Can you build muscle with resistance bands? How do they compare with free weights like barbells and dumbbells? Here’s everything you need to know.
Do resistance bands work for building muscle? Yes. Resistance is resistance, whether it comes from your own bodyweight, free weights or resistance bands.
Are resistance bands better than dumbbells and barbells for building muscle? No they’re not.
All things considered, I think you’ll see better results with free weights than you will with bands.
However, while resistance bands aren’t necessarily better than free weights, they can still do a decent job of stimulating muscle growth if you know what you’re doing.
The Benefits of Resistance Bands
Resistance bands have a lot of things going for them. They’re relatively cheap, light, compact and portable.
The fact resistance bands don’t require a lot of space makes them ideal if there’s no room in your house for a home gym, or you travel a lot and don’t always have access to a decent gym.
Training at home with resistance bands is also very convenient. There’s no need to drive to the gym in the middle of rush hour, park, sign in, get changed, do your workout, have a shower, get changed again, then drive home.
You just whip out the resistance bands and start training. Even if you only have 10 or 15 minutes to spare, you can do a few exercises for this or that muscle group.
Then, later in the day, when you get another 10 or 15 minutes to spare, you can focus another muscle group.
For many people, this “little and often” approach to resistance training is more convenient and practical, which means the workouts are far more likely to get done.
Bands can also be an effective way to work around injuries.
If you find that certain free weight exercises cause your joints to flare up, doing the same exercise with a resistance band may actually feel better, allowing you to work around any dings or dents that have built up over the years.
Resistance bands provide a variable level of resistance, in the sense that the tension is greatest when the band is stretched.
This can be an advantage when it comes to working around joint pain, as the resistance may well ease off at the point where a particular exercise starts to hurt.
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You might not be able to do certain exercises with free weights without your joints giving you grief. But when you try the same exercise with a resistance band, it feels fine.
If your joints tend to flare up during a particular lift, it’s worth experimenting with resistance bands to see if they feel better than their free weight counterparts.
Banded Exercises and Accommodating Resistance
One of the other benefits of resistance bands, which you don’t get with free weights, is something known as accommodating resistance.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Let’s take the bench press as an example.
You start off with your arms straight, lower the barbell to your chest, then press it back to the starting position.
The amount of weight you’re lifting doesn’t change. It’s the same at the bottom of the movement, when the bar is near your chest, as it is at the top, when your arms are straight.
But even though the weight is the same, the exercise is harder at the bottom than it is at the top. As a result, your muscles aren’t getting the same level of stimulation throughout the whole of the exercise.
With a resistance band, the whole thing is reversed. That is, the bands provide more resistance near the top of the movement, when they’re stretched, than they do at the bottom.
By combining the two, resistance bands and free weights, you challenge your muscles across a much larger range of motion.
In the case of the bench press, you hook a band around both ends of a barbell. As the band stretches, you get more resistance towards the end of the movement.
That’s why some strength athletes, such as powerlifters, like to combine free weights, resistance bands and chains while benching and squatting. You can see how it’s done in the video below.
The addition of bands or chains makes the end of the lift a bit harder, which has been shown, in some studies at least, to accelerate strength gains .
Do Resistance Bands Work for Building Muscle?
Resistance bands do build muscle. A muscle grows when the fibers inside that muscle are exposed to a certain level of tension, irrespective of where that tension comes from. Resistance is resistance, whether it comes from your own bodyweight, free weights or an elastic band.
However, one of the limitations of bands is that the resistance is at its lowest when you start the exercise. Then, as you stretch the band, it gets harder to move, which makes the lift more difficult.
Bands match the natural strength curve of most exercises, in the sense that you’re usually weaker at the bottom of an exercise than you are at the top.
While this is often touted as a benefit of resistance bands, it’s actually a limitation as far as muscle growth is concerned.
One of the things that stimulates muscle growth is challenging your muscles at longer lengths. That is, you want your muscles under a high level of tension when they’re in a stretched position.
But that’s the opposite of what you get with resistance bands.
That is, there’s more tension at the end of a movement, when your muscles are in a shortened position, than there is at the start when they’re lengthened.
Various studies have been done to establish the importance of training at long muscle lengths when it comes to hypertrophy.
Seated leg curls differ from lying leg curls in that they cause some of the hamstring muscles (specifically the ones that cross the hip) to be put in a stretched position.
After 12 weeks of training, the seated leg curls stimulated significantly more muscle growth in the hamstring muscles that cross the hip, which were the ones trained at long muscle lengths.
Here’s how the researchers sum up their findings:
“Hamstrings muscle size can be more effectively increased by seated than prone leg curl training, suggesting that training at long muscle lengths promotes muscle hypertrophy.”
Partial reps performed in the bottom third of the movement, which challenge the muscles at long lengths, stimulated more growth than partial reps done in the top third of the movement.
Of course, there are ways to work around the problem.
You can hold the resistance band in such a way that you shorten the distance between your hand and the anchor point of the band. This way, you get more tension in the band at the start of each rep. You can see some examples of how it’s done in the video below.
Depending on how much tension you want to work against, you can also double up the band, switch to a harder band, or combine multiple bands.
When there’s a lot of tension in the band at the start of each rep, chances are you won’t be able to complete a full rep. There’ll come a point where the resistance becomes so great that you can’t stretch the band any further.
However, there’s no reason why some of your sets can’t be done through a full range of motion, while others are done through a partial range of motion, where you focus on challenging your muscles at long muscle lengths.
You could even try some isometric work at long muscle lengths. In a review of 26 studies, isometric training at long muscle lengths produced greater muscular hypertrophy when compared to equal volumes of shorter muscle length training .
Resistance Bands vs Weights
All things considered, if I had to choose between training exclusively with free weights or resistance bands, I’d go with free weights.
However, you don’t have to choose one or the other, and there’s no good reason why you can’t use both.
For example, when COVID-19 hit and all the gyms were closed, I got myself some dumbbells and various resistance bands.
The resistance bands gave me a lot more exercises to choose from, which in turn meant I didn’t have to sit around watching my gains go down the drain.
However, given a choice between training at home with bands, dumbbells and resistance bands versus a fully-equipped commercial gym, I’d take the gym every time.
Do resistance bands work? That depends on what you’re using them for.
If all you want is a bit more muscle here or there, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve that with resistance bands alone, or a combination of resistance bands and bodyweight exercises.
And if all you’re trying to do is hold on to the muscle you have right now, resistance bands are a viable option. Maintaining muscle mass takes a lot less work than gaining it in the first place.
However, if you’re on a mission to build muscle as fast as humanly possible, or you’re trying to reach the upper limits of your genetic potential for muscle mass, resistance bands alone won’t be enough.