That’s where resistance bands come in big for the at-home exerciser: You can pretty much create your own pulley system with one. While you can buy an over-the-door anchor online ($ 10, amazon.com), you can also make your own by tying a knot at each end of a long sock, putting both sides into the door, and threading the band through the resulting loop, Miklaus says. You can also place the anchor on the hinge-side of the door if you want the band to be, say, at chest height, or along the bottom of the door if you want it to be floor-level. For safety, make sure the door closes toward you—that way, it won’t be able to fly open at you if the closure doesn’t hold, he says.
My apartment, though, has some pretty old and flimsy doors, so I decided to take my resistance band outside to my super-sturdy steel fire escape. I thread the resistance band through the openings on the stairs, or around the pole along the railing, which gives me a solid anchor—and a variety of pulling angles. Depending on where I choose, I can do pull-downs, high-low rows, or horizontal rows. This pulley system has been huge for me, since the dumbbells I have at home are too light to row.
Speaking of fire-escape workouts, I also use the stairs to crank out a few sets of pull-ups. (Again, the sturdiness is key here—anything you’re going to pull from, or hang your bodyweight from, needs to be super sturdy and secure). If you can’t get a bodyweight pull-up yet on your own, bands come in handy to provide assistance. Just secure the band above you, and put your knee into the loop. (In the case of pull-up assistance, thicker bands make the move easier, not harder.)
3. Resistance bands challenge your muscles differently than free weights.
Using resistance bands during a workout was new to me. I’d used them in the past during warm-ups or for stretching or mobility work, but never to a challenging extent.
When I did, I was surprised by the difference I felt: They make the end of the move a lot harder than regular free weights do.
Then I wondered: Does it just feel more difficult because I’m not used to it?
Nope—the inherent nature of resistance bands means you actually are working harder at completion.
“With a dumbbell, you are actually going to lose tension toward the top of the range of motion. The greatest force, and therefore the greatest contractions in the muscle, usually happen around the mid part of the range of motion,” Miklaus says. “With bands, we have increasing resistance force as the band gets longer, which is typically at the peak of the movement, so we have the most amount of force at the end of the range of motion.”
The practical implication of that is that you can work on different sticking points that you may have in certain exercises. For example, I struggle with the final lockout on the deadlift. When I deadlift with a resistance band, it forces me to really make sure my glutes are firing, since the resistance provided by the band is strongest at that top point.
Another benefit? When I feel that burn of peak contraction—say, when my elbow is past my side for a row—I’m tempted to hold it for a second or two. Slowing down reps and adding pauses is a key strategy for making exercises feel harder when you can’t add weight.
4. They make for killer supersets.
Another way to make exercises feel harder without adding weight is incorporating supersets—going from one exercise to the next without rest, as Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., founder of Core in Brookline, MA, told me previously. And when you’re strength training at home with limited equipment options, working the same muscles back-to-back in a superset can help pre-exhaust your muscles and make them feel like they’re working harder.