If you’re casually strength training, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you reach for a resistance band or grab some free weights during your workout. Both tools will help you build muscle so that you feel stronger overall and it can simply come down to preference. You might like using one over the other, and that’s a-OK. But if you have specific fitness goals in mind, there are some differences between weights and resistance bands that will start to matter.
For a quick rundown, resistance bands are, of course, those stretchy, elastic-y bands that come in either loop, tube, or band form. They also come in different “resistances,” says Dr. Dave Candy, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC, CMTPT, FAAOMPT, a doctor of physical therapy, certified athletic trainer, and owner of More 4 Life. You can get light, medium, heavy, or extra-heavy, depending on how hard you want your workout to be.
There are lots of options in the free weight category, too, with the most popular weights being barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells, Candy says. Read on below for everything you need to know about what sets weights and resistance bands apart, so you’ll know which one to choose for your next workout.
Benefits Of Weights
Free weights offer a lot more variety than resistance bands simply because there are so many different kinds. “Barbells allow heavier training because each arm balances the other and you don't have to use as many stabilizing muscles,” Candy tells Bustle, so you might want to go with that if you’re looking to truly pump some iron.
“Conversely, dumbbells require you to use your smaller stabilizing muscles more, and these are particularly helpful if you have a ‘weaker’ side or you're recovering from an injury and you don't want the strong side to take over,” he says. Kettlebells, on the other hand, allow for dynamic exercises that require swinging a weight. “They are good for developing power,” says Candy. “You can also use them like dumbbells, but they require more wrist stability to stabilize the weight of the ball.”
Unlike weight machines, any type of free weight requires you to work extra hard to keep it steady as you move through an exercise. And while it sounds tough, that’s actually a good thing. According to Candy, free weights work the “stabilizer” muscles, also known as the ones that keep you steady. “For exercises like squats and deadlifts, weights also use your core muscles to stabilize your body, not just your leg muscles, such as in a leg press,” he adds.
This versatility also means you can switch it up depending on how you’d like to train. You can use a kettlebell to do swings and other full-body, cardio-boosting moves. You can also give extra attention to a certain muscle, like the bicep or tricep, by lifting dumbbells or you could train multiple muscle groups at once by doing moves like the deadlift or bench press with a barbell. It all depends on what type of workout you’re looking for.
Downside Of Weights
Free weights are clunky and loose, and thus can be tough to control and with that comes an increased risk of injury. The weight could slip out of your hands, Candy says, and if you choose one that’s too heavy, you might accidentally put too much pressure on your joints.
Another downside, according to kuudose trainer Joey Thurman, CES, CPT, FNS, is that you can’t just dive in and start exercising. At least, you shouldn’t. “As with lots of exercising, if you aren't safe with the modalities and use correct form, you can injure yourself,” he tells Bustle. That’s why you might want to watch a few YouTube videos, or hire a trainer, to ensure you’re using free wights properly.
Benefits Of Resistance Bands
According to Ali Martinez, a certified personal trainer with WRKOUT, resistance bands can be used to take bodyweight workouts up a level. Think squats, shoulder presses, and thrusters with the added resistance of a band. “Resistance bands are far easier to control and offer variable resistance under tension, allowing you to target smaller muscle groups,” she tells Bustle.
Bands come in handy if you’re injured or are recovering from an injury due to the fact they’re low-impact, easy on the joints, and user-friendly. “They are also effective when combined with Pilates and [other] workouts where all you need is a little added resistance to get a really good burn,” she says.
Using a band may be a good choice when you want to mix things up. According to Candy, the stretchiness of a band allows for side-to-side exercises, like shoulder rotations, standing horizontal rows, and standing chest presses. They’re also more portable and usually less expensive than weights, which can be a draw, too.
Downside Of Resistance Bands
The biggest problem with resistance bands is that it’s impossible to tell how much “resistance” you’re using. You have to exercise by “feel,” Candy says, or how hard it is to pull the band apart, or how tired you get by using it. While not a big deal, it can be bothersome if you’re trying to make progress or track your fitness goals.
“While you can adjust the thickness of the band you use, the more the band stretches, the higher the resistance gets, so there's less consistency from workout to workout,” he adds. “The other downside to the changing resistance is that as the band gets stretched further, it gets harder to move, so there's less resistance at the beginning of the exercise, and more at the end range of the exercise.”
As for risk, Martinez points out that bands can snap back at you unexpectedly, especially if you don’t attach them properly to a doorframe or anchor point. “But this isn’t a common occurrence,” she says, “and like anything you start slow, get comfortable with using them, and ask someone with experience for guidance on how to use them properly.”
Weights Vs. Resistance Bands
Both weights and resistance bands are useful when it comes to strength training. Stand in the middle of a band and pull on its ends to do bicep curls, or complete the same motion while holding a dumbbell. “You can get a good strength training workout with both and you can train many of the same movements and muscle groups,” Candy says. The biggest difference is that you don’t know how much you’re “lifting” with bands, he says, which may be something to keep in mind. Weights also allow you to progress in smaller increments. You can lift five pounds, then move up to eight, 10, 20, and so on.
The movement pattern, or how you use each tool, differs too, Thurman explains. You do more pulling actions with bands, versus lifting with weights. And finally, if you train heavy, there will come a day where bands no longer cut it, Candy says. They simply won’t be “tough” enough to give you the type of resistance you need to up your strength training game.
Lopes, JSS. 2019. Effects of training with elastic resistance versus conventional resistance on muscular strength: A systematic review and meta-analysis. SAGE Open Med. doi: 10.1177/2050312119831116.
Dr. Dave Candy, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC, CMTPT, FAAOMPT, doctor of physical therapy and certified athletic trainer
Joey Thurman, CES, CPT, FNS, certified personal trainer