We have an article about how to build a barbell home gym and we’re about to publish one about how to build a much smaller, cheaper home gym with just dumbbells or kettlebells. Our motto has always been that we can help you build muscle with any sort of weights, whether that’s a full gym membership, a barbell and some plates, some adjustable dumbbells, or a couple of old kettlebells.
One question we often get, though, is why we don’t recommend resistance bands. Now, it’s not that we discourage people from getting them. We just don’t actively recommend them. And that’s weird, right? I mean, resistance bands are cheap and portable, and aren’t they just as good for building muscle? After all, to stimulate muscle growth, all we need to do is challenge our muscles … right?
- We Can Build Muscle With Anything
- Are Resistance Bands Good for Building Muscle?
- The Advantages of Resistance Bands
- Research Comparing Free Weights vs Resistance Bands
- Key Takeaways
Recently, gyms around the world have been closing down, and so people have been looking for a way to build muscle at home. One common recommendation is to get resistance bands. In fact, that’s probably the most common recommendation right now. But why is that? Of all the ways to train at home, why resistance bands? Are they especially good for building muscle?
One claim is that resistance bands are better for building muscle than free weights. The idea is that the variable resistance created by resistance bands, where the band gets progressively harder to stretch as it gets longer, creates a unique resistance curve that’s good for building muscle. This is the exact opposite of what most research indicates, and we’ll discuss that in a second, but it raises another question. If resistance bands were a good way to build muscle, then why don’t people use them at the gym?
Despite how cheap and portable resistance bands are, people generally do biceps curls with dumbbells, bench press with barbells, and do lat pulldowns with cables. People buy gym memberships, expensive adjustable dumbbells, or fill a spare room with a barbell home gym just so that they can lift free weights. This is true of powerlifters, bodybuilders, and athletes of all levels. Why? Is there something special about free weights?
To be fair, at elite powerlifting gyms, sometimes people will use accommodating resistance, where they add some resistance bands or chains to their barbell bench press, back squat, and conventional deadlift to make the lockout harder. Does this increase muscle growth?
Also, it’s common to see people use resistance bands for metabolite training, like when women toss some bands around their knees when doing hip thrusts to get a bigger muscle pump in their glutes. Does that provoke extra muscle growth?
On the other hand, someone recently asked Mike Israetel, PhD, if he recommends resistance bands. I’m paraphrasing here, but he responded that if we can’t afford a couple of dumbbells, it’s probably better to focus on things like bodyweight hypertrophy workouts, jogging, or training with household “free weights” such as a jug of water or a backpack full of books. What’s so special about free weights?
And as the top hypertrophy researchers are forced out of their gyms, they’re buying equipment to train at home, too. For example, the leading hypertrophy researcher in the world, Dr Brad Schoenfeld, bought himself a couple of heavy adjustable dumbbells. Why did he choose free weights over resistance bands?
We Can Build Muscle With Anything
Before we dive deep into whether resistance bands are optimal for building muscle, it’s important to point out that we can build plenty of muscle in imperfect situations. In fact, there are only three things required to build muscle:
- Eat enough calories to gain weight: the ideal rate of weight gain depends on how skinny you are, how new to lifting you are, how lean you are, and how aggressive you want to be with your bulk. But the important thing is that you can at least some weight on the scale each week.
- Eat enough protein to build muscle: about one gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day is a good rule of thumb.
- Challenge your muscles with strenuous exercise. This is what signals to our bodies that we need to start investing in muscle growth.
If we can do those three things, we can build muscle. In fact, I’m confident that you could build muscle if you were stranded on a desert island with nothing but your body weight and a weight-gainer supplement. But, I mean, I’m also confident that you could clean your house with a toothbrush and some vinegar. There’s a difference between something being possible and something being easy.
For some of us, it might not matter whether resistance bands are the best way to build muscle or not. I know people who have decently muscular physiques from swimming laps in a pool. Some people gain an abundance of muscle as a byproduct of becoming overweight. Other people have already built muscle and are just trying to maintain their size, strength, and health in an enjoyable way.
