Which equipment gives the best exercise: Barbells, Bands, or Body Weight?
Bands, Barbells, and Body Weight
What offers the best exercise, Bands, Barbells (and other free weights), or Bodyweight? They all have their pros and cons, so which is right for you? The answer depends on your fitness and athletic goals. Are you looking to gain strength or are you looking to free yourself of pain? Are you getting back into shape or looking to improve athletic performance? Which one of these types of workouts will get you the gains that you are looking for? I break each of them down and help show you the best exercise for YOUR fitness goals! I have some great example workouts for each below!
First, let’s talk about…
Bands are the best exercise for: Injury recovery and preventing future injury
When trying to recover from an injury (or prevent future injury), bands tend to be best. Bands put increasing tension on your muscles the further that you stretch them. This means that it is easy to back off if you feel like you are going too far. This increasing load isn’t ideal for strength exercises. On the other hand, it’s great for it is great for recovery training. With free weights and bodyweight training, the constant load can worsen your injury if you push too hard. You may find yourself in a compromising position as you try to unload the weight. With bands, you can easily unload the resistance, safely.
Bands help you stabilize!
Bands also help recovery by working your stabilizer muscles during each movement. Studies show that bands force the body to engage these smaller muscles as you move. Engaging these stabilizers help to protect and stabilize your joints. Improved stabilization decreases joint compression that leads to pain. It also helps you maintain proper form when trying a new exercise or adding more weight. In the long-term, this will enable you to push harder, for longer, with more control. It also helps prevent wear and tear on your body.
Versatile and can be used almost anywhere
Because bands take up so little space and are easy to pack, you can bring them with you everywhere. This allows you to stay on track with your workouts or recovery no matter where you are. Using bands means that you don’t have to put your recovery on hold when you travel.
Bands are often more versatile for targeted training. You can use them in many different ways to engage the same muscle group. This not only keeps the workout fresh and new, but it also allows you to keep your muscles on your toes. Working muscle groups with the same motion or exercise leads to diminishing returns. As your body adapts to a certain level of resistance or movement, it gets less out of it. Bands allow you to challenge your muscles by training them through different lines of motion. Changing up this motion helps prevent overstressing your muscles and joints. Stressing muscles is good for building strength, but overstressing them leads to injury. This versatility of bands helps reduce the likelihood of overuse trauma.
Cons of using bands
While bands are great for rehabilitation they do have some drawbacks. Bands have max resistance at full extension. This also means that they offer no resistance when they are not stretched. This non-constant resistance is good for recovery, but it is not ideal for adding muscle mass. Bands don’t allow you to load your muscles at the start of a movement. When building strength, you want to maintain the load through the entire range of motion. Bands also wear out over time. They lose their elasticity over time and can even break if overused. You may not get the same amount of tension on the muscle over the lifetime of the band itself. When using bands, some exercises also require using something to mount them, such as a door or a pole. This can limit the types of exercises you can do if your mounting options are limited.
To summarize, Bands are great for recovery and post-recovery exercises. They are perfect for strengthening recovering muscles or joints and preventing future injury. When used together with sports massage and other recovery techniques (which we offer! 🙂 ), bands help you recover quickly and efficiently. I highly recommend them for people in recovery or those getting back into an exercise routine.
Pro-Tips when using bands:
- Focus on controlling your movement throughout the range of motion. Slow and steady movements with good form are key. If you find yourself wobbling or unable to go through the full range of motion, try a lower resistance band.
- Depending on how often you use your bands, it’s recommended you replace your bands every ~6 months. Because they are essentially giant rubber bands, they, unfortunately, break down. Over time, the bands lose their elasticity and must be replaced.
- It’s important to use a variety of bands with different amounts of resistance, such as these. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all-exercises band; different muscle groups need different levels of resistances. Having many bands will allow you to work many different muscle groups. It also allows you to move up in resistance as you grow stronger. Bands with handles or leg straps also allow you to go through your full range of motion more smoothly.
Here’s an example video using bands.
Next, let’s take a look at…
Barbells (free weights) are the best exercise for: Building strength and muscle mass (hypertrophy)
If you are looking to gain raw strength or body build, barbells (and other free weights) are the tool of choice. Free weights are a great part of any strength training program. No matter your skill level or athletic goals, weight training can benefit you. You don’t have to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger to use free weights! Increasing muscle mass has many health benefits. This includes improved bone density, faster metabolism, and of course, gaining strength!
Free weights give constant resistance
Free weights are great because you can use them to mimic your everyday movements with added resistance. In contrast to bands, they offer constant load because all they need to work is gravity! This constant load maintains tension on your muscles deep into your movement, such as at the bottom of a preacher curl.
