Bodyweight Exercises vs Weights (Is There a WINNER?)

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The age-old debate about Bodyweight Exercises vs Weights has been raging on for as long as I can remember.

Advocates of each type of training typically view the other with suspicion.

Your gym-bro will tell you how fantastic it feels to be strong, muscular, and have the ability to pick up parked cars and toss them about.

Whereas, your lover of calisthenics will boast about their lean and ripped physique, while balancing on one-hand on top of a three-storey building, before back-flipping down to land perfectly on their feet.

To be honest, I could argue the point for both corners, and I generally use both bodyweight training and weights on a weekly basis.

I don’t really want to get involved in the “which one is better” argument, so instead I’d like to provide you with the pros and cons of both, while also looking at certain compromises you could make to your training routine.

Of course what follows is merely my personal opinion.

Bodyweight Exercises – The Pros.

Expense/EquipmentBodyweight Exercises vs Weights

The most obvious advantages of bodyweight training over lifting weights is that you don’t require any equipment and you can perform your workouts pretty much anywhere you like.

You don’t have to worry about a monthly gym membership fee, which in some cases can prove to be very expensive.

The same can be said of purchasing your own barbells, dumbbells, and any other equipment required if you wish to train at home (plus there’s also the headache of where you’re going to store everything).

With bodyweight exercises you literally need nothing other than your own body, and you’re good to go,

You’re free to train at home, in your local park, and can even get a fantastic workout in a one-metre squared area of space.

Leaner and Ripped

This is from my own experience, but I’m sure many people will agree.

I have always been at my leanest when I’ve had a sustained period of bodyweight training.

Even performing the most basic bodyweight exercises, such as variations of squats, push ups and chin ups has done some amazing things for my body, and this is typically when I also see my abs coming through to produce that highly desirable 6-pack.

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A Reduced Likelihood of Joint Pain and Injury

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve felt busted up after having a particularly hard week in the gym.

The pressure on the shoulder and elbow joints from pushing and pulling, and even aching hips and knees from squats and deadlifts.

Okay, admittedly this typically comes from pushing myself too hard, or perhaps allowing my form to slide, because when I weight-train sensibly none of these things are an issue.

However, you’re far less likely to get these types of aches, pains, and strains if you perform bodyweight exercises.

Improved Mobility and Flexibility

I’ve certainly found that I am more mobile and flexible with bodyweight training.

In fact, I usually feel far more athletic.

I think the easiest way to describe it is that I notice more of a “spring in my step” through bodyweight exercises, whereas on occasions I may be moving very gingerly after a particularly hard lower body weights session (we’ve all been there, right?)

Bodyweight Exercises – The Cons.

Progression is Harder

Yes, you read that correctly – it is harder to progress with bodyweight training than it is with free weights.

Allow me to provide an example:

You want stronger and more muscular shoulders, so at the gym the go to exercise is the military press.

You start off with a weight that you know you can probably do around 10 reps with.

Week one you use that weight to perform 3 sets of 8 reps.

Week two you add 5lbs to the bar and aim for 6-8 reps (3 sets).A woman performing a handstand

Each subsequent week you add more weight to the bar (even if it’s only 2lbs) and you always ensure you stay within the 6-8 rep range.

After 6 weeks of doing this I guarantee your shoulders will be stronger and more muscular.

However, progression with bodyweight shoulder exercises would look something like this:

Week one you perform 8 reps of pike push ups (with both your feet and hands on the floor) for 3 sets.

Week two the same number of reps and sets of the pike push up, but this time your feet are on a raised platform.

Week 3 your feet are now against a wall and your body (hands to feet) is at an angle of 60 degrees.

Week 4 you are performing handstand push ups with your feet against a wall.

Week 5 and beyond you are performing freestanding handstand push ups with no support (just you and gravity).

I can guarantee that a (very strong) person could perform 3 reps of military presses with a weight equal to their own bodyweight on the bar far more easily than they could do 3 handstand push ups.

Not only are you looking to balance and actually be able to perform a handstand, you are also having to contend with gravity.

The same can be said for one-armed push ups and chin ups, as well as pistol squats.

Progression with weights is easier.

So, in reality getting bigger and stronger with bodyweight exercises is possible, but it may take you longer to get there.

You Could End Up Changing Your Training Protocol

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, it is generally accepted that in order to train for strength you should stick to 1-5 reps.

If you’re interested in muscle and size (hypertrophy) then aim for 6-12 reps.

Whereas, if endurance is your goal then performing 12+ reps will get you there.

Now I think this comes down to a lack of knowledge of exercises, plus the inability to perform the more difficult variations, but more often than not many of us try to make bodyweight training “harder” by simply adding more reps.

