Source: I'm aware this is an image of a person hula hooping, but abstract illustrations of rubber bands are apparently hard to come by.

A Cry for Help

Several eons ago, when quarantine started, a younger and slightly more naive Brandon entered quarantine with a bike, a yoga mat, and a well-intentioned (but ultimately wrong) hope that this wouldn't last more than a few weeks.

And the biking/yoga combo (boga? yiking?) served its purpose well, but as the days and weeks wore on, it became increasingly clear that it wouldn't be enough. I was still shedding weight, and while my lower body was in fine shape, my upper body had become soft and sad from a clear lack of stimulation. Not quite "Christian Bale in The Machinist" bad, but bad enough that multiple people independently pointed out that I looked much smaller, in an "I'm worried about you, is this a cry for help?" kind of way. Worse, I could feel that I was physically weaker.*

Me a few weeks ago.
I was originally going to put an image of Christian Bale from The Machinist here, but all the images I found were slightly too grotesque for my taste. If you're unfamiliar with the film and curious of what I'm talking about, you can search for the film at your own risk.
From what I remember, it's a weird one.

Re-inflation

Like most people, I didn't enjoy the prospect of being a deflated shell of my former self, but it didn't seem like there were a lot of options. An at-home power rack would have been ideal, but not particularly practical when I was house-hopping. Even now that I've settled into a place (for the time being), Bay Area apartments aren't known for being overly spacious. A gym would also work, but they've been about as consistent as federal guidance on mask wearing. That is to say: I can't really rely on gyms to be open just yet.

And just when I thought all hope was lost, something happened — a reader (thanks Christoph!) reached out and suggested I try resistance bands, noting that they had started using them as an alternative to traditional in-gym strength training when quarantine started.

To say I was skeptical would be an understatement. In my mind, resistance bands were for the injured, the elderly, and apparently also my mother, who doesn't really fit into either of those categories. From my perspective, they certainly weren't for folks serious about strength training. Strength training required Large Metal Structures™ and Plates™ and Grunting™ and Angry Faces™ and Toxic Masculinity™, not GiAnT StReTcHy BaNdS.

But after a few emails back and forth, Christoph had convinced me otherwise. He showed me some videos showcasing resistance band variants of all the usual strength training staples: military press, bench press, squat, and deadlift. So I bit the bullet, and ordered a set of resistance bands.

An Adjustment Period

I've said it before and I'll surely say it again: I am a creature of habit. I've been doing more or less the same workout routine for nearly a decade at this point. And from that perspective, switching things up naturally required a bit of adjustment.

For starters, I'm used to calculating out the weight for each set down to 5 pound increments, meaning I'm shuffling comically small 2.5 pound plates on and off the bar. Resistance bands don't operate that way. There's not really the concept of weight. Instead, there's a similar (but much fuzzier) concept, resistance. You choose resistance by selecting a band (Extra Light, Light, Medium, Heavy, Extra Heavy), and sometimes by where you grip the band (closer to the anchor point == more resistance). Instead of moving the weight, the focus is on getting a peak contraction, i.e. doing the exercise through the full range of motion with proper form and focusing on muscle engagement.

And that's all well and fine, but it doesn't appeal to the more mathematically inclined part of me, the part that wants to empirically measure my progress. Spit-balling the resistance per set means I can vary things as I go, which is nice, but it also means the quality of my workout is subject to how willing I am to grab the bands in a way to maximize resistance. I'm a person who firmly believes that human motivation and willpower are flaky and fleeting constructs that shouldn't be relied on, and instead, one's environment should be set up to make achieving the desired outcome easier. As such, putting the onus of a hard workout on myself instead of baking it into the pre-calculated weights didn't sit well with me.

My strategy has been to institute rough guidelines for myself ahead of time, like "for the second set, grab lower on the band than on the first set", or "use the Medium band for the first set, then use the Heavy band for the next set". These get written down in a shorthand notation in my workout log in the same way I used to write down weights per set in a pre-COVID world. It's not quite the same as my old barbell routine, but it adds a nice set of guardrails to keep me honest.

This past week's band workouts.

In a Routine

At this point, I've been doing resistance band workouts five days per week for about six weeks, each workout being about 45 minutes to an hour depending on how much I'm dilly dallying. The bands I purchased came with a seven day trial of a three month, strength-training-focused fitness program. I used this trial period to take diligent notes on the whole three month training program, which I've saved on my phone and refer to for each workout.

As for the routine itself, I've actually been pretty happy with it. I try to minimize the rest time between sets to make it a little more cardiovascular-ly stimulating, and I end each workout feeling appropriately tired/pumped. I'm sore in all the right ways and places again, and I'm even sore in some new places. There's more volume (e.g. repetitions) than I'm used to, which makes sense since you can't really match the weight of traditional strength training without putting a dangerous amount of energy into the band, which could snap back and really do some damage.

Speaking of damage, the bands also have this fun quality where they will rip the skin clean off your hands. This also makes sense. Unlike barbell/dumbbell exercises where the weight is distributed evenly across your hands, with resistance bands, most the resistance is applied at the sides of your hands. On my second or third day of using the bands, I accidentally tore small chunks out of each hand between my thumb and index finger. I ordered gloves that day, and wrapped my hands in band-aids and ACE bandages for the few intervening days. It took weeks to heal properly and I'm in no hurry to make that mistake again.

Other Benefits

Aside from guiding me back to my old size and shape, the bands have given me one other much appreciated benefit: an easy way of exercising on the go. This is a tool that has been notably and painfully absent from my exercise arsenal in the past, and was especially apparent to me when I was traveling a lot for work/play/my ongoing real estate adventures. On work trips, I'd usually go to the hotel gym, get in a light jog, and do dumbbell-toting free-form jazz. This rarely felt fulfilling, but was the best I could figure out how to do. When I returned from a trip, my first few workouts always left me much, much more sore than usual, indicating that those hotel workouts hadn't really done much for me.

The bands are small and light enough that I can take the whole kit and caboodle with me when I'm out and about, meaning no more hotel free-form dumbell jazz, and more consistent adherence to my routine.

At first, the idea of resistance bands really seemed like a stretch, but now that I've snapped into a routine, I can honestly say that I'm elastic ecstatic about having found a viable at-home alternative to barbell strength training.**

*Pickle jars loomed menacingly in the shadowy corners of my nightmares.

**All puns absolutely intended.

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