I had always wondered just how well do resistance bands build muscle compared to traditional strength training using free weights, dumbbells, etc.
I decided to quench my curiosity by digesting every sports science study done on the effectiveness of resistance bands, and this article is the product of my research.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Are resistance bands as effective as free weights?
Sports science has demonstrated that resistance bands produce similar muscle building results as free weights.
Resistance bands are as effective as free weights in such areas as increased muscle strength & size, decreased body fat, and in their ability to provide progressively greater levels of resistance.
In the coming sections, we’ll look at how free weights and resistance bands compare to each other during different strength training workouts, and what the advantages of resistance bands are.
I’ll also share how combining elastic resistance exercise with free weight moves during a workout has been proven by sports science to boost muscle strength & growth better than sticking to just one of them.
Resistance bands vs. free weights
One’s made of rubber or elastic tubing, and one’s made of metal (usually).
Yet free weights and resistance bands share similar characteristics when it comes to the important elements that make up strength training. Both provide:
- adequate resistance for muscle building
- freedom of movement, in both range & speed
- the ability to train with progressive resistance*
(*progressive resistance – exercise that focuses on building strength by progressively increasing the load over time. This quality is at the heart of strength training.)
I tracked down somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 research studies that compared how muscles reacted when working out with free weights and resistance bands.
Here are a few examples that showed there were no differences in the results between resistance bands and free weights.
Note that I found several other sports science studies whose results echoed those I list below.
Squats: strength increases were the same
The strength gains from a squat workout program using resistance bands equaled those of traditional barbells, in a research study at Marquette University using Division-1 athletes.
Body fat decreases were the same
In this 12-week study published in the journal of the National Strength & Conditioning Assn., the resistance bands workout program produced the same reduction in body fat percentage as the free weight program.
The participants using the resistance bands also matched the strength gains of the free weight trainees.
Muscle building results were the same
Barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, or our own body weight — all provide so many different kinds of strength training benefits for us as we age that I even wrote a research paper about it.
And in these two strength training studies here and here, older people who strength trained on resistance bands gained the same muscle building & mood lifting benefits as those participants in the free weight studies I used in my strength training paper.
The effectiveness of resistance bands for use in strength training has been tested & compared to free weights many times, and has always performed on par.
Workouts with resistance bands can build muscle, increase strength, and reduce body fat as well as free weight routines can.
Workout benefits of resistance bands
Moving on from their similarities, let’s take a look at several advantages that resistance bands have over free weights, starting with those gained while working out.
Elastic tension eliminates cheating
With free weights, momentum of the weight can be used to help the person complete the rep.
Think of swinging the dumbbell or barbell to finish a curl, or using the bounce of the bar off a body part to get past the sticking point.
With resistance bands, the tension and resistance increases steadily from the beginning of the movement through the exercise’s range of motion.
There’s no momentum to be used for cheating.
Continuous & increasing resistance
The tension level profiles of resistance bands and free weights are very different from each other.
Unlike a free weight bench press or biceps curl or squat, at the end of those movements with the elastic bands the resistance is at its highest, not its lowest.
Resistance bands provide tension from the beginning of the rep to the end, and it increases along the way too.
This improves the strength training quality of the exercise, because more muscle is required to complete each repetition.
Many more angles of resistance to use
The resistance you encounter lifting free weights is made up of two things: the weight and the earth’s gravity pulling that weight towards the ground.
The free weight goes up when we lift it and down when we stop resisting that gravitational pull.
Up & down on a single plane, that’s the extent of free weights’ resistance range.
On the other hand, resistance bands offer resistance on a horizontal axis as well as on a vertical, and provide resistance on all angles in between too.
For instance, you’ll notice there’s tension present simply from holding the band and turning your body.
Doing the same thing with a dumbbell in your hand generates no resistance.
Ideal for sport-specific & functional training
That multi-angled resistance quality is why they’re a favorite training tool used by advanced athletes to strengthen their sports moves in tennis, football, baseball, golf, basketball, and so on.
For example, collegiate tennis players using resistance bands in a 4-week study I found in the American Journal of Sports Medicine greatly improved their internal torque & rotation, which led to higher serve speed.