It’s all well and good being able to perform 25+ reps of push ups, but if your main aim is to get stronger, then training for endurance won’t get you there.

With that said, if someone is able to perform 25+ reps of push ups they will be fairly strong for their size, but they won’t be as strong as someone (of the same size and weight) who is regularly adding more weight to a bar or performing more difficult bodyweight variations in the 1-5 rep range.

I will also add that performing extremely high reps of bodyweight exercises (been there, done that) can also lead to joint aches and pains that are generally associated with weight training (see above).

It’s Harder to Get An All-Round Great Physique

I would say one of the biggest problems you’ll face if you wish to perform bodyweight exercises without ANY equipment is developing your upper back and biceps.

I know for most guys this a HUGE disadvantage of no equipment training.

I mean come on, the vast majority of guys under the age of 30 (who have no real knowledge of exercise) spend hours every week bench pressing and bicep curling (with little to no effect I should add).

Perhaps, a little harsh of me (I know for a fact this isn’t true of many), but hopefully you can see what I’m getting at.

It is possible to produce definition in the upper back and biceps through bodyweight training, but it would be so much better with a bar.

I guess you could say the same about squats.

If you’re very strong, eating well and training right, you should eventually be repping double your own bodyweight with barbell back squats.

Admittedly, the bodyweight pistol squat is extremely difficult to perform, and I suppose you are supporting your own bodyweight on one leg, as opposed to two, but it still doesn’t have quite the same oomph in terms of strength and muscularity.

 

Weights – The Pros.

It’s Easier to Get Stronger and Bigger

Now I’m not saying that size and mass isn’t possible with bodyweight exercises, and I have alluded to this above, but you can definitely make faster gains by using weights.

In fact, if you stick just a few basic barbell/dumbbell exercises, perhaps use different techniques and variations based around the same exercise, e.g. flat bench press/incline bench press or back squat/front squat, and then simply add more weight as each week passes, you will definitely make progress.A man in a baseball cap performing weighted bicep curls

I’ve also mentioned that certain progressions with bodyweight training are far harder, and this certainly isn’t the case when it comes to hitting the weights.

You Can Stick With One Training Protocol

I guess the Pros. of working out with weights will typically reflect the Cons. of bodyweight training, and vice-versa.

However, If you’re training for strength, hypertrophy, or endurance (as stated above), all you need to do is add some weight to the bar (once the exercises become easier) in order to stay within the same training protocol.

In fact, the weight you are currently pushing for a 3-rep maximum bench press will take months and months (possibly even years) to build up to squeeze 8 reps out of.

You Can Hit EVERY SINGLE Muscle With Weight Training

There isn’t a muscle in the body that can feel ignored and unloved when it comes to training with weights.

Whether you use free weights or machines you can hit every muscle, and from a variety of different angles.

You could say the same about bodyweight training, but I’ll refer you back to having to use a bar (so that could be considered “equipment”) to get some decent lat and bicep work in.

It’s Easier to Raise Your Metabolic Resting Rate

Now some may consider this somewhat controversial, but in my opinion it’s true.

If you’re not aware of what your metabolic resting rate is and you’re looking to lose weight or burn fat, then this is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT for you to read.

The EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Consumption) effect or simply the after-burn effect is something that you should strive for when looking to shed fat from the body.

In its most basic form this will mean that your metabolic rate is higher while you are at rest, which in turn means that you’re burning more calories, and therefore burning more fat.

In fact, you could actually still be burning fat for up to 24-48 hours AFTER you have stopped exercising.

Admittedly, metabolic bodyweight workouts will produce this same after-burn effect just as well, although I believe a combination of both weights and bodyweight exercises will yield the best results.

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Weights – The Cons.

The Expense

Okay, I’ve pretty much covered this in the “Bodyweight Exercises Pros.”, but just to reiterate, there is an expense involved when it comes to training with weights, and in some cases this can be quite substantial.

Some of us simply can’t afford a regular gym membership, although pay-as-you-go gyms are pretty much everywhere nowadays.

If you’re looking to train at home, even the basics of a set of a dumbbells and a barbell will set you back a pretty penny, never mind the additional costs of a bench, a pull up bar, or a combo-pull up/lateral dip stand.

There’s no two-ways about it, if you want to train with weights it’s going to cost you money.

Injuries, Aches & Pains

I’ve mentioned the joint aches that are synonymous with weights.

This is especially true when it comes to the shoulder and elbow joints, although I think this is because of the huge focus on pushing exercises.

