Free weights rule where muscle building is concerned. But is that all you need or can you build muscle with resistance bands?

It’s a common misconception that you can only build muscle with ‘proper’ weights, such as dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells. But by incorporating the best resistance bands into your routine, you can make real gains where muscle development is concerned. Put simply, if resistance bands are missing from your home gym, you’re missing a trick.

Resistance bands are lightweight and portable – something that obviously can’t be said of, well, weights. You can keep them in your gym back for strength and mobility sessions on the go. They’re ideal for full-body workouts, but they don’t cost an arm and a leg.

The problem with resistance bands is that in the gym they don’t quite have the same kudos as free weights. The reason many gym-goers steer clear of them is as much to do with their image problem as with legitimacy as strength-building kit.

Of course, when we think of resistance bands many of us picture lightweight TPE bands. These are ideal for stretching, mobility, warming up and injury rehabilitation, but they won’t get you far with strength training. These tend to offer between 5lb (2.3kg) to 30lb (13.5kg).

Resistance bands for strength training

Of course you can always double up on these bands to increase resistance. However, there are plenty of tougher bands, band systems and bands with handles that offer much higher resistances – some up to 350lb (160kg). With these you’re definitely looking at a way to make big strength gains. And systems often include multiple bands which you can add or release between sets – perfect for drop sets.

Lucy Campbell, Fittest Woman in the UK in 2022, says: “Resistance bands are great for building muscle and are certainly something you should implement into your workouts, particularly if you have limited access to space or equipment. They are very versatile and you can use the best resistance band exercises to train every muscle group in your body.

“The main benefit of resistance bands is that, if used properly, they place the muscle under tension throughout every portion of the movement which is significant as time under tension is one of the mechanisms used to maximise muscle hypertrophy. In comparison to dumbbells, this is one of their many advantages.

“Additionally, they are relatively inexpensive and portable. You can take them anywhere and complete a great workout from any location, whether you opt for a full-body resistance band workout, or target a specific muscle group. Their limitation is that they do have a restricted load you can place on the muscle. So you won’t be able to build as much muscle as with weights. However, you can get thicker resistance bands that provide greater resistance and stimulus for the muscle. And they can also be used with the weights you have available.

Building muscle with resistance bands and weights

“For example, if you are someone who only has access to lower weight dumbbells, resistance bands can be added to free weight movements such as bent over dumbbell rows to make it more challenging by altering the resistance curve of the movement, i.e. the movement becomes harder at the top when the band is most stretched. 

“Resistance bands are also great for warming up the muscle and priming it for a workout as well as being a useful tool for rehabilitation.”

James Staring, founder and lead fitness coach at Fit to Last, says: “You can most definitely build muscle with resistance bands. The key to using resistance bands is to make sure the resistance is challenging enough, and to make sure you’re completing the movement with correct form.

“To build muscle, choose a resistance where you can complete 6-8 repetitions of the exercise with perfect form for 3-4 sets. Be careful to not complete the exercise too quickly and focus on completing the exercise through the full range of motion (i.e. don’t shorten the movement because the weight is too heavy or you’re moving too fast).

“By focusing on sufficiently challenging resistance, and a steady pace of movement through a full range of motion, resistance bands are an effective way to build muscle.”

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