Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Weights vs bodyweight exercises

Here are a few questions I see cropping up time and time again, and I hope this article will help settle them once and for all:
  • - How does weight training compare to bodyweight exercises? 
  • - Is bodyweight training effective for muscle building?
  • - Can you get stronger without lifting? 
  • - Which is better for getting into shape?

Photo credits: Flavio Simonetti, German natual bodybuilder , and Yuri van Gelder, gymnast (source: Raymond Nieuwenburg; transferred from nl.wikipedia)

The nature of the debate
Let me start by stating bodyweight training and calisthenics have been given a bad name.
For most people, this type of training conjures images of aerobics classes, school yard and military type calisthenics, and P90X-style workouts, all of which primarily target either the aerobic system, or –at best- muscular endurance.
Yet, examples abound of people who have developed striking muscular physiques using bodyweight only methods: Hannibal for King, Frank Medrano, The Fortress (all of youtube fame), and countless Olympic gymnasts. A few unorthodox fitness writers offer bodyweight-only hypertrophy programs: the French méthode Lafay (which has unfortunately not yet been translated into English) for instance, and Jay Waldron who runs the website StrengthUnbound. There is also a dearth of good bodyweight strength training routines, though I obviously have a bias towards the StartBodyweight basic routine and Antranik offers a very sound intermediate program on his blog.

On the other hand, bodybuilding hypertrophy routines and weight lifting-based strength programs abound, and the effictiveness of these routines is evidenced by the amazing physiques achieved by competitors in bodybuilding competitions such as Mr. Olympia (and yes, anabolic steroids do help)…

So who are we to trust? Kids doing pull ups on the monkey bars and a few unorthodox renegades, or proven programs yielding strikingly visible results?

It gets complicated…
Here’s the catch: whether we are talking about strength gains or hypertrophy (getting big), one of the major principles at play is that of progressive overload.
Progressive overload is the gradual process of adaptation that takes place in the body when increasing stress is placed upon it in the form of heavier loads. And unsurprisingly, progressive overload does not discriminate: whether you lift iron or your own bodyweight, at equivalent weight (or mechanical disadvantage) your strength or hypertrophy gains should be exactly the same.

Proponents of weight lifting will argue that it is much simpler and smoother to keep adding small loads to a barbell, than to keep coming up with bodyweight exercise variations to increase the stress placed on the body. On the other hand, bodyweight exercise progressions can also be fine tuned, and they can offer a very gradual way of increasing the difficulty of a given exercise…

There should be very little difference between the two, up to a point -at least- where you make full use of mechanical disadvantage/leverage, and of your own body weight.
And my contention is that, indeed, the results will be very similar.

An interesting question is, however: where does that point lie (and we will come back to this later)?

First of all though, let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages of both training methods:

-          Progressive overload is achieved through incrementally adding small loads to exercises. Progressions are very smooth, and the basic mechanics of the exercises remain the same.
-          Big compound movements are often closed kinetic chain exercises (which are considered safer), but isolation exercises (and also a few compound lifts) fall under the open kinetic chain category, which somewhat increases the amount of shearing forces placed on the joints
-          CNS (Central Nervous System) gains are experienced very quickly at first due to the consistent mechanics of the exercises performed and their limited number (beginner programs such as Stronglifts for instance consist of only 5 basic lifts). As you get better, it becomes increasingly hard to maximize your CNS gains (something which most beginner programs completely ignore). Note however that whilst these movements may be simple to learn, their subtleties are hard to master.
-          The greater variety of isolation exercises means you have more control over the way your body looks and develops than with bodyweight exercises. These isolation exercises are seldom used in beginner programs however.

