Resistance Bands Versus Dumbbells | 9 Surprising Reasons To Consider Elastic Bands

Created by Elly McGuinness

Last Updated: July 25, 2021

CATEGORIES: Physical Fitness

Far from being limited to physical therapy exercises, or exercises for older adults, resistance band workouts can offer similar benefits to conventional resistance training. There are certain instances where elastic resistance training may even be superior to conventional weight lifting devices such as dumbbells.

In the battle of resistance bands Vs dumbbells, there are several reasons you might choose bands. Put simply, they can train your body in a few unique ways that you can’t get using conventional devices for strength training. Before we explore some of the many reasons to love elastic bands, let’s briefly explain what they are.

[Or, if you want to, you can check out my complete guide to resistance bands, including two full workouts and a “how-to” video].

(This post includes affiliate links for which I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase)

What Are Resistance Bands and what are they used for?

Resistance bands are elastic bands that add resistance to your workouts. They offer an effective way to add resistance to bodyweight exercises. Examples include upper body exercises like upright rows, bent over rows, bicep curls, or lateral raises and lower body exercises such as clams or squats.

Different colored bands offer different resistance levels. You can purchase specific band colors that offer lighter resistance for smaller muscle groups, or beginner exercisers. Other colors provide greater levels of resistance. They may be used for bigger muscle groups, and, in general, as you become stronger. 

You can also adjust the tension level of any given band. Therefore, a single band can double as an all-in-one version of both a light weight and a heavy weight. 

[I recommend resistance bands as an important addition to your home exercise equipment toolkit. Check out my top exercise kit recommendations below].

Research Comparing Free Weights vs Resistance Bands

Several scientific studies demonstrate that resistance bands can be a great alternative to dumbbells. A meta-analysis of studies was carried out to compare the effects of resistance training with elastic devices versus conventional devices on muscular strength. The review highlighted that training with elastic devices such as resistance bands produces similar strength gains to training with conventional devices such as dumbbells.

One study examined muscle activation in flyes and reverse flyes using elastic resistance bands versus dumbbells. The results showed that resistance bands produced slightly less activation in the major muscle group involved in each exercise. However, the resistance band modality produced significantly more muscle activation in supporting muscle groups. This illustrates one way that training with elastic devices challenges the body in a different way to using conventional devices. You’ll find out why this is important further down the article.

Another study looked at trunk muscle activation during all phases of a squat. The findings demonstrated that core muscle activation was similar when comparing free-weight squats and free-weights + elastic bands (to replace some of the resistance). Findings like these highlight that resistance bands are a valid alternative to traditional strength training methods.

Elastic devices versus conventional devices-seated row with resistance band

Benefits of Resistance Bands vs Dumbbells and other Weights

Resistance bands are an invaluable item to have in your strength training toolkit. They can offer many similar benefits to using dumbbells or barbells. Like traditional free weight training, resistance bands allow you to:

  • Increase your body temperature, get your blood flowing and muscles warmed up effectively
  • Work through a full range of motion when you are exercising
  • Train all the major muscles in your body
  • Recruit stabilizer muscles that don’t get challenged so much when you’re using machine weights
  • Use the principle of progressive overload to gradually increase your muscular strength, muscular endurance, and muscle size over time
  • Improve your muscle tone 
  • Choose from a wide range of exercises that can help you improve functional strength

You might not realize that they can challenge your muscles in a different manner than free weights. Here are some of the obvious benefits of elastic resistance training, plus some advantages you may not have thought of.

resistance bands versus dumbbells-set of 2 bands with different strengths

1. Exercise resistance bands can assist you with better quality movement and exercise progressions, in a way that dumbbells can’t

You can use resistance bands to assist you with certain exercises. This cannot be done in the same way when you’re using dumbbells. For example, a resistance band can help you add more control to abdominal exercises such as Pilates-style rollbacks, or crunches.

I’m a big fan of quality movement over quantity. Resistance bands really allow you to work on perfecting your technique with exercises like this. Assisted-style exercises such as a Pilates-style rollback or leg lowers with a resistance band (see image below) allow you to move to the next progression level without sacrificing your technique. Therefore, they’re a great progression tool to have in your equipment kit.

Chin-ups are another exercise where bands are great for offering resistance. You can use bands with greater resistance when you need more assistance with your chin-ups. As you become stronger and get closer to pulling your own body weight, you can use bands with progressively less resistance.

resistance bands versus dumbbells-assisted exercise with band-advanced level leg lowers

2. Elastic bands allow you to more easily control your levels of resistance

A major advantage of resistance bands is that you can easily make very minor adjustments to your resistance level. Sure, you can purchase adjustable dumbbells that allow you to select the weight you need for a particular strength training exercise. However, you can’t adjust your resistance weight as quickly and easily as you can with resistance band training.

For example, if you’re tiring during an exercise and you want to get a few more high-quality reps in, you can make a very subtle and quick adjustment to your level of resistance when you’re using a band. Simply let your hands slide a little or unwrap the band slightly, depending on how you’re using it. 

This is a lot faster than swapping out a pair of dumbbells, thus allowing for minimal disruption during your set. Similarly, instead of grabbing some heavier dumbbells midway through a set, you can simply shift your hands a little, or wrap your resistance band up a little more if you want additional tension.

3. Bands are small and lightweight, and therefore easily moved and stored

One major benefit of resistance bands is that they are super lightweight. You don’t need to worry about dropping one on your foot, or about your bands taking up a whole corner in your living room. Training with resistance bands is a great option when you have limited space available.

