Bodyweight Versus Weight Training

Drew Baye doing chin ups outdoorsHow you train – effort, volume, frequency, form, etc. – is far more important than the equipment you use, or whether you use equipment at all. That being said, there are major differences between training with bodyweight and weights and both have advantages and disadvantages.

The biggest advantage to bodyweight training is most exercises can be done almost anywhere since all that is required is adequate floor space, and various types of chin ups and pull ups can be performed anywhere there is a reachable bar, or if you’ve got a strong grip, anywhere you can securely hang a strong towel or thick piece of rope. It is both convenient and time efficient.

Whether a person travels frequently where they don’t have access to weights, doesn’t have equipment at home, can’t or doesn’t like going to a gym, or just prefers to train at home or outdoors, they can still train effectively performing just body weight exercises.

A variety of portable apparatus are now being sold for body weight training but most are unnecessary and overpriced. They are often marketed on the premise one needs to perform a huge variety of exercises, when all that is actually needed is a few basic movements that only require a few square feet of flat ground and something to hang from. Most of the more useful apparatus for bodyweight training (parallettes, chin up bars, parallel bars for dipping) can be easily and inexpensively constructed or found in some form in the local playground.

The biggest disadvantage to bodyweight training is resistance progression is not as straightforward or as easily quantified as with weight training.

As you become stronger and better conditioned you must increase the resistance you work against during exercise to stimulate further improvement. Resistance – the force your muscles work against during exercise – is the product of a variety of factors, the two biggest being mass and lever.

Resistance progression with barbells, dumbbells or machines is simple and easy to quantify, record, and compare over time. As you become stronger you increase the weights used – the mass – proportionally. The movements (levers encountered) do not vary significantly.

With bodyweight training the mass – your body – does not increase in proportion to your strength. If you’re losing fat your body is providing progressively less resistance, and muscle mass does not increase in equal proportion to strength (e. g. you don’t gain 10 pounds of muscle mass for every additional 10 pounds you can lift on average). To increase resistance without resorting to weight belts or vests you have to increase the lever the muscles are working against. This is accomplished by performing progressively more challenging variations of an exercise or progressively more challenging exercises for each muscle group.

It is possible to become extremely strong and muscular using body weight exercise alone. You’ve got to be pretty strong to perform multiple, strict repetitions of one-armed chin ups or push ups, one-legged squats, or handstand push ups. A disadvantage of using lever variation instead of weight increase to progress resistance is every new exercise is a new skill to be learned and some bodyweight exercises, particularly unilateral (one-armed or legged) exercises can initially be as much or more of a skill challenge than a strength challenge (I recommend being very cautious with unilateral exercises as the risk of injury is greater). By comparison, with weights once you have learned and developed proficiency in the skill of performing a particular exercise you can focus more on simply becoming stronger.

Some claim this is an advantage and that these skills will translate to other activities. While the strength gained from bodyweight exercise will transfer to other activities, skill is very specific and balance or exercise movement skills do not transfer to other balance tasks or movements.

Weight belts and vests provide an effective and more easily quantified form of resistance progression, but these aren’t always practical for those who choose to train with bodyweight due to travel requirements or who train outdoors away from home. Lugging around a heavy weight vest or a dipping belt and weight plates defeats the purpose.

My personal preference and recommendation for those who can is to train primarily with weights, whether barbells, dumbbells or machines. Once the basic skills are learned more focus can be given to the effort put into training, and resistance can be increased in a more consistent, measurable and relatively precise manner. Even then an occasional bodyweight workout can be a fun challenge or change of pace, especially outdoors in good weather. For those who train primarily with body weight the occasional workout with weights will provide a more objectively quantifiable benchmark of strength increases.

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16 Responses to Bodyweight Versus Weight Training

  1. Katelyn April 22, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    Great information. I wish I could build up to a handstand pushup.

  2. Donnie Hunt April 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Great info as usual! No b.s.! Just hard, progressive work.

  3. Dale April 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Excellent no-nonsense compare/contrast on the subject. Though a recent convert to bodyweight myself, I certainly reject the blanket claims for the superiority of bodyweight exercise. It’s simply another paradigm, one that I currently enjoy and find quite challenging.

    And Drew’s point on the difficulty in quantifying bodyweight progression is well taken too, which is why I don’t hew to the usual one-set, 8-12 rep format. Rather, I am as apt to aim to accumulate a given number of reps, perhaps in rest-pause manner.

