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Are elastic bands better than free weights?

By Michael J. Rudolph, Ph.D.

Elastic bands provide a unique form of resistance that puts considerable stress on muscle tissue, causing considerable gains in muscle mass and strength that are comparable to free weights.

I’m always looking for unique ways to enhance my training and change it up a little bit. Well, surprisingly I came across a few great articles that highlight the unique muscle-building qualities provided by resistance training with elastic bands. These studies clearly demonstrate that elastic resistance training produces a fundamentally different training stimulus when compared to free weights or machines, making it an excellent alternative for lean muscle growth and strength.

More Muscle Is Activated

Free weights and elastic resistance fundamentally differ because free weights provide constant resistance throughout the entire range of motion, while elastic bands provide greater resistance all the way through the movement. This occurs because the band is stretched throughout the movement, causing increased tension within the band that generates greater resistance as the range of motion increases.

This form of dynamic resistance from elastic bands provides benefits over free weights that can be clearly demonstrated in exercises such as the bench press. Since greater muscular force occurs in the initial phase of the bench press, greater momentum is generated throughout the rest of the movement when using free weights. Once the weight has built up momentum in the initial phase, the muscle fibers do not need to be maximally activated to continue moving the weight throughout the rest of the movement, thus diminishing the training effect.

However, the increase in resistance generated from elastic bands negates the production of momentum – disallowing the momentum-driven propulsion of the bar through the rest of the movement and creating a demand for greater muscle activity that ultimately stimulates greater muscle growth.

This effect from elastic resistance was clearly demonstrated in a study by Jalal et al.1 that showed a 15% increase in muscle activity during elastic resistance training when compared to free-weight training. Moreover, the comparison between elastic training and free-weight training also showed a considerably higher level of muscle activation in the later phases of the movement – supporting the idea that the ascending force from elastic bands diminished momentum, causing muscle activation throughout the entire concentric phase of the movement.

Greater Muscle Tension

Elastic resistance naturally produces a greater amount of tension on the muscle compared to free weights because, as previously stated, it has the capacity to minimize momentum – causing greater muscle activity throughout the entire movement, which effectively increases the amount of time the muscle is under tension.

In addition, elastic bands also produce resistance independent of gravity, which fails to produce tension on the muscle during specific phases of certain lifts. For example, free-weight biceps curls produce very little muscle tension at the top of the concentric phase due to the prominent horizontal movement of the weight that no longer creates gravitational resistance.

On the other hand, the precisely positioned use of elastic bands – that causes the elastic material to be stretched for the entire movement – places resistance on the biceps throughout the entire range of motion.

The continuous tension from elastic resistance training should stimulate greater muscle growth, as it has been well documented2 that greater time under tension potently increases mechanical tension on the muscle cell. Increased mechanical tension on the muscle cell produces more muscle cell damage and/or increased metabolic stress, which powerfully enhances lean muscle mass.

Clearly demonstrating the ability of elastic bands to build lean mass, a study by Colado et al.3 found that elastic resistance is as effective if not better than free weights or resistance machines at increasing both lean body mass and strength.

Muscle Damage Promotes Lean Muscle Growth

Exercise-induced muscle damage stimulates many different cellular and molecular mechanisms that cause the muscle cell to grow and become more powerful.4 For example, muscle damage activates the inflammatory response – causing different immunological cells, such as the macrophage, to migrate to the damaged muscle tissue, consequently facilitating muscle cell repair and growth.5 Furthermore, exercise-induced muscle damage stimulates IGF-1 activation of the enzyme mTOR, which triggers muscle cell protein synthesis6, enhancing the hypertrophic response to resistance training.

While muscle damage following eccentric contractions and bouts of unaccustomed exercise has been well established7,8,9, only recently has a study looked at the influence that elastic resistance training has on muscle damage. This study by Aboodarda et al.10 showed that elastic resistance training induced a similar amount of muscle damage when compared to Nautilus machine resistance.

While the underlying mechanism of these findings is unknown, a potential explanation for this result may have been uncovered in another study by Cronin et al.11, which demonstrated a considerable increase in muscle activity within the quadriceps muscle during the eccentric phase of leg extensions while using elastic resistance.

Because the forced lengthening of the muscle cell that occurs during the eccentric phase creates the most extensive muscle damage12,13, this greater level of muscular contraction during the eccentric phase while using elastic bands most likely encourages considerable muscle damage. Interestingly, this greater level of muscle activity during the eccentric phase of the leg extension may be due to the enormous recoil force generated from the fully stretched elastic band that occurs right at the beginning of the eccentric phase.

Taken together, these results demonstrate similar potential between elastic bands and free weight/machine training to create sufficient muscle strain that induces muscle damage and ultimately muscle growth.

Elastic bands provide a unique form of resistance that puts considerable stress on muscle tissue, causing considerable gains in muscle mass and strength that is comparable to free weights. In addition, because the elastic resistance force is so fundamentally different from free-weight resistance, both approaches can be simultaneously used during your workout to create a combination of forces that place greater initial strain on the muscle while maintaining maximal strain on the musculature throughout the entire movement – generating remarkable gains in strength and size.14


1. Jalal FY, et al. Resultant muscle torque and electromyographic activity during high intensity elastic resistance and free weight exercises. EJSS 2013;13(2): p. 155-163.

2. Pinto RS, et al. Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. J Strength Cond Res 2012;26(8): p. 2140-5.

3. Colado JC and Triplett NT. Effects of a short-term resistance program using elastic bands versus weight machines for sedentary middle-aged women. J Strength Cond Res 2008;22(5): p. 1441-8.

4. Schoenfeld, B.J. Does exercise-induced muscle damage play a role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy? J Strength Cond Res 2012;26(5): p. 1441-53.

5. McGinley C, Shafat A, and Donnelly AE. Does antioxidant vitamin supplementation protect against muscle damage? Sports Med 2009;39(12): p. 1011-32.

6. Guillet C, et al. Impaired anabolic response of muscle protein synthesis is associated with S6K1 dysregulation in elderly humans. Faseb J 2004;18(13): p. 1586-7.

7. Clarkson PM and Hubal MJ. Exercise-induced muscle damage in humans. Am J Phys Med Rehabil, 2002;81(11 Suppl): p. S52-69.

8. Linnamo V, et al. Neuromuscular responses to explosive and heavy resistance loading. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2000;10(6): p. 417-24.

9. Newham DJ, et al. Ultrastructural changes after concentric and eccentric contractions of human muscle. J Neurol Sci 1983;61(1): p. 109-22.

10. Aboodarda SJ, et al. Muscle strength and damage following two modes of variable resistance training. J Sports Sci Med, 2011;10: p. 635-642.

11. Cronin J, McNair PJ and Marshall RN. The effects of bungy weight training on muscle function and functional performance. J Sports Sci 2003;21(1): p. 59-71.

12. Clarkson PM, et al. Muscle soreness and serum creatine kinase activity following isometric, eccentric, and concentric exercise. Int J Sports Med 1986;7(3): p. 152-5.

13. Gibala MJ, et al. Myofibrillar disruption following acute concentric and eccentric resistance exercise in strength-trained men. Can J Physiol Pharmacol 2000;78(8): p. 656-61.

14. Anderson CE, Sforzo GA and Sigg. The effects of combining elastic and free weight resistance on strength and power in JA athletes. J Strength Cond Res 2008;22(2): p. 567-74.