Bodyweight training:
-          Progressive overload is achieved through exercise variations, making use of leverage and mechanical disadvantage. Progressions are perhaps not as smooth as in weightlifting, but arguably the constant changes from one exercise variation to the next target muscles from different angles.
-          Most exercises are closed kinetic chain exercises and these are generally considered safer and more functional. It is worth noting however that some advanced movements such as back levers and one arm chins place a lot of stress on tendons, and connective tissue of the joints involved.
-          CNS gains reoccur frequently: the constantly changing nature of exercise progressions means that each variation has slightly different mechanics than the previous one (basic programs consist of often well over 50 different variations of 6 or 7 basic exercises). These constant changes place far greater demands on coordination, proprioception, balance and flexibility than weightlifting does. Rapid CNS gains therefore happen with each new variation, arguably resulting in increased strength and muscle mass.
-          Most exercises are compound exercises, which are widely considered to favour muscle growth far quicker than isolation exercises.

Whilst weight lifting may have a very slight advantage over bodyweight training in the sense that progression is smoother, bodyweight training makes up for it with its greater variety, and balance, agility, and flexibility gains. For all intents and purposes though, in the context of a beginner to intermediate program, the difference between the two in terms of strength gains and muscle mass increase should be negligible.

A picture of the author, training almost exclusively bodyweight, with no particular concerns for aesthetics or hypertrophy.
If that is so, why do you never see bodyweight guys who are ‘jacked’?
Well, you do see guys with noticeable and impressive muscle development.
It is true however, that there doesn’t seem to be any competitors in bodybuilding contests who train bodyweight only… There is a very simple reason for that:
Bodyweight guys tend to be interested in –unsurprisingly!- bodyweight exercises, the majority of which require an optimized power-to-weight ratio. In short, bodyweight guys aim to be as strong as possible whilst maintaining a weight that is as low as possible. For most, putting on more mass is not an objective, as it is simply counter-productive. It does not mean it cannot be done though…

Up to what point can you expect similar gains between weight training and bodyweight?
Well, your body weight is finite, whereas you can generally add more iron onto a barbell than it is humanly possible to lift. So yes, there is a limit to what you can expect from bodyweight training in absolute terms of strength and hypertrophy…
Gains experienced will be very similar between the two however, up to the point where bodyweight exercise progressions stop increasing in a smooth linear manner, and where they start relying too much on other skills such as balance and flexibility, or when you have to consciously slow down your progress to give tendons and connective tissue time to adapt to the stresses placed upon them by the exercises…
Here’s where I would contend that point lies (and therefore, if you cannot perform these exercises, you have not reached the limits of what bodyweight can offer you in terms of pure equivalent strength or hypertrophy gains):

You can obviously carry on making strength gains past that point with bodyweight exercises only, but they will be slower than what you would expect from a weight lifting routine. You will develop other skills though, such as greater agility and proprioception, balance and flexibility, and generally a stronger core (To the proponents of weightlifting who claim core strength gains from big compound lifts are equivalent to those of a good core routine: let me see your front or back levers).

“What about deadlifts?” some will say… there is no bodyweight equivalent, right?
Well, quite right: there isn’t. There are however a variety of posterior chain exercises that can be trained, such as bridges, hip thrusts, single leg deadlifts, glute ham raises and reverse hypers… Most bodyweight beginner programs glance over them (the one on this site included) because they are not simple to progress. It does not mean they can’t be trained though!
Gymnasts who have never lifted can often deadlift well in excess of 300lbs on their first attempt at the exercise for instance (and much more with a bit of practice!)

In short:
If you are a newcomer to strength training and do not have access to a gym, don’t worry. You can experience similar gains at home up to quite an advanced level (see above). You can also still make gains past that point, but they will be of a different nature, focusing more on skill and agility, and your progress in terms of pure strength will be slower (but nonetheless significant).

