Resistance bands vs dumbbells: which is more effective at building muscle and strength?

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Resistance bands make easy work of training at home, but are they as effective as weights? 

When it comes to home workouts, most of us are looking to get the most bang for our buck. We want efficient workouts that don’t take long and require minimal equipment – because who has the time, money or storage space to be faffing around with a load of kit? 

It’s why resistance bands are so useful right now; they’re easy to store and much cheaper than free weights, which is why so many people have relied on them for home workouts. But, when it comes to muscle mass and strength, is swapping iron for elastic a mistake? 

The benefit to resistance bands is in the name, really, as bands are a great way to add extra resistance to your workout. We need resistance, or an opposing force, in order for our bodies to adapt to training – but the question really is: can you get enough of it with resistance bands?

Let’s start with the science of muscle growth. Traditionally, it is said that you build strength when working in sets of up to six reps, build muscle when working in sets of 8-12 reps, and build muscle endurance when working with in sets of higher rep ranges. While this is true, the general rule of thumb is that lower reps are most effective at building strength, while the higher reps are most effective at building endurance – but all make you stronger so long as you work until failure (that is, you can’t do any more reps). 

Resistance bands vs dumbbells: what's best for home workouts?

As long as you’re using the right band, the idea is that you should get stronger, says Pennie Varvardies, strength and conditioning coach. “I have loads of clients who have got stronger using resistance bands this year,” she says.

The key is to not buy a flimsy elastic band but instead one that can elicit the same weight as a dumbbell. Nowadays, new bands on the market can even add up to 110kg to your training. “If you are new to strength training, only used to working with bodyweight, or someone who squats 40kg in the gym, a 40kg band will be beneficial – as it will provide ample resistance for you,” Pennie says.

The thing is, if you are someone who usually relies on heavy dumbbells, you probably won’t find a band that is heavy enough to push you until failure. “If you are someone who usually squats 100kg, then is doing squats with a resistance band worth 40kg going to be that helpful? Maybe not, unless you’re doing quite a lot of them,” adds Pennie.

Research also shows that it is the load our muscles are under when they are extended that elicits the most muscle growth. For example, the muscles are most worked when we are at the bottom of our squat. But when using a resistance band, it’s harder to load the muscle at the bottom of the movement, as this is when the band will be at its saggiest.

“As with everything, the key is training with intention. With resistance bands, it’s especially easy to bounce through reps without thinking about what you’re doing and letting the momentum of the band move. That’s not efficient, but if you are thinking about where that power is coming from and pausing in a position before you push or pull, rather than letting the band move you, then yes, they can be efficient.”

If you are just using resistance bands to keep you going until you can get your hands on iron again, it’s important to consider the types of exercises you do. A lot of movements don’t “transfer over neatly” from dumbbell to resistance band, Pennie explains. 

“If you want to do chest press but you don’t have any kit except bands, you could work your chest by doing press-ups with the resistance band over your back. Doing that will build and maintain strength, so that when you go back to bench pressing, you’re able to still lift heavy. However, because the shape of the movement is slightly different, you won’t necessarily be able to chest press what you did before. It will take a couple of weeks for your brain to repattern the shape,” she says.

This is where she thinks people go wrong with resistance bands: using lighter bands and doing resistance-band specific exercises. When these people then go back to strength training, they feel as though they’ve lost strength. “Instead, use heavy bands and create the same shapes you would with dumbbells,” she says. “It’s easier to do upper body moves with resistance bands, but if you get a bit creative you can still do moves such as deadlifts, good morning, squats and lunges.”

Let’s not forget that resistance bands are also way more accessible for people – they’re cheaper to buy and easier to store. Given that they can challenge you, maintain strength and even grow muscle – plus, make your workouts a bit more interesting during lockdown – they aren’t something to turn your nose up at. 

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