But I’m coming at this from the perspective of the skinny hardgainer. I only succeeded in building muscle when I started training for it deliberately and methodically. And when I was deciding what equipment to buy, I didn’t want to see a photo of a muscular fitness model holding resistance bands and saying “anything is possible!” No, I wanted to know what the pros and cons were. I wanted to know how resistance bands compared to barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells.
It’s possible to build muscle with anything, including resistance bands (study), and even including our body weight. Now let’s talk about which approach is best and why.
Are Resistance Bands Good for Building Muscle?
Okay, now that we’ve covered that, yes, it’s possible to build muscle with anything, including resistance bands, let’s talk about whether resistance bands are as good as free weights, and what the different pros and cons are.
The first thing is that whether we’re using resistance bands or free weights, the same general principles of muscle growth still apply. For example, we need adequate rest between sets so that we’re limited by the strength of our muscles rather than by our cardiovascular fitness. If our workout is a long circuit designed to leave us winded, that’s not hypertrophy training, that’s cardio. That disqualifies a lot of bodyweight, resistance-band, and even free-weight workout routines (including CrossFit), but it doesn’t mean that the tools are inappropriate, just the training style.
Whether we’re using free weights or resistance bands, we still want to focus on the big compound lifts, add in some isolation lifts, lift with a large range of motion, bring our sets close to muscular failure, and do enough of those challenging sets each week. So let’s go over these principles and how they apply to resistance bands.
The Problem of Variable Resistance
As a general rule of thumb, lifting with a large range of motion is good for building muscle. It forces our muscles to do more work, we stimulate a wider variety of muscle fibres, and we often engage more overall muscle mass. But there’s some nuance to it, too. There are two specific parts of the range of motion that are disproportionately important:
- The sticking point: our muscles only grow when we challenge them, and some parts of the range of motion are more challenging than others. The most challenging part of the range of motion is called the sticking point. That’s where we tend to fail, and it’s also where we tend to stimulate the most muscle growth. For example, the sticking point of a squat is when our thighs are horizontal with the ground. If we squat to that point, we get most of the benefit of squatting, and so it’s considered a “complete” squat. If we squat higher than that, it’s considered a “partial squat,” and we miss out on some of the muscle growth.
- The stretch at the bottom: the most important benefit of increasing our range of motion beyond the sticking point is that it allows us to get a loaded stretch on our muscles at the bottom of the lift. For example, if we squat even deeper, we’ll get an even better stretch on our quads, and we’ll stimulate even more muscle growth. This is probably why deep front squats and goblet squats stimulate just as much muscle growth as back squats, even though back squats are much heavier.
The next question is, how much does this matter? Are we talking about a 5% difference in muscle growth? 30%? 50%? This is where things get really interesting. If we look at a meta-analysis of all the relevant studies, we see that challenging our muscles in a stretched position stimulates 260% as much muscle growth as challenging our muscles in a contracted position—nearly three times as much muscle growth:
So what we’re seeing here is that challenging our muscles when they’re stretched is an absolutely crucial factor for stimulating muscle growth. This is something we really want to pay attention to when choosing our main bulking exercises. It can nearly triple our muscle growth. (This is why the deep squat, bench press, deadlift, and even push-up stimulate so much muscle growth. They all challenge our muscles in a stretched position.)
The next question is, why does challenging our muscles in a stretched position stimulate more muscle growth? The main way that we produce force with our muscles is by contracting them, which is called active tension. But our muscles are sort of like elastics. When we stretch them, they pull themselves back towards their resting length. This is called passive tension. If we’re contracting our muscles as hard as possible and getting some of that elastic effect, we’re combining both active and passive tension. This puts more overall mechanical tension on our muscles. Mechanical tension is the main driver of hypertrophy, and so having more mechanical tension on our muscles stimulates more muscle growth.
