Sometimes finding a topic for this column is painful. Sometimes ideas come to me in a snap.
In this case, it’s both.
The snap came first. Loud, like a gunshot. The pain came a split second later and I dropped to the floor certain every finger in my right hand was broken.
The heavy duty neon green resistance band I was using in a workout class had snapped at full tension, and now the gym staff was scrambling for ice, gloves and chemicals to clean the blood off the floor and to call the paramedics.
Luckily – and “surprisingly” according to my doctor – nothing was broken. This was seven months ago. Today, my hand looks normal again and it works fine with the exception of occasional pain in my right pointer finger. Nerve damage, the doc says.
There is no arguing the fact that elastic resistance bands are an easy and unintimidating way to build strength. These bands are also easier to store and more convenient to travel with than traditional weights.
But resistance bands are not without risk.
“It’s never happened to me, but I’ve heard horror stories,” said Christy Wondercheck, a Seattle 24 Hour Fitness manager who recently worked at the Team USA training center at the London Olympics.
One of those horror stories belongs to a Puyallup man who shared his story with me on the condition I don’t use his name. He’s hired an attorney in an effort to recoup medical expenses.
He was in a boot camp class with a bright red band fully extended with both hands over his head. When one of the handles broke, the band snapped around and hit him in the face. He broke his nose, and his eye filled with blood. A friend rushed him to the emergency room, where he underwent a barrage of expensive tests and needed stitches.
He couldn’t see with his damaged eye for several days, and his face was bruised for a month. He had to sleep sitting in a chair so the blood would drain from his eye.
A year later, the 37-year-old says he doesn’t work out much anymore and he says he’ll never again use resistance bands: “That pretty much did it for me.”
But millions of people use these bands every day either in gyms or at home unaware of the potential danger.
Here are some tips for making sure your band workout doesn’t end with a trip to the emergency room.
1 Read the labels: I recently picked up two resistance bands, an Embark Heavy Resistance Band and a Reebok Toning Braided Resistance Band. The Embark band had 17 safety recommendations and warnings, and the Reebok band had 10. Chris Poirier, general manager of Perform Better, said the bands his company distributes come with 28 warnings and recommendations.
Recommendations range from wearing eye protection and cleaning your hands before using to a warning not to jump rope with the bands.
These warning lists are where the companies also declare they “assume no liability or responsibility of accidents or injuries to person or property.”
2 Inspect daily: It takes only a few seconds to inspect a resistance band, so do it before every use. The companies recommend this, and so does Wondercheck. Look for cracks in the latex or white areas in colored bands, and look for signs of weakness in and around the handle, the area where Wondercheck says bands are most likely break.
Don’t assume the bands at your gym are in good shape or even inspected regularly. Check them every time, and bring damaged bands to the attention of gym officials.
3 Don’t rely on your instructor: Don’t assume the band exercises your fitness instructor or trainer tells you to do are appropriate. Learn the proper way to use a band, and if the instructor tells you to do something that isn’t safe, don’t do it. Better yet, politely let the instructor know.
I made this mistake when I mangled my hand. The exercise the instructor asked me to do broke two of the rules I’m listing here. It overextended the band, and it required tying the band to a railing. I didn’t question the instructor.
After my accident, the gym said it abolished the exercise from its classes.
4 Wear good shoes: When doing workouts that require stepping on the band, make sure you are wearing shoes with nonabrasive soles, Wondercheck said. This keeps you from damaging the band. It also decreases the chances of the band slipping out from under your feet. Also, never use bands with bare feet, she said.
5 Check the floor: If you’re stepping on the band, don’t work out on a floor with an abrasive surface. This could damage the band.
6 Don’t look: The safety warnings for the Embark bands suggest always using eye protection. Other band companies suggest avoiding looking at the band during your workout. The latter is more practical. Wondercheck says her gym doesn’t have eye protection available for band users. Most gyms likely won’t have eye protection for you either. So if you want it, bring your own.
7 Buy multiple bands: Shortening a band for more resistance might be common practice, but it can greatly shorten the life of a band, Wondercheck said. “People think they are saving money by buying fewer bands,” she said.
Wondercheck says it’s safer to buy multiple bands of various resistance levels. The bands will last longer.
8 Don’t overstretch: Everything has a breaking point. As a rule of thumb, Wondercheck recommends never extending a band more than twice its resting length.
9 Be aware: Storing and even using bands in hot places or in direct sunlight can weaken the bands. Avoid moisture, and don’t use them near pools. Wondercheck says she sees people using bands in swimming pools. Don’t do this, she warns; the chlorine will damage the bands. Use water weights instead.
10 Don’t tie it down: Tying off a band creates areas of friction on the band that will weaken it.
11 Ditch the jewlery: Rings, watches, bracelets, anklets, etc. can rub on bands, causing damage.
12Consider braided bands: Wondercheck says braided resistance bands offer an extra level of safety because if one braid of a band snaps it simply unravels.
13 Keep your distance: You aren’t the only one who could get hurt if your band snaps. Give yourself plenty of space away from kids, pets and fragile family heirlooms.Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays. Submit questions and comments via firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/AdventureGuys. Also get more fitness coverage at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure andthenewstribune.com/fitness.