To be honest, you should actually be “pulling” twice as much as you are “pushing” in terms of upper body training, but this rarely (if ever) happens.

I have also noticed many people complaining of tight hip flexors in recent years.

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I think most gym-goers (men and women) now understand that there should be a focus on the lower body if you want to produce an aesthetically pleasing body, but the squat seems to be to go to move.

Yes, the barbell back squat is probably “The King of Weights Exercises”, but let’s not forget that our glutes and hamstrings need just as much attention, if not more, too.

Okay, I know that the barbell back squats hits the glutes and hams too, but as a secondary effect, so don’t rely on this as your sole method of training the lower body.

Mobility and Flexibility

I guess this ties in with what I’ve mentioned earlier about bodyweight training, plus just talking about the hip flexor issue above is another example.

Now it would be wrong of me to say that you can’t be mobile and flexible if you train solely with weights, but I have to say that bodyweight exercises win this battle hands-down.

Bodyweight Exercises vs Weights – The Compromise

I have stated throughout that this article is based on my personal opinion, and “the compromise” is no different.

You can achieve the body you desire by just training bodyweight or weights alone.

However, I think a combination of both produces the best results.

I don’t actually own a set of dumbbells or a barbell, but I do have sandbags, kettlebells, a pull up bar, and a medicine ball at home.

So, even when I feel like giving the gym a miss for a week or two and perhaps concentrating on bodyweight training I can still add resistance to the most basic of bodyweight moves.

Plus I’m getting a great all-round, full-body workout.

So, in reality you don’t require the “standard” equipment to train with weights.

Additionally, I cannot even begin to tell you the difference you’ll notice from performing pull ups and dips by using a dip belt.

Furthermore, throwing in a few reps of bodyweight exercises at the end of a weighted set can actually accelerate your gains.

If you don’t believe me try performing some push ups straight after you bench, or some jump squats after a set of barbell squats.

Final Thoughts

As I say, I’m not going to get drawn into the bodyweight exercises vs weights debate and I think they both have certain advantages and disadvantages, although these are based around what you are looking to achieve.

What I will say is that if you’re looking for a strong, lean, muscular, and athletic body, then a combination of both will do you the world of good.

What about you, do you have a preference for bodyweight or weight training?

Are there exercises you prefer to perform with weights over bodyweight and vice versa?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to drop me a line in the comments section below.

12 thoughts on “Bodyweight Exercises vs Weights (Is There a WINNER?)”

  1. Hi Partha,

    Although I’m not someone you will see in the gym gym everyday working out for the perfect body, not that I wouldn’t love to 🙂 I do love to read your articles as I do still find them really helpful.

    As someone recovering from a major injury I do have to exercise everyday, and this means every muscle group in my body.

    Before this though, I have always taken care of my body and liked to keep in shape it’s just a little harder now.

    So in relation to what your talking about here I tend to do any new exercises with no weights just increase the reps but as I find this gets easier I then add the weights, does this make sense?

    Amy

    Reply
    • Hi Amy,

      Thank you ever so much for your kind words – it really means a lot. I truly appreciate it, and if just one person finds what I write interesting, that’ll do me.

      I totally understand where you’re coming from in relation to “coming back from an injury”. I’ve mentioned to you before that I’ve had my own issues with herniated and bulging discs.

      I think if you’re just starting back from injury then aiming to do bodyweight workouts isn’t a bad thing, but I know many people (myself included) are sometimes afraid to do any type of weight training in case they aggravate a previous injury.

      For me, any form of resistance training would simply compliment a great bodyweight routine.

      And as long as you’re performing the exercises correctly with strict form then there’s no need to worry about hurting yourself.

      And when I mention resistance training I’m not simply talking about barbells and dumbells.

      I often incorporate medicine balls, swiss balls, sandbags, resistance bands, kettlebells, etc. into my bodyweight training.

      If you have a specific goal in mind, and you know more-or-less what you’d like to achieve, I’m more than happy to draw up a workout plan for you.

      Something that will aid with your recovery, as well as help you achieve whatever body composition goals you have.

      You can obviously comment here on my website or simply email me (details in the Privacy Policy).

      However, it’s great to hear that you’re still exercising following your injury, as I know many people wouldn’t be as brave as you, and would simply give up.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  2. Hi Partha, well, I am in your camp. I do bodyweight exercises and weigth exercises. But I haven’t watched the results as carefully as you have done. So it was interesting to read there can be a difference in outcome. (Duh) 🙂
    I just do all kinds of exercises to keep my mobility and boost my immune system. And also, because if I do the same routine day in day out I get bored. In time I have made 7 different routines of about 15 minutes that I do before breakfast. (Not all of them at once, but there is one for each day) 😉
    It is great to read more background about the sense or nonsense of exercises. So thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Hannie,

      I must say that you have pretty much hit the nail on your head with your workout routine.

