Resistance Bands vs. Weights – Deciding Which Method is Best for Your Goals

I get it, making the decision between resistance bands vs. weights can be a bit confusing.

Many different resources are telling you that both of these methods of exercise are best. Fortunately, deciding between these methods is easier than you think.

Resistance bands, free weights, and machines have their advantages and disadvantages. Still, each of them provides unique properties that can help you decide.

In this article, I’ll show you these differences so that you can decide whether resistance bands or weights are the right decision for you based on your goals.

female crossfit athlete exercising with dumbbell

What Do You Want To Achieve Through Exercise?

Deciding between these methods of exercise should be based on your answers to the following questions:

  • What do you want to achieve through training?
  • How much time can you commit to exercising?
  • How much space do you have to exercise?
  • How much money are you willing to spend?
  • How important is portability?

Easy questions, right? Even if you can’t fully answer these questions yet, that’s ok too.

Best of all…

I’m going to help show you what to consider so that you can answer correctly and decide between resistance bands or weights.

Resistance is the Key to Muscle and Strength

Regardless of which method you end up choosing, using resistance, either through bands or free weights, is the key to building muscle and strength.

For your muscles to get bigger and stronger, you need to exercise in a way that encourages your muscles to do so.

Exercise is stressful, and as a result, your body adapts to the type of stress it’s exposed to (source).

For example:

If you run all of the time, your muscles adapt to help you run longer distances at a faster pace. That’s why, as you exercise more and more, it becomes easier and more manageable (study).

Well, the same sort of thing happens when you use resistance.

When you use resistance, this stress forces the body to adapt by getting bigger and stronger so that your body is better prepared the next time you workout.

Luckily for you and your goals, resistance bands, free weights, and machine weights can all provide you with the resistance you need to grow.

However…

The way each of these methods provide resistance differs, which can change how your muscles adapt.

These differences are why you need to answer those previous questions before you decide which method is best for you.

woman workout with resistance bands

Resistance Bands & Free Weights Apply Resistance Differently

One of the main differences between resistance bands and traditional weight is how each of them applies resistance.

Traditional weights such as dumbbells and barbells apply resistance because of the mass of the object and gravity. For example, when you perform a bench press or a biceps curl with free weight, you apply resistance by lifting the load against the force of gravity (source).

Resistance bands, however, work independently of gravity.

When you use a resistance band, you’re relying on the tension of the band, which increases as it’s stretched. The catch here is that you can use this tension for resistance in any direction.

On the contrary:

When you’re using free weight, you have to work against gravity, which limits the type of exercises you can use unless you have additional equipment.

With resistance bands, you can apply resistance in any movement plane, whether that’s upward, downward, or forward and backward.

Better yet…

The ability to apply resistance in any plane of movement provides you with the option to train almost any muscle group with little extra equipment.

Resistance Bands Provide Resistance in Any Plane of Motion

A good example here is if you want to exercise your chest muscles.

To properly work your chest, you either need to press away from your chest or complete a fly movement. But, to do so, you need to be lying on your back to work against gravity if you’re using free weights.

Now:

While you can do these movements by merely lying on the floor, the use of a bench is a better idea with weights.

Since lying directly on the floor will limit your range of motion, you’re reducing the benefit you receive from the exercise.

Resistance bands, on the other hand, can be used standing upright instead.

If, for instance, you have a pole to stand in front of, you can wrap the band around the pole and press outwards with a full range of motion. But, you can get even more convenient by simply wrapping the band around your back and then pressing forward.

Interestingly:

Resistance machines, however, make use of pulley systems and levers to somewhat provide the advantages of both resistance bands and free weights.

While you’re still working against gravity with a machine, the pulley system allows you to apply force in more planes of movement than standard free weights.

But, there’s an issue…

Resistance machines are expensive and take up a ton of room.

Resistance bands and even adjustable dumbbells are typically smaller and less costly.

Despite their low cost and portability though, resistance bands do have a significant disadvantage compared to weights.

woman sitting at gym with dumbbells, protein shaker and kettlebell

Traditional Weights Provide More Room to Grow

Despite the benefits that resistance bands can provide, there is one major issue that must be considered, and that’s your room for improvement.

For you to continuously build muscle and strength, you must practice the principle of progressive overload. Over time, this means you need to perform more sets, more repetitions, and use more substantial amounts of resistance (source).

If you don’t practice progressive overload, you simply won’t improve.

Now:

Even though a set of high-quality resistance bands will provide resistance for your muscles to work against, you’ll eventually get stronger.

Developing increased strength means that the same resistance provided by the bands won’t offer additional strength gains.

Free weights and machine weights, however, provide a much broader range of resistance options. For free weights, the amount of resistance you can add is virtually endless.

But a set of dumbbells is expensive and obtrusive, right?

Fortunately, adjustable dumbbells are a great option, since they will provide you with the same options as a full set of dumbbells for a fraction of the cost and space required.

But, that’s not the only advantage of free weights…

If you have the space and money, you have many different options for choosing high-quality weight lifting equipment.

Purchasing different equipment will provide you with even more opportunities to progress than a set of resistance bands ever will.

Woman Exercising with Resistance Band

Are Resistance Bands as Good as Weights?