If you want a more technical explanation of how this works, here’s a quote from Greg Nuckols, MA:
Well, with any discussion of muscle growth, a good place to start is mechanical tension. While active contractile tension of a muscle tends to be highest at around resting length, passive tension from non-contractile elements (the tendons and muscle fascia) increases as muscle length increases, such that total muscular tension is generally highest when muscles are in a stretched position. Tension primarily seems to matter for hypertrophy because tension is sensed at costameres (where muscles attach to the surrounding fascia), which activate a protein called focal adhesion kinase (FAK), which then triggers the mTOR pathway, which is primarily responsible for exercise-induced hypertrophic signaling. In exquisitely controlled rodent research (study), it’s been shown that tension itself, not just active tension generated by muscle contraction, is what kicks off this pathway. Thus, even though active tension drops off, the disproportionate increase in passive tension, which leads to more total tension, should also lead to more hypertrophic signaling.Greg Nuckols, Monthly Applications in Strength Sport
For a practical example of how this works, imagine loading up a barbell with more weight than you can deadlift and then yanking on the barbell with all of your might. You’re pulling as hard as you can but the barbell stays bolted to the floor. Is that ideal for building muscle? No. But your hamstrings and glutes are stretched, your spinal erectors are at their sticking point, you’re challenging your muscles, and you’re lifting close to failure. You’d still stimulate a good amount of muscle growth.
Now imagine setting up that barbell on safety pins a few inches above your knees. You lift it a single inch and hold it there for as long as you can (maybe using lifting straps). This is called an above-the-knee rack pull. It’s an absolutely terrible lift for the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors because none of these muscles are stretched or being brought close to failure. However, it’s a pretty good lift for our upper traps, which are being stretched and challenged.
So, you might be thinking, what does this have to do with resistance bands? After all, nothing is stopping us from using a full range of motion with resistance bands, right? That’s true, but the problem is that the resistance bands gradually apply more force the further we stretch them, meaning that the bottom of a lift is much easier than the top. We aren’t giving them enough of a challenge when our muscles are in that stretched position at the bottom of the movement, and so we aren’t getting the benefit of lifting with a large range of motion.
By switching from free weights to resistance bands, we’re changing the dynamics of the lift on a deep level, and not in a way that’s good for building muscle. This is the problem of variable resistance.
Resistance Band Strength Curves
Variable resistance is the term used to describe the odd resistance curve that resistance bands provide. To understand how that affects muscle growth, we need to compare that resistance curve against the natural strength curves of our muscles to see how well they match up. If resistance bands are tough where we’re strong and loose where we’re weak, that’s a good match. But if they’re tough where we’re weak and loose where we’re strong, that’s a poor match.
If we look at the dumbbell curl, we see that we’re able to work our biceps through a fairly complete range of motion. We don’t really get a full stretch at the bottom, but our biceps are at least brought to their full resting length (or slightly beyond). But as we discussed above, we also need to see if our muscles are being challenged throughout that range of motion.
If we look at how our leverage changes as we curl the weight up, we see that the beginning of the lift is fairly easy, it gets harder in the middle (where our forearms are horizontal), and then the lift starts to get easier again after that. In that middle position, the weight is about 40% heavier, and so most people will fail there. That’s the sticking point. However, we also need to factor in our internal leverage:
Those little blue lines represent the moment arms created by our muscle insertions and joint angles. What that shows is that our biceps have poor leverage at the start, we get stronger in the middle, and then our leverage gets worse again at the top. I’m using loose numbers here, but in this example, our leverage is about 30% better at the sticking point. Most (but not all) of the resistance curve is cancelled out by our internal leverage. The dumbbell is light at the beginning and end of the lift, which is good, because that’s where we’re weaker. And the dumbbell is heaviest in the middle, which is great, because that’s where we’re strongest.
What’s insanely cool is that most free weight lifts are like the biceps curl, and they have their resistance curves at least partially flattened by our natural strength curves. We’re strongest at the toughest part of the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift, too. This allows us to lift fairly large amounts of weight, and it means that our muscles are challenged through most of the range of motion (including at the bottom, which is key). Our bodies are built to lift free weights. Of course they are. We’ve been lifting things against gravity for millions of years.
Now, there are other aspects to our strength curve as well. For example, if we stretch our muscles past their natural resting lengths, then they function sort of like stretched elastics, and they give us an extra little boost to our strength at the beginning of a lift. If we’re smart, we can use that as an opportunity to build the momentum we need to blast through the sticking point, further flattening the curve. Again, this is great for building muscle.
Okay, so what happens when we look at resistance bands? In this case, assuming we hook the bands under our feet, the line of pull is great. That slightly backward angle means that we can actually get a bit more of a stretch on our biceps in the bottom position and that the sticking point will shift a little bit lower. That’s good. In fact, experts like Menno Henselmans, MSc, recommend doing cable biceps curls with this same angled line of pull.