one leg squat
Case study: pistol squats vs. barbell squats
Squats (together with deadlifts mentioned above) are generally considered one of these areas for which weight training far surpasses bodyweight exercises.
Bodyweight squat progressions follow a fairly smooth, linear manner up to the pistol squat, after which there isn’t anywhere obvious to go…
On face value, a pistol squat should be equivalent to a barbell squat of 1x your own body weight, which –even in the context of a beginner program- is really not all that much.
It is not quite that simple however: most bodyweight athletes who can perform a one leg squat will actually be able to back squat quite a bit more than their bodyweight (somewhere around 20% more). This is due to the inherent difficulty of pistols which recruit more muscular fibre than equivalent squats of 1xbody weight due to the demands placed on balance and stability by the exercise.
I would suggest that whilst pistols may be inferior to barbell back squats in terms of initial strength or hypertrophy development, they are also far superior at developing the flexibility, stability and strength at the extremes of range of motion necessary for a deep squat. It is not altogether rare to see experienced squatters struggle or be entirely unable to perform full ROM squats without (and sometimes even with) the help of raised heels.
Pistol squats do have their limits, granted, but if you are not a bodyweight purist, their difficulty can also be increased by holding a gallon milk bottle in front of you or a kettle bell/dumbbells.

Concluding words: why do we have to choose anyways? Is it really a case of one vs. the other?
Writing the case study above, the following point crossed my mind: the debate about weights vs. bodyweight exercises is purely a theoretical one, and mostly fictitious. The only people bothered will be bodyweight purists who categorically refuse to ever pick up anything (and if you are one, I have news for you: unless you are exercising naked, you are already weight training), and those who believe such purists make up the majority of bodyweight athletes.
Why should we be bothered? After all, countless weight lifters customarily perform bodyweight exercises (from pull ups and dips to explosive movements like clap push ups), so why wouldn’t bodyweight athletes do the same and use weights, weighted vests, or gallon bottles of milk (!) when it suits their needs?
Choosing between weights and bodyweight, in my mind, is just like choosing between peas and carrots: it’s not about which is most nutritious, but merely a matter of taste and/or what’s available… And if you can have both… well, they’ll get on together just like peas and carrots!

An additional note:
If you nonetheless remain perplexed by the question of whether weights or bodyweight training is better, this might be because one of the following reasons:

-          You do not have easy access to a gym; you want to make best use of what you can find at home, and you are worried you will not gain strength or mass. If this is you, I hope this article will have alleviated your fears. If it hasn’t, you really need to get off your butt: start working out and stop theoretizing!
-          You are a bodybuilder who struggles to perform some basic bodyweight moves such as pull ups or muscle ups, and you need to salvage your ego by establishing the superiority of your training methods. I’m sorry for you. I doubt you will have read this far, but just in case you did: congratulations! Hopefully you now appreciate the benefits and limitations of bodyweight training a bit better than most!
-          You are one of the 'strictly bodyweight' purists I mentioned above. I feel sorry for you also: your dogmatic views are preventing you from optimizing your progress… Weights can actually be used for a variety of valuable purposes such as: pre-exhausting a certain muscle group before training a compound movement; counter-balancing your own bodyweight in exercises such as pistol squats; extending the life of most bodyweight progressions; in pre-hab/rehab work; and in loaded progressive stretching protocols.

I will leave you with these words from a friend of mine: "We have just reaffirmed that the world is, again, not black and white, but grey as f*ck!". And therein lies the answer to the question of 'weights vs. bodyweight'!


  1. Excellent post. Question: suppose you did include posterior chain exercise progression. How might that look?

  2. Try using the reddit Start Bodyweight group for your questions: http://www.reddit.com/r/startbodyweight/
    But, well... depending on how strong you are, just add bridges, hip thrusts, single leg deadlifts, glute ham raises or reverse hypers to the basic routine.
    They do not constitute a clear linear progression though, as they all target slightly different muscle groups. Some of them, you could also add as skill and mobility work as part of your warm up (the bridges, specifically)

  3. Awesome article like usual
    Keep it up

  4. Always great to read your thoughts.

  5. Thanks for the article, Nick. Very clear to me now. The thing now is to find a decent kettlebell here in Mexico. Cheers!

