The benefits of resistance bands make them superior to free weights , especially for home gyms and bodyweight training.
Although using either free weights or elastic bands for resistance training can provide adjustable progressive resistance as required for building strength and muscle mass, resistance bands surpass conventional free weights in eight ways: safety, resistance curve, exercise assistance, gravitational independence, versatility, footprint, portability, and cost.
The first of the eight benefits of resistance bands is safety. The most commonly reported cause of injury while weight-training is weights dropping on a person, accounting for 65.5% of total injuries. Of these, 90.4% resulted from use of inherently unstable free weights, and 23.6% resulted in fractures and dislocations.1 You can lower your risk of injury by using bodyweight training and replacing external weights with elastic resistance bands.
If you drop an elastic band on your self, you won’t be injured. You can’t get trapped under or pinned or crushed by an elastic band. In addition, as explained below, elastic bands reduce the risk of injury during exercise because they provide reduced resistance in the range of motion where you are most vulnerable to injury.
The second of the eight benefits of resistance bands is variable resistance. Elastic bands provide variable resistance that matches human strength curves for pushing or extending exercises, whereas weights (including bodyweight) do not.
Due to the function of body levers (bones and joints) your strength or ability varies throughout the range of motion of all exercises. In some movements you are up to 10 times stronger where your muscles have a mechanical advantage – such as the top of a squat or press – than you are in the most mechanically disadvantaged range of motion.
If you were to choose a weight (barbell) that would match your strength in the strongest upper range of motion of the squat, it would be too heavy for you to handle in the range of motion where you are weaker due to leverage disadvantage (deep position). On the other hand, if you choose a resistance that allows you to squat deeply, you will experience relatively little challenge in the upper range of motion.
Whereas a conventional free weight provides a fixed load, as you stretch an elastic resistance band, it provides increasing resistance. Research indicates that elastic resistance bands provide a resistance curve that more closely matches that of your body.2 You get more resistance where you are strong, and less where you are weak.
Several studies have provided evidence that training properly with elastic resistance bands elicits greater muscle torque3 and may produce greater strength gains than training exclusively with isoinertial resistance (body weight or conventional weights). 4, 5 Some research also indicates that training with variable resistance elicits greater positive hormonal changes than conventional resistance.6
In addition, as noted above, resistance bands provide less resistance in the range of motion where you have a mechanical disadvantage and are weakest, such as the bottom of a deadlift, squat, push up, dip or press. This reduces the risk of injury because you are more likely to injure yourself in the mechanically disadvantaged range than in the advantaged, strong range.
Unfortunately the variable resistance provided by resistance bands is opposite of what is required for all pulling movements. As the band stretches it provides additional resistance. When you pull a band toward you, the resistance is increasing. However, due to the levers involved in in chin ups, pull ups, rows, bicep curls, hamstring curls, your strength decreases as you pull the resistance closer to your body. Therefore when using bands the resistance is increased in the range where you are weakest, exactly the opposite of optimal. Therefore resistance bands do NOT provide the optimal resistance curve for pulling movements. Although you can use resistance bands to load pulling movements, for pulling movements you are better off using standard iron barbell plates for resistance.
The third of the eight benefits of resistance bands is that elastic bands can be used to provide exercise assistance as well as resistance. With conventional weights you can only add load to your exercises, not remove load. In contrast, you can use resistance bands to assist you in performance of pull ups, push ups, dips, planche, and front lever, to name a few.
The fourth of the eight benefits of resistance bands is their ability to provide resistance independent of the direction of gravity. Weights provide resistance in only one direction: perpendicular to the ground, the direction of gravitational force. Hence, if you want to add loading to a chest press movement with weights, you need to lie on the ground or a bench, so that you can press the weight upwards against the force of gravity.
In contrast, elastic resistance bands can be set up to provide resistance in any direction. For example, you can stand up, wrap a band around your shoulders, and perform a chest press perpendicular to your torso without need for a bench.
The fifth of the eight benefits of resistance bands is versatility. You can use band to safely add resistance to almost any bodyweight exercise. It is possible but awkward and a bit hazardous to use weights to add resistance to push ups, and the amount of resistance you can add by piling plates on your back is limited. In contrast, you can easily and very safely add an almost unlimited amount of resistance to push ups with resistance bands.
Given a suitable anchor point or platform, and a hip belt or bar, you can safely add resistance to squats, single-leg squats, split squats, deadlifts, rise-on-toes, dips, overhead presses, push ups, even handstand push ups.
The sixth of the eight benefits of resistance bands is small footprint. A set of bands that can supply more than 500 pounds of resistance, along with a few accessories (handles, bar, platform, anchors, hip belt) will fit in a backpack or drawer. You can store your bands and accessories in a drawer or closet when not in use. In contrast 500 pounds of weights, bars, benches and racks will take up an entire small room. That room will have to be dedicated to the equipment because you can’t easily pack it up and put it in a drawer or closet. Thus weights simply take up more real estate than bands.
