Do Resistance Bands Really Tone the Legs Vs. Heavy Weights?

Unlike weights, resistance bands also work for stretching.

Unlike weights, resistance bands also work for stretching.

Because it’s always swimsuit season somewhere, one of your fitness goals may be to sculpt leaner legs. Not to worry. You have several options, including using resistance bands or free weights. While heavy weights are just that -- heavy -- resistance bands are lightweight and portable, making them a good choice both at home and when traveling -- say, to the beach. Exercise routines that incorporate resistance bands or free weights can be equally effective for strength training that will result in more toned thighs and calves.

Resistance Band Function

Resistance bands are lightweight strips or tubes of rubber that come in a variety of resistance levels, usually denoted by the color -- for example, red for light resistance and blue for medium resistance. You can also adjust the resistance on any band by holding it shorter or longer. In a 2010 study published in the "International Journal of Sports Medicine," researchers underscored the effectiveness of resistance bands as a tool for strengthening muscles, which leads to improved body composition. The study found that women who used resistance tubing for eight weeks had gains in muscle strength that were equivalent to those of women who used free weights or weight machines during the same period.


Bands are inexpensive, versatile and easy to use. You can use them to perform a wide range of exercises, and they enable you to target smaller muscle groups more easily than with heavy weights. As with free weights, you can also use bands to work several muscles simultaneously. But you can’t just pick up any old band and do a squat to get that desired leggy look. It’s important that you use an increasingly challenging resistance level and that you maintain good posture and body alignment. And be sure to hold the band securely under your feet or attach it to a stable object, such as a table leg, depending on the exercise.

Heavy Free Weights

You can get the shapely legs you’re after by performing exercises using free weights -- dumbbells and barbells -- as well. Free weights, though less portable than bands, also get high marks for versatility. Using heavy weights – i.e., ones that challenge your muscles without throwing off good form -- you can do a diverse range of leg exercises while holding the dumbbells in your hands or, in certain cases, behind your knees. On the downside, proper technique is a little harder to master with free weights than with bands and it's easier to injure yourself by choosing a weight that's too heavy.

Typical Leg Workout

Good leg exercises using resistance bands include calf raises, squats, standing leg curls and extensions -- both of which involve tying one end of a band to a stable object, attaching the other end to one ankle and pulling in various directions -- thigh abduction for the hip and outer thigh region, and thigh adduction for the inner thighs. The key muscles worked in this sample routine include the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, abductors, and the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles in the calves.

Swap Fitness Tools

Adding resistance bands to your fitness tool kit is a good way to add variety to your leg workout routine. Try using free weights one week and switch to resistance bands the next. Varying your routine makes it more interesting and easier to stick to. In addition, by using different types of equipment – bands, dumbbells and barbells – you’ll work your leg muscles in different ways, yielding better overall results.

Since your goal is to develop leaner muscle tissue -- otherwise known as toning – rather than to build muscular endurance, be sure to use bands that have a higher level of resistance (or heavier weights) and perform fewer repetitions. You’ll have more sculpted thighs and calves in no time.

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About the Author

Janice Leary has been a professional journalist for more than 20 years. She is a former managing editor of “Bottom Line/Health” newsletter and has worked as a writer and editor for “Reader’s Digest” magazine, daily newspapers and websites. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism/English from University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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