Resistance bands are great for rehab when you get injured and for the elderly as an introduction to resistance training.
It’s 2018 and yet the prevailing view still exists that resistance band training is not real resistance exercise. If you can’t get your hands on a barbell and a pair of dumbbells, they will make an o.k. substitute, most people believe. But, if you want to get serious about working out then you need to ditch the bands and start pumping some ‘real’ iron.
In this article, we challenge that notion head-on. In the paragraphs to follow, you will discover that, when it comes to resistance training, it shouldn’t be a matter of either or between bands and free weights. Both of them are fantastic workout tools, with unique advantages and disadvantages. By knowing how to use each one to its maximum potential, you will be able to design the best, most productive workout for you.
Similarities Between Free Weights & Bands
Both resistance bands and free weights offer progressive resistance training. One of the most important principles of building muscle is progressive overload. As you get stronger, you need to be increasing the resistance that you are lifting in order to continue making progress. Unless you keep challenging the working muscle, it will refuse to adapt.
When you are working out with free weights, you can simply use heavier and heavier dumbbells or put more plates on the end of the barbell. You can do a similar thing with resistance bands. Not only are there different color-coded resistances within a band set, but you can also stack bands together to create an unlimited number of resistance options.
Both resistance bands and free weights also allow for variable speed. That means that you are in control of the speed of every phase of the rep. You can go slower on the negative or, if you wish, use more explosive positive speed. This allows you to be in command of another key variable for building muscle – time under tension. This is the total amount of time in each set – and in the entire workout – that your muscles are under tension.
A third similarity between free weights and resistance bands is that they both provide free range of movement. When you exercise on machines, you are usually locked into a fixed plane of movement. With free weights, this is not the case so that you have a greater range of choice as to the precise direction of your movement. This allows you to bring into play a lot of small muscles that act as stabilizers thus allowing for greater development. Resistance bands allow you the exact same free range of movement that you get with free weights.
Differences Between Free Weights and Resistance Bands
Resistance bands provide you with variable resistance. This is not the same thing as the progressive resistance that we discussed in the last section. Progressive resistance is all about going heavier as you get stronger. But variable resistance means that the amount of effort needed to perform the exercise changes over the course of the repetition. When you are doing an exercise such as a biceps curl with a resistance band, the more that the band stretches as you curl it up, the harder it is to move. This is not the case with a free weight. It weighs the same no matter where it is situated in the course of the rep.
You can also vary the resistance that a band provides by adjusting its working length. As an example, let’s use the biceps curl. If your feet and hands are close together you will decrease the resistance capability of the band. But if you have wide feet and place your hands at shoulder width you will be decreasing the working length of the band, the effect of which is to increase the resistance.
Variable resistance makes the rep more challenging and allows for a peak contraction on an exercise that you normally do not get with free weights. The muscles in your body are at their strongest point around half way through a rep. At the beginning of the rep, they are at their weakest point. This means that bands follow your natural strength curve more closely than do free weights.
Free weights only provide you with resistance in the vertical plane. You lift them up and gravity brings them back down. Unless you are in a position where the weight is resisting gravity, you do not have an exercise. However, you do not have this limitation with resistance bands. You can anchor the band to any base and you will get resistance in any direction you choose.
Another advantage of bands over free weights is that they provide you with constant tension throughout the entire range of motion. With a lot of dumbbell exercises, there is not a lot of resistance at the top of the exercise. Think, for instance of the alternating dumbbell curl. At the start of the movement, there is not much resistance. Then, as you begin curling the effort increases until it reaches a peak at the midway point. But after that the resistance decrease until, at the top of the movement, there is virtually no resistance at all.
When you use bands, however, there is constant tension on the working muscle, from the beginning of the rep, right through the mid-point and to the peak contraction at the end.
A big advantage of resistance bands over free weights is that they prevent you from cheating by using momentum to get the weight up. A lot of free weight users use momentum by swinging at the start of a rep, or through the tough mid-point, in order to get the weight moving. When you work out with bands you cannot swing the weight or use momentum to keep it moving. That means that you can’t cheat, which makes the exercise more effective.
The fact that you cannot cheat by using momentum when you train with bands makes them a great option for doing explosive resistance training. With bands, you will never have to worry about momentum.
An obvious advantage of bands over free weights is that they are cheap and portable. You can pick up an entire gym’s worth of exercise options for around fifty bucks – and will all fit into a portable carry bag!
The above discussion should have dispelled your concerns about being able to get a great workout in with just resistance bands. If you are looking to build muscle with bands, I suggest doing 8-10 slow reps, with a focus on a 2-3 second negative and then finishing the set with 3 or 4 explosive reps.
In future articles, we will provide you with specific body part band workouts to allow you to discover for yourself just how band training can be used to allow you to create the body that you deserve.