resistance bands vs free weights

Resistance Bands vs Free Weights: Are Resistance Bands Effective?

October 16, 2019

Resistance bands vs Free Weights?

Peanut Butter vs Jelly?

…that’s exactly what it’s like comparing the two. You get the point…they complement each other!

Nevertheless, this is a common question and a debate that we would like to address.

So, in this post, we are going to breakdown the two types of training tools and discuss which is better for specific purposes and goals…

resistance bands vs weights

To start this evaluation of “resistance bands vs free weights”, we must fully understand how “resistance” works for both bands and free weights. There are some important differences, which we are about to explain.

WHAT IS RESISTANCE? Resistance Bands and Free Weights

The way resistance is transferred to our muscles is different for free weights than it is for resistance bands. Here is a simple explanation of how force is generated using both.

Free weights

which is better resistance bands or free weights

With free weights, resistance is created by gravity.

Because of this, free weights can only provide resistance in a vertical plane (the direction of gravity - down!).

So, because gravity only pulls the weight down, you must position yourself correctly to work the desired muscle.

Resistance Bands

are resistance bands good

With resistance bands, resistance is created by elastic force.

You aren’t relying on gravity to create resistance, you simple need tension. Force is created in the direction you are stretching the band.

Because of this, resistance bands can provide resistance in both horizontal and vertical planes, and in any direction and at any angle.

Example

are resistance bands better than weights

Let’s say you are training chest with free weights (i.e. dumbbells). For this, you must lie down on a bench and use your muscles to press up as gravity tries to force the weight down. You would never be able to create resistance on your chest by pressing the dumbbells from a standing position.

Now, with resistance bands, you could lie down on a flat bench and you could stand (as pictured above), and both ways would create the same resistance for your chest, as you are creating tension through tensile force rather than gravity which is only in the direction of down.

So, this makes bands more versatile in terms of how you can create resistance.

If you think about different free weight exercises, you can imagine how you could do the same exercise with resistance bands in both a vertical and horizontal plane.

Another quick example, and one that a lot of people seem to get wrong:

If you were to hold a dumbbell with your arm at 90 degrees and to your side body, and you move the dumbbell in a horizontal motion (external and internal rotations), you won’t actually be creating and resistance in that horizontal motion. You literally will only have downward resistance, which would be you holding the dumbbell with your arm at 90 degrees. This makes an internal and external rotation useless with a dumbbell from the standing position. To make this movement effective with a dumbbell, you’d have to get yourself into a position that the external/internal rotation is happening in a vertical plane.

With resistance bands, on the other hand, you can anchor it to your side and do this movement standing up, as the resistance will be there in the horizontal plane.

resistance bands benefits over free weights

Resistance is resistance when it comes to your muscles. They don’t care how the force is generated!

This statement is true. It is science. But, this fact is not something we are going to use to claim resistance bands are superior to free weights. Both have advantages and disadvantages. All of which we are going to get into.

Key Differences of Resistance Bands and Free Weights

As we’ve already gone into detail on the point about vertical/horizontal plane, here are the other key differences in how resistance training works for resistance bands vs free weights.

1. Strength Curve

Free weights have something called a strength curve. In a nutshell, a strength curve refers to how much force is being produced at joint angles throughout the range of motion. Ascending strength curves typically feel easier when the weight is reaching full extension. Essentially, the muscle tension required to move the weight decreases at this point in the range of motion. Exercises like bench press and squat have an ascending strength curve. Conversely, a descending strength curve feels hardest when the movement is near full flexion. Exercises like rows and chin-ups have a descending strength curve.

An example being a dumbbell curl. When the dumbbell reaches above halfway, the movement becomes easier. This is the part of the descending strength curve that doesn’t produce as much resistance. All thanks to gravity.

On the other hand, resistance bands don’t have a strength curve. Resistance band exercises, so long as you begin the movement with the band taut, have a much more consistent force throughout the entire movement, and they create more resistance as the band gets stretched. Moreover, when doing the eccentric part of the movement, the band will also have the same resistance strength path. So, essentially, you will be under tension for the entire duration of the exercise. And as well all know, more time under tension leads to greater results. 

That said, we still aren’t stating that resistance bands are better for working out... we will get to this further below.

2. Momentum

Free weight exercises can be performed with the use of momentum, which causes certain portions of the exercise to have almost no resistance.

