It’s easy to see the appeal. They’re lightweight, affordable, easy to store and can be taken anywhere in a bag. Contrast this with weights – heavy, often expensive, bulky and not at all portable. However, resistance bands and weight training can both help you achieve your fitness goals, say experts.
In practical terms, it’s important to ask yourself what you’re ultimately seeking from resistance training, says Joe Watters, a Dubai-based personal trainer. “To grow [bigger] muscle, weights are generally required as the demand on the muscle is higher – you’re looking to elicit micro tears in the muscle fibres so they rebuild bigger.”
However, he adds that bands are a nice addition to lighter weights if you don’t have access to a gym with specialised machines and heavier weights.
Bands for rehabilitation
The science backs his assessment up. A 2014 International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study looked at the effectiveness of variable resistance training (VRT) in building quadricep strength in subjects who were recovering from knee procedures, including the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction often required of footballers. “Quadriceps deficits after various knee procedures are well‐documented,” wrote the authors, whose study saw participants perform VRT with elastic resistance bands. “Because of the benefits in strength and power that may be realised from this method of training, it should be considered as a potential method to facilitate strength gains in the lower extremity.”
It’s not just the lower body – there have been numerous studies (dating back to the Nineties) on baseball players showing that resistance bands can be highly effective in rehabilitation for shoulder injuries such as dislocations and rotator cuff tears. Similarly, a 1998 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that tennis players who exercised with elastic bands saw significant gains in shoulder strength and service speed over time.
Watters recommends bands for targeting smaller muscle groups in the body, as well as for recovery work following injuries, particularly to the shoulder. “However, I personally use them to create higher demands on the body or for warm-ups – for example, a back squat with a band just above the knee can help activate the glutes and stop a knee valgus (when the knee caves inwards).”
Another thing to note about resistance bands in comparison to free weights – they don’t rely on gravity as a means of resistance and provide it on whatever plane want to work on, whether vertical or horizontal. You also don’t get to cheat – by gaining an extra rep – using momentum with a band the way you can by swinging a dumbell. “The bands give a higher level of muscle activation as they do not allow the body to cheat by using momentum,” explains Watters. “Take, for example, a bicep curl – with dumbells it’s easy to swing the weight and allow the muscle to find a state in which it’s not contracted, whereas the resistance bands keep a steady flow of demand or tension on the muscle tissue as you are unable to swing or cheat.”
The case for weights
That said, weights are effective for a number of objectives, he says. “For example, high weights on low repetitions (8-12) build strength, medium weights to high weight hypertrophy (muscle building) and lifting low weight at high repetition builds endurance.”
One of the most comprehensive studies comparing the effectiveness of elastic resistance bands and free weights for building muscular strength was published in the SAGE Open Medicine journal in February 2019 – and it didn’t find too much of a difference in results.
“Evidence from this study suggests that resistance training with elastic devices provides similar strength gains when compared to resistance training performed from conventional devices,” said the authors. “These findings allow coaches, physiotherapists, and even patients to opt to use devices with low costs, ease of handling, and which can be used in different places, such as elastic devices, for maintenance and gain in muscular strength.” At the end of the day, an effective training routine doesn’t need you to choose between bands and weights. “To summarise bands and weights both definitely complement each other and can be used together or separately in all types of workouts,” says Watters.