So at first glance, this appears to be an even better lift than the dumbbell curl. But resistance bands are not the same as cables. Resistance bands have variable resistance. As we stretch resistance bands further, the load gets progressively heavier. The beginning is fairly easy and then the band only truly challenges our muscles at the end. We’ve turned a full biceps curl into a partial biceps curl. And, worse, it’s the most important part of the range of motion that’s rendered most useless.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that resistance bands are unable to stimulate any muscle growth. Our muscles are still challenged at some point during the lift, and so we’ll stimulate muscle growth with every set that we bring close to failure. No problem there. The problem is that the resistance curve of the bands doesn’t line up with our strength curve as well as free weights do, meaning that we’d expect them to stimulate less muscle growth per set.
Now, there are a thousand caveats here. We could pre-load the resistance band with enough tension that we fail at the beginning of the range of motion. We could attach the resistance band at different angles. We could even do several sets with varying degrees of tension so that we fail at varying parts of the range of motion. Or we could take the set long past failure, to the point where we can’t even stretch the band a single inch. But none of that is ideal. Resistance bands still make it harder to build muscle.
This is all to say that our bodies are built fairly well for lifting free weights like dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells, and as a result, free weights make building muscle fairly easy. Resistance bands can still stimulate muscle growth, it’s just harder. Not the end of the world, but not a good first choice, either.
Accommodating resistance is when we add resistance bands or chains to free-weight lifts, such as the barbell back squat, bench press, and deadlift. Sometimes it’s used as an example of how resistance bands can be good for gaining muscle size and strength, but it’s actually quite different. To understand why that is, we need to understand what it’s for and what it does.
Accommodating resistance originated in geared powerlifting, where lifters would compete in squat suits, bench press shirts, and knee wraps designed to give them extra strength at the bottom of their lifts.
For example, let’s consider the squat. A powerlifter is doing everything they can to improve their squatting leverage: standing with a wider stance, sitting further back, and holding the barbell lower on their backs. This creates a squat with a shortened range of motion, and it makes that bottom of the lift very hard. The bottom being hard isn’t a problem for building muscle, but to win at their sport, they need to lift the most weight by any means necessary.
One way to make the bottom of a squat easier is to wear a squat suit that stretches out at the bottom, giving the hips a boost. Another trick is to use knee wraps, which also stretch out at the bottom, giving the quads a boost. This helps to flatten the strength curve. The beginning of the lift is still the sticking point, but it’s a bit easier, and so they’re able to lift a bit more weight. But powerlifters wanted to lift a lot more weight, and as squat suits and knee wraps got thicker, the strength curve actually began to reverse. The beginning started to become the easier part of the lift, and the lockout started to get harder. That changes the type of strength that a powerlifter needs. Instead of needing a stronger chest to lift the barbell off their chest, they need stronger triceps to lock the barbell out.
Now, how can a geared powerlifter train their lockout strength? One option is to always wear squats suits, bench shirts, and knee wraps. But that style of training is extremely heavy and hard to recover from. And besides, those pieces of equipment are kind of a pain in the ass. Fortunately, this weird strength curve can be mimicked by attaching bands (or chains) to a barbell. If the bands make the lift heaviest at the top, then the powerlifter can focus on training their lockout strength. It’s a sort of partial. (And sometimes they do partials, too, but partials are heavier and harder to recover from.)
Nowadays, raw powerlifting is more popular than geared powerlifting. It’s rare to see a powerlifter who wears knee wraps and a triple-ply squat suit. Thing is, unless someone plans on wearing gear, that style of accommodating resistance does more harm than good. It makes the resistance curves worse for building muscle, and it isn’t great for developing the strength that powerlifters need at the bottom of the range of motion.
But then a new idea started cropping up. These powerlifting lifts are still hardest at the beginning, and it’s true that the top of the lift is fairly easy. Couldn’t we build more muscle if we made the entire range of motion more challenging? Maybe! So far, it hasn’t really panned out in the research, but it makes logical sense that if more of the range of motion was challenging, then we’d stimulate more overall muscle growth with every rep.
However, the most fundamental rule of accommodating resistance is that the beginning of the lift still needs to be the hardest part. The idea is to add light resistance bands to heavy free weights. The light resistance bands make the lockout a bit harder, but the heavy free weights ensure that the bottom of the lift is still the hardest. Otherwise, adding resistance bands would make the lift worse for gaining size and strength.
This means that if we remove the free weights entirely and squat with only resistance bands, we’re making the resistance curve radically worse for stimulating muscle growth. Not that the lift becomes useless or anything, it’s just that doing a regular squat with free weights would be much better. This is why research looking into accommodating resistance is really interesting for people who do the big barbell lifts but doesn’t apply to people who are choosing between free weights and resistance bands.
Again, there’s no proven benefit to adding accommodating resistance bands to the powerlifting lifts yet, but there certainly could be, and not just for gaining strength, but also for building muscle. It’s an interesting technique.
The next thing to consider, though, is that if we’re training to gain muscle size and general strength, we won’t necessarily be lifting like powerlifters. Instead of doing our squats with a wide stance and a shortened range of motion, probably better to do a deeper squat with the weight held in front of us. It reduces the amount of weight we can lift, yes, but it works our muscles through a longer range of motion and it does a better job of bulking up our upper backs.
Thing is, the sticking point of a squat is always when the thighs are horizontal, but the front squat goes much deeper than that. This changes the strength curve. If we explode out of the hole, we can gather a bit of momentum to help us drive through the sticking point. Plus, the tension on our upper backs is coming from holding the weight in front of us, which is constant throughout the entire range of motion. The lockout is still the easiest part, and so accommodating resistance might still help, but the strength curve is already a bit flatter.
This same general trend is true of the other big compound hypertrophy lifts. Powerlifters bench press with big arches, reducing the stretch on our chests at the bottom of the lift. That’s bad for building muscle, so when we’re lifting for hypertrophy, we use a smaller arch and focus on getting a bigger stretch. This gives us a bench press with a flatter strength curve, and thus diminishes the value of accommodating resistance. Not that it’s necessarily useless, mind you, just not all that important. (And again, it’s still unclear whether it helps in the best of cases.)
Accommodating resistance is a combination of free weights and resistance bands. It’s popular with competitive powerlifters, but it’s possible that it could also speed up muscle growth. (There’s no good evidence one way or the other.) However, the fundamental rule of accommodating resistance is that it shouldn’t change the sticking point of the lift. If the resistance band makes up too much of the load, it will make the lift worse.
The Big Compound Lifts
Now that we have the basic principles down, we can go over some examples of how using resistance bands changes the dynamics of the big compound lifts, which is where the vast majority of our muscle growth will come from.
Consider a front-loaded squat done with a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells, where we squat down as deep as our hips and knees allow, getting a nice stretch on our quads. These have proven, time and time again, to be better for building our quads than partial squats, even though partial squats are twice as heavy. Why is that? It’s because with a partial squat, we’re cutting out the most important parts of the range of motion: the sticking point and the stretch.
Now consider what happens when we do bodyweight squats with resistance bands. In the bottom position, the resistance band is loose, and so it’s very easy. Not good. As we get closer to the top of the range of motion, the resistance band is stretched, and so the lift gets harder. This means that we’re only truly challenging our quads at the very top of the range of motion. That’s not great for building muscle. Better than nothing, for sure, but it might not be better than bodyweight. We may build more muscle by doing bodyweight single-leg squats, where the bottom is the heaviest part of the lift:
The same is true with the push-ups. Yes, we can load it heavier with resistance bands, but the resistance bands make the top of the lift disproportionately harder. This means that we’re no longer challenging our chests in a stretched position. Rather, we’re challenging our triceps at the lockout. A better way to replace the bench press is with the deficit push-up, where we raise our hands up so that we get an even bigger stretch on our chests and make the bottom of the lift harder:
We start to run into problems when we get to back training. Most back lifts already have fairly poor strength curves. They’re easy at the bottom, hard at the top. That’s why it’s so hard to touch the barbell to our chest when rowing, so hard to touch our chests to the bar when doing chin-ups. If we add resistance bands to these pulling movements, they become atrocious. Resistance-band rows are incredibly easy at the start and extremely difficult at the end. Getting a cheap chin-up bar that you can bolt onto a wall or hook onto a doorframe doesn’t completely solve the strength curve, but it’s quite a bit better.