And this study of collegiate baseball pitchers at Louisiana St. University found that resistance band training strengthened the rotator cuff muscles significantly better than the group doing isotonic dumbbell exercises.
Cardio benefit of resistance bands
In addition to building strength and muscle, elastic resistance exercise also provides cardiovascular benefits.
This is because using a resistance band requires constant muscle activation throughout the entire range of motion, resulting in an increased heart rate and improved endurance.
Safely lift heavy using elastic resistance
Resistance bands, unlike free weights, don’t require a spotter or a Smith machine if you’d like to lift weight equivalents near your maximum limits.
There’s no danger of hundreds of pounds of metal crashing down on you if the rep fails.
This safety element transfers down to beginners and older people new to strength training too.
They all can safely perform strength training exercises at home alone with minimal risk of injury.
Easily do any of the normal weightlifting exercises
Another benefit of resistance bands’ multi-angle tension is that you can perform the entire spectrum of standard strength training exercises, even if you don’t own a bench, a rack , or workout station.
And you can adjust the angle you attack the muscle groups with to improve their overall size & shape.
Better yet, add resistance band exercises to your free weight program
Here are a couple of examples from sports science trials that prove that elastic resistance + free weights will give you better gains than weightlifting alone.
In one study using the barbell squat as the free weight exercise, researchers concluded that combining the two methods of resistance training can provide a unique stimulus to the muscle that can lead to greater strength gains (Clark et al., 2018).
Another study I found from the International Journal of Sports Medicine tested adding chest exercises done with resistance bands to a bench press workout vs. benching only.
They reported significant increases in muscle activation in the group doing the bands + barbell chest workout compared to the barbell bench-only group.
I think adding in the bands to your workouts mid-training cycle, before you’ve peaked or plateaued, would be a nice way to incorporate the two resistance types.
Give your muscle groups (or just 1 or 2 of them) an extra stressor they have to respond to in the final weeks of that training block, heading into your recovery/detraining week.
Next, let’s go over some simple but very user-friendly advantages that resistance bands have over free weights.
Practical benefits of resistance bands
Resistance bands are cheaper
I bought the 202 lb. version of the Bodylastics set you see below on Amazon awhile ago for around 70 bucks.
It has several bands that can incrementally increase the resistance ‘weight’ by anywhere from 3lb. up to 30 lb. each time you want to stack any of them together.
Just owning the equivalent pairs of dumbbells would cost thousands of dollars alone, and I haven’t even figured in the cost of a weight bench, barbell, power rack, etc.
Even going the adjustable dumbbell route, I see current prices for the two prominent brands Bowflex & PowerBlock would run a few hundred dollars more than the resistance bands.
And their weight is still lower than the 202 lb. of my resistance bands set.
And I still wouldn’t have a bench, which is a must for any kind of decent full-body dumbbell strength training workout.
You don’t need a bench with resistance bands thanks to their multi-angled tension property I described earlier.
Resistance bands take up no space
Continuing the comparison of that 202 lb. resistance band set and its free weight equivalent, the bands require a very small area footprint while in use.
With most exercises they’re secured by your feet or hands and so remain within your personal space.
Basically, you could get a full-body workout in a bathroom if you so chose.
Even when you attach them to a door jamb or some other anchor, they only need to stretch a foot or two while you’re performing your exercises.
Compare that to the amount of room a 200 lb. bench press, squat, deadlift, barbell row, or military press would require after factoring in the bar(s), the free weights, and any bench or rack you’d need.
One small bag = 100s of exercises
Back when I first got those resistance bands, I had never used them before. I didn’t know how to properly perform any of the exercises, or even know what exercises were available to me to do.
They come with a set of instructions with several exercises shown in little black & white pictures on a piece of paper. Sort of a “quick start guide” to resistance band use.
Being the tenacious inquisitive dude that I am, I went to their (Bodylastics’) website, where I found – and I’m not exaggerating – easily over 100 exercises encompassing all major muscle groups.
For example, I think they show (with big large color images this time) over 15 biceps exercises alone. Now multiply that by the other 7 or so major muscle groups.
There’s your veritable cornucopia of workout possibilities.
(And here I was just looking for an exercise or two per body part: a squat here, a bench press there, etc.)