Now, while the weight doesn’t change, the load your actual muscle sees does change. Remember trigonometry (don’t worry, we aren’t here for a math lesson! 😛 )? The orientation of your body and the position of the weight affects the resistance your muscles “see”. Think of doing a bench press. Now think of that same movement, but while standing upright. The same range of motion. But, different muscle groups and loads on your joints. So the weight is constant, but how it loads your body is not. Something to definitely keep in mind! A big plus of the constant weight is that it allows you to easily track and overload your exercises. Progressive overload is incredibly important if you want to build strength. Free weights make it easy to set a baseline and progressively get heavier for each exercise. They make it easy to push yourself and set new PRs.
Work those stabilizers!
Free weights are great for working your stabilizer muscles as well. Because the weights are “free” it forces your body to recruit stabilizer muscles. Your body must balance the weight through the full range of motion. The targeted or primary muscle is what pushes the weight up. The stabilizers help keep that weight going in the right direction. The result is improved stability along with the strength you are building.
Building muscle mass is also great for losing fat. Your muscle mass is a huge driver of your metabolism. More muscle means that your body needs more energy. If you maintain a healthy diet, increased muscle mass forces your body to chip away at its fat reserves. This occurs even when we aren’t working out. It turns out muscles need a lot of energy to maintain themselves! This helps you get a more toned (and healthy!) body, even when you’re not lifting.
Free weights are durable! Unlike bands, you don’t have to worry about a hunk of metal breaking or wearing down. As long as you take care of them, they should last a lifetime.
Cons for Barbells (free weights)
On the downside, free weights tend to be the least safe of these three options. As we get stronger and go heavier, the risk for injury can increase. Heavier weight means more stress on the body. You can help mitigate this by being conservative when you begin to overload. Because the weights are “free” this also means that if you fail a rep or if a weight slips out of your hand, you can sustain a serious injury. It’s often best to use a good spotter in case your muscles fail. It’s good to push your muscles to failure to gain muscle mass, but you need to be careful about it! Without a spotter, it is much harder to overload your muscles in a safe manner. So, if you are working out alone, you may not be able to push as hard. Weights are also not very travel friendly. You can’t exactly pack your entire weight set in your suitcase 😛 . As you gain strength, you will also need more and more weights to challenge yourself. To progressively overload your muscles, you need heavier weights! If you are buying your own weights, it can cost a pretty penny. The most popular option is getting a gym membership that has the equipment you need. Weight training is a necessary part of staying healthy, but it’s not as convenient as bands or bodyweight training.
Pro-Tips when using barbells (and other free weights):
- Like bands, make sure you are using controlled movements. It’s easy to swing weights and let momentum do the work for you. This not only robs your muscles of gains but also risks serious injury. If you can’t maintain good form while lifting, you are going too heavy! Grab lighter weight and use controlled motion–your muscles and joints will thank you!
- Focus on the muscles you are trying to work with a specific exercise. It’s easy to engage other muscles to help you lift the weight if you are not paying attention. For example, people often engage their biceps when trying to do a seated lat pull-down. When done correctly, this exercise targets your latissimus dorsi, or “lats”. By allowing your biceps to take some of the load, you are robbing gains from your lats! If you find this happening, it can often mean that you need to use less weight. It can also be a problem with your form or poor mind-body connection. To fix these issues, I have the perfect video here!
- If you are lifting heavy, make sure you have a spotter! Leave your ego at the door! A spotter helps you push yourself without risking injury. Anyone can spot, but not everyone knows how to do it right! It’s important to make sure that your spotter knows what they are doing. They need to be strong enough to lift the weight if you fail your rep. Also, make sure that your spotter doesn’t lift the weight for you or yank it out of your hands if you start to struggle. Your spotter is there to give you a small amount of help. They should only do enough for you to get the weight up without injuring yourself. They shouldn’t be lifting the weight for you.
Here’s an example video using barbells.
And now, let’s discuss…
Bodyweight training is the best exercise for: Building flexibility or when starting a new workout routine
If you are starting a new athletic journey or focusing on flexibility, bodyweight training is best. Bodyweight exercises allow you to focus on form and control. This allows you to master your movements before you start to add extra resistance. It helps develop a greater mind-body connection, also known as proprioception. You gain better control over your body by focusing on how it moves when it’s only supporting itself. You are able to make sure that you don’t develop poor compensation patterns and bad form. These compensation patterns are something we see very often. This is especially true when people start a new training program. People often start off with too much weight and their form (and strength) suffers. They develop poor movements and often end up with an injury. Bodyweight training is perfect for preventing this. It helps you manage your movement and maintain form to maximize gains. It’s a great precursor to moving onto free weights or bands. Bodyweight training is all about mastering the mind-body connection. And mastering this connection lets you maximize your muscle strength and endurance.