This is a common mistake you will see in the gym.

i.e. people during curls using a good amount of momentum.

Resistance bands, as we mentioned, provide constant tension and progressive resistance throughout the movement, no matter how quickly you move through the range of motion. There is no way to use momentum to “cheat” on a resistance band exercise.

What’s more, because resistance bands maintain the same tension whether you perform an exercise fast or slow, so they are great for training for speed, and explosiveness.

3. Targeting Muscles

With resistance bands, you can target/emphasize certain muscles during exercises by simply anchoring the band at a different angle.

For example, performing a normal squat, but with the band at a different angle, you will have changed how the resistance targets your muscles. You can place emphasis on your hamstrings, quads or glutes this way.

To do something similar with free weights, you have to change your position, such as a low bar squat, which places more emphasis on your hamstrings than a normal/high bar squat.

All in all, the ability to change how you target your muscles is great for aesthetics and sport-specific reasons...such as, doing it for safety to prevent injuries and joint pain or to better work a lagging muscle.

4. Progressive Overloading

Progressive overloading is essential for hypertrophy and strength gains.

It is a principle that states in order to keep making improvements and gains from an exercise program, you must make the workouts increasingly difficult.

i.e. more sets, reps and most importantly, heavier weight.

With free weights, this is very straight forward. You know exactly what you are lifting. Thus, you can easily train progressively.

With resistance bands, it is more difficult to train progressively as the resistance level of the band is somewhat ambiguous.

For example, a .5” loop resistance band offers 5-20lbs of resistance. The more you stretch it, and the further you begin the exercise away from the anchor, the more resistance there will be (i.e. the furthest point would be 20lbs of resistance for a .5" band).

Because of this, it is hard to know exactly what kind of load you are working with, and in turn, it’s hard to train progressively.

Of course, you can do more reps and sets, but still, you would have to know exactly how far away you are starting the exercise from the anchor point to make sure the resistance level is not less than your previous workout.

Overall, it is so much easier to do progressive overloading with free weights.

Free Weights or Resistance Bands - What’s the verdict?

exercise bands or free weights

We can’t answer that yet, we still have more to discuss.

At this point, it might seem like we are leaning toward resistance bands, but that isn’t the case. To determine whether resistance bands or free weights are best for you [or maybe both ;)], we must look at this with a few different criteria.

CRITERIA for Resistance Bands vs Free Weights 

To really decide which is better, resistance bands or free weights, and when to use one or the other, we must look at fitness as a whole, not just hypertrophy and strength aspects.

So, we will be using the following criteria to make our judgment on which is best (or better yet, which one to use for specific purposes):

  • Building Muscle
  • Muscular Strength
  • Muscular Endurance
  • Burning Fat
  • Flexibility/Mobility/Stretching
  • Balance Training
  • Rehab/Prehab
  • Warm-up
  • Planes of Motion
  • Safety & risk to reward
  • Versatility
  • Portability
  • Price

RESISTANCE BANDS VS FREE WEIGHTS

We are going to discuss “resistance band vs free weights” based on each individual criterion now, so you can see which is better for different areas of fitness.

Building Muscle

can you build muscles with resistance bands

Although resistance bands are capable of building muscle, especially for beginners, if you are looking to build serious muscle mass, free weights are a must.

As mentioned, free weights offer an easy way to do progressive overloading. Resistance bands, however, have a certain threshold, that once you reach, you need to switch over to free weights for continued muscle growth.

Winner: Free weights

Muscular Strength

resistance bands or free weights

As with building muscle, free weights are king for building muscular strength. Resistance bands simply won’t be able to challenge you in the same way that free weights can.

The effect of gravity is not to be underestimated when it comes to developing serious muscular strength. Neither is the design of a barbell and a dumbbell. 

That said, if you are a beginner, resistance bands are a good place to start your fitness journey. You will be able to see some strength gains and you won’t have nearly the same risk that comes with lifting free weights.

Winner: Free weights

Muscular Endurance

exercise bands vs free weights

This is a tough one to choose a winner, as both resistance bands and free weights can help you develop good muscular endurance.

However, because resistance bands provide constant tension, and muscular endurance exercises don’t require heavy weights (they require lighter weights with higher volume), we are going to give it to resistance bands.

With resistance bands, you will have constant tension for the entire exercise, and that is great for maximizing muscular endurance.

