We consider the differences between resistance bands vs weights to find out what’s best for you.

At its core, building a muscle’s strength requires you to put it under some sort of load. The simplest way to do that can be done with bodyweight workouts – hence the popularity of Pilates. However, if you’ve reached a strength ceiling or you’re looking to increase the intensity of your workouts, you need to add some resistance into the mix. Popular means of doing so are with either a set of the best resistance bands or weights (both free weights and machines). But what are the pros and cons of each? And is one better than the other?

Resistance bands vs weights: what muscles are targeted?

An easy way to differentiate between the two is what they target when used. Weights tend to focus on the big muscle groups. On the other hand, resistance bands are able to direct tension to smaller, supporting muscles. These are often overlooked or missed during heavier lifts or dumbbell movements.

“For me, free weights are king – and that’s what you’ve always got in gyms,” says Darren Bruce, PT at Third Space. “But there are so many different things you can do with resistance bands.”

Benefits of resistance bands

Bruce believes that the biggest benefit of resistance bands is the fact that you can use them in multiple planes. “With a dumbbell or a barbell, you’re pretty much linear – straight up or straight down, out in front or pulled back. Whereas if I need to move, for instance, diagonally at 45 degrees, with a resistance band leashed onto a pole, you can move very dynamically with it at an angle.”

Their adaptability also means there is a huge variety of the best resistance band exercises for every body part. In turn, this helps to build the strength of stabilising muscles, minimising muscle imbalances and the risk of injury that they can cause.

He adds that resistance bands with lighter tension are great for stretching, mobility work and rehabilitation (“a dumbbell is not going to work for all those things”). Equally, their relatively low cost and small footprint can make them great investments for those who want to start working out but might not have the confidence to join a gym.

“If you want to work out at home and you don’t have the money for the cost for dumbbells,” adds Bruce, “then I would say that bands are an extremely effective tool to use.”

He says that those at the start of their fitness journeys probably have the most to gain from using bands, and there are plenty of simple resistance band workouts for beginners out there, too. “If you’re not an experienced lifter, then even a light band is going to have a lot of effects for you”. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their uses for avid gym-goers.

“I may use power bands when it comes to helping my clients do pull-ups,” says Bruce. “You can suspend it from the top, put it under their knees and that can provide some assistance.”

Benefits of weights

There are occasions when free weights are better to use than a resistance band – particularly when lifting heavy. Free weights use gravity to create resistance. However, that means there are easier and harder sections of each lift. For instance, with dumbbells, at the very top of the lift is when it’s at its lightest. Resistance bands provide a constant level of tension throughout.

“The really thick resistance bands are brutal to move – to keep the control is actually quite difficult,” says Bruce. “If you’re a slightly experienced lifter, you’ll probably need to [decrease the resistance] slightly. This means you’re going to need to do a lot more volume [than when using free weights].”

Ultimately, the best approach is to use a combination of free weights and resistance bands. While the former is perceived to be the stereotypical way to build muscle and strength, the latter is a vital tool that can improve overall stability, reduce injuries and make you a well-rounded athlete – not to mention, you can build muscle with resistance bands, too.

Related content: