There has been a heated debate in the fitness industry over the years: bands or free weights? I’m here to tell you that there really is no right or wrong answer in this debate, and that it truly depends on what you are going for with you workouts. Many different factors play into this, including goals, fitness level, injured/not injured, and availability of equipment and money. When needed, ask a personal trainer for advice!
Resistance bands are exactly what they sound like: elastic rubber that come in many different shapes, sizes, and strengths. They can be straight bands, sometimes loops, and sometimes rubber tubing that can be used for glute and shoulder exercises. Easily moved place to place, bands provide a great alternative if you have no access to a gym or other modes of resistance.
Free weights, for the purposes of this article, consist of dumbbells, kettle bells and barbells. They also include sandbags, medicine balls, and weight plates. Free weights are bulkier, heavier, and do not travel as well as bands. As stated above though, this does not make one better than the other. Below we will continue to discuss the differences between bands and free weights and how/why to pick one or the other.
Goals and Fitness Level
Both bands and free weights are a very effective mode of resistance, and depending on where you are in your fitness journey, both can be used, and can be used interchangeably.
Resistance bands can apply to almost any bodyweight workout, provide constant tension on a muscle, and help to promote flexibility. With resistance bands applying constant tension to muscles, they are more effective at toning up your body compared with free weights. They also help to limit certain ranges of motion, which can help to prevent injury. If early on in your fitness journey, it can be beneficial to start certain movements, like a resisted plank or a bicep curl, with a resistance band. This helps to make sure you aren’t unsafely overloading your joints with unsafe form. Try this with many different exercises to see what suits you! You can also use bands to help warm up your muscles without a resistance that is too heavy at the beginning of a workout.
As you progress in fitness level, make sure you do not ignore bands, however. Are you ready to try a pull-up? Instead of working only on negatives, or doing heavy lat pull downs, try bands to help. Heavy resistance bands provide assistance in performing a full range pull up, without injuring yourself. Once you feel comfortable, reduce the band strength for less assist. Eventually you will be doing your first un-assisted pull-up!
The few examples above show how you can utilize bands throughout your entire fitness journey. Don’t feel like you should toss them aside simply because you have become stronger or are trying new things.
Free weights require more stability, form and precise ranges of motion to be as effective as they can be. With free weights opposed to bands, your muscles are only under tension as you are moving the weight. This means that there is more of a chance for improper movements, which leads to overuse injuries, and incorrect learning patterns for exercise. Free weights are heavier than bands, and by design are more effective at bulking up, or putting on size.
Early on in your fitness journey, it is beneficial, if properly executed, to use free weights as a mode of resistance. Just like bands in the beginning of your journey, they are effective at helping learn motor patterns and getting stronger. You shouldn’t be afraid to use dumbbells or kettlebells if you never have! As long as you are safe, you can perform almost any exercise with a dumbbell! When compared with bands, they are also a little bit more precise. This can be helpful early on as you progress from 1lb weights to 2lb weights, or even 5lb to 10lb. Band resistance is dependent on how much stretch there is in the band. This can make it a bit difficult to know exactly how much weight is being used. The number stamped on the weight makes it easy.
When you are a more advanced lifter, free weights provide an advantage over bands in terms of excessive load on muscles. For example, you can load up a barbell with plates and perform heavy squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. While a band can be used for this, it is not as effective in helping gain strength or size, if that is what your goal is. When lifting this heavy you can also use lighter loads of these compound exercises on lighter load days, or even as a warm up for your heavier lifts.
Both bands and free weights are great choices for your mode of resistance, early on in your journey and in the more advanced stages! It truly does depend on your goals and what you are reaching for. Trying to tone up a bit more? Then maybe bands are better for you. Looking to gain size or hit a personal record on your squat? Free weights may be the better option. Neither is wrong and both are effective.
Injured versus Not Injured
Injury can also play a big part in deciding whether to use bands or free weights. If you do sustain an injury and attend Physical Therapy, you will see both used. In the shorter term, it can be safer to use bands for exercise. This is due to the limited ranges of motion and constant tension on the muscle, helping to promote strength quicker. Free weights may be used later on in your PT stint, or for exercises where lighter weight is enough to overload the muscle properly.
As discussed in the section above, free weights are great for heavier multi-joint exercises to help build size. While this is great, poor form with heavy weights can lead to injury. This is an indicator that your motion is not quite correct and needs tweaking. A great way to do this is to either lower the load, or practice the motion with a band. Another way to help work on the movement while injured, is to isolate to single limb motions.
For example, you are doing very heavy deadlifts and hurt your back. Switch it up and perform single leg RDL’s with light dumbbells or kettle bells. This helps promote a proper hinging motion and forces stability on the working leg. This in turn leads to greater efficiency when you then progress back to your barbell deadlifts. You could also work on a banded deadlift and completely remove the free weights. Either corrective exercise is effective, and both can be used for similar injuries. Make sure you talk to your trainer or therapist to see which on works best for you.
When not injured, you can choose whichever form of resistance you would like! Just always remember to take into consideration what your goals are and think about why you are choosing your equipment.
Equipment Availability and Money
It isn’t always easy to work in going to the gym into your schedule. Life happens and sometimes there just isn’t enough time. If this is the case over the long-term, then maybe you are thinking about investing in some at-home equipment. The more economically sound choice is to purchase a great band set. They are affordable and come in many different varieties. Do you travel a lot for work? Bands are also great for travel! Roll them up and throw them in your suitcase for a gym on the go. They don’t take up a lot of space and can add resistance to any workout you might do.
If the price tag isn’t quite an issue, and you have the space, a set of dumbbells or kettlebells are perfectly fine. They even make adjustable dumbbells that can range in weight from 5lb-50lb with a simple movement of a pin. A downfall of free weight purchases are that they do not travel well and do take up space. Normally a whole room in a house takes up a home gym and if you don’t have this, then a band set purchase might be more appropriate. Purchasing at home equipment really depends on your space availability and the budget you have set for your equipment.
In conclusion, there are a few key differences between bands and free weights. Bands are more effective at toning the body, are a little more affordable and moveable, and can help with rehabilitation of injuries. Free weights are more effective at building size, but are much more expensive and take up a lot of space. The use of equipment in the gym ultimately comes down to what you are trying to achieve and where you will be exercising. Never be afraid to try something new and always ask a professional for advice if you have any questions!