In today's post I want to compare bodyweight training versus training with free weights. Both offer tremendous benefits in the realm of health, fitness, and body transformation, but there are some key differences between the two that I would like to point out. Many times people will choose one or the other. You get people who focus completely on bodyweight skills and work on increasing their mastery of body control and "self dominance". Then you have the weight lifters who focus on increasing the amount of weight they can throw around. So which system is the best to focus on? The answer lies in your goal. The goal should always dictate your training. And while both systems can be used to accomplish a variety of goals, focusing on one system over the other may provide better results. So lets discuss.
Bodyweight training (BWT) wins this category hands down. This is actually one of the best benefits of BWT. You don't need a gym, fancy equipment, or a hefty monthly premium. All you need is your body and some hard work. At the very minimum you can get a great workout right in your living room. There is a reason that "Insanity" workouts have become so popular. If you want to amp up the intensity further you can find some pull up and dip bars at a local park or school. I have moved around more than the average person (4 times in 5 years) and everywhere I have lived I have been able to find a park or school playground to workout at within about 3 miles of home. You can also buy some specific pieces of equipment to use at home. The best, and cheapest, ones are a doorway pull up bar, pushup/parallette handles, or gymnast rings. Each one of these can be purchased for under $30.
Stress and Recovery
Stress and recovery are two huge components of any exercise program. If you don't have enough stress than the body won't adapt. But if you don't get enough rest and recovery than the body won't heal and performance will suffer. Now you can create a significant amount of stress with both BWT and free-weights(FW), but BWT takes the lead when it comes to recovery. Using a heavy external load on the body, as you do with FW's, puts a lot of stress on your muscles, joints, and nervous system. And while that stress is good for increasing size and strength it requires a lot of recovery. If you are someone who likes to be active everyday then you don't want to take a day or two off from exercise because you have to recover. For example I might do a strength workout today and tomorrow go mountain biking. If I did a heavy squat or deadlift workout today then my mountain biking performance would be greatly effected, if even manageable. Again, it comes back to your goal. If your main goal is to increase the amount of weight you lift then you have all the time in the world to rest and recover. If your goal is to move and exercise everyday then you need to find a balance between stress and recovery and BWT fits the bill.
Strength and Mass
Many people, mostly guys, start strength training because they want to get big and strong. Getting big refers to a muscle growing larger in size, also known as hypertrophy. Getting strong requires both an increase in muscle size and an increase in nervous system drive. Nervous system drive is kind of like the electrical circuits that run from your brain to your muscles. When you strength train those circuits become quicker and more powerful. Now you can use both BWT or FW's to increase hypertrophy and neural drive but FW's have the edge. When you use an external load you can be very precise with the amount lifted and the target muscle group used. With BWT lots of other muscle groups kick in to maintain balance and stability and this takes away from the primary muscle being used. Stress is also a key factor in increasing a muscle's size. When you stress a muscle it breaks down then it builds back up in a repair process. After that repair process that muscle is a little bigger and stronger. So there is a relationship between the amount of stress put on a muscle and the size of that muscle. There are many other factors that go into muscle size (diet, hormone levels, rest, etc.) but lets just focus on the stress aspect for now. FW's are the best at creating that stress in a target muscle group and therefore have the most potential for increasing size and strength.
Winner: Free Weights
Carry over refers to how well a specific exercise will translate to and improve other movements that are performed during activities of daily living. These activities will vary for every person so the amount of "carry over" will also vary. But, at the very least, we can assume that every person will be moving their body during daily activities. So if you have better control of your body then you will have increased performance in your activities. In that aspect BWT will have more carry over. But lets say you work in a manual labor job (construction, farming, logging, etc.). You have to be good at moving objects as well as your own body. In that case FW's would have more carry over because your body would be more adapted at moving external loads. Even if you don't have a manual labor job almost every person carries groceries, picks up kids, and re-arranges furniture so FW's would still prove to be beneficial.
This is another area where BWT tends to shine. Lack of time is one the most popular excuses people give for not exercising. And while a busy schedule would create more difficulty scheduling workouts it is not a good excuse to skip exercise all together. BWT is a huge time saver in that it can be done at home so you don't have to drive to and from a gym. You don't use equipment so there is no wasted time setting up weights and changing them out for different exercises. BWT also works very well in circuit training where you move from one exercise to the other with little or no rest in between. Anyone can accomplish an intense and effective workout in as little as 20 minutes. So please stop saying, "I don't have time." Everybody has time!
So there are some of the key differences between bodyweight training and training with free weights. The object of this post is not to draw a line in the sand and make you pick a side but rather present to you reasons why you would focus on one system more than the other. Here is the condensed version.
You should focus more on BWT if you:
- Don't have, or want, a lot of equipment
- Need a workout that is convenient
- Are short on time or have a really busy schedule
- Don't want to dedicate whole days to recovery
- Want to be competent and capable with your own body
You should focus more on FW's if you want to:
- Maximize your size and strength
- Focus on specific muscle groups
- Become better at moving objects and manipulating loads
Hopefully this post can help guide you in the future so that you can get the most efficient and effective workout possible. Until next time.