Even if you don’t have a chin-up bar, though, there are bodyweight rows that, yeah, still have a bad strength curve, but they aren’t nearly as bad as trying to do rows with resistance bands. So if choosing between inverted rows (using a table) or resistance-band rows, I’d think the inverted rows would be quite a bit better for building muscle.
There are surely exceptions, but as a general rule, resistance bands create poor strength curves for all of the big compound lifts, making it harder to build muscle.
Different Lines of Pull
One feature of resistance bands is that depending on where we anchor them, we can create different lines of pull. That’s the same advantage of using a cable machine, and it can definitely be handy. However, that’s usually accompanied by the statement that because free weights are just resisting gravity, they only allow us to train with a single line of pull. That’s not true, and it’s easy to see why.
If we think of a dumbbell or barbell overhead press, it’s true that, yes, we’re just pressing the weight straight up. It’s a vertical press. So the advantage that bands offer is that we can anchor them to a wall or door frame and create a horizontal press, right? That’s true. But we can create that same effect with free weights simply by changing the angle of our torsos, giving us a bench press, a floor press, or even a push-up. And these free weight variations have a better strength curve for gaining size and strength.
If we think about back movements, it’s the same thing. Chin-ups are a vertical pull, yes, but we’re not limited by that. If we bend at the waist, we can do horizontal rows with a barbell or dumbbell. And again, the free-weight variation has a strength curve that’s better for building muscle.
Now, this isn’t to say that resistance bands don’t offer any advantages here. It’s true that being able to anchor the resistance bands in different positions can allow us to get creative with our lifts, and I think that’s one of the cooler things about them. However, most of those movements have a dumbbell variation. Straight-arm lat pulldowns can be replaced by dumbbell pullovers. Triceps pushdowns can be replaced with overhead triceps extensions. And in most of these cases, the free-weight versions do a better job of challenging our muscles in a stretched position, and so they do a better job of stimulating muscle growth.
Mobility & General Strength
When I started seeing these recommendations for resistance bands popping up all over the place, I asked our Marco his thoughts on using resistance bands to develop general strength and athleticism. (Marco has coached college, professional, and Olympic athletes, and worked with the top strength coaches in the world.) He shrugged and said that, yeah, we can build muscle with resistance bands, but that it would be hard, we’d lose out on some general strength benefits, and that if someone had no equipment, he’d probably recommend bodyweight training instead.
There are a few reasons why free weights are so ubiquitous for helping guys get stronger and more athletic. One reason is that we get to stretch our muscles under load and then lift a weight through a large range of motion. This not only makes our muscles physically longer (which happens as we gain muscle) and able to stretch further (flexibility), but it also gives us strength through that complete range of motion (mobility). This makes strength and hypertrophy training great for improving our general strength and athleticism.
The problem with resistance bands (and, to a certain extent, bodyweight training) is that we aren’t loading ourselves heavily in those stretched positions. That’s not only worse for stimulating muscle growth, it’s also worse for developing general strength and improving our mobility. After all, if the lift is easy at the bottom of the range of motion, then we aren’t developing as much mobility or strength there.
Mind you, I don’t want to oversell this point. Any sort of exercise is good for us. And doing light exercise through a large range of motion still has many benefits, even to our general strength and mobility. It’s just that if we have the choice, free weights are popular for strength and athletics training for a reason.
Another great thing about lifting weights is, provided that we’re smart about it, it can be great for improving our posture. As with the above section, I don’t want to oversell the benefits of lifting weights or to overstate the harms of having poor posture—plenty of people have poor posture and never appear to suffer from it.
Even so, I really like how over the course of gaining fifty pounds of muscle, my back gradually straightened out, my gut stopped sticking out, and my head stopped jutting forward. Why did I get those postural improvements? Because when we deadlift, front squat, and even do biceps curls, our postural muscles need to hold us in the proper position, which strengthens our abs, obliques, spinal erectors and the myriad of other muscles that hold us upright. This may not be the case for everyone, but it seems that most of us skinny guys have poor posture simply because our postural muscles are too weak. When we strengthen our postural muscles, that problem disappears.
