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May 30, 2021 9 min read

Two of the most common pieces of gym equipment are resistance bands and free weights.  One is a basic elastic band and the other a bulky piece of lifting equipment.  Yet, while the elastic bands look unassuming compared to the free weights, could they be a better piece of full-body workout equipment?

We’re breaking down both the good and the bad of resistance bands and free weights to determine which one is better.  In the battle of free weights vs resistance bands, will the underdog come out on top?

Muscular Athletic Men Exercise With Resistance Band

Top Benefits of Resistance Bands

Training with resistance bands is often labeled as ineffective in terms of building muscle strength. Maybe it's the fact they’re just a piece of rubber and not a heavy piece of metal equipment?  Or, that the movements that you do with them look easy?  Whatever the reason, you would be sadly mistaken to think that resistance band exercises are easy and ineffective. 

And, not only do resistance bands help you become stronger, but they have several other great benefits. These are the top benefits of doing resistance band exercises:

1. Progressive resistance for muscle building: You can use resistance bands alone to build muscle.  Not feeling like your muscles are being worked hard enough?  Simply increase the resistance level in the band.  The added resistance will force your muscles to work harder to reach their full range of motion. Resistance bands are an excellent way to strengthen your entire body through progressive resistance.  Progressive resistance means progressively increase the resistance in your bands over time.  If you stick with the same level of resistance forever, your muscles will adapt and your gains will subside.  Thankfully, you can usually get a set of resistance bands that includes bands with several different levels of resistance.

2. Perfect for variable resistance: Resistance bands are an ideal tool for variable resistance training.  Variable resistance is when you use a resistance band to make different points of your exercise movement harder and others easier.

For example, if you’re stronger at the lockout of your bench press than you are in your starting position, then you can add a resistance band to your barbell so that your muscles have more resistance against them in the lockout position.

3. Increases the quality of your workouts: When using resistance bands, your muscles are under constant tension.  You’re working from the moment you get into your starting position with light tension to the point where your muscles are at their tension capacity.  This is unlike weight lifting where you lift for a few reps then completely release the tension.  Therefore, the total amount of time that your muscles are working for is far greater with resistance bands than with regular weights or machines.

4. An easy way to warm up your muscles: If you’re a typical heavy lifter or you don’t like doing resistance band exercises, then you can use resistance bands during your warm-up.  They’ll both heat up and stretch out your muscles. 

5. Improves mobility: Not only are resistance bands great for resistance training, but they’re also great for flexibility.  They require that you extend your muscles through their entire range of motion so that you get the best stretch.  That’s why you commonly see resistance bands in physical therapy offices.

Even if you don’t want to use resistance bands for resistance training, you can always use them for stretching.  Hamstring pulls, inner thigh stretches, and sitting pikes are all stretches that you can do with resistance bands.

6. Requires increased muscle and body control: There’s a reason why many people who start resistance band training experience shaking in their arms and legs: it's because strength training with resistance bands requires a lot of muscle and body control. Unlike when you are using an exercise machine and the machine stabilizes you, with resistance bands you need to channel your core strength extra hard to get that same stability.  If you’re not used to channeling those stabilizing muscles, then you’ll probably experience some shaking in the beginning.

7. Requires work from your stabilizing muscles: Going off of that note, resistance bands challenge not just your core for stabilization, but all of your body’s stabilizing muscles.  The primary stabilizing muscles used for resistance bands include the:

  • Pelvic floor muscles
  • Transverse abdominis
  • Internal and external obliques
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Erector spinae

When you have more strength in these areas, you’ll not only gain more muscle mass, but you’ll also see improvements in your balance and power.  Again, even though resistance band movements look simple, they’re working those deep stabilizing muscles that are often overlooked.

8. Great for functional training: Functional training refers to training that helps you to perform activities in everyday life more easily.  It usually emphasizes core strength and complete movements that work your full body.  Most resistance band exercises are considered functional training.  The more you do them, the easier it should be for you to get through day-to-day life without injury.

9. Lightweight, mobile, and versatile: Maybe the best thing about resistance bands is that they’re simple elastic bands that have a ton of versatility.  You can travel with them, take them to the gym, or just keep them in your home gym.  You can use them for building muscular strength, flexibility, and even some cardio.  If you’re ever in need of a good, inexpensive piece of home workout equipment, then resistance bands are the way to go.

Muscular guy working with free weights

Top Benefits of Free Weights

Free weights, particularly dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells, are some of the star pieces of equipment in your typical gym.  And, that’s for good reason.  They’re a simple tool used for making major gains in your body’s big muscle groups.

Unlike resistance bands that are met with some speculation in terms of their effectiveness, people usually aren’t in disagreement that free weights are effective.  However, are they better than resistance bands in terms of their benefits?

To answer that question, here are some of the top benefits of using free weights:

1. Require the use of your stabilizing muscles: Similar to resistance bands, free weight exercises usually require work from your body’s stabilizing muscles.  Especially when you’re using free weights while standing, the movements require you to fire up your core to maintain balance and good form.

2. Great for improving dynamic balance: Along those same lines, having stronger stabilizing muscles will naturally improve your dynamic balance.  Having good dynamic balance is super important when using free weights because the weights themselves can easily throw you out of balance.

3. Super versatile: You can work most of your upper body and lower body with free weights.  And, there are a plethora of different exercises you can do to work the chest, triceps, biceps, back, quads, and glutes.  When you have a rack of free weights, building strength in all areas of your body is simple and straightforward.

