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Resistance Bands vs Free Weights – Which Is Better For Strength-Based Training?

Woman wearing red sports top and leggings sitting on an exercise mat with a blue resistance band around her legs

You’d be forgiven for believing that gaining muscle can only be achieved by throwing heavy weights around in the gym. The reality is there are many ways for you to build muscle, tone, firm and increase your overall fitness and stamina without moving heavy lumps of metal – and one of them comes in rubber band form!

So, resistance bands vs free weights – what’s the difference when it comes to seeing results and is the band better than the bell? Let’s find out.

It’s Not What You Use But How You Use It

Sorry, dodgy title….but bear with me!

If we look at what it takes to build muscle specifically, your body responds to any tension or resistance placed upon it to cause muscle hypertrophy (a fancy name for muscle growth). And that’s the key point here – ‘any tension’. Your body won’t distinguish whether that tension comes from a dumbbell, barbell, weight machine, band, or even a giant rock (if that’s all you have and it works for you). What it will respond to is the mechanical tension you create in your workout from pushing or pulling resistance – and there are myriads of ways to create that effect.

Let’s looks at two distinct methods of building muscle using mechanical tension, consider the similarities and differences between resistance bands and free weights, and address some commonly asked questions around resistance band training.

So Are Resistance Bands Effective At Building Muscle? 

A variety of coloured resistance bands hanging over a barbell rackYes, they certainly are. And they kick ass in some key ways:

Progressive Resistance

If we think about progressive resistance – the act of pushing ourselves harder in our workouts in order to get stronger – it means lifting heavier and heavier over time to really challenge our muscles. This is pretty straightforward to do with weights – you just go up in numbers as your strength increases.

The same can be done with resistance bands, however instead of using a rack of weights that might span between 5 to 100 pounds or more, you could achieve the same effect with a handful of resistance bands that can fit into a gym bag or backpack. If you have a set of bands that range from extra-light to extra heavy you can progressively overload, or go heavier, in your workouts as you become stronger. With enough commitment, the right nutrition and a good workout program, you can see the same results with five resistance bands as you could expect with a rack of free weights.

(Quick side note: It’s worth quickly mentioning here that resistance bands are similar to resistance tubes – the main difference being that resistance bands are flat and form a full loop whereas resistance tubes are cylindrical and have handles either end).

Linear Variable Resistance

Resistance bands have an innate versatility due to their linear variable resistance, which means that as you stretch them, they get heavier. If you take a rubber band as an example, when it’s loose it’s bouncy and soft – but the further you stretch it the more tension you create and the more effort and force you need to keep it taut. Resistance bands are no different, and it’s this aspect of resistance that happens to be the most beneficial when gaining muscle with resistance band training. The band literally increases in weight the more you stretch it (via the force needed to stretch it further and further) and it’s this resistance pattern when applied to exercise that matches the natural strength curve of the muscles you are using.

So if you’re performing a bicep curl, at the bottom of the curl the weight naturally feels heavy, and sometimes to get us past that point we apply a mini cheat-swing or we might even need a spotter’s aid. That’s due to the fact we’re typically weaker at the bottom of the rep. As we move our hand up past the weak point, our bicep engages and we’re then able to lift up and back down again to compete the whole curl motion. With resistance bands, that weak point doesn’t exist because of linear variable resistance making the band lighter at the bottom with more slack. As you move your hand upwards into a curl position, the weight increases. Bands help you to feel the tension when you want it – i.e. when it’s most beneficial for strength training. This is one reason why powerlifters often use resistance bands together with free weights in order to efficiently increase the strength in their curls, squats, bench presses, and more.

Gravity? What Gravity?

