When it comes to strength training and building muscle, the body responds to any tension or resistance placed upon it, so where that tension comes from is, arguably, irrelevant (have a look at my recent article on resistance bands vs free weights for an example of what I mean here!) However, when you look at the benefits of both, choosing between whether to perform bodyweight exercises over free weights – such as dumbbells and barbells – really comes down to your particular goals and your lifestyle.
Gymnasts for instance rarely lift weights but perform unbelievable feats of strength and explosiveness, whereas weightlifters are able to lift more weight over their head than any other athlete. So when it comes to bodyweight vs free weights, why would you choose one over the other, and could you even add both into your workouts?
Let’s look at the benefits of both.
If you’ve ever performed Yoga or Pilates you’ll know that bodyweight exercises can be challenging. Often referred to as ‘Calisthenics’, bodyweight training brings with it a multitude of unique benefits that you can’t get from lifting heavy weights such as dumbbells. One of the most important benefits of bodyweight training is the development of spatial awareness and body control, as well as maintaining healthy joints. Being able to jump, run, crawl balance on one leg, push and pull-up are essential to maintaining a healthy body and athleticism and all of these things can be developed at a basic level. All of these things also boost your coordination as you tend to train in linear movements when bodyweight training which help maximise strength and control making you strong and flexible whilst improving coordination.
Another benefit of bodyweight training is joint mobility. Not only is it kinder on your joints, but the ability to focus on limited movements improves your ability in much bigger movements such as push-ups, lunges and squats, reducing your risk of injury as you’re less likely to over-compensate.
Clearly in terms of convenience and cost bodyweight training ticks both boxes – it’s literally something you can do anywhere with no equipment needed. If you’re working out at home and don’t have any weights, bodyweight training can still give you a good, challenging workout.
Of course training with weights is just as good for fitness but could be considered more useful if you’re looking to build muscle. Weight training helps to increase your maximum strength and triggers the hormones that build muscle and it will also carry over into improving other areas of your training and in life too – from running to pushing a huge shopping trolley around the supermarket. For instance, if you increase your deadlift strength in the gym then this will ultimately benefit the force you produce in your running – more force equals more distance covered each step and ultimately a faster time. By the same token, increasing the weight on your dumbbell curl will help make lifting your child a doddle.
The stress that’s applied to your muscles when lifting weights also results in a lot of other health benefits – such as strengthening connective tissues like tendons and ligaments so you’ll be less likely to become injured whilst playing baseball or going for a run. Weight lifting also improves your bone density and helps to maintain all your hard-earned, lean muscle mass.
Another advantage over lifting free weights over performing body weight exercises is that you are able to control how much you are lifting and increase the weight to adapt and continue challenging your muscles – so it’s easier to know when you’re getting stronger. You also get that added satisfaction from moving from lifting 20 pounds to 25 pounds in your bicep curls for instance too!
So can you, and should you, do both?
In short yes – it’s fine to perform both bodyweight and free weight exercise as part of your routine and a great way to mix up your workout. As I mentioned earlier, it’s all about your goals and what you need to do to reach those goals. If increasing muscle mass and getting bigger is your aim then free weights are your go-to. If it’s more about increasing your explosiveness and flexibility then perhaps bodyweight exercises should be your aim.
But for all-round health and fitness benefits, why not incorporate both? By including both free weights and body weight exercises into your routine you’ll not only develop muscle and strength, but you’ll also take advantage of increased athleticism, flexibility and joint health whilst also improving your coordination. Using both methods will also increase both your relative strength and your absolute strength (relative strength meaning your strength relative to your bodyweight – so how many pull-ups or push-ups you’re able to perform or how fast you can run a certain distance, and absolute strength being a measure of how much weight you can lift during a deadlift, squat or bicep curl).
So if you’re looking for a well-rounded physique that’s both strong and flexible, whether you’re doing it for general fitness and health benefits or to improve your balance, coordination and explosiveness in sports, then perhaps look to combine the two. You really will get the best of both worlds!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article. What are your thoughts on bodyweight vs free weight exercises and do you already incorporate both into your fitness routine? Perhaps you’re more a fan of one over the other, or maybe you’d never even think of sacrificing time in the gym lifting free weights in exchange for bodyweight exercise? I’d love to know what you think so feel free to drop me a message below!