Whether you’re aiming to sculpt your physique, enhance athletic performance, or simply get through daily challenges a little bit easier, resistance training has been shown to be the key to a more fit life. (1) “Resistance training”, however, is a broad term for many different ways to strengthen your muscles.
Most people gravitate toward lifting free weights — barbells or dumbbells. However, there are other forms of resistance training that can elicit similar, sometimes even more beneficial, results. One of the most common alternatives, found both in commercial gyms and as a convenient addition to home workouts, is training with resistance bands.
In the big picture, free weights (which includes barbells and dumbbells) offer a straightforward load — a 100-pound barbell offers 100 pounds of resistance. Resistance bands provide dynamic tension and present a more significant challenge as the band is stretched into a longer position.
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Understanding how and when to choose the right tool for the right job is vital for creating an optimal workout that will get you closer to your goals. Free weights and resistance bands might seem to be worlds apart, but once you acknowledge their similarities and differences, you will have a better idea about how to implement them into your workout to take your fitness to the next level.
In this article, we will elaborate on the debate of “free weights versus resistance bands,” explore their differences and similarities, and figure out the best times to use these modes of resistance training for better results.
Free Weights vs. Resistance Bands
The differences between free weights and resistance bands seem noticeable at first glance. However, there are some less obvious differences to be aware of before incorporating free weights or resistance bands into your workout routine. Each modality has its unique advantages, and knowing how to leverage them effectively can help you achieve a well-rounded fitness regimen.
Source of Resistance
One of the biggest differences between free weights and resistance bands is the source of resistance. Free weights rely on moving against the force of gravity to challenge a lifter’s raw strength. The actual weight of the equipment itself is what is used to provide resistance for each exercise.
This also means resistance remains consistent throughout the movement, and only your position of leverage and the direction of the weight will significantly alter the feel of resistance. It’s one reason why squats feel more difficult in the bottom and relatively easier as you approach a standing position.
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When using resistance bands, the source of resistance comes through the use of a pliable band, commonly made from latex or rubber. The elasticity of the band means that, as you increase the band’s length, tension is increased which provides a more challenging and “heavier” stimulus.
This varied resistance — with more challenge at the end range of motion and relatively less challenge in shorter positions — can be very useful for lifters who may have an injury or those want to train a specific aspect of the exercise. The resistance profile can allow you to recruit or emphasize muscles during certain ranges of motion within a specific exercise.
Working with free weights requires a higher degree of stabilization, as the weights are not connected to a fixed point. This relative freedom of movement engages additional muscles to maintain balance and control throughout the exercise. This would be an advantage for those who are looking to recruit more muscle groups and want to also improve their functional strength, such an athlete that requires total-body stability.
Resistance bands provide built-in stabilization due to their attachment points — bands are typically anchored to a fixed object which allows you to pull or push the bands’ handles. This can be advantageous for individuals looking to isolate specific muscle groups without focusing as much on stability.
In certain situations, a high degree of stabilization is not desired, as an athlete might want to perform an easier exercise variation to focus on the target muscle without worrying about other variables such as the muscular coordination needed to control a barbell or dumbbell.
Depending on the exercise, free weights can exert more stress on joints due to the constant pull of gravity on the levers of the body. Stress doesn’t have to be bad, though. You want to achieve a level of stress on the joints of the body to create fatigue for growing muscle. You can perform variations of exercises, such as pressing on a flat, incline, or decline angle to adjust this stress.
In other instances, some populations might not be able to handle higher levels of stress during a particular movement. Resistance bands provide a smoother resistance curve that can reduce joint stress at the start of the movement and gradually increase stress as the band stretches. This can potentially make an exercise more joint-friendly for certain individuals who might be recovering from an injury or have limited mobility.
Portability and Convenience
When discussing portability, free weights (especially barbells) are known to be heavier and space-consuming pieces of equipment. Free weights can be bulky and require dedicated storage space. They are less portable, making them more suitable for gym environments or home setups with designated workout areas.
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Resistance bands are highly portable and take up minimal space, making them ideal for home workouts with limited space, travel, and on-the-go training. They offer a versatile training option that can be easily adapted to different environments. Bands are also great for trainers who work with larger groups or “boot camps.”
For all of their significant differences, there are plenty of similarities between bands and free weights. Knowing where their benefits overlap can allow you to understand which form of resistance training would be compatible for your goals and needs.
Principle of Overloading Strength
Whether you use free weights or resistance bands, both forms of resistance training provide an opportunity to overload your body for building both size and strength. Free weights and resistance bands create tension in different ways, however, they both still provide muscular tension. This tension is what challenges your various muscle groups to create movement through exercise.
The more resistance you add, the more size and strength will grow. You can progressively increase this resistance with both methods, whether it’s adding a 10-pound plate onto each side of a barbell or advancing from a “moderate” resistance band to a thicker, heavy-duty resistance band.
Both free weights and resistance bands engage muscle groups to meet the demands of the exercise — performing a movement under tension. To provide context, consider a biceps curl. Whether you do a biceps curl with a band or with pair of dumbbells, both exercises build tension within your biceps muscle to build size and strength.