The seventh of the eight benefits of resistance bands is portability. You can take your backpack full of bands and accessories and train anywhere. You can’t take your weights to the park or on vacation or a business trip.
The last of the benefits of resistance bands is economy. You can replace an entire room of free weights and machines with a bag full of resistance bands costing between $100 and $600.
Bodylastics makes the best stackable elastic tubing resistance band systems on the market. A set providing about 250 pounds of resistance costs about $90. If you get a Brute Belt and make an inexpensive wooden training platform you will even be able to train legs intensely with this set. (Click on affiliate image to learn more about the product.)
A Bodylastics set providing 404 pounds of resistance costs $125. Unfortunately Bodylastics does not provide equipment that would make it possible for you to safely perform high-effort squats or deadlifts with this level of resistance. (Click on affiliate image to learn more about the product.)
A set of Serious Steel loop bands potentially providing up to 500 pounds of resistance will cost you only about $120 at regular retail. Unfortunately it is difficult to perform basic hip and thigh exercises such as squats and deadlifts without some type of bar or platform. (Click on image to learn more.)
Resistance bands have some drawbacks.
First, the resistance provided by any single band is itself variable depending on how much it is stretched. This makes it difficult to know with any certainty how much resistance one is using at any point in time, which makes it more difficult to measure and apply progression in comparison to measured iron plates.
Second, resistance bands are less durable than iron weights. A iron weight plate well cared for will last for several generations and retain its weight. In contrast, resistance bands gradually lose tension with use. As one uses an elastic band repeatedly, it loses stiffness and hence produces progressively less resistance. After only 50 stretch cycles, a typical elastic band loses about 10% of its original tension, and progressively loses more tension with use . If you stretch a new band 30 times each training session (e.g. doing single leg squats), thrice weekly, that band will be about 10% weaker after just two training sessions! As a consequence the exercise will be easier in the third session, leading you to conclude that you are getting stronger, when in fact the band has gotten weaker. If your resistance source produces less tension over time, your body will adapt by becoming weaker.
Moreover, as a consequence of repetitive deformation during use as well as simple aging, resistance bands gradually degrade and eventually break within a few years of usage. You then incur the cost of replacing the band(s). A set of iron weights will in contrast last several generations if well cared for.
Another problem is a lack of consistent resistance levels from various manufacturers. If you get a 45 pound iron plate from any manufacturer, it will weigh roughly 45 pounds. In contrast, one study found that resistance bands of the same length and thickness from four different distributors (Rogue Fitness, EliteFTS, RubberBanditz, and Power Systems) varied significantly in resistance . This would be no problem for an individual who uses only one set of bands from one distributor, but if you have bands from multiple distributors you can't count on two bands of similar thickness having similar resistance.
In summary, elastic resistance bands surpass weights in safety, resistance curve, exercise assistance, gravitational independence, versatility, footprint, portability, and cost. Elastic resistance bands are an excellent tool for resistance training and home gyms. By using elastic bands for resistance training you can build strength and muscle mass safely and economically. However, resistance bands do have a few drawbacks which make them less than optimal for some exercises, and are less accurate, durable and consistent than iron weights. Just like any other tool, resistance bands are good for some jobs and not for others.
1. Fisher J, et al. Primum non nocere: A commentary on avoidable injuries and safe resistance training techniques. Journal of Trainology 2014;3:31-34.
2. Aboodarda SJ, et al. Muscle activation comparisons between elastic and isoinertial resistance: A meta-analysis. Clin Biomech 2016;39:52-61.
3. Aboodarda SJ, et al. Resultant muscle torque and electromyographic activity during high intensity elastic resistance and free weight exercises. Eur J Sport Sci 2011:1-6, iFirst article.
4. Anderson CE, Sforzo GA, Sigg JA. The effects of combining elastic and free weight resistance on strength and power in athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Mar;22(2):567-74. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181634d1e. PubMed PMID: 18550975.
5. Riviere M, et al. Variable resistance training promotes greater strength and power adaptations than traditional resistance training in elite youth rugby league players. J Strength Cond Res 2017; 31(4):947-955.
6. HÄ,, & KKINEN, K. (2011). Neuromuscular and Hormonal Responses to Constant and Variable Resistance Loadings. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(1), 26-33.
7. Simoneau GG, Bereda SM, Sobush DC, Starsky AJ; Biomechanics of elastic resistance in therapeutic exercise programs. J Ortho & Sports Phys Ther 2001;31(1):16-24.
8. Fuentes AD, Smith CJ, Shoepe TC. Loading Patterns of Rubber-Based Resistance Bands across Distributors. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(1):21. Published 2019 Jan 16. doi:10.3390/sports7010021