Another real benefit of resistance bands for muscle buildings is their ability to work in multiple planes, whereas with free weights you’re confined to working in one vertical, up/down direction. For example, to perform a bench press you need to lie on your back and press the weight up to create tension. With resistance bands you’re not limited by the pull of gravity on a free weight to feel that resistance because the bands themselves are that resistance. Whether you stand, sit, lie down, whatever, it really doesn’t matter because by pulling the band we can achieve the tension needed to build muscle in any direction.

So, functionally, resistance bands have the upper hand when it comes to training, say, a football or basket ball player. It doesn’t matter if they can bench press 450 pounds for eight reps lying down, when they stand up the strength won’t translate in the same way. The emphasis goes from solely being focused in the upper body to now applying to the whole body – and they’ll need to engage their feet, legs and core muscles to stablise themselves through the exercise. Resistance band training is therefore often used by pro-athletes to increase their core strength and stability and improve full body power.

A man wearing a Superman vest tensing his upper body muscles whilst mid-exercise

Resistance Bands For Weight Training

Just like using free weights, training with resistance bands demands workouts focussed on specific areas of the body, training intensity, and the right number of reps and sets. By using the technique of progressive resistance, you are able to continuously increase tension throughout your workouts to create the stress your muscles need to maximise growth.

One more similarity between training with free weights and resistance bands is your ability to control the speed of the rep – whether that’s concentric (moving the weight up), eccentric (bringing the weight down) or isometrically (holding the tension). Actually bands have a one-up on free weights here because they allow you to train explosively and you therefore get the full benefit of your effort which will lead to better muscle-building results. This is because you are activating your fast twitch muscles when you perform explosive movements.

Although there are many crossovers in training techniques between resistance bands vs free weights, bands do hold a clear advantage. Which begs the question…

Which Is Better – Training with Resistance Bands Or Free Weights?

When we consider the advantages laid out above including linear variable resistance and the ability to move in multiple planes of motion, together with constant tension, and the additional convenience of being easy to carry, lightweight and a cheaper alternative to buying free weights, there are no negatives to resistance band training. Whatever you use, it’s about creating tension.

That’s not to say that free weights including dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and the like don’t have their place, because they absolutely do. In fact if you’re looking to get maximum results from your strength and muscle building workouts, then a combination of the two should see your progress skyrocket.

But, if you lack space at home for your own personal gym, or you don’t have the time to travel to a gym or set up a load of free weights before starting your workout, then setting up three or four resistance bands to train with takes seconds. With the right technique, nutrition and workout program you really can see results from resistance bands that could surpass those of using free weights alone, whilst also side-stepping the potentially negative side effects that weighted exercises can bring.

Do you use resistance bands in your workouts, or are you a fan of free weights. Perhaps you use both – in which case how has this helped your muscle and strength building progress? I’d love to know, so please feel free to comment underneath.

2 Comments

  1. Very nice article about resistance bands. I have used bands, per se, when doing physical therapy, but I primarily use resistance cords or tubes. All of these are often collectively called “resistance bands”. My experience has been that such bands give me all the resistance I need. The door anchors are quite helpful. Otherwise, I can stand on the midpoint for curls, lateral raises or presses. 

    I still use dumbbells and many other forms of resistance. I have found that the quality of “bands” can differ, as does the ease of use. I personally prefer a selection of cords (or tubes) with differing levels of tension over hooking several together at the same time.

    These can be low impact or may challenge anyone. If someone wants a quick “pump” before a beach or swimming pool  appearance, there is nothing better than this type of resistance to get the pecs, arms and shoulders ready for general scrutiny. Yes, weight trainers can be a bit narcissistic. 

    Great article and excellent advice!

     

    • That’s really interesting to know Richard. Resistance bands are great for physical therapy and building muscle alike. As I mentioned, the resistance comes from the force you place your muscles under – it doesn’t matter where that force comes from, as long as it continuously challenges your muscles they will adapt and grow. It’s great your using a mixture of bands and weights in your exercise –  a combination of the two really help mix up your workouts and keep your body guessing – which is key to increasing muscle gains and overall fitness. 

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