Resistance Bands vs Free Weights

by Evelyn Valdez

It's not easy planning a workout, it's even harder finding the right and best equipment needed for you to achieve your fitness goal. Free weights are a staple in the gym, but throwing around heavy weights in the gym is no longer the only method used to tone up and build muscle. Now there are various tools for weight trainers to use like resistance bands

Resistance band training and free weights are both great for building strength and muscle. But is one really better than the other? Should you focus more on resistance bands or free weights? Well, the better of the two is subjective, it really depends on what you're trying to achieve from your workout. Not all pieces of gym equipment are made equal, so we're here to give you all the details about resistance bands vs free weights so you can figure out which one is better for your goals!

What are they?

Free weights and resistance bands are both resistance training methods of muscle building by using mechanical tension, but they have distinct differences.

So let's break them down:

Resistance bands are an elastic band that provides external resistance that your muscles work against. They engage the muscles being targeted to fight the tension throughout the entire exercise being performed.

Free weights are a type of gym equipment that does not limit the range of motion with which you can use it. They're called "free" because you are able to pick them up and do whatever you want with them. The most common free weights are dumbbells and barbells. Others are kettlebells, tires, anything you can lift and use as a weight. 

Essentially, resistance is created by gravity when training with free weights and resistance is created by elastic force when training with resistance bands. So the key difference between them is the effects it has on your muscles. 

Advantages of Resistance Bands

The first advantage resistance bands have over free weight is that they are

inexpensive and portable. Their portability makes them perfect for people who prefer home workouts (here are the best resistance band exercises you can try at home) and for those that travel frequently. They're also inexpensive, a set of resistance bands can cost you anywhere between $20-50 and they come with various resistance levels so you can train at your fitness level and then progress as needed. Opposed to weights like dumbbells, their prices vary on the weight and can range anywhere between $15-200+!

Another advantage of bands is that they can be used for rehab after an injury. They are a common tool used in physical therapy for those recovering from an injury because they put less pressure on your joints and can target stabilizer muscles more effectively, which is crucial for when recovering from a joint injury. 

In terms of training, resistance bands has a few advantages which include: 

  • Versatile in how you can create resistance - Resistance bands don't rely on gravity to create resistance. Force is created in the direction you stretch the band. So they provide variable resistance in horizontal and vertical planes - pretty much at any direction and at any angle. For example, you have to lie on a bench when performing a chest press with dumbbells or a barbell. That's because you have to use your muscles to press up as gravity forces the weight down, it won't work your muscles if you're just standing and performing a chest press. With resistance bands, you can perform a chest press lying on a bench or standing! Just place the elastic resistance band underneath your shoulders, hold the handles or the ends, then extend your arms forward pulling the band with them.
  • They provide constant tension - Bands provide tension throughout the entire exercise being performed. It doesn't matter if you perform the exercise fast or slow, there will always be a constant tension, so you really can't cheat using bands! The constant tension that they provide throughout the entire range of motion is important when it comes to building muscle. This is something free weights lack.
  • They provide progressive resistance - With bands, the resistance weight actually increases as you perform the exercise range of motion. Let's use bicep curls as an example. As you curl your arm up toward your shoulder when performing a biceps curl with a resistance band, the resistance increases making it more difficult. Progressive resistance increases the number of muscle fibers that are being used as you go through the entire range of motion of the exercise being performed, this helps with building strength effectively. 
  • Great for all fitness levels - Resistance bands are used by beginners and experienced lifters! They are also less intimidating, which makes them a great starting point for those new to weight training. It's a safe way to start building strength since the risk of injury is minimal. 

Advantages of Free Weights

Now let's talk about good 'ol weights! Weights are more expensive than resistance bands, but if you have a gym membership then you're golden! Almost all gyms provide their members with dumbbells, barbells, and sometimes kettlebells. Gyms rarely provide resistance bands, usually people bring some with them. This is really an advantage if you have a gym membership, not for those who prefer to workout at home. 

In terms of training, free weights have a few advantages which include:

  • Control the exact resistance - It's not possible to control the exact resistance on bands, if you want to increase the resistance you have to move up to a heavier band. With free weights, you can control exactly how much you want to increase or decrease in weight. You can increase or decrease in large or small amounts because dumbbells and barbells typically go up in increments of 5lbs, some even 2.5lbs. This helps people track their progress when strength training, so it's extremely important for those wanting to increase muscle strength.
  • Better for those competing in bodybuilding - Weight lifters that have specific goals like taking part in bodybuilding competitions will benefit from using free weights more than resistance bands. They usually perform specific lifts that require weights.
  • Better for progressive overload - This one kind of goes hand-in-hand with controlling the exact resistance. Resistance bands have an end point, once you reach the max level you can't keep increasing. With free weights, you are able to keep increasing which makes your muscles work harder. This is why they are more challenging and better for those wanting to increase muscle mass. 
  • Can help decrease muscle imbalances - It's not uncommon to have strength differences in each side of our body. Sometimes your body can become more dominant on one side which leads to that side taking on more of the work. Free weight training makes it easier to load the same weight on each side. It also makes it easier to find muscle imbalances and then train to correct them.

Comparing the results: Which one is better?

free weights vs resistance bands inforgraphic

It can be hard to tell which one is better because both have great advantages! Resistance bands have slightly better advantages in terms of pricing, portability, and progressive resistance. But they lack the weight variety that free weights offer. 

It all really comes down to what your specific goals are and your personal preference. If you prefer to workout at home and are just trying to stay in shape, then resistance bands are for you! For those who are focusing on muscle growth or even training for a competition then free weights are the better option!  

In the end, there really is no winner between weights vs resistance bands. In fact, incorporating both to your training program is probably better than just choosing one! You can perform resistance exercises as a warm-up, then finish with free weights. You can even combine the two and use a resistance band while training with weights. Like performing squats with a resistance band around your thighs. The possibilities are endless! Point is, create your training program around your goals and preferences. Hopefully this information will help you figure out what type of training you want to do!

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