Alternative Resistance Training Compared To Free Weights

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Over the past ten years, there seems to be a plethora of home gym devices that promise all the benefits of weight lifting, but instead of lifting actual weight, you’re using what I like to call alternative resistance.

Alternative resistance can be found in the form of stretchy (springs and elastic bands that offer resistance when stretched) and bendy (long composite rods or beams that offer resistance when bent).

These alternative forms look cool and innovative but the question remains: Are these methods just as good or any better than using real weight?

I discovered the answer when I spent three solid years using nothing but alternative resistance – here’s what I learned:

From the standpoint of building pure all out strength and muscle, it’s kind of hard to top real weight.

This is largely due to the fact that alternative resistance has a pretty sharp resistance curve as the medium is stretched or bent. So, at the start of each rep you have little to no resistance, it grows to about half as much resistance at the midpoint and then is at the most resistance at the full extension of the rep.

While it’s certainly true that the level of resistance on a muscle also changes during a rep with classic weight, the degree of change is not quite as drastic. So in the end, real weight has a tendency to place more stress on the muscles through a wider range of motion time after time.

I know some might market this resistance curve by telling you that you get stronger because the resistance grows as you stretch or bend the device, but that’s like focusing on the glass being half full. The other way to look at it is that the device also slacks off resistance on the way back down, essentially letting the muscle relax a lot more. So instead of looking at the glass half empty or half full, I find it’s best to just fill the darn thing to the brim by using real weight.

Alternative resistance does have its place though. It’s particularly effective for rehab and corrective strengthening exercises. Since the level of resistance of these techniques is best when the device is finely tuned, the practitioner can adjust the tension on a minute level to best meet the client’s needs. It definitely allows for a safer and more controlled level of resistance where overdoing it by just a few pounds could lead to another injury.

A classic advantage of alternative resistance has long been portability and versatility. Many fitness buffs use elastic bands to keep a workout schedule while traveling. At the same time, these bands allow you to use resistance in nearly any motion you can imagine which makes them incredibly versatile for functional training.

These days however, we have suspension trainers that offer just as much portability and use real weight (body weight) for resistance and most cable machines can offer just as much versatility with heavy iron stacks.

In the end, if you are looking for resistance with classic moves, I highly recommend using real weight. If you’re bringing something back to form, then alternative resistance is probably your best bet. And as far as portability and alternative moves are concerned, I would use alternative resistance if it’s what you prefer or as a secondary option.

Don’t let the hype fool you though. Just because it’s a new machine or device, don’t expect it to carry any more weight as far as results go, unless you are actually lifting real weight.

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About Author

Matt Schifferle

My name is Matt Schifferle and I'm an A.C.E. Certified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 coach, underground strength coach and I'm a 5th degree black belt in Taekwon-Do. I specialize in outdoor and playground based underground and CrossFit style bootcamps. See my profile page for more information!

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