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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Weights – The Cons.
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.
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.