      You will never know how I frustrated I get sometimes when I catch someone doing the same routine day after day, week after, month after month, and even year after year.

      In fact, the only thing that changes is that the workouts get longer, but typically every exercise is done in the exact same order every single time they workout.

      And then these same people are amazed that they’re not making any headway in terms of improvement in body composition.

      I mentioned it many times before, and I will undoubtedly mention it again (and again), but the human body is an amazing thing and it adapts very quickly to any exertions we put upon it.

      This is why I like to keep my body guessing in terms of workouts and I generally have a complete change of tactic every 6-8 weeks.

      I love that you keep your workouts short, I love that you have some variety, and I love that you know the exact goal that you’re looking to achieve through exercise.

      Well done Hannie, you are literally streets ahead of the vast majority of people who exercise on a regular basis.

      Partha

      Reply
  3. Hey Partha,

    I love this article and I love this debate too. In all honesty, I always thought bodyweight exercises were better because of the expense, and also because of what I had heard from a Thai Boxing coach years ago. He was not a fan of weight exercises because he felt it added weight to you, which is not good for fighting. So I followed his advice.

    However, if you only use light weights it can have a better impact on your body, as long as you do the right weight exercises in the right way.

    At the moment I am leaning towards bodyweight exercises but I feel like I will incorporate the weight exercises into my training regime more.

    I will let you know how I go with them.

    Thank you for sharing and all the best,

    Tom

    Reply
    • Oh thanks Tom, that’s so kind of you to say.

      Your Thai boxing coach reminds me a lot of my old “normal boxing” (for want of a better word, LOL) coach.

      I think knowledge around weight training and resistance exercise has dramtically improved over the years (although there were some extremely knowledgable people around 50,60,70 years ago).

      Case in Point – one of the main exercises that world-class sprinters do (the fastest people in the world) is heavy barbell squats. They’re not worried about getting “too bulky” here as they know that strength will also improve their speed.

      With that said, for sprinters, there is a greater focus on power moves, e.g. cleans, jerks, snatch, etc. in the gym, as these can help to improve speed and mobility even more.

      Additonally, I know that Mike Tyson worked mainly with bodyweight exercises at the beginning of his career. and the only real weighted exercises he would do would involve neck training and also using a 25kg barbell to do literally hundreds of shoulder presses (Tyson could probably do 100 straight reps with one hand with 25kg, but he chose to use both hands and aim for around 500 reps every training session).

      The only reason I mention any of this is because I am still a fan of using weights and I think there are a lot of common misconceptions around weight training.

      With that said, I seem to be gravitating more towards bodyweight moves as I get older (must be an age thing, LOL), but I have always found that I produce my best results when I use a combination of both weights and bodyweight exercises.

      Glad to hear you’re going to incorporate some additional resistance training into your routine Tom, and please do let me know how you get on.

      Partha

      Reply
  4. Thanks for all the great information comparing bodyweight exercises to using weights. I still have not gone back to the gym since the pandemic began, and not sure when I will. This is has led me to change up my exercise routines and include more bodyweight exercise, and I am really enjoying it. Your thoughts on progression with bodyweight and how it is more challenging than just adding more weight was helpful for me. Now that I am working out at home, I’ve also acquired more home equipment including more dumbbells. I was very fortunate to find some nice ones at Salvation Army. The extra equipment allows me to do both types of exercise. I look forward to reading more of your articles, especially the one on unlocking hip flexors.

    Denise

    Reply
    • Hi Denise,

      Thank you ever so much for your kind comments.

      Yes, much the same as you, during lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic I switched to mainly bodyweight exercises, and I really enjoyed an extended-period of working out this way.

      With that said, I also have some equipment at home and incorporated this into my workouts – mainly sandbag training, medicine ball, kettlebell, jump rope, and some sprinting.

      I always think that people assume that bodyweight training means simply doing pure bodyweight moves, but just adding some resistance every-now-and-then keeps things interesting.

