When it comes to strength training, many people may wonder about the difference between resistance bands vs weights. Both tools allow a person to practice strength training but in very different ways. Each product may be better in some situations and less ideal in others. In this article, we break down exactly resistance bands vs weights and which product is the best choice for you.
This video on the right also explains and shows how to maximize your training by combining these two different resistance training tools.
Resistance bands and free-weights resistance (such as barbells and dumbbells) have several similar properties: both provide some form of resistance, both allow a free range of motion , both allow variable speed of movement, and both allow progressive resistance. All four of these properties are critical for the benefits offered by effective resistance-training programs.
Despite the similarities between resistance bands and free-weight resistance, people would assume, due to the lightweight and “flimsy appearance of resistance bands, that free weights are clearly the better resistance equipment.
However, studies have shown that muscle activity and peak load during resistance bands exercises are similar to free-weights resistance exercises. This means that when comparing the same exercises performed with resistance bands or with free weights, the amount of muscle fibers activated are similar and the amount of force provided by the muscle fibers are similar.
Both resistance bands and free-weights resistance increase muscle strength, muscle tone, size and decrease body fat.
One of the most important benefits of resistance bands is that, unlike free weights, they do not rely on gravity to provide resistance. This increases its potential for use in more functional movement patterns that mimic both everyday activities and sport-specific activities. Because free weights rely on gravity to provide resistance, they can only provide resistance in a vertical plane —the direction of gravity. This means that if you do an exercise with a free weight in the horizontal plane, such as moving your left hand (while holding a dumbbell) from the left side of your body to the right side of your body, there is no resistance to that movement.
With resistance bands on the other hand, you can have resistance when doing exercises in a horizontal plane. This means you can perform exercises such as twisting your body from side to side, side kicks and punches, as well as movements that mimic a baseball swing or basketball pass with resistance band. Performing exercises with resistance in a horizontal plane better prepares the individual for performing daily tasks—such as turning his body while carrying a heavy box—much easier and with less risk for injury. It also better prepares athletes for competitive movements that take place in a horizontal plane, such as swinging a baseball bat, and helps to prevent sports injuries.
A study published in a 1998 issue of American Journal of Sports Medicine, reported that collegiate tennis players who trained using resistance bands increased their shoulder strength and the speed of their tennis serve. Another study, from Louisiana State University (New Orleans), discovered that resistance bands training program strengthened the rotator cuff muscles of collegiate baseball pitchers better than a program that used free-weights dumbbells.
Because resistance bands do not rely on gravity to provide resistance, it is possible to change the emphasis placed on muscles during certain exercises. This is made possible by changing the direction of the pull of the resistance bands. For example, research from Brigham Young University reported that it was possible to change the emphasis placed on the quadriceps and hamstrings during squatting or stepping exercises by changing the direction of pull of the resistance bands.
The ability to change muscle emphasis is important for those who want to target specific muscles either for aesthetic reasons or for strengthening for sport competition. It is also important for those with injuries, as shifting the force more to certain muscles can help protect certain associated joints. For example, greater hamstring emphasis during squatting or stepping exercises helps to protect certain structures around the knee.
This is difficult to accomplish with free weights because, as previously stated, they require the direction of force to be vertical, due to the reliance on gravity for resistance. Another benefit provided by the fact that resistance bands do not rely on gravity is that it provides continuous tension to the muscles being trained. When you lift a free weight like a dumbbell in any direction other than straight up and down, the tension on the muscle can actually be removed at certain points in the range of motion. For example, when doing a biceps curl with a dumbbell, as you curl the dumbbell up towards the shoulder, at the very top of the movement the dumbbell is literally falling towards the shoulder. This means that the tension on the biceps has been removed because the dumbbell is no longer being lifted up against gravity by the biceps. When doing a biceps curl with resistance bands, the tension is present throughout the entire range of motion because the elastic material provides resistance due to its own properties.
The fact that resistance bands equipment does not rely on gravity also means that the resistance bands equipment used can be inexpensive, lightweight, and easily stored and transported despite its ability to provide strong resistance. On the contrary, free weights must be heavy and cumbersome to provide strong resistance. In addition, free weights tend to be expensive as they are typically priced by the pound.
Another reason linear variable resistance, as provided by resistance bands, is beneficial is due to what is known as the strength curve of muscles. The linear variable resistance provided by resistance bands better mimics the strength curves of most muscles. A strength curve refers to the way a muscle’s or muscle group’s strength changes over a range of motion. Because of their anatomy, most muscles increase in strength over the range of motion until a certain point. Again using the biceps curl as an example, as you curl the hand toward the shoulder, the muscle gets stronger up until about the halfway point of the range of motion. Thus, the biceps muscle is weakest at the start of the exercise and strongest at the halfway point of the exercise. When doing a biceps curl with a free weight, the individual is limited to how much resistance he can use by how strong the biceps are at the beginning of the exercise (its weakest point). That means that during the biceps curl, the muscle is not receiving adequate resistance when the muscle is at its strongest point in the range of motion. When performing a curl with resistance bands, however, the resistance increases as the range of motion increases. This means the muscle is receiving greater resistance at its strongest point in the range of motion and therefore is receiving more adequate resistance to better stimulate strength adaptations.
Many individuals using resistance bands report that they can feel a difference, such as a stronger burn in the muscles and greater muscle fatigue, as compared to when they use free weights. This is due to the linear variable resistance that the resistance bands equipment offers. This allows a greater number of muscle fibers to be used and taxed throughout the range of motion. Anecdotal evidence aside, research studies also confirm this difference. One study performed at Truman State University (Kirksville, MO) found that athletes who included resistance bands bench press training in their regimens had a significantly greater increase in bench press strength and power as compared to those who only utilized free-weight resistance training.
This means that a program using resistance bands can provide similar benefits to a program that uses free-weights resistance, such as increased muscle strength, increase muscle tone and size, and decreased body fat.
In addition, a program that uses resistance bands can also provide benefits that are not offered by free-weight resistance programs, such as more functional strength, better injury prevention, greater ability to change muscle emphasis during exercises, greater muscle power development, and easier use.