The choice between resistance bands vs. free weights depends greatly on your ultimate goals of exercising.

Resistance bands are the right choice for a convenient and straightforward way to work out and build a small amount of muscle. They’re also very portable, which is great if you travel or have little time to exercise.

However:

You’ll eventually find that the only way to practice progressive overload is through doing more sets and more repetitions per set. That means you’ll have to work much harder and spend more time exercising if you opt for only resistance bands.

Are Machine Weights as Good as Free Weights?

Whereas resistance bands will fall short on their ability to help you build strength, the difference between machines and free weights will be minimal.

When it comes to machine weights, there are a few significant advantages when comparing to free weights such as:

  • Machine weights are very safe, especially for beginners.
  • Machines are convenient, especially for changing resistance.
  • You don’t have to learn much technique.
  • You can effectively target single muscle groups.
  • You can effectively increase resistance, similar to free weights.

These benefits make machine weights a fantastic choice if you’re looking to build muscle and strength with little extra thought other than choosing the best exercise machines you can.

Only:

There are a few drawbacks to machines compared to free weights.

Machines Do Have Specific Drawbacks

For instance, most machines do not provide a full-body experience.

Exercises like the barbell squat give you a ton of benefits from one movement. Squats work almost all of your legs, your core, and even your upper and lower back.

A leg press machine, however, will mostly only train your legs.

Even though the movement of the leg press is very similar to the squat, correctly performing the squat works many different muscle groups all at once.

Not to mention…

Many machines are one-size-fits-all, which means that specific machines might not allow you to use a full range of motion. Fortunately, some machines are adjustable, but even those might not fit a small or exceptionally big individual.

To clarify:

Using machines like the leg press will help you build muscle and strength similar to free weights.

However, free weights require that you engage many muscle groups at once, which makes the return on your effort, a little bit greater.

Using free weights also requires coordination, which means that the strength and muscle you build will probably be more practical when you need to use that strength in the real world.

Plus…

Free weights allow you to use a full range of motion on exercises regardless of your body size or shape, which can make your workouts more beneficial.

young couple train together-with-resistance bands a leg exercise

Resistance Bands Are Cheap & Portable

Even though adjustable dumbbells and machine weights provide the most room for growth, resistance bands are extremely affordable and portable.

A good set of resistance bands will cost between $30 and $60. In contrast, a quality set of adjustable dumbbells will be well over $100.

Essentially:

If you simply need a little resistance and don’t want to dedicate areas of your home to gym equipment, resistance bands are a great choice.

Additionally, since resistance bands are lightweight and can be folded easily, they’re an excellent option for quick workouts and even for working out while traveling.

If, however, you’re looking for the most cost-effective gym equipment and have some money to spare, purchasing adjustable dumbbells and perhaps, other gym equipment will be the best option.

Using Resistance Bands & Weights is the Best of Both Worlds

Believe it or not, you can use resistance bands and traditional weights at the same time. It’s a technique called accommodating resistance.

Resistance bands provide progressive tension. This means that as the band stretches, more resistance is added, making your muscles work harder and harder as you complete the rep.

This practice can help you develop strength but also overcome sticking points.

For instance…

If you’ve ever lifted weights before, you might have experienced a sticking point a little after halfway through a repetition.

For the bench press, you might have difficulty fully extending your arms into a lockout position when things get heavy.

Using a resistance band during this movement teaches your muscles to push through these sticking points.

You’re essentially overloading a specific part of the exercise, which helps you develop increased strength.

Best of all:

You can use a resistance band at the same time with free weight or resistance machines so that the benefit transfers to future performance.

Resistance Bands Plus Weights Can Make You Much Stronger

Remember how I mentioned that eventually, a resistance band wouldn’t help you build additional strength?

That might be true when using only a resistance band. But, if you use bands with free weights, your strength might increase even more than if you just used a free weight or machine.

For example, check out this video showing how to use resistance bands and dumbbells at the same time:

In this video, you’ll see that as the dumbbells move upwards, the resistance band stretches, which progressively adds more and more resistance.

Personally…

This technique is one of my favorites for safely adding resistance to build bigger muscles and to increase my strength.

However, make sure that if you try this technique, you start with light free-weights, and you use a spotter.

Since there will be more resistance than you’re used to, you want to make sure that you’re trying this method in the safest way possible.

So, Which Method Should You Choose?

Choosing between resistance bands or weights depends on factors like how much money you can spend and what you want to achieve through exercise.

If you’re looking for quick, affordable, and efficient workouts, resistance bands are a great choice.

If you want to build a lot of muscle and strength, free weights and machines provide you with much more room to progress.

Plus…

You can even use resistance bands and free weights or machines at the same time, making your workouts even more useful.

Both methods have pros and cons, and deciding which factors are most important to you can help you decide.

Fortunately, both will help you get more out of your workout routine than using no resistance at all.

Now:

If you haven’t already, be sure to consider subscribing to our newsletter so that you can find answers to other important muscle-building questions right from your inbox.

It’s that simple!

Samuel Biesack

Samuel Biesack

Sam holds a CSCS and Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science. Through no-nonsense writing, Sam strives to provide practical and meaningful insight into developing a strong and aesthetically pleasing physique using evidence and experience.