It helps to have a barbell, sure, but we don’t need one. If we have a reasonably heavy dumbbell or two, we can do all of those same movements, just in higher rep ranges or while training one limb at a time. For example, we can swap out heavy conventional deadlifts for split-stance Romanian deadlifts while holding a dumbbell in each hand:
Even though the dumbbell Romanian deadlift is quite a bit lighter than a barbell deadlift, what’s neat is that since we need to train both legs separately, our spinal erectors and other core muscles need to do twice as much overall work, giving them a fairly good stimulus.
There are surely other ways to strengthen our posture, but lifting weights is an incredibly effective way of doing it, and we get to enjoy all the extra muscles and strength as an added bonus.
The next question, then, is whether resistance bands will give those same postural benefits. They might, but I’m not so sure. With resistance bands, the lift is only heavy at the very top, which is often when the load on our spinal erectors is the lowest (as with the deadlift). Plus, most of the range of motion is easy on our postural muscles, meaning that there’s less overall work being done with every rep.
The Advantages of Resistance Bands
Accessibility & Affordability
There are a few obvious benefits to resistance bands. They’re cheaper and more portable than free weights, and they allow us to do a ton of different exercises from the comfort of our living rooms. This makes them a nice addition to a bodyweight workout routine. This doesn’t necessarily make them better than free weights, but it does make them better than nothing. And again, perfection isn’t needed to build muscle. If we challenge our muscles, they will grow.
Pump Training & The Hormone Hypothesis
Another thing that resistance bands are famous for is that they make it easy to do metabolite training: lifting in higher rep ranges (12–40 reps per set) while keeping constant tension on our muscles (often doing partial reps), and then using short rest times between sets. This floods our muscles with metabolite-filled blood, gives us a muscle “pump,” and increases our production of local growth factors and hormones (such as growth hormone). Dr Brad Schoenfeld proposed that this style of training stimulates muscle growth via metabolic stress (study), and although that pathway has been questioned lately, there’s no doubt that it’s an effective way to provoke muscle growth.
When we talk about metabolite training, we should also talk about the hormone hypothesis. This is the idea that if we train in a way that increases our production of certain hormones, such as growth hormone, we can build muscle more quickly. Recent research shows that this probably isn’t the case. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between growth hormone and muscle growth, even when researchers give study participants extremely high doses of it. Furthermore, doing heavier sets of 6–12 reps, easing tension between reps, and taking longer rest periods between sets seems to work just as well for building muscle—sometimes better (study). So although metabolite training is effective, our hormonal response doesn’t seem to matter very much, and other styles of training appear to work just as well, if not better.
If our goal is gaining muscle size and strength, the best approach is probably to combine both styles of training, using a mix of rep ranges and even rest times. For instance, metabolite training doesn’t work well with compound lifts (because it’s too demanding on our cardiovascular systems), and it’s not as good at activating our bigger fast-twitch muscle fibres. But it is a great way to quickly add some extra isolation exercises to the end of a workout, raising our overall training volume higher, and flooding the muscles that we’ve already trained with some extra metabolites (which does seem to help with muscle growth). For example, maybe after doing a few sets of deficit push-ups, we add in some triceps extensions with resistance bands. Or maybe after doing a few sets of chin-ups, we add in a few sets of biceps curls with resistance bands.
Now, to be clear, we can do metabolite training just as easily with free weights. That’s how bodybuilders have traditionally done it, after all. This is done by not pausing between reps and avoiding full lockouts. For isolation lifts like the triceps extension, this even has some research showing that it can improve muscle growth. But if you don’t have access to free weights, resistance bands are a valid alternative. They’re a tool that we can take advantage of.
More Muscle Growth?
Moving onto the less credible claims, there’s one resistance-band company claiming that resistance bands stimulate three times as much muscle growth as free weights. The first problem with that claim is that they reference a study on accommodating resistance, which is not the same thing as resistance-band training (as covered above). But the bigger problem is that the study states: “while lean body mass was not significantly different between groups, both groups did significantly increase their lean body mass over the course of the study.” So the claim that adding resistance bands to free weights triples muscle growth doesn’t even line up with the results of the study anyway. Rather, the study found that free weights stimulate muscle growth whether we add resistance bands or not.
