More and more of us are incorporating some form of resistance band training into our daily workouts, whether that's using a pull up assist band, booty band, or combining several resistance bands together. But there's still a lot of confusion over how resistance band exercises compare to the more traditional method of weight training. In this article, we take a look at the differences between weights vs. resistance bands and how the two types of workout differ.
Do resistance bands work?
There's no doubt that resistance bands work - looking at the physics alone, it's clear that any equipment which provides your muscles with added resistance during an exercise is going to help to tone and build that muscle. But while there are a lot of similarities in the effects, they do work in a slightly different way to weights.
The main differences between weights and resistance bands
The most obvious difference between weights and resistance bands is their appearance. Weights are bulky, hard to transport, and require adjustment to change the difficulty level. On the other hand, resistance bands can be folded easily into a gym bag, weigh very little, and to switch difficulty; you simply switch bands.
But there are also differences in the way that they work. Unlike weights, resistance bands don't place any residual load on your body during the rest portion of an exercise. Think about doing bicep curls with a dumbbell vs. a resistance band. With the weight, when your arm is fully extended, you're not using your bicep muscle at all, but you still have to use your muscles to keep hold of the dumbbell (or it would drop to the floor). With a resistance band, when the band is slack, it's not placing any strain on your body at all.
Another key difference is momentum. With weights, a certain portion of some exercises is essentially weightless due to the momentum of the weight as it moves. For example, think about powerlifting. When a powerlifter explodes upwards, they essentially bounce the bar up to a higher position and then "catch" it. During that phase, the bar is not providing any resistance to the weightlifter's muscles. If we designed the same exercise with a resistance band, the work would be spread evenly throughout the movement, resulting in a much more controlled lift, but with exactly the same effort, and therefore the same overall improvement in muscle strength.
The benefits of resistance bands vs. free weights
These differences mean that using resistance bands has a number of advantages over using free weights in your workout.
Portability is an obvious plus for resistance bands. They can be packed down to fit in even a small gym bag, and there's no effort involved in getting them set up - just unroll them, and you're ready to go. This opens up the possibility to take your strength training outside of the gym, meaning you can work out outdoors, while traveling or at home (even if space is limited).
Resistance bands also give you a much wider range of movement. Weights only work in the vertical plane - naturally, as they work due to gravity. This means that to train certain muscle groups, you have to reorient your body (think about bench presses, for example. With resistance band workouts, you can maintain a more natural posture while working certain muscle groups in the horizontal plane - for example, chest expansions.
Because resistance bands provide constant tension through each movement, you run a much lower risk of injury by jerking or jarring your muscles or joints, and the workout itself is more effective, providing resistance to your muscles, which scales up and down naturally through each rep.
Can resistance bands build muscle?
Yes - resistance bands actually build muscle just as well as weights. Studies of athletes using both methods have shown that there is no observable difference in either muscle activity or peak load when training with bands rather than weights.
Once again, it's basic physics. If it takes your body a certain amount of work to complete a movement (whether the resistance is provided by gravity, as with weights, or elasticity, as with resistance bands), then the effect on your muscles will be exactly the same.
Can you build biceps with resistance bands?
As we've discussed above, one of the biggest advantages of using resistance bands in place of free weights is the ability to specifically target muscles or muscle groups. And when it comes to building your biceps, that's an extremely useful feature. Using a resistance band allows for a deeper, more intense, and focused workout, which will build bicep muscle faster than using free weights alone. The same holds true for other specific muscles, whether that triceps, traps, or pecs.
Do resistance bands count as strength training?
The easiest way to answer this question is to ask someone who has tried working out with resistance bands vs. free weights, or to try it yourself, and then ask "did you feel the pain the next day?" Unsurprisingly, the answer is usually a resounding "Yes!" Where people often struggle in understanding the similarity is in the appearance of the two pieces of equipment. With weights, it's easy to see, as you add plates to the bar, that the difficulty level is increasing.
With resistance bands, a "harder" band looks exactly the same as an "easier" one. But the difference is clear after a few reps. So the key to working out with resistance bands vs. free weights is to ensure that you match the strength of the band to the level which is most appropriate for you - which may vary depending on what muscle group you're targeting.