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What’s the Difference Between Resistance Bands and Free Weights?

Close up view of a Kettlebell and a black resistance band

Article authored by Matt Barrack, Fitness Coach at Hilton Head Health

What’s the difference between bands and free weights? Is one better than the other? What are the pros/cons of each?

Maybe you have asked yourself those questions. Maybe you asked your fitness friend or a trainer before. Did they give you a good answer? I’m guessing not. Don’t be too harsh on your friend or trainer. To give a simple answer to this question isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. They have a few key differences and yet also many things in common.  

How Your Body Builds Muscle

I promise you have already reaped the benefits of how your body gets stronger. Gravity has been applying force to your body every day of your life. As soon as you learned to stand, you have been fighting it. You had to build muscle to climb stairs. You had to get stronger in order to walk long distances.   Even if you have never “worked out.” This article explains the science of how you get stronger and build muscle. 

Imagine a shoestring. We refer to it as a singular object but it is actually a collection of fibers. When you pull on the end to tighten your shoes, it grabs all the fibers to get the job done. Your muscles work in a similar way. Our bicep muscle is a collection of fibers. When you send a signal to contract a muscle, the innate wisdom of the body decides how many of the individual fibers it needs to get the job done. Picking up your shoe? Not that many. Pushing a car? A heck of a lot more. You know this by feel. You can “feel” muscles working. Do a short, sharp exhale out. You can feel your stomach muscles contracting in order to squeeze the air out of your lungs. So with regular, consistent training, we can teach our nervous system to grab more fibers so we handle more and more resistance.  

How Free Weights Build Muscle

A dumbbell or a weight of any kind behaves in one way. Gravity wants this object to come straight down. I can throw or push this weight away from me but gravity at every point is pushing towards the earth. 

Chart showing gravity's effect on objects

I’m not going to get into more complicated physics, don’t worry. An easy way to understand lifting weights when you are holding them is the closer it is to the middle of your body and the more it is line with your body, the more of your big muscles can help support it. In other words, it’s relativity easier to lift. When you get a weight perpendicular or far away from my body it becomes seemingly much “heavier.” or creates more resistance for your muscles to act against. This resistance is where you will achieve muscle growth over time.

How Resistance Bands Build Muscle

Now let’s move to rubber bands. Have you picked up a rubber band? Of course you have. They don’t weigh much at all. It would take a lot off rubber to add up to enough weight to make you stronger.  

But that is not the way we use them. Rubber has great quality to it. When you pull or push on it, it compresses or stretches. Then it returns to its original state.  If we anchor one end of a rubber band and stretch it out, doesn’t it feel harder to move as we try to make it longer? Yes, it does. It’s giving us more and more resistance. So if you put one end under your foot and take the other end and push up toward the sky with your hand, the band will pull back against your motion, which tells your body that you need more and more muscle! So no matter what angle the band is to your body, as long as you are stretching it, it allows you to build strength. Unlike weights, gravity isn’t the force that we are acting against.  

Resistance bands

Which is Better for Building Muscle?

Your body only knows resistance. It doesn’t matter to your muscles if you are lifting a weight, rock, water, backpack, or stretching a resistance band. It has evolved to respond to stress. No matter what form that stress takes.  

However, free weights and resistance bands are different when it comes to each individual, their goals, and how much muscle they want to build and how quickly they want to achieve it.  

Free Weights  

Pro – Easy to find. Anything that has weight works. For more traditional weights for lifting, you can visit a gym or fitness club. They are all over the world.  

Pro – Bearing load on your skeleton allows to maintain bone density as you age.  

Pro – There is an exact right weight for every single person on the planet for any exercise on the planet.  

Pro – You can lift extremely heavy weights, resulting in faster muscle growth

Con – They are not easy to travel with. 

Con – If you want to get significantly stronger you will have to buy a lot of weight and a variety of weights.  

Con – You often need a a decent amount of instruction to learn how to lift them.  

Rubber/Resistance Bands 

Pro – Small and light. Perfect for traveling. Easy to pack.  

Pro – Very low risk of injury. Due to the nature of the band, it’s harder to put yourself into positions you shouldn’t be in. And if it’s too “heavy” then you simply won’t be able to move it.  

Pro – Very affordable.  

Con – Harder to gauge the right resistance for you. 

Con – There is not a simple way mark progress over time. 

Con – They may wear out or tear after use. 

Here we are! We made it. I hope this provides you with more understanding and wisdom about free weights and resistance bands.

Matt Barrack
Fitness Coach at Hilton Head Health

Click here for more information about the wellness and weight loss programs at Hilton Head Health, recently named the #1 Wellness Resort the Country by USA Today