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Free Weights Vs Resistance Bands, Which is Better?

To many of us it might appear that we have traditionally been training with free weights and that the resistance bands are just a new fad, which will soon pass. However that is not the case, resistance bands have been around now for a century and their popularity is just increasing. In this article we will compare the resistance bands with free weights and compare their advantages and disadvantages.

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Before we start to evaluate, which one is better, free weights or resistance bands, let’s learn a little bit about resistance as it is important to understanding the difference between resistance band and free weight.

What is Resistance?

In terms of the physical fitness, resistance is any type of object against which our muscles have to generate a force to move it. As an example when you perform a bicep curl, we hold a dumbbell in our hand and then try to move it up. The dumbbell is heavy and due to gravity it always wants to fall down on the ground. With our muscles, we generate force to move the dumbbell up against the gravity. The dumbbell hence is the resistance, which we move by generating force through our bicep muscles. As the weight gets heavier, our bicep muscle has to generate more and more force and in the process the muscle becomes bigger and stronger.

Resistance of a Resistance Band

Unlike a dumbbell where the gravitation force is responsible for the resistance, for resistance bands the resistance is generated due to the elastic force of the resistance band. As we stretch the resistance band, tension builds up inside the resistance band, our muscles have to generate force to overcome this tensile force and stretch the resistance band further.

Differences between Free Weights and Resistance Band

Our muscles don’t really care if they have to generate a force against a free weight or a resistance band. Force generate is force generated for our muscles. However the way the resistance is transferred to our muscles differs for a free weight and a resistance band. As mentioned previously for free weight the resistance comes from gravity while for a resistance band the resistance comes from its elasticity. Based on this difference we can derive the differences between the resistance band and free weights

  1. With free weight the direction of the resistance is always downwards, while with resistance band the direction of resistance is always opposite to the direction in which it is stretched. This difference allows more flexibility in using the resistance band as you can use them to create resistance in any direction. As an example, lets say that you want to perform bench press, however for some reason you are not able to lie down flat on the bench. Under such a situation you can use resistance band and stand straight up while pushing the band horizontally. You will not be able to do that with free weights, as the resistance is always vertically down.Sometimes with free weights, gravity comes to your assistance. The best example for this is the top portion of a bicep curl, where most of the work is done by gravity as the weight is just falling down with our arms just guiding the weight. This does not happen with resistance bands as the resistance depends on the amount of stretch.
  1. The resistance for free weights remains the same through out the range of motion, while for the resistance band it increases as you stretch it more. This has a significant effect on the amount of work our muscles do in overcoming the resistance. For free weight our muscles always feel the same resistance, no matter where you are in your exercise, while for resistance band, the initial force generation requirement is less and as you stretch the resistance band more, your muscles need to generate more force to stretch further. This generally limits the benefit of resistance band, as your muscles are at their maximum force generation stage for a small amount of time at the end of the movement as opposed to the free weights where your muscles are at maximum force generation stage longer.
  2. A free weight once put in motion wants to stay in motion due to momentum, while for the resistance band, no such thing happens. This makes resistance bands more effective. With resistance band it is difficult to cheat by using the inherent momentum of the weight. As an example with bicep curl, you might have seen a lot of people just flinging the weight up. This they are able to do by imparting momentum to the weight with stronger muscles of their back and legs. As the free weight gets in motion, it just moves by itself up with out engaging much of your biceps. This cannot be done with the resistance bands. Since resistance bands do not have a mass of their own, you cannot impart momentum to it. Your bicep muscles have to work through out to stretch the band.
  3. The resistance of the free weights can be increased as much as you like, by just increasing the weight. This is not that straight forward for resistance bands. There is always an upper limit on how much resistance you can increase with resistance bands, going beyond that will just break the band. Hence progressive overloading is difficult with resistance bands.

Now that we understand the difference between free weights and resistance bands, which one is better? As with all the other things, the answer to it depends on your situation.

When Free Weights are Better

If you are really serious about muscle building and getting strong then you absolutely need free weights. As you will get strong, the resistance band will not be able to provide you with the resistance that will be able to challenge you. This however does not mean that resistance bands are useless for you. You can use resistance bands with free weights to improve your training. Variable resistance training is one such technique. Variable resistance training involves performing the exercises with resistance bands or some other form of variable load such as chains. The idea here is to make the load heavier as you come out of the lift. An example will be performing the squat with the resistance band attached on both sides of the bar. When you go down the resistance decreases as the tension on the band decreases, while on moving up, the resistance increases as the bands get under tension. This makes the exercise difficult because the load becomes heavier as you get into a stronger position. The result is improved muscle power gains.

When Resistance Bands are Better

If you are just beginning, or are just interested in toning your muscles or strengthen muscles for rehabbing from an injury, then resistance bands are a great option for you. The resistance bands are cheap, easy to store and transport as compared to free weights. Also they allow you more flexibility in usage if you have other physical limitations or injury. You can use resistance bands literally anywhere, be it your home, office or a hotel room while you are travelling. Moreover resistance bands are safer to use than free weights, especially if you are just getting into strength training and have not yet mastered all the movements.

If you think that your situation is more suited to resistance bands than the question you might have is what type of resistance band should I get? There are generally two types of resistance bands that you can find in the market

  1. Tubular Resistance Bands: This type of resistance band is a rubber tube with handles on two ends. These types are ideal for upper body exercises as the handles on the two ends let you grab the band to perform exercises such as the rows, presses and curls. Generally though these resistance bands are not that sturdy and also seem to lose their tensile strength over time.
  2. Flat Resistance Bands: This type of resistance bands comes in the form of a large rubber ring with a flat side. These bands are really sturdy and durable and are often more useful in variable resistance training with free weights. They may also be used in themselves to perform exercises such as squats and assistance pull-ups.
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Resistance bands have recently come into a lot of popularity and it appears that more and more people are incorporating them in their workouts. Although they cannot replace free weights when it comes to serious strength training, resistance bands can definitely act as a great alternative for free weight for someone who is just starting out and does not have a lot of money to invest in free weights.