Which Are Better: Resistance Bands or Free Weights?
There’s a common misconception that gaining serious muscle is only achievable by throwing heavy weights around in a gym. The truth is, there are many ways to get to where you want to go on your fitness journey.
Let’s look at the goal of building muscle, specifically. What your body responds to is tension or resistance. And there is a myriad of ways to get that effect. For example, curl a giant rock - this creates resistance. Or sit on a bicep machine in a gym - that’s resistance too. Free weights, resistance bands, machines - they are all tools that create mechanical tension to build muscle.
Let’s first think in terms of progressive resistance. As we get stronger, we need to push ourselves harder in our workouts. That means lifting heavier and heavier as time goes on to challenge our muscles. With weights, it’s fairly straight forward to do as long as you have access to a rack of dumbells spanning a variety of weight—You just go up in numbers as your strength increases.
It’s also possible to achieve progressive overload using only resistance bands. Except, instead of needing a full wall of bulky weights spanning 5 to 100+ lbs., you need a handful of resistance bands that can fit in a single backpack. With a set of resistance bands ranging from extra-small to extra-heavy, you can progressively go heavier in your workouts as you get stronger. With enough dedication and a healthy lifestyle, you can see the same results with five bands as you would expect with a huge range of free weights.
Sidenote: Before we go on, we’ll note that resistance bands are similar to resistance tubes; close relatives, if you will. The major difference is that resistance bands are flat and form a full loop, while resistance tubes are cylindrical and have handles on each end. We work with looped resistance bands, but when it comes to resistance bands vs tubes, consider them as mostly interchangeable.
Linear Variable Resistance
The innate versatility of resistance bands is partially due to their linear variable resistance. This means that as you stretch a band, it gets heavier. Take a rubber band, for instance. When you initially remove the slack, the band is bouncy and malleable. The farther you stretch it, however, the more tension you feel, and the more force you need to use to keep it taut. Resistance bands are just the same. Interestingly, this aspect of resistance band training happens to be one of the most beneficial in terms of gaining muscle. Because the band increases in weight the further you stretch it, any given resistance band exercises’ resistance pattern matches the natural strength curve of our muscles.
Envision yourself doing a curl. At the bottom of the curl, the weight feels pretty dang heavy. Sometimes, getting past that initial sticky point requires a micro cheat-swing or even a spotter’s aid. That’s because we’re typically weaker at the bottom. As our hand moves up past that weak point, our bicep engages and we’re able to get through the whole curl motion.
With bands, that weak-point issue doesn’t exist. Due to linear variable resistance, the band is lighter at the bottom with more slack. As you move your hand upward into the curl position, the weight increases. Resistance bands allow you to feel the tension when you want it—when it’s most beneficial for strength building. That’s why powerlifters commonly use resistance bands in combination with free weights: to efficiently improve the strength in their squat, bench press, and other moves.
To bring this point one step further, bands offer something that free weights don’t: constant tension. At the top of that same curl, there’s another lull-spot. With weights, you can easily rest in that position with little to no effort due to the composition of your arm. However, that’s where you should be contracting the muscle the most in order to gain the most from that particular exercise.
With resistance bands, you’ll feel tension throughout the entire range of motion. You don’t have to rely on gravity as you do with free weights to create the resistance. The constant tension that resistance bands offer is extremely important in building muscle, spurring a degree of metabolic stress and pump, which free weights lack.
Another key benefit of using resistance bands for building muscle is their ability to work in multiple planes. With free weights, resistance only applies in one vertical plane—That’s due to our dear friend, gravity. To do a bench press, for instance, you must lay on your back and press the weights directly upwards to feel the tension.
With bands, we’re not confined to gravity’s pull on a dumbbell to feel that resistance. The bands themselves are the resistance. Stand up, lay down, heck, hang upside down if you really want, it doesn’t matter. In pulling the band, we can achieve the tension we need to build muscle in any plane.
This benefit really comes into play when considering function. Take a big football player. In a gym, he could bench 400 pounds for 10 reps, maybe. But once you stand him up tall, the strength doesn’t translate the same way. What was strength-focused solely in his upper body now applies to his entire body. Starting from the ground up, he now will need to engage his feet, legs, and core to stabilize and energize through the exercise. For this reason, resistance band training is a technique often adopted by professional athletes from baseball players to martial artists to increase core stability and full-body power.
Those are some of the key advantages of using resistance bands for building muscle. On to the next question:
How do you use resistance bands for weight training?
Like building muscle with free weights, resistance band training requires body part specific workouts, the intensity in training, and the right ratio of reps and sets. Utilizing the technique of progressive resistance, you can continually add-on tension throughout your resistance band workouts to stress your muscles and maximize your gains.
Another similarity between free weight training and resistance band training is the ability to control rep speed. Whether you’re performing a concentric movement (positive), eccentric movement, (negative), or even isometric (no movement) exercise, resistance bands allow you to perform reps at whatever speed you choose.
In fact, resistance bands have an additional leg-up due to their unique ability to train explosively. Imagine doing a shoulder press with a heavy free weight. The weight will pick up some momentum as it moves higher and lower and will rob you of resistance. With resistance bands, you can’t create the same sort of momentum, which means you get the full benefit of your effort. Ultimately, this will lead to better results in building muscle. Why? Because muscle fibers that have the ability to grow bigger and stronger, AKA your fast-twitch muscles, are activated in explosive training.
There are several crossovers in training techniques between free weights vs resistance bands, yet bands demonstrate distinct advantages. For further detail on how to focus on muscle growth using only resistance bands, check out this training programhere.
This brings us to our final, but most important question:
Is resistance band training better than free weights?
Considering the advantages oflinear variable resistance, multi-plane capability coupled withconstant tension, and the added convenience of being lightweight, portable, and cost-effective, there’s no downside to resistance training. At the end of the day, it’s all about tension. And resistance bands offer that and then some.
As Undersun founder James Grage said; “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 almost 2 years 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”.
Not only can resistance bands deliver the same results as free weights, they even have advantages over them:
Band Training Increases Effort Without Knowing It
Strength training with bands (vs. with weights) incorporates a unique “Ascending Resistance” that challenges you to have to push throughout the entire range of motion versus using the constant resistance of free weights. This need to push throughout the full range of motion automatically increases effort in any strength training program.
Perform Any Movement
Resistance bands are not influenced by gravity which allows them to be used to perform hundreds of exercises that weights cannot.
Time-Efficient Workout Options
How much time does it take to set up 3 or 4 bands to strength-train with? The answer is a whole lot less than having to travel to the gym or bring out all those dumbbells, kettlebells or other free weight tools.
With proper technique and discipline, you can see results from bands that surpass that of free weights without the negative side effects that weights can spur.