      I’ve been fortunate enough to go back to the gym since late-July, but I still have at least 1 or 2 bodyweight days a week.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  5. I will go for the body-weight exercises to produce a lean and toned body. I like that ‘spring in my step’ feeling.
    For me, this is more about functionality. I renovate houses, so being smaller, stronger, and more flexible enables me to move more easily in and around small spaces, over roofs, and underneath houses.
    I built up some high reps doing pushups (up to 200 of various styles, 60 then 50 then 30 + 30 and one last set of as many s I could do) and pullups (50 in total, 16, 14, 11, 9) and now can no longer do them because of the pain I feel in the inside of my elbows.
    I’ve asked various people what I can do about this, and most of them say to just rest them.
    However, I want to workout, I love feeling fit and healthy, but have to accept that maybe I need do less of these exercises, and do something else as well?
    Do you have any ideas how to overcome this pain issue?
    Cheers

    Reply
    • Hi Andrew,

      Firstly, I have to say those are some extremely impressive figures.

      However, this is definitely the source of the elbow pain.

      Trust me, I know. At one stage (I am known to be somewhat obsessive) I was performing 1,500+ push ups, 700+ pull ups/chin ups, and 500+ dips, on a weekly basis.

      What I have learned from this experience (and this may be of help to you) is to change the way I do the “standard” forms of each of these exercises.

      Rather than focusing on hundreds and thousands of reps I initially slowed the movement right down. Building muscle is typically about time under tension, so on average you’ll need to perform an exercise for approximately 40 seconds to get the “muscle-building” benefits.

      Have you ever tried to take 40-60 seconds to perform just 5 push ups?

      So, literally take 4-5 seconds to lower yourself and another 4-5 seconds to “push” yourself back up (the same for pull ups and dips).

      Try it and let me know how that feels.

      This way you can do away with the with the huge numbers of reps and still get the same (if not more) benefits.

      As for your current elbow pain, unfortunately rest is the order of the day.

      However, there have been studies which prove that muscle contraction builds just as much muscle as actually performing an exercise.

      I recall a study which had 2 groups of participants – over a 6-week period, one group performed bicep curls with a 20kg barbell, whereas the other group performed “phantom” bicep curls, so they performed the movement, but without any weight, but they really squeezed the bicep at the top of the movement (muscle contraction).

      After the 6 weeks the group that used the weighted bicep curls had far better improvements in strength (obviously, as they were using weights), BUT the increase in muscle tone was exactly the same for both groups. Surprising right?

      So, you could actually use the same methodolgy to increase muscle tone while you recover from injury.

      For you I would suggest NOT bending the elbow – for lat and bicep development you can hang from a bar for 1 minute, but contract, really squeeze, your lat and bicep muscles every 10 seconds. To progress you hang for an extra 10 seconds every 3-4 “workouts” and add an extra “contraction rep”.

      So, for one minute hanging you perform 6 “squeezes” and for 2 minutes hanging you perform 12 “squeezes”, and so on.

      For push ups you use exactly the same technique. Hold the top of the push up position (remember no bending at the elbow while you recuperate) and every 10 seconds you really squeeze the chest, shoulder and tricep muscles. Again aim for 6 “squeezes” every minute, or one every 10 seconds.

      I hope that makes sense.

      Please let me know how you get on.

      Partha

      Reply
  6. It’s easy to just keep adding one extra push-up every day, when there is a lock-down going on….. haha, Not the idea situation, but there were some advantages to being at home for much longer periods each day 🙂
    However, your numbers make my achievements look pretty weak! Impressive.

    I like the idea of slowing the movement down. I’m going to give this a go. And even if I am resting my elbows by not bending them, there are still lot of exercises I can think of to do. Hanging from the bar and contracting is a good one, as you have suggested.

    I have read about similar studies that you have mentioned, where ‘phantom’ weights are used. The studies I am familiar with related to shooting basketball hoops and playing the piano, as well as others. The one thing all of these studies prove is how powerful our mind is, and how we can use our mind to create the reality that we desire for ourselves. So if we want to be toned and strong, the real work is done in our minds before we even hit the gym.
    Many thanks for your suggestions. I really appreciate your time and experience.
    All the best,
    Andrew

    Reply
    • Oh trust me Andrew the mind-muscle connection is real.

      In fact, there are many people who advocate first closing your eyes and imagining yourself (easily) completing a demanding lift before actually stepping up and giving it a go.

      Additionally, if you really concentrate your mind on the area of the body that you want to stimulate with a particular exercise it makes a huge difference in terms of muscle contraction, which will of course make a difference when it comes to improvements in muscle and strength.

      The studies that you mention about “phantom” practicing always pique my interest, I find it a fascinating subject. In a way it reminds me of the 1980s movie The Karate Kid (wax on wax off to create the perfect defence to an oncoming punch).

      Please be careful with those elbows Andrew, allow them to properly heal before trying any exercise that requires you to bend at the elbow joint. But please do give the muscle contractions a go and let me know how you get on.

      Always great to hear from you Andrew.

      Partha

      Reply

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