is program design. His program design is carefully structured with every possible component taken into consideration to ensure the trainee reaches and exceeds their goals, making his work a combination of both science and art.

Written by Stephane Cazeault