From handstand pushups and one arm chins, to heavy deadlifts and bench press, arguments in the subject of free weights vs. bodyweight in achieving physical goals have gone on for decades. Each discipline has the ability to produce hard, chiseled bodies, as well as an increase in strength. At the end of the day, the choice that’s best for you is all about your goals and where you want to end up. Would you rather have a 20 inch bicep or be able to climb a 15 foot rope with just your arms, ‘cause chances are slim you’ll be doing both…unless you learn about and experiment with both until you find the combination of body weight and weight training that your genetics best respond to.
Bodyweight exercises are almost completely comprised of closed kinetic chain exercises, meaning they involve moving the body through space around a fixed point (i.e. the floor). This creates a completely different response than moving an external load (free weights) around your fixed body. This is also why bodyweight exercises are generally not used for bulking up, as you want the absolute minimum amount of muscle needed to do the job at hand, any more weight making the movement that much harder.
These closed chain movements almost always require more skill than the weightlifting equivalent as we can easily see by looking at handstand pushups vs. overhead pressing. The former requires not only the ability to lift your entire bodyweight with just your arms, but also demands the ability to balance upside down (in turn using many smaller muscles to hold entire body rigid). Contrast this with overhead pressing, where there is only the transference of the weight being pressed, balance being left behind, as well as all the smaller muscles that no longer have jobs to do.
Conversely, traditional barbell work tends to be easier to work with regarding gaining muscle size. This is due to being able to control the exact amount of weight used each time, it being much harder to make such precise changes in leverage using bodyweight alone. This is usually most useful when using training paradigms similar to progressive resistance, where you increase and decrease the weight at very specific amounts at different times throughout your training cycle. Weightlifting also lends itself more to working the lower body than bodyweight alone. This is due to the leg muscles being so big that leverage alone cannot provide enough resistance to elicit a suitable response for growth or strength. It’s a small step from there to see why deadlifts and squats (both closed chain movements) are almost always part of a bulking or strengthening program as they elicit the strongest response on the largest muscles.
The transference from bodyweight to external weights tends to be a much easier one than the reverse on the whole. This being due to the previously mentioned higher demand of more advanced bodyweight exercises. That being said there is always some overlap both ways, but specificity will always trump all else for progressing in whatever exercises you choose. This is known as the SAID principle which states that the human body adapts specifically to imposed demands. This means that you must train the movement patterns you wish to improve on and are inline with your goals, whether that’s flexing super-sized muscles in front of an audience or doing a full blown planche, you will need to follow a different path for each.
Whichever path you decide on, be prepared to work hard, as neither one is easy. There will most certainly be setbacks and problems at all levels of physical training, but the long road of dedication and repetition, if followed properly and to the end, will lead to your goals…then to new problems, new goals, and more road. Incorporating both into your current workout routine will likely lead to the greatest possible gains.
While they seem to be contradictory, these two styles of training can be complimentary if done right. Try things like super setting pull-ups with deadlifts; or burning yourself out with different push-ups after heavy bench presses on chest day. The key is to define your goals, to find what works for you and to do the necessary work using that newfound knowledge to attain your goals.