Winner: Resistance bands (but almost a tie)

Burning Fat

resistance bands vs free weights for toning

When it comes to burning fat, this is more about your training protocol than the tool itself. You can burn all the fat you’d ever want to burn with bodyweight exercises. So, both resistance bands and free weights will do the job.

To burn fat, with resistance bands or free weights, all you have to do is make sure your heart rate up for an entire 20-30 minute workout. The exercises should be intense enough to challenge you, but not too heavy where you can’t continue with the exercises as you need to rest. That said, a little rest is ok for a fat burning workout, however, you can’t allow your heart rate to drop below a certain level, which depends on your age and max heart rate. Fat burning heart rate is usually around 60-70% of your max heart rate.

HIIT and Metabolic Workouts are great for burning fat, and both can be done with free weights or resistance bands to the same effect.

Winner: Tie - Free weights or resistance bands

Flexibility & Mobility

resistance bands versus free weights

This is an easy one, resistance bands are the tool you will want to use for mobility and flexibility training.

With resistance bands, you can get deeper stretches and you can get into positions for joint mobilization and to increase your range of motion.

There are a few ways to increase mobility with free weights, but there are countless ways to do it with bands. Bands are especially effective for shoulder and hip mobility.

So, if you want to improve in these areas, resistance bands are essential.

Winner: Resistance Bands

Balance Training

exercise bands vs free weights

It's not something people think about often, but balance training is one of the main pillars of fitness. Balance is key to life, in all respects.

When it comes to free weights vs resistance bands, we believe free weights to be the better of the two. With free weights, you can load one side (unilateral training) and do exercises to really improve your balance.

It's even more effective when you use an offset training tool like the steel mace.

Nevertheless, you can also train balance with resistance bands by anchoring the bands so tension is pulling you to one side.

So, all that said, we choose free weights for balance training because it is much simpler to train balance than it is with resistance bands. Resistance bands will require a little more "thinking" to be able to train balance as effectively as free weight unilateral exercises can. 

Winner: Free weights

Rehab & Prehab

resistance band or weights for rehab

For rehab and prehab, bands are king.

Go to any rehab facility and you will see people using bands left and right.

This is because bands are a safe way to start building strength and range of motion after an injury.

Resistance bands put significantly less pressure on your joints. Moreover, because you can produce elastic force in any direction, you can target stabilizer muscles more effectively, which is crucial for rehabbing joint injuries. This also applies to prehab, as getting those stabilizer muscles up to par will be very important for preventing injury when performing heavy lifts or playing sports.

Winner: Resistance Bands

Warm Up

resistance bands or free weights for warming up

You can warm up with both free weights and resistance bands. With free weights, you just need a light weight to get your blood flowing and body temperature up.

However, resistance bands are definitely best for warm-ups. They can get your blood flowing to your joints and muscles and your body temperature up just like free weights, PLUS they can also be used for mobility exercises to make sure your range of motion is normalized for the exercises to come.

So, all in all, bands are more versatile for warm-ups and equally as effective for anything that free weights can do during warm-ups. This is why you will see tons of people using resistance bands before they start their weight lifting session.

Winner: Resistance Bands

Multi-Planar Training

workout bands vs weights

There are three planes of motion: Sagittal, Frontal, and Transverse.

Although free weights are an easy winner for the sagittal and frontal plane, resistance bands are able to work the transverse plane much more effectively.

This is because of what we talked about earlier in this post, elastic force vs gravitational force. With resistance bands, you can anchor the band in a way that allows you to produce rotational force or resist rotation. With free weights, you need to get into certain positions to be able to achieve this (i.e. high hinge offset position).

So, when looking at all planes of motion, resistance bands are way more versatile. And if we want real-world strength, we can’t neglect the transverse plane. We constantly turn and twist and rotate every day, especially if you are an athlete, so transverse plane exercises are a must, and resistance bands are a great tool for that.

Winner: Resistance Bands

Safety & Risk To Reward

resistance bands are safer than weights

Resistance bands are a lot safer to use than free weights. There is no question. Gravity can be a very dangerous beast.

Free weights offer the most reward in terms of building muscle and strength, but the risk is much higher than with bands.

Bands are great if you aren’t worried about putting on serious size and you just want to be fit. They will achieve this perfectly well, and the risk to reward ratio will be significantly better.