    Finally, I wouldn’t even press the case that bodyweight exercise, however intelligently progressed and quantified, is equal to weights for hypertrophy. No matter. That’s not my goal anyway.

  4. Donnie Hunt April 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Hey Drew,

    If the goal is primarly strength/hypertrophy, is there any reason to have to do repititions immediately after the other. I think the fact that you strongly advocate rest pause answers my question. Just curious if there is any research or your own experience showing any benefit to non stop vs. resting between reps.

  5. Dwayne Wimmer April 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    Great information.

  6. Duanne April 26, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Yet gymnasts are muscular.

    • Drew Baye April 26, 2011 at 9:20 pm #

      Duanne,

      This is due to selection bias. Gymastics favors people who are muscular to begin with. It is no more effective at building muscular strength and size than proper training with weights.

  7. Will April 27, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    If one reads websites (e.g., for folks such as Alwyn Cosgrove or Jason Ferrugia) or promotional material for devices such as the TRX, fairly quickly you’ll come across the claim that one of the principal benefits of ‘bodyweight’ training is that rather than moving a weight, one is moving one’s body through space – with the claim that the latter produces ‘better’ results. Is there anything to this (i.e., any clinical studies) that support such a claim? Or, is this mere folk knowledge masquerading as science?

    • Drew Baye April 27, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

      Will,

      There is no basis for the claim moving the body as opposed to lifting a barbell or using a machine will provide better results in terms of general muscular strength and size or other aspects of fitness.

  8. Will April 27, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Thanks for the quick response. And, your reply confirms my suspicion. I think certain bodyweight movements are fine exercises, and often quite fun to do (e.g., I enjoy doing bodyweight inverted rows), but some of the claims I’ve seen for the superiority of bodyweight exercises have struck me as a bit ‘off’. The basic principles of progressive overload remain constant. The emphasis on activating stabilizer muscles and functional training doesn’t seem to hold up under scrutiny.

  9. Steven Turner April 28, 2011 at 1:29 am #

    Hi Drew,

    Great article

    Recently I have been asked the very same questions in relation to body weight exercises probably due to the current TRX training methods. I answered these questions very similar as to you have done the problem with body weight exercises and progresive overload. It appears that some in the TRX are experiencing the same problems with progressive overload now intoducing weighted vests, weighted belts to their training routine. I think to some degree TRX trainers have used just about every different lever position possible and have been forced into using extra weighted implements.

    I also agree with you that using body weight exercises can produce great results as many people in the last 100 years or so have done training with bodyweight only. Because you can do hundereds of different movements by changing the levers somehow brings TRX into the “functional movement” training group. What I have noticed is that nobody from the TRX ever points out the disdavantages of using bodyweight only.

    Arthur Jones stated chapter 18: Four Steps – The four steps of meaningful progression in physical training have been: 1. calisthenics, 2. gymnastics (body weight exercises), 3. weight training, and 4. Nautilus. Arthur Jones in his early training years 1930s-1940s trained gymnastics (bodyweight), at some point he realised the disadvantages with bodyweight exercises.

    I also believe that TRX training emerged from the combat soldiers in Iraq where access to weight training equipment or Nautilus equipment would have been non-existant. Body weight exercises would have helped the combat soldiers to maintian overall body strength in restricted and confined spaces that they would have been forced to live in. I also believe that when the combat soldiers return from Iraq war that they would have recommenced training with barbells, possibly Nautilus or better still CZT machines.

  10. Jay July 7, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    Drew,

    I am very overweight which makes it impossible to do unassisted dips or pullups. I am having to resort to the combo dip/pullup machine for extra assistance in performing these exercises. I look forward to the day when I am lean and fit, and can perform these exercises without the use of an machine assist.

    My question is this: In the interim are these dip/pullups with counter weight (?) worth doing, or should I use a more productive exercise until I can lose all the weight I need to in order to do these exercises without an assist.

    Your guidance would be well appreciated.

    Jay

    • Drew Baye July 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

      Jay,

      Those exercises are fine, as well as pulldowns and the seated dip or chest press machine.

  11. Bill White September 13, 2011 at 12:17 am #

    Hi Drew,

    What do you think about self-resistance exercises in addition to bodyweight exercises (I’d give you a website that I am talking about, but I don’t want to be posting links if it’s not allowed) do you have a private email I can send you it for your opinion?

    • Drew Baye September 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

      Bill,

      If by self resistance you mean either manually resisted exercise or dynamic tension (antagonistic co-contraction) both can be very effective, however they also require a good degree of motor control and performance can’t be objectively quantified.

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