Evangelists of either type of training will tell you why their go-to is superior. But the truth is, a well-designed strength-training routine can incorporate either (or, even better, both!). Here are some factors to consider when you’re deciding whether to pump iron or… stretch latex.
The key difference between weights and resistance bands
Though both weights and resistance bands can challenge your muscles to build strength, they each do so slightly differently.
For one, weights provide constant resistance, meaning no matter where you are in your bicep curl, your 15-pound weights are still going to be 15 pounds. “However, the difficulty of the exercise is different depending on the arc of motion,” explains Heather Milton, MS, RCEP, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. “The closer to you the weight is, the easier it is, and the further away from you the harder it is.” That means that your bicep is most stressed when it is lengthened (at the bottom of the curl).
Resistance bands, on the other hand, have variable resistance, meaning the resistance changes depending on how much the band is stretched. So, a bicep curl with a band is going to be most difficult at a completely different moment—at the very top, when your muscle is shortened and the band is at its most taut. “You’re getting that bonus of it being more challenging at the end of the concentric (or shortening) but also the beginning of the eccentric (or lengthening) part of the exercise,” says Milton. “It lends towards greater neuromuscular coordination, motor unit recruitment, and improvements in strength.”
The pros and cons of each
Both free weights and resistance bands have particular areas where they shine—and where they come up short.
For tracking progress: Weights
If you’re someone who loves setting specific goals, and tracking your progress towards them, you may find that resistance bands come up short. You can gradually increase your weight load in specific increments with dumbbells or kettlebells, but resistance bands typically only come in a few levels of resistance, which are imprecise and hard to actually measure.
And while you can keep adding on weight as you get stronger almost infinitely, resistance bands max out at a certain level of resistance, which Milton says won’t be enough for some people. “We need enough stress to build strength,” she says, “and sometimes a resistance band is just not heavy enough to do that.”
For versatility: Resistance bands
Bands are highly versatile, points out Milton, and unlike weights, which can only provide resistance against gravity (meaning, they’re only good for up-and-down movements), a band can be anchored nearly anywhere, or go around your shins, your thighs, or your arms. This opens up possibilities for more rotational movements, says Milton, and lateral standing movements.
For time under tension: Resistance bands
Denise Chakoian, a certified personal trainer and the owner of boutique fitness studio CORE, points out that using bands usually means more time under tension, giving you more bang for your buck (er, rep). And, she adds, bandwork often recruits the small accessory muscles that are otherwise more challenging to engage.
For injury considerations: Both
It’s not uncommon to hear that resistance bands come with lower injury risk, or are a better option than weights if you’re rehabbing something. Milton says it’s not quite that simple, and that both can pose risks for injury if done with bad form. That said, there are pluses and minuses to each: With bands, for instance, there’s no risk of dropping something heavy on your foot—though there is a risk of the band snapping and hitting you.
Chakoian says she sees less possibility for injury with bands overall, since you’re in control of how much resistance you’re creating, and exercises tend to be done slowly. The main risk, she says, is going too far in an exercise, which bands make it difficult to do, since the resistance will likely limit your range of motion.
It comes down to personal preference
There may be reasons to choose resistance bands or weights that have nothing to do with how they’re challenging your body. Have a small budget, or limited room in your apartment or suitcase? Opt for bands. Have a latex allergy? Go for weights, or find bands made out of rubber or fabric. Perhaps you haven’t developed enough grip strength to hold weights that will challenge you, or you find grabbing a resistance band uncomfortable. Use what works for you.
But if you don’t have to choose between them, don’t: Using both (even at the same time—goblet squat with a band above the knees, anyone?) can add challenge and variety to your workouts. And who doesn’t want to make strength training a little more exciting?
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