Winner: Resistance Bands

Versatility

versatile training equipment

We will keep this one short and sweet. Resistance bands are more versatile. You can use them for warm-up, workout, and recovery. They can be used for everything free weights can (albeit not as effective in some areas), plus much more.

So, if you are looking for the most versatile training tool, bands are the one.

Winner: Resistance Bands

Portability

resistance bands portable

This is a no brainer, resistance bands are portable, free weights are meant to be situated in a gym (or garage). It’s that simple.

A set of loop resistance bands will weigh around 5lbs, and that offers up to 170lbs of resistance, whereas a 5lb dumbbell offers, well, 5lbs of resistance.

This is why resistance bands are a favorite for people who frequently travel. They are easy to take on the road. They take up about as much space as a pair of jeans.

Resistance bands are also popular with weightlifters too, because sometimes people just want to do an outdoor workout, and with bands, you can throw them in your bag and hit the park for a good high-intensity workout and pump, with the added benefit of vitamin D!

Winner: Resistance Bands

Price

resistance bands price

Resistance bands are not only a portable and space-saving option, but they are also the most cost-effective.

For up to 170lbs of resistance, you will need to spend around $65 (full set of 5 loop resistance band).

With free weights, for that same amount of resistance levels, you will need to spend significantly more, unless you can somehow find free weights at a tag sale or on craigslist for a sick deal.

Winner: Resistance Bands

resistance bands

Resistance Bands vs Free Weights - Winner?

Out of 13 categories, we have resistance bands taking the W on 8 of them, free weights for 3 easy wins, and a tie for 2.

So, in this case, resistance bands are the winner, simply because they are more versatile.

However, we shouldn’t look at it this way.

We need to base “resistance bands vs free weights, which is better?” on your needs.

So, here's when you should choose resistance bands and when you should choose free weights…

"Should I Buy Resistance Bands?"

buy resistance bands

If your goal is to be fit (i.e. lean, ripped, tone, move good, feel good), then resistance bands can achieve that. 

Resistance bands are versatile, so you will be able to do so many things with them, from warm-up to workout to recovery. They are truly an all in one tool. So if that is something that appeals to you, definitely get yourself a set of bands.

Other uses for resistance bands:

resistance band explosive exercises

"Should I buy/use free weights?"

should i buy dumbbells

If your goal is to put on serious mass and build brute power and strength, free weights are the best bet bar none.

Best of Both Worlds!

resistance bands with free weights

If you want to be the most well-rounded athlete and fitness enthusiast, your best bet is to utilize both free weights and resistance bands.

Use resistance bands for HIIT days, explosive bodyweight exercises, assistance for pull-ups to get more reps in, mobility work, warming up, and so on.

Use free weights for strength and hypertrophy days.

You can do three free weight days and two resistance band high-intensity fat-burning days each week…or you can use both in the same workout.

One great way to use both resistance bands and free weights in a workout is to superset heavy free weight exercises with light resistance band exercises. This will give you an unrivaled burn/pump.

What’s more, you can use resistance bands and free weights at the same time!

pairing resistance bands with weights

By adding resistance bands to barbell or dumbbells (or kettlebells and steel maces), you can change the strength curve, adding more resistance to big lifts to maximize results. This is also a great way to challenge your muscles in a new way, which is crucial for breaking through plateaus. Moreover, adding bands to free weight lifts will help you to build more explosion in those exercises.

resistance bands and barbell stability exercise

You can also use bands with barbells to train stability during big lifts. For example, you place a band with a weight plate tied to the end of it and hang it on each end of the barbell. This will completely change the dynamics of the exercise as the bands (hanging with a weight at the end) bounce as you move, thus working your core to keep you stable.

Learn all about pairing bands with a barbell and other free weight exercises.

Comparing resistance bands to free weights is like comparing peanut butter to jelly. They compliment each other. It shouldn’t be a which-one-is-better situation. It's about which is better for specific purposes. It’s as simple as that.

Where to buy high-quality resistance bands?

Shameless plug - We sell the highest quality Resistance Bands (our reviews speak to this) at a great price. Get a set of resistance bands from us. We appreciate the support!

Still aren't sure if you should choose us? Here's why our resistance bands are best.

should i buy resistance bands

Other resistance band resources:

What size resistance band should I buy?
Different types of resistance bands and which is best
Top 7 benefits of resistance bands



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