4. Progressive overload for body strength: Straight up, free weights are the most essential piece of equipment for weight training.  They’re the easiest way to achieve a progressive overload.  Progressive overload refers to progressively increasing the difficulty of your lifts to keep building muscle.  Unless you routinely up the weight of your free weights, your gains will plateau. All you need to do to continuously work your muscles harder with free weights is to progressively keep picking up heavier weights.  That way, your muscle growth won’t stop and you’ll see more and more gains-related progress.  If your goal is to get bigger, then lifting heavy free weights is the way to go.

5. Great for functional training: Just like resistance training, free weight training is also a great form of functional training.  Take deadlifts for example: the more you can deadlift, the easier it will be for you to lift heavy objects outside of the gym without hurting yourself.  

Downsides of Resistance Bands

After considering all of their benefits, it's safe to say that resistance band workouts are effective.  But, to what extent are they effective, and what are their limitations?  These are some of the most evident cons of resistance bands: 

1. Resistance bands are better for toning, not mass building: While you certainly can make gains with resistance bands alone, they’re not the most effective tool for doing so.  There are only so many different levels of resistance in resistance bands.  At one point or another, you won’t be challenged anymore by the resistance in the bands alone.  As a result, your gains will plateau and you’ll need to move on to a new strength-building exercise.

2. It’s hard to measure gains from resistance bands: Resistance bands come in several different levels of resistance.  Some are super easy to stretch while others are noticeably more challenging.  However, it’s very difficult to quantify the exact level of resistance in a resistance band.  Unlike weights where you can just pick up a heavier weight, it’s hard to tell sometimes which bands have more resistance than others.  Therefore, it's hard to continuously measure your progress with bands.

3. Bands can easily break: Unfortunately, it’s not all that hard to accidentally break a resistance band.  The more force you apply against it, the more likely it is to break.  So you always have to be somewhat cautious when using one to prevent stretching it to the point of breaking.

Downsides of Free Weights

Free weights are one of the best tools to work each of your body’s different muscle groups.  They’re excellent for building muscle, but like resistance bands, they also come with their own set of cons.  These are the most evident cons of free weights:

1. It’s easy to injure yourself with free weights: Because you don’t have the stabilizing assistance of a machine when lifting free weights, it’s easy to fall out of form and injure yourself.  Therefore, to prevent injuries, you need to pay particular attention to form.  If your form is failing, you’ll need to reduce the amount of weight that you’re lifting.

2. You need a spotter for certain exercises: Unlike other workouts that you can do all on your own, you typically need a spotter such as a friend or personal trainer for certain free weight exercises.  Especially if you’re a heavy lifter, having a spotter is super important.

3. Free weights can make you look bulky: Free weight exercises, particularly common ones like bench press, are targeted at very specific muscle groups.  Doing these exercises consistently with heavy weights can make you look bulky, not lean.  Depending on who you are and what look you’re going for, this can be a pro.  But for others who are going for a leaner look, bulkiness isn’t exactly ideal.

Sports equipment on a black background.

What’s Better? Resistance Bands or Free Weights?

There is no simple way to determine whether resistance bands or free weights are better.  That’s because resistance bands and free weights each have their pros and cons.  Whether or not those pros and cons are important to you depends on your own fitness goals and lifestyle such as:

  • Are you trying to tone up or bulk up?
  • Do you prefer workouts that are easier or heavier on your body?
  • Do you need the ability to be able to work out from anywhere?

Your answers to these questions will determine whether resistance bands or free weights are better for you.

1. Do you want to tone or bulk?

Resistance band exercises tend to create longer and leaner-looking muscles.  On the other hand, free weights are better for building big muscle mass in targeted muscle groups.  So, while they’re both great for building muscle, one of them is better for toning and the other for bulking.

2. Do you want a lower or heavier impact workout?: The impact on your body varies drastically between resistance bands and free weights.  Because resistance bands utilize only the resistance in the band plus your body weight, the workout is overall pretty easy on your joints.  Free weights on the other hand are high-impact and regularly result in the not-good type of body pain.

3. Do you want to be able to do your workout from anywhere?

Both resistance bands and free weights are very versatile.  You can do all different types of workouts with them while working your body from head to toe.  However, you can take elastic resistance bands anywhere with you whereas free weights are usually stuck in a gym.  Resistance bands are more accessible to you if your lifestyle is filled with travel or you prefer working out from home.

Given the different pros and cons of resistance bands and free weights along with your specific goals and lifestyle, you can decide which is better for you.  Consider the following:

  • If you want to lean out, try resistance bands, and if you want to bulk up, try free weights
  • If you want a lower-impact workout, try resistance bands, and if you’re okay with a higher-impact workout, try free weights
  • If you live an on-the-go lifestyle, try resistance bands, and if you are an everyday gym-goer, try free weights

As you can see, there’s not a simple answer to which one is better.  It all comes down to you and your preferences.  However, I will suggest that you do try to integrate both into your training program. 

While they do have some of the same benefits, they’re also different in many ways.  To keep things interesting with your workouts and prevent plateaus, I suggest using both bands and weights in your routine.

Final Thoughts on Bands vs Weights

In the battle of resistance bands vs free weights, you must choose for yourself which is best for you.  I’ve drawn up the pros and cons of each, now you need to decide which is best for you depending on your own goals and lifestyle.

Regardless of which one you choose though, it’ll definitely deliver results.  That’s because both resistance bands and free weights are a great way to build muscle, get stronger, and have a great workout.

Bonus tip: Ready to take your free weights routine to the next level? Try the Jeff Nippard workout routine to bulk up.