For the longest time resistance bands never got the respect they deserved for building strength and muscle size. Most people discounted them as something that were just for rehabilitation centers, or they were considered a “better than nothing” workout while travelling. With resistance bands being so lightweight and portable I can see how it would be easy to underestimate how effective they really are.
I’ve been using bands for a long time now and I can tell you that the strongest I’ve ever been in my life was while I was using bands in combination with free weights. I’ve even gone more than three months without touching a weight just to see if bands by themselves could maintain both muscle size and strength. Not only did I not lose a beat, but in the process all my shoulder and elbow pain from free weights went away!
Let’s take a quick look and compare the benefits of resistance bands to traditional free weights. First let's look at how they are similar:
- Both provide progressive resistance, meaning that as you get stronger you can progress to heavier levels of resistance in order to continue making strength gains (progressive overload).
- Both allow for variable-speed, meaning that you can perform your reps at different speeds (both fast and slow) to create either more or less time under tension for each rep and set.
- The last major difference is free range of motion or movement. Unlike machines where you are locked into a plane of movement, with both bands and free weights you can move freely in any plane.
That’s how both are similar but now let’s dive into the advantages that bands have over free weights:
- Unlike free weights where the resistance is fixed throughout the range of motion, in an exercise, resistance bands create what is called Linear Variable Resistance. The more you stretch a band, the more resistance it creates. This “variable resistance” more closely matches the natural strength curve of your muscles, where you are typically weaker at the start of a movement and stronger toward the end.
- Bands also have Resistance in Multiple Planes. Free weights only create resistance in the vertical plane, as they resist the force of gravity. For example, with any chest exercise you have to lay on a bench in order to press the weight up. With bands you can do a chest exercise standing, sitting, laying down or probably even on your head if you really wanted to.
- When using free weights, there are many exercises where you don’t get Resistance Through the Full Range of Movement. A great example is doing biceps curls. As you near the top of the range of motion, your arms are in a somewhat locked position, which takes tension off your biceps. Like we talked about with variable resistance, you want to get more tension at the peak of a movement, not less. When using bands you get maximum tension even at the peak of contraction.
- The next benefit is one that it’s easy to dismiss, but in fact it actually may be one of the most important – and that is by training with bands you are far Less Likely to Cheat Your Reps. Let’s go back to our example of doing biceps curls. This is one exercise where we’ve all seen someone swing their body to get those reps. By swinging you are using momentum to help get the weight up, instead of forcing your muscles to take on the full load. With bands you cannot create momentum, so even if you wanted to swing your body it would be pointless. This forces you to use better form and make your biceps do the work not your low back. Another added benefit of this is that with less cheating (which means bad form) it drastically reduces the chance of injury. Remember that progress isn’t just about moving forward – it’s also about not moving backwards, which is exactly what happens when you get injured.