Bodyweight exercises are convenient because you don’t need any equipment! All you need is your body! You can do most bodyweight exercises just about anywhere. Most of the time you only need a floor or wall to do a full bodyweight workout. Other “equipment” might include a chair or a countertop–things found in any home.
There are also different types of bodyweight exercises to keep you going. Myofascial stretching and ELDOA are two of my favorites. Myofascial stretching is all about stretching the fascia. ELDOA focuses on creating balance in the body. I touch on both below, but I also have a great blog on ELDOA here! Both are perfect complements to any exercise program.
Fascia is the connective tissue that exists throughout our entire body. It helps keep our body’s structures and tissues in place. It forms a long chain throughout our bodies. The fascia interconnects each of our muscles, joints, and other organs. You can think of it as a giant spider web of tissue–if you pull on one of the strands it affects the rest of that web. Like a spider’s web, fascia helps send forces and physical “messages” through our body. If we move one muscle or joint, our fascia sends a “message” that creates or reduces tension all over the rest of the body. This tension is important for maintaining good posture and form. It is especially important when we perform compound movements such as a squat. All the muscle and tissue transmit force along the facia to complete the movement. A healthy facial system is key to performing those movements efficiently. Myofascial stretching is perfect for doing this (and something we can show you how to do too!) Myofascial stretching also helps decrease tension around the muscles. This allows for increased hypertrophy enabling your muscles to grow bigger, faster.
ELDOA helps relieve the pressure on the spine. Lifting weights, exercising, and gravity all compress your vertebrae which builds up pressure. ELDOA allows you to create a healthy amount of space in your spine. It balances your body to enhance flexibility. This space and flexibility help avoid injuries like herniated discs.
Cons for Bodyweight Training
The downside to bodyweight training is that as you get more fit it can be less of a challenge. The stronger you get, the less your muscles have to work to move your body weight and progress can slow. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do bodyweight exercises if we are already fit. It’s still important! It only means that you may need to use more free weight or band exercises in your routine to continue your progress. It can also be difficult to target specific muscle groups with bodyweight training. While bodyweight is great for a more full-body workout, it can be hard to isolate specific muscles. Another downside is that if you are already injured, many of the movements may be difficult to do. You often must put your body in various positions to make use of your body weight. With an injury, some of those positions can be painful or can even make your injury worse. That doesn’t mean you cannot do bodyweight exercises if you’re injured. In this case, it’s important to seek professional training to make sure you stay injury-free (hint, hint, we offer this! 😀 ).
Pro-Tips when using bodyweight:
- Focus on improving your form so that you don’t develop poor compensation patterns. Bodyweight exercises are great for taking it slow. You will develop a better mind-body connection and improve the way your body moves. Improving your form is a huge help when you start to move up to higher resistance, such as with free weights or bands. Having the correct form means you can lift heavier while also reducing your risk for injury. Poor form can come from our everyday lives. Often it’s because we are too sedentary (anyone ever get tired of sitting at a desk all day?) Check out my 15-minute stretch video for tips on improving your body’s form!
- Change up your workout every once in a while. Increase or decrease the speed (keep it controlled!), change the number of reps, or mix up the range of motion. This will help challenge your muscles and also stimulate your mind-body connection.
- Work out with a partner. A partner is great for checking your movements and helping you maintain your form. A workout partner can also help you mix things up. It’s easier to try new positions and forms when you have someone to give you feedback. This also helps make sure that your workouts don’t get stale!
Here’s an example video using bodyweight.
So, which is the best exercise for you?
Now that we have an overview of each of these types of exercises, which is best? We know the pros and cons, but which is the best exercise for you and your athletic goals?
It may come as no surprise, but the best programs include a combination of all three! A combination of barbells, bands, and bodyweight training gets you a well-rounded workout. This lets you maximize your gains and athletic ability. A great place to start is by trying out some new exercises in each category. Use a mix of bands for recovery, weights for strength, and bodyweight for form and flexibility! How much of each and which movements you use depends on your goals and fitness level. Are you going for pure strength? Recovering from an injury? Trying to gain flexibility? Your goal will help determine how you mix things up. But remember, using all three will help you optimize your training and gains!
Don’t know where to start?
That is what we are here for 😀 ! No matter what your goal is, we can help build a plan for you that uses all three of these types of workouts! I’ve given some great examples of each type here, but to REALLY maximize your efforts, we’ve got to keep going! 🙂
If you are starting a new workout program or are recovering from an injury, our custom programs can help! We offer a deep dive into your fitness to develop a customized program to help you reach your fitness goals. If you’re already doing a combination of these three exercise types, that’s great! But if you want a real, science-based analysis of your body type and fitness goals to determine the ideal workout and best exercise combination for you, we are here to help! Check out our Home Training program to book a call with our training specialist today. We will find the best exercise program for you! Be proactive with your health–let’s get moving!