Can rubber build muscle as well as iron does? Supertrainer J.C. Santana challenges you to stretch the limits of conditioning.
When it comes to growing strong and building muscle, real men need clanking iron and leather kidney belts. We need to stare down an imposing piece of steel, spit on our hands, and then conquer it.
Or do we?
Juan Carlos Santana, M.Ed., C.S.C.S., stands in his gym — the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton, Florida — and laughs. Unlike most other 49-year-olds, Santana doesn’t jiggle when he giggles. At 5’10” and 212 pounds, he’s as solid and looming as that hunk of limestone in Gibraltar.
“I ain’t no long-distance-running, yoga-posing, Pilates-training, VO2-pumping, aquatics-floating, 150-pound sissy boy,” he snarls. “I train like a beast and have competed in Olympic weight lifting, wrestling, judo, and kickboxing all my life. Bring me the biggest guy you can get your hands on. I will put him in a fetal position, with him sucking his thumb, in less than 30 minutes — with nothing but these elastic bands.”
In his meatpacker hands, Santana holds out a tangle of what looks like giant rubber bands and tubes, of various widths and colors. Over the years, he’s learned to manipulate these bands as masterfully as another man named Santana twangs guitar strings. And the result, you could argue, is the same in both cases: a perfectly tuned body of work.
Skeptical? So was I.
I came to Boca Raton as a 170-pound, aerobic-training “sissy boy.” With achy knees and flagging enthusiasm for my life sports of running and bicycling, I was looking for a new way to stay fit and become stronger. Plus, I travel a lot, so I was hoping this workout would be portable enough to help me maintain fitness on the road. Here are the benefits Santana promised if I hopped on his bandwagon.
1. You will become strong.
2. You will pack on muscle.
3. You will improve your aerobic conditioning without running.
4. You will improve your sports performance (golf, basketball, baseball) while reducing your risk of injury.
5. You will work out for only 30 to 40 minutes every other day.
6. You will be able to train anywhere, anytime, with a piece of equipment that fits in your pocket.
It was sounding better all the time.
(Losing) breakfast with J.C.
The weird thing about band training is that done correctly, it makes you feel simultaneously strong and sick, as I quickly learn when I show up for a morning workout with Santana, or J.C., as just about everyone calls him.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” he warns. “The band doesn’t stretch itself. You have to work, and you have to work hard. Once you commit to doing that, you’ll see remarkable results. I’ll prove it. One of my favorite exercises is the 30-second pump. You’re about to see what curling 60 reps in 30 seconds can do for you. Ready?”I step on his 3-foot-long, half-inch-wide SuperBand ($13, ihpfit.com) with both feet, grasp the upper part of the band with both hands (palms up), and then, on J.C.’s signal, commence a pace of two biceps curls a second for 30 seconds. The resistance feels manageable at first, but by the 20th second I’m curling in painful slow motion. He then commands me to immediately do 30 seconds of “speed extensions,” which are triceps presses done at the same pace with a suspended band. When I’m finished, my arms feel blasted — but also big.
Cruelly, this feeling can be replicated for every muscle group. For instance, by standing on the same band and wrapping it over your shoulders or stretching it overhead, you can do full-body squats until your legs are in knots. By wedging the band in a door or hooking it around a doorknob or other stationary object, you can do standing crunches until you’re crying for absolution from not exercising enough. Indeed, just about any exercise done with conventional weights can be done with bands.
Besides building strength, band training boosts cardiovascular endurance and calorie combustion. To prove this, Santana had me wear a heart-rate monitor. The highest I can usually peg my ticker is the mid- to upper 140s, when I’m cranking uphill on a mountain bike. But just 15 minutes into J.C.’s workout, my heart rate hit 144 beats per minute and, even after I stopped exercising, continued climbing to 154. This phenomenon is called EPOC, or “excess postexercise oxygen consumption.” It’s a great benefit of resistance training — your body can burn calories up to 48 hours after a workout. The fact that bands can produce the same effect as traditional weights is a testament to their value.
Another advantage I immediately noticed was that bands are infinitely variable in direction as well as resistance. Unlike Nautilus machines and traditional cables, these elastic bands can be used in any plane of movement to mimic tennis, golf, and baseball swings, or even swimming and poling strokes. If you’re creative enough, any key sports movement can be replicated with bands.
Learning a painful lesson
Enlightened, inspired, and armed with a specific training program (see “Take Your Workout Anywhere” in this month’s workout poster), I headed home for 8 weeks of workouts. The plan was to spend the first 4 weeks building a foundation and then the next 4 (the so-called metabolic stage) focusing on explosiveness. I cut back dramatically on my running and biking. Instead, I took my bands into the basement every other day. At first I had trouble climbing back up those stairs after the workouts — my legs were quivering like Nana’s Jell-O — but eventually I began to feel a kind of strength I had never felt before. It seemed more inherently core, like I was becoming powerful.
My family was intrigued by my somewhat unorthodox experiment. My 23-year-old son, who was home from college, ridiculed me at first. Then he joined me for a few sets and became addicted. My wife and 19-year-old daughter were also curious, largely because it looked like a more accessible, less testosterone-charged form of strength training. They, too, gave it a try.
But then something horrible happened. In fact, I’m fortunate to be here today with my manhood still intact. I was doing bent-over rows with the “JC Travel Bands” ($20, ihpfit.com), a beefier model with two rubber grips attached to a pair of thick tubes. I thought I had adequately wedged one end into a door frame, but just as I stretched the band to its fullest it broke free and snapped into my thighs, inches from my groin. I doubled over, screaming. There was no blood, but over the next few days my thighs changed color from red to purple to yellow, and I was seriously hobbled. Neither my daughter nor my wife ever picked up a band again. But I learned a valuable lesson: These things can be lethal. You need to secure them properly, as I had foolishly failed to do.
Nonetheless, after a brief respite, I resumed training. After the prescribed 2 months, I had added 5 pounds of muscle and noticeable definition. I was feeling stronger while running, biking, driving golf balls, and jumping for rebounds. What’s more, when I got a last-minute story assignment and had to hop a plane, all I needed to throw in my suitcase were a few pieces of elastic. Suddenly, even a cheap motor lodge had a pretty nice gym.
Although Santana admits that band training isn’t the best way to add lots of bulk (classic free-weight training is still tops for that), I’ve found it to be a solid option for maintaining and building muscle and endurance when I don’t have access to my normal equipment, or simply want to change pace or train a specific sports movement. In fact, bands are a great addition to any workout, even if you already pump iron the old-fashioned way.
“Exercise fads come and go,” says Santana. “One year it’s stability balls, the next it’s cardio-kickboxing, the year after that it’s medicine balls….It’s always the next big thing, and guys often end up going from one fad to the next and not making any progress. It’s better to think of all these exercise alternatives as different tools in your toolbox. Don’t use a hammer for everything. Instead, use the right tool for the right job.”