By Lucy Gornall
It’s a workout debate you may have heard before but when deciding between resistance bands vs weights, what difference does it really make?
We know that adding resistance to workouts is a great way to build muscle, whether it be through bodyweight, using a pair of dumbbells or placing a resistance band above our knees when we squat.
However, when it comes to choosing between resistance bands and weights, you might be left a little lost. Which do you opt for?
Vicki Anstey, founder of Barreworks and a leading barre expert, explains that both resistance bands and weights - even light ones - can form the basis of a great workout, saying: ‘They can both be pretty versatile across a variety of movements and in a confined space.'
Katie Anderson, Head of Training at FLY LDN adds that both resistance bands and weights are great pieces of equipment that we should all be using in our workouts at some point during the week, saying: 'They can be used together, to complement each other, or they can be used separately.’
But if you're weighing up whether to buy a selection of the best resistance bands or weights - such as a set of the best adjustable dumbbells - we're here to help. Below we consider the benefits and limitations of both types of equipment, with expert comment to help you make up your mind in the resistance bands vs weights conundrum.
Resistance bands: The benefits
One of the advantages of resistance bands over weights is that you can increase the resistance easily. You can simply tie the band tighter or use a thicker, wider band to add more resistance, whereas with weights you might need a selection, ranging from 2lb up to 20lb, to suit both your ability and different types of exercises.
- Easy to store and transport
Fan of a home workout? You might be limited on space and unable to find a place to store a rack of dumbbells - whereas a set of resistance bands can be easily packed away in a cupboard or drawer.
‘Bands are also easily portable, making them the perfect option for traveling or stashing away at home,’ adds Vicky.
- Great for rehabilitation
Whilst you won’t get the added force of gravity when working with bands that you get with weights, you do get an unstable level of resistance, so you have to work hard (often with smaller stabilising muscles) to maintain a constant level of resistance.
This can be great for improving ligament and tendon strength as well as supporting muscle strength - hence their role in rehabilitation exercises.
- You'll feel the burn!
Katie says that resistance bands give muscles that burning sensation after you’ve completed 20 or so reps.
‘Bands usually come in three to four strengths from light to x-heavy. By doing high reps and continuous work with little rest, you will work on muscle endurance, strength and compound exercises, whilst also burning a good number of calories.
'For example, donkey kicks in a box hover works the glutes, hamstrings, quads, core, arms and chest.’
- Suited to beginners
A final benefit of resistance bands is that they’re great for beginners. As MyProtein personal trainer Chris Appleton explains, they give the user the ability to ‘safely find their strength limit and reduce the chances of injury’.
Resistance bands: the cons
There are some drawbacks to resistance bands. The range of exercises you can do with them is limited - which, explains Katie, means 'it is also harder to build strength and hypertrophy (increase in muscle size).'
Chris adds that this difficulty to increase muscle size with resistance bands is mainly due to the fact that even the higher level resistance bands cannot match heavier dumbbells.
Weights: The benefits
- Great for strength and cardio training
Weights come in different shapes - such as dumbbells, kettlebells, plates and barbells - as well as sizes, and are the usual go-to when it comes to strength training.
‘Weights are great for strength and hypertrophy building,' says Katie, with a range of weight exercises that involve push and pull actions available.
However, a key difference with weights is that they can also be used in low-impact cardiovascular training, such as kettlebell swings or snatches, helping you to burn even more calories.
- More scope for development
'Weights have more scope for improvement over time,’ says Chris. For example, you may start out doing bicep curls with a relatively light weight - perhaps 2lb or 5lb - but over time build up to 7lb, 10lb - or beyond.
Hasit Jethwa, personal trainer and fitness tutor for The Training Room picks up this point, saying that weights allow for the principle of overload - where you can constantly add weight to challenge your body and provide a new stimulus for growth.
- Works a wider range of muscles
Hasit explains: ‘Compound exercises (such as squats and deadlifts) especially are great for activation of multiple muscle groups to work collectively to fulfil a specific motion. This not only makes the whole body stronger in general, but it also promotes extra use of calories which may also help with aesthetics.’
She adds that weights also allow for the principle of overload to be carried out; this is where you can constantly add weight to challenge your body and provide a new stimulus for growth.
Weights: the cons
One of the drawbacks of free weights is the space they take up and the set-up time. For example, loading up plates on to a bar can take time and a lot of manpower!
As mentioned already, weights can also take up a lot of space when working out at home. Not everyone has is blessed with a spare room or garage to stash away their equipment!
Katie adds that with weights there is also a higher risk of injury, not just in the form of accidents resulting from dropped weights, but also due to bad form. For example, if you don't know how to do barbell squats correctly, over time you may develop back pain from incorrect form.
This means that weights may not be suited to beginners, who might instead want to start out with resistance bands.
Resistance bands vs weights: which is best?
Evidently, both pieces of equipment have their place in our workouts, and both resistance bands and weights have their pros and cons. A mix of the two will work nicely, as they’re beneficial for different things.
Resistance bands offer a great for isolating specific muscle groups ensuring you are not loading other parts of the body which you may do in a free weight exercise, for example. They’re useful for rehabilitation as there is less stress applied to the body with less force going through joints.
Weights, whilst they do take up space at home, are great for building muscle size, and also for progressive overload, which is far harder to achieve with resistance bands. But if you do choose to workout with weights, just be sure to perfect your form to prevent injury. Consult with a personal trainer, or else check out some of our handy guides, such as how to lift weights and how to deadlift properly.
Lucy is Health and Fitness Editor at various women's magazines, and also Editor of Woman&Home Feel Good You. She has previously written for titles including Now, Look and Cosmopolitan. She lives and breathes all things fitness; she works out every morning, and mixes it up with runs, weights, boxing and endless box jumps. She is also a Level 3 personal trainer and teaches classes at various London studios, primarily Digme Fitness. Lucy is pre- and post-natal trained and helps new mums get back into fitness after the birth of their baby. Lucy claims that good sleep, plenty of food, and a healthy gut (seriously, it's an obsession) are the key to maintaining energy and exercising efficiently. Saying this, she's partial to the odd Negroni on the dance floor with her friends.
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