Resistance bands travel easily
That entire 202 lb. set I’m talking about – equipped with handles, anchors, & bands – fits in a small bag that I could probably stash under a sweatshirt undetected.
It’s great for me to take with me when I leave town. Easy to pack, doesn’t weigh anything, and I have 100+ strength training exercises at my disposal anywhere I go.
Resistance bands are time-savers too
Switching from exercise to exercise is faster & easier with resistance bands compared to free weights.
As an example of this point, let’s compare the time it would take me to switch from a 200 lb. squat to a 30 lb. biceps concentration curl.
Using the resistance bands it takes about 5-10 seconds to unclip all the other bands except the orange 30-pounder.
I reset the band under my feet and I’m good to go.
With free weights I need to get my 200 lb. of squat weight plates off the bar and put them all back on their storage pins.
Then I track down my 30 lb. dumbbell, and then I’m ready.
When it comes to strength training, elastic resistance exercise is an effective option that you should definitely consider.
Using elastic tubing equipment, this type of resistance training provides resistance that provides you:
- a wide range of motion,
- varied speed of movement,
- and progressive resistance.
Another thing I like about training with resistance bands is that it is low-impact, making it a nice option for people with joint issues.
Speaking of joint pain or stiffness, banish them forever (well, hopefully) with this physician-created holistic formula of just two plant-based ingredients:
FAQs about resistance bands
Here’s a summary of my article rephrased to answer a few of the common questions that pop up regarding resistance band exercises.
What is elastic resistance exercise?
Elastic resistance exercise is a form of resistance training that uses elastic tubing equipment to provide resistance, allowing for a free range of motion, variable speed of movement, and progressive resistance.
How does elastic resistance exercise compare to free-weight resistance exercise?
Elastic resistance exercise shares many similarities with free-weight resistance exercise, but it also provides additional features such as resistance in multiple directions, variable resistance, and constant tension.
How does elastic resistance exercise benefit athletes?
Elastic resistance exercise is useful for athletes because it allows for functional movements that mimic everyday and sport-specific activities.
It strengthens muscles used in sport-specific movements & reduces injury risk.
What does research say about the effectiveness of elastic resistance exercise?
Research has shown that elastic resistance exercise can increase muscle strength and size, and decrease body fat in a similar manner to free-weight training programs.
Additionally, studies have found that adding strength bands to free weights can be more beneficial than free weights alone, resulting in greater gains in muscle strength.
How often should you use resistance bands?
If your intent is to strength train exclusively with resistance bands, then I gently suggest you create a workout schedule similar to one you’d use if you were training with free weights.
By this I mean choose one of the proven workout splits, be it Push Pull Legs or the Upper/Lower split, and figure out if your schedule works better with a 3-day or 4-day workout split.
Whether you’re strength training with weights or bands, you’ll need to allow a couple of days for your muscle groups to recover.
This is why the sports science-proven workout plans I mentioned are the ones you want to choose from.
If you’d like to take a peek at a few examples of these various workout splits, I go over them in detail in an article here on heydayDo: Which Muscle Groups To Workout Together.
What color resistance band is what weight?
There’s no color standard that applies to all resistance band manufacturers these days.
And I noticed that there are more & more knockoff brands popping up on Amazon, so the color schemes aren’t consistent from company to company.
On my Bodylastics set, the color-to-weight specs are as follows:
- Yellow – 3 lb.
- Green – 5 lb.
- Red – 8 lb.
- Blue – 13 lb.
- Black – 19 lb.
- Purple – 23 lb.
- Orange – 30 lb.
Can resistance bands build glutes?
While I didn’t discover any clinical research study dedicated to booty building, I’ll take an educated guess and say yes, gluteus maximus development is possible with resistance bands.
I base this on the facts that:
1) resistance bands have been shown to build muscle as well as free weight strength training,
2) strength training is the best way to build your glutes, and
3) I saw that there are several squat variations & lunge variations displayed on Bodylastics’ website, including exercises used in butt-building routines like the Mary Katherine lunge.
Related articles here on heydayDo
I hope my research on the muscle building effectiveness of resistance bands and its comparisons to free weights is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.