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A woman holding resistance bands.

Next to heavy weights and high-tech cardio machines, resistance bands — those colorful lengths of rubber tubing with a handle on either end — may not look like much.

But don’t be fooled: Resistance bands may be the most challenging and effective (not to mention convenient) piece of exercise equipment many of us have overlooked.

“I always use resistance bands in my workouts, whether I’m training myself or my clients,” says Los Angeles–based trainer Valerie Waters.

What makes bands so great? Versatility, portability, convenience, and ease of use.

They provide an intense workout for people at any fitness level: novices, those recovering from injury, and seasoned athletes. Their low cost and small footprint make them ­especially useful for at-home workouts, and they’re easy to transport if you want to take your training outdoors or on the road.

By securing the center of the band to a stable object — think of a banister, doorknob, or even your own feet — and pulling or pushing the handles, you can perform an almost endless variety of strength-training moves in a limited space, with little transition time between movements.

And because the level of resistance changes depending on the thickness of the band and how far you stretch it, all you have to do is take a step toward or away from the anchor point to change the “weight” you’re lifting.

Many of your muscles get stronger as they approach their fully contracted state: You’re more powerful in the top half of a squat than the bottom half, for example, when the glutes, quads, and hamstrings — the prime movers in this exercise — contract.

A free weight, like a barbell or dumbbell, provides constant resistance and is limited by what you can lift in the toughest part of the move. Consider the squat again: You’ll work your hardest at the bottom of the lift.

With a resistance band, your muscles get more of a challenge when they need it (as they contract) and a bit of a break when they don’t (as they stretch). At the end-range of each exercise, you may well be “lifting” more than you normally would using a barbell or dumbbell. That can translate into more strength throughout a muscle’s entire range of motion.

For a sampling of just how challenging band training can be, give the following full-body workout a try — at home, at your health club or gym, or in a hotel room. All the equipment you need fits easily into your favorite carry-all bag.

The Band Workout

Perform the following six exercises back to back, with minimal rest between moves. Once you’ve finished the circuit, grab a quick drink of water — don’t take longer than 30 seconds of rest — and repeat one or two more times for a super-quick strength-training workout that will challenge your cardio system as well. “The whole thing will take you less than 20 minutes,” says workout designer Valerie Waters.

1. Anti-Rotation Reverse Lunge

anti rotation lunge with resistance band

  • Loop the band around a railing or other waist-high object. Pass one handle through the other and pull the band tight. Grasp the free handle in both hands.
  • Holding the handle against your body at chest height, step back a few feet to create tension on the band, and turn so your arms are perpendicular to the outstretched band.
  • Keeping your shoulders and hips square, extend your arms straight out.
  • Do a reverse lunge: Step back with your right foot and bend both legs, lowering your right knee to about an inch from the floor, resisting the band’s pull toward the anchor point.
  • Reverse the movement until you are standing again. Repeat for the appropriate number of reps.
  • Then turn so your right shoulder points toward the anchor point and repeat the reverse lunge movement, this time stepping your left foot back.
  • Perform eight to 10 reps per leg.

Make It Harder: Step back with the leg that is closer to the anchor point.

 2. Resistance-Band Fly

resistance band with fly

  • Loop the band around a chest-high anchor point. With your back to the anchor point, hold the handles at chest height, arms extended, palms facing one another.
  • Step forward to create tension on the band, and assume a staggered stance.
  • Keeping your elbows slightly bent, slowly open your arms to the side in a wide arc. Don’t let the bands overstretch your shoulders.
  • Reverse the movement, pause, and repeat.
  • Perform 15 reps.

3. Chest Press

chest press with resistance band

  • With your band secured at chest-height and facing away from the anchor point, hold the handles at chest height, arms extended in front with your palms down.
  • Take a step or two forward to create tension on the band, and assume a staggered stance with one foot slightly in front of the other.
  • Slowly bend your arms, bringing the handles close to the sides of your chest, as if lowering the bar in a bench-press exercise.
  • Reverse the movement, pressing the bands forward under control.
  • Perform 15 reps.

4. Squat to Row

squat to row with resistance band

  • Secure the band to a waist-high object. Face the anchor point, hold the handles, and step back a few feet to create tension in the band.
  • Assume a shoulder-width, feet-parallel stance with your arms extended in front. If the band is slack in this position, step back another foot or so.
  • Squat fully until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor, keeping your weight in your heels, your chest high, and your back straight throughout the movement.
  • Reverse the movement, returning to a standing position.
  • Slowly pull the handles toward the sides of your torso, simultaneously drawing your shoulder blades together.
  • Extend your arms in front of you, and repeat, making sure the two movements are distinct: Squat, then row.
  • Perform 15 reps.

5. Swimmer

swimmer with resistance band

  • With the band anchored to a waist-high object, face the anchor point, grasp the handles, bend your knees slightly, and hinge forward at the hips.
  • Keeping your arms straight and your lower back in its natural arch, sweep your arms out to the side and downward until the handles are near your hips.
  • Reverse the movement until your arms are in front of you again, and repeat.
  • Perform 15 reps.

6. Deadlift

deadlift with resistance band

  • Step on the band with feet about shoulder width apart.
  • Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, bend your knees slightly and sit back, hinging forward at the hip joints until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
  • Shorten the band by wrapping it around your hands until you feel tension.
  • Keeping your back straight and your abs engaged, push through your heels and drive up through your hips to a standing position.
  • Pause briefly in the stretched position, then slowly reverse the movement until you are in the starting bent-over position again.
  • Perform 15 reps.

See all the moves in action at The Resistance-Band Workout (Video).

This article originally appeared as “Stretch Your Strength” and has been updated. It was originally published online on October 17, 2013.

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