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Even though free weights and resistance bands might recruit and target your biceps muscle slightly differently, your biceps is fully engaged and will benefit from the training stimulus.
Versatility in Exercise Options
Both free weights and resistance bands offer the opportunity to mimic similar exercises through different types of resistance. As mentioned earlier, you can do a biceps curl with resistance bands or dumbbells. Both exercises are a variation of the biceps curl and will fully recruit your biceps muscles.
This idea proves that whether you have a dumbbell, a barbell or a resistance band, you should be able to mimic a wide range of exercise options that can target various muscle groups. This versatility allows you to design comprehensive workout routines that cater to your fitness goals without being necessarily limited by your equipment.
Throughout this article, we have discussed the general similarities and differences of using free weights and bands for resistance training. Now it’s time to discuss when to choose one training implement over the other.
Building Raw Strength
Free weights are particularly effective for building raw strength and muscle mass due to the constant force of gravity. They offer a greater potential for overloading the muscle, making them an ideal source of strength training.
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This is especially true as free weights allow the lifter to perform compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses that challenge multiple muscle groups simultaneously. While similar exercise can be performed with resistance bands, the maximum potential overload is superior with free weights. Few, if any, resistance bands will safely provide several hundred pounds of resistance, while a barbell can tolerate that load with plenty of room to spare.
Free weight exercises require greater stabilization efforts from muscles and the core due to their lack of fixed attachment points. This makes them excellent for improving overall stability and coordination, which is essential for activities that demand functional strength.
This idea of building total-body stability could be beneficial to traditional athletes and for those who need to improve their fitness for daily living, such as older individuals or those who are recovering from injury. (2)
Mimicking Real-World Activities
Free weights can allow you to closely mimic real-world movements where you lift, carry, and manipulate objects with varying weights. For example, dumbbells allow you to perform farmer’s walks and other loaded carries. If your goal is to enhance performance in sports or everyday tasks, free weights can help translate your strength gains more directly.
Maximizing Muscle Activation
Some exercises, like the bench press and overhead press, allow for a longer range of motion and muscle activation when using free weights compared to bands. The ability to control the weights in all planes of movement can lead to more complete muscle development compared to resistance bands, which might be limited to certain ranges of motion due to relatively lower resistance found in certain parts of the movement.
It’s true that many people who perform resistance training typically gravitate toward free weights. However, the use of resistance bands can provide a unique approach that could be very accommodating for specific populations. Bands are a versatile choice for those who need to train under unique conditions, which may require getting creative.
Resistance bands provide a lower impact on joints compared to free weights. If you’re recovering from an injury, dealing with joint discomfort, or focusing on joint mobility, resistance bands offer a relatively gentler form of resistance that minimizes stress on your joints without compromising muscular stress.
Variable Tension Within Range of Motion
Resistance bands offer variable resistance that changes based on the stretch of the band. Arguably, this matches the natural strength curve of muscles, providing greater tension where your muscles are strongest and less tension where they’re weakest. This can lead to a safer approach on movement if that specific stimulus is provided.
Isolation for Rehabilitation
Resistance bands are excellent for isolating and activating specific muscle groups. This is due to the fact that the resistance bands start off lighter, and build in tension with the stretch of the band.
When using a resistance band for rehab exercises, you can anchor and perform movement strategically to help activate targeted muscle groups in specific positions that might be more beneficial for someone with an injury.
An example of this could be doing internal and external shoulder rotations. The more you rotate the shoulder joint, the harder it becomes. This means the band is light at the beginning of rotation, which would be the shoulder’s weakest position, and resistance increases as the shoulder moves through the range of motion.
Travel-Friendly and Versatile
If you’re often on the go or don’t have access to a full gym, resistance bands are an efficient way to stick to a training routine. They are highly portable and take up minimal space. Bands can provide a challenging workout anywhere, making them a convenient option for maintaining your fitness routine while traveling or in limited spaces.
Choosing between free weights and resistance bands depends on your fitness goals and overall circumstances. Free weights are excellent for building sheer strength through heavy loading, making them ideal for compound movements like squats and bench presses.
On the other hand, resistance bands are joint-friendly and provide variable tension that matches natural strength curves, aiding in balanced muscle activation and isolation exercises for smaller stabilizing muscles. They are great for rehabilitation, “prehabilitation,” and on-the-go workouts due to their portability and versatility.
Learning the pros and cons of each of these forms of resistance training will help you integrate one, or both, into your routine. This can create a comprehensive approach that addresses your strength and adaptability by offering a well-rounded fitness regimen tailored to your needs.
Westcott W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports, 11(4), 209–216. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8
Mayer, F., Scharhag-Rosenberger, F., Carlsohn, A., Cassel, M., Müller, S., & Scharhag, J. (2011). The intensity and effects of strength training in the elderly. Deutsches Arzteblatt international, 108(21), 359–364. https://doi.org/10.3238/arztebl.2011.0359
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