  6. Nick, great summary! I changed to your program two weeks ago and it's very challenging! Keep up your excellent work!

  7. Great article. But why wouldn't we say that a pistol squat is equivalent to 2x barbell squat since it's being performed off only one leg?

    1. 1x your weight on the barbell, + 1x your weight from yourself = 2x your bodyweight - Done on 2 legs, this = 1x bodyweight per squat, same as a pistol.

  8. Question - your progress looks great - What's your diet like? did it change a lot from before you started training to what it is now?

    ....i just can't get my head around the whole "it's 90% diet" thing

  9. I was diagnosed with hearth hypertrophy cardiomyopathy and my cardiologist forbade for me to do any weights. I'm seriously considering to start doing bodyweight exercises.
    Thanks for the info.

    1. I don't reply to the messages on this site very often, but I felt compelled to reply to yours: you are crazy to even consider bodyweight exercises if your cardiologist forbade you weights... in essence, there is no difference between bodyweight strength training and weights: it does not matter where the resistance comes from, whether it is from your own body or from weights, the effect is exactly the same!

    2. Hello friend, I think it's important to consult with a sports-medicine specialist AND a cardiologist before you choose an exercise regimen. Their recommendation should be based on a combination between your symptoms (chest pain, Shortness of breath), a heart stress test (where you walk on a treadmill with electrical monitoring) and physician expertise.

      Ultimately, it is your life and your own risk to take. There is obvious risk to not exercising. As long as you learn to know your own body, to not push yourself past your limit, you should be able to learn to do various exercises. I think your cardiologist meant not to do high-weight exercises, but body-weight exercise should be appropriate as long as you do not over-exert yourself. Exercise is not a cure for HCM but it is not an absolute contra-indication. We all need exercise, and it always comes with certain risks. Just don't compete or ignore your body's symptoms.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. I would like to know whether the ijuries that happen coz of weights is similar to bodyweight ??

  12. From my exposure to it all, bodyweight guys are more into fitness than body building. Body building guys want the looks and are willing to sacrifice their medium/long-term health for it. If you're getting real results from weight training for looks, you're juicing. There's no other way to say it. It's really a big lie being given to all of us. They all lie - it's the only way to get the really large results.

    Watch for guys with really over-built trapezius muscles (the muscles between your neck and shoulders). That area has the largest number of steroid receptors. When you see guys with silly looking trapezius gains, it's because they're doing it with chemical help. This whole body building area with weight training is a total lie - don't believe what you see. Don't try to copy others because they're not being honest and chances are, you're not going to start injecting yourself. You'll never get their gains otherwise.

    The guys who stick with bodyweight are in it for the right reasons. That's the major difference.

  13. If anything, bodyweight exercises develop all your tendons, joints and other tissues gradually with less trauma risk. That alone is a deal closer for me, who, like most other people nowadays, has been too static and inactive for the past X years. Awesome article.

  14. trained with weights for many years, but last five years done nothing but bodyweight excercises with no injuries and feeling stronger, convict conditioning way to go

  15. Hey there,

    I stumbled across your article about bodyweight exercises and weight training. Absolutely love it.

    Recenvtly, I’ve beeok working on a post about the same topic!
    In fact, I reflect a full year of doing only bodyweight exercises aka. Calisthenics aka. Street Workout!

    It’s crazy how my body has changed since. My review, including pros and cons of bodyweight exercises and weight training, can be found on my blog:


    I hope you like it as much as I do yours.

    Keep up the good work.


  16. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your thought. You got a tough body man.

  17. Thanks,you made it simple,as my kungfu instructor (sifu) said,"do something"


  18. what if I work out in the gym and one day I couldn't make it to the gym ... will calisthenics ruin this or can I do calisthenics for the day ?

  19. I've been doing various lifts and grappling for years and have had some tweaks on the road. I got a 2" rope to climb and it changed my life. Erased all imbalances and my core is worlds above where it's ever been.

    'The strength a culturist should pursue is world strength lifting a weight above your head is plain and simple a display of muscle.' - Eugene Sandow