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Resistance Bands vs Free Weights: Your Muscles Don’t Care What Kind of Tension is Placed on Them

JAMES GRAGE

- 1 September

Exercise scientist Dr. Jose Antonio breaks down the science to compare resistance bands to free weights

Resistance bands are more portable, way less expensive, and easier on the joints than heavy dumbbells and barbells. Bands are also just as effective at building muscle as free weights.

But don’t just take our word for it – research confirms the mass-building effectiveness of resistance band training.

And below, renowned exercise science researcher and co-founder of the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) Jose Antonio, PhD, explains why the muscles respond just as well (if not better) to elastic resistance as to free weights. 

Your muscles don’t know the difference between bands and free weights

It’s hard for many people to wrap their heads around the fact that a piece of rubber (a resistance band) can build muscle just the same as a big, heavy barbell or dumbbell. But what the mind thinks isn’t nearly as important as what the muscles feel during the workout.

Your muscles feel tension, and then they contract. Period. What piece of equipment provides that tension doesn’t matter. 

“If you’re going to do a comparison of traditional heavy resistance training with weights versus, let’s say, bands, your muscles in essence don’t care what kind of tension is put on them,”  says Antonio. “Whether you’re pulling on a band or pushing a car or lifting a weight, your muscle senses it as tension, and tension in general produces growth.”

Bands provide just as much resistance as barbells and dumbbells

Yes, the greater the tension, the greater potential there is to stimulate muscle growth. But remember, you can place just as much tension on the muscles with resistance bands as you can with free weights.

Undersun bands provide all the tension you need to build muscle – actually, more than you’ll ever need, as the five band levels (X-light up to X-heavy) deliver hundreds of pounds of resistance. That’s more than enough to squat a couple hundred pounds, press 150 pounds, or do 40-pound curls. 

The added benefit of bands over free weights is that the heavier resistances place maximum tension on the muscles without as much stress on the joints. This is due to the inherent property of variable resistance with bands, where the band provides less tension at the beginning of the range of motion (ROM). This beginning part of the ROM is often where the joints are most vulnerable to injury under heavier loads. 

You don’t need heavy weights to build muscle

Don’t want to lift heavy weights, or even use extra-heavy bands, but still want to build muscle? The scientific literature says lighter weights and high reps are just as good for gaining size as heavy, low-rep sets.

“There’s some newer research showing that very heavy weights and low volume, versus high volume and lower weights, produce similar hypertrophy [muscle building] results,” says Antonio. “In terms of hypertrophy, your body has multiple ways of responding.”

Take-Home: Bands are the perfect substitute for free weights

Resistance bands are more convenient, more portable, less expensive, easier on the joints, and just as good for building muscle as free weights? I call that a win-win-win-win-win!

Seriously, though, no one’s telling you not to lift free weights ever again. I’ve chosen to train exclusively with resistance bands after years of beating my joints up with free weights and machines, but that’s just me. 

The point is, you have options. You can do some workouts at home and some at the gym. You can use both free weights and bands (like in the TA2 Size On program). Or, you can do all your workouts at home using only bands. And you can take your bands anywhere you go (on vacation, across town, to a local park, etc) and train there.

Whatever path you choose – free weights, bands, or both – the muscle-building results are identical. “You have multiple ways of getting to the same place, and that could include band training,” says Antonio.

In other words… you have fitness freedom!