They can be packed away in a bag or drawer when you’re not using them, and you can easily take them on holiday with you or to different workout locations. This makes them perfect for “anywhere” workouts.

4. A super versatile tool | Resistance bands can assist you to get a deeper stretch

Resistance band exercises are not limited to exercises for building strength such as the biceps curl or leg extensions. They can be used as part of a stretching routine for recovery after workouts, or in between workouts. 

For example, you can lie down on your back, and place your band around the back of your hamstring, calf, or foot, depending on your level of flexibility. Keep your other leg bent with your foot on the floor, or extended if you are more flexible. With one hand on each side of the band, gently use the band to draw your leg towards you until you feel a good stretch through your hamstrings.

This sort of exercise versatility is another aspect that sets resistance band training apart from traditional workout tools such as barbells and dumbbells.

stretching with resistance bands-advanced level hamstring stretch

5. Resistance bands offer a novel approach to strength training

With conventional devices for strength training, such as dumbbells and barbells, there’s a point in the exercise that’s considered the “hardest” part of the movement. For example, the bottom of a squat, or the bottom of a bench press or pushup is the “hardest” part of the movement, even though you’re using the same weight throughout.

When you train with elastic devices such as resistance bands, the opposite effect is felt. Due to progressive resistance from the band at the end of the repetition, the top of the squat becomes harder as the resistance on the band increases. Similarly, the top of a pushup or the top of a chest press with a band becomes the hardest part of the exercise.

Because elastic devices like resistance bands work your muscles in a different way to conventional devices, this produces a “novelty” effect for your muscles. Training in a different way from what you are used to offers a new training stimulus for your muscles. The variable resistance provided by resistance bands offers a new challenge for your neuromuscular system. It can have a beneficial effect on muscle strength and muscle growth, even for people who are experienced in free-weight resistance training.

resistance bands vs dumbbells-outer thigh-glute exercise with bands

6. Building muscle with resistance bands with subtle adjustments to the direction of pull

Another neat feature of resistance bands is that you can change the angle of resistance, independent of the direction of gravity. With conventional resistance training using free weights, you need to get a bit creative, since gravitational pull only moves in one direction.

With elastic tubing resistance, you can adjust your angles more easily, to achieve what you want to. This means you can focus more easily on improving a certain aspect of your lift. For example, it’s possible to change the direction of pull during an exercise such as a deep squat with an elastic band. Subtle adjustments can enable you to shift the emphasis to different muscles if desired.

7. Elastic devices can be used in conjunction with conventional devices to take your strength to the next level

You can even use your resistance bands in conjunction with free weights! Doing so can help you take your strength and muscle growth to the next level. For example, you could improve your deadlift lockout strength by attaching bands to your barbell. This will pull your body position forward. In turn, it will trigger you to emphasize the “pulling back” part of the end movement, to help you improve your lockout strength. This approach could also be used with other exercises such as a bench press or bar squat.

8. Elastic tubing resistance is superior for explosive training

There are plenty of ways that you can use the variable resistance that bands provide, with explosive movements. Bands can be used to emphasize the most powerful and explosive parts of the movement. Resistance band tension is highest at the top of the movement, which reflects exactly what you’re trying to achieve with explosive styles of training, such as plyometrics.

9. Free-weight resistance training tools have a much higher price point

Outside of big clunky machines, dumbbells and barbells are some of the highest-priced pieces of exercise equipment you can buy. The shipping fee can also be very expensive, due to the sheer weight of the package. 

High-quality resistance bands can be purchased for around $12 for a set of bands that range from lighter resistance to heavier. A modern set of adjustable dumbbells on the other hand could retail at $400 plus shipping. A kettlebell that can be adjusted to different weights comes in at about $140.

On top of this, many people decided they wanted to purchase equipment such as dumbbells as a result of the pandemic situation and subsequent gym closures. This resulted in equipment such as dumbbells and barbells selling out. Resistance bands have been much more readily available at a fraction of the cost. AND it’s possible you could achieve all your strength training objectives with bands alone.

The battle of resistance bands versus weights | When weights may be better

In the debate over resistance bands versus weights, there are also reasons that you might choose more conventional resistance training methods, such as free-weight resistance training.

  • Resistance bands are not as useful for momentum-based exercises such as kettlebell swings
  • With elastic tubing muscle strength it can be difficult to measure exactly how many pounds of resistance you’re pushing. Therefore, it’s harder to keep a record of how much you’re lifting with resistance bands. Remember that if you want more objective measures of how much weight you’re lifting, you can still test your strength gains in other ways (e.g. using free weights or bodyweight exercises)
  • Free weights are generally considered as “King” when it comes to building muscle mass. However, just remember that you can still build muscles with resistance bands AND you can use bands alongside traditional free-weight resistance training to help promote extra strength gains and muscle growth
  • If building big muscles is your primary goal, you may want to consider using free weights as your primary training tool, and resistance bands as supplementary

Overall, elastic devices like resistance bands are a valid alternative to conventional tools used for resistance training. Do you use resistance bands in your training program or are you thinking about doing so? Please feel free to join the conversation and leave any questions or comments below. I’d love to hear from you! 

Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase after clicking on one of these recommended service provider links, like an insurance broker, or a travel agent, I may earn a commission – at no extra cost to you. [For my full disclosure, please see my DISCLAIMER page].

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Elly McGuinness

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