Mind you, none of this means that resistance bands aren’t useful. Any challenging set, regardless of how bad the strength curve is, will stimulate at least a little bit of muscle growth. And just because some companies are making claims that (as best I can tell) seem to be incorrect, that doesn’t mean that resistance bands aren’t good for building muscle.
As far as I can tell, most of the purported benefits of resistance bands are incorrect or overstated. But even though resistance bands aren’t ideal for building muscle, they can still be handy to have around, especially if you don’t have access to free weights.
Research Comparing Free Weights vs Resistance Bands
We have a few reasons to think that resistance bands might not be great for building muscle. However, it’s hard to say any of this with certainty. Resistance bands don’t seem to have ever been considered very seriously for building muscle (outside of physiotherapy).
Most resistance-band research doesn’t relate to muscle growth. There’s research looking at accommodating resistance, where free weights are combined with resistance bands, but that’s entirely different—the vast majority of the load comes from the free weights. And there’s also EMG research looking into muscle activation with resistance bands versus free weights, but that’s kind of useless here because EMG favours lifts that are harder at shorter muscle lengths, which is the opposite of what’s ideal for building muscle. Finally, there are studies comparing resistance bands with isometric dumbbell lifts, but that’s not how people lift weights (because it’s not as good for building muscle).
Training with resistance bands feels harder. What’s interesting is that in a lot of these studies looking into resistance bands, the participants said that they needed to put in a lot more effort to stimulate their muscles with resistance bands. Maybe that’s because they’re less stable, or maybe it’s because of the unnatural strength curve, but the research does show that building muscle with resistance bands feels harder (study, study).
We also have some research showing that resistance bands aren’t as good at stimulating our prime movers. For example, in a bench press, resistance bands aren’t as good at stimulating our chests. We’ve already talked about why that might be. Our chests grow best when loaded in a stretched position, and resistance bands don’t do that. It’s our shoulders and triceps that wind up bearing more of the load.
Another thing that keeps coming up in the research is that resistance bands are inherently less stable. As a general rule of thumb, stable training is better for building muscle because it allows us to focus more on moving the weight, less on stabilizing it. Mind you, dumbbells demand more of our stabilizer muscles, too, and are just as good at stimulating muscle growth as barbells (article), so I’m not sure if this would actually have an impact on hypertrophy. Mind you, resistance bands are much less stable than dumbbells.
We know that free weights are great for building muscle, and we can say that with certainty—they’re the industry standard. There are also good reasons to think that resistance bands wouldn’t be as effective, but it’s hard to say by how much, or whether it matters.
Resistance bands can be used to build muscle, and if that’s all you have access to, then you may as well take advantage of them. They can absolutely work. However, it’s quicker and easier to build muscle with free weights, and we get the extra benefits of denser bones, stronger spines, greater mobility, and tougher connective tissues.
Does that matter? Maybe not. Any sort of exercise is infinitely better than being sedentary, and if you enjoy resistance bands, that’s great. But if you have a hard time sticking with the habit of exercising, or if you’re new to trying to build muscle, or if you worry that you’re a hardgainer, then bulking with resistance bands might be making things needlessly hard. Fortunately, there are a few great options:
- Train at a gym.
- Build a barbell home gym in a spare room or garage.
- Get some heavy adjustable dumbbells (but you’ll need to train one limb at a time sometimes).
- Get a few fixed-weight dumbbells or kettlebells (but you’ll need to train one limb at a time sometimes, and you’ll need to be flexible with your rep ranges).
But again, no matter what you’re using, you can still build muscle. Perhaps even more importantly, all of these options (including bodyweight training) are great for our general health. And no matter what you have access to, there’s a way to get better and bigger. Even if you can’t get to the gym, anything is infinitely better than nothing.
Plus, there’s nothing stopping you from getting started now with bodyweight training, gradually saving up for some free weights and then upgrading down the road.
Our specialty is helping hardgainers build muscle, and we’re willing to do that by any means necessary. Free weights are best, but our Bony to Beastly Program also includes a bodyweight bulking routine for guys who don’t have access to a barbell or dumbbells. (And given the current situation, we’re writing some free articles about building muscle at home, too.)
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