“What’s better to build strength and gain muscle, weight training or bodyweight exercises?”
That’s a question I’ve come across a lot of times recently. Building muscle using your own bodyweight is indeed a very controversial topic. It is discussed in gyms and forums, but also on blogs and YouTube videos. While the majority of people believe weight training is the only way to become muscular, the more experienced people know that it basically doesn’t matter whether you only use your bodyweight, or weights.
Resistance is resistance, no matter whether you use a barbell, dumbbells, stones, brackets or your own bodyweight. You could even use a bottle of water, if you use it the right way, you’ll be able to gain muscle.
It has to be said however, that certain types of exercises are definitely more ideal for certain people based on factors like experience level, training preference and their specific fitness goal. For example, I can’t see the point of a power lifter doing push ups. A power lifter’s goal is to lift as much weight as possible and therefore he should focus on lifting, as in my opinion, performing bodyweight exercises wouldn’t especially benefit him.
In terms of muscle building and getting in shape however, I guess everyone can take advantage of bodyweight exercises. Quite frankly, I believe it is possible to build an awesome physique by following a bodyweight-based training program. Based on my personal experience, I also see young kids growing muscle, without using any weights at all. This is to be seen in the gymnastics class, which I take part in once a week. Children aged between 5 and 12 years train there to improve their gymnastic skills. One part of their training, of course, is strength training. Their strength training consist of basics, such as push ups, chin ups, hanging leg raises, but also advanced L-holds and handstand presses.
Coming back to the main question and the reason for this post: What’s better to build muscle, bodyweight exercises or weight training? Definitely not an easy question, but I’ve made my experiences with both and now I’d like to share my view on this controversial topic.
A self-experiment: From weight training to bodyweight exercises
My fitness journey began over 7 years ago. I went off playing soccer and signed up at my local fitness center. At this time, I had absolutely NO IDEA about training, diet, nutrition or building muscle. My workout routine looked extremely shocking. I remember my warm up, which consisted of 20 minutes high intense cardio, so that I was out of energy when I had not even started strength training. Not to forget my eating habits… I was convinced I was making my muscle grow when I ate a small portion of corn salad with approximately 10 tablespoons of creamy dressing and a chicken breast as a side.
Anyway, everyone starts somewhere, right? 🙂
Over the time, things changed for the good and I finally began to see results. My back got wider, my arms got bigger and also my chest began to grow. The more my body got used to lifting, the heavier weights I was able to move.
While I visited the gym two to three days a week in the beginning, I quickly increased training frequency to 4 to 5 times a week. Also, I let a professional athlete design a workout program specifically for me. Of course, the program was based on hypertrophy training and was mainly designed to build muscle, as this is what I wanted to achieve. I enjoyed working out and seeing my muscle increase.
However, a time came in which I just wasn’t satisfied by seeing those results anymore.
In fact, I always hated reaching the last exercise of my training plan. This last exercise meant I would have to leave the gym and go home. With all of this motivation I set a new goal: I wanted to get stronger, get more athletic and I dreamed of the ability to perform handstand push ups and levers. Nevertheless, I did not even TRY to perform any of these movements, because they were simply not part of my workout program.
If I had had to write down my thoughts at this time, it would have been something like: “If I do enough repetitions and push myself as hard as possible, I’ll be able to perform handstand push ups one day.”
Hell, I was totally wrong! Unfortunately, it took me YEARS to realize that I actually need to practice handstand push ups in order to master them. It’s the same with playing chess: One will never become the worlds best player, if all one does is play monopoly! When I finally attempted to perform handstand push ups, I became aware of the fact that it is not necessarily strength that I lacked in, but flexibility and body tension. I drastically adjusted my workout program: more bodyweight exercises, as well as stretching at the end of each workout.
Still, I was far away from even holding a freestanding handstand.
There are no shortcuts – everything is reps, reps, reps
Back in 2014, I took half a year off to expand my horizon and discover the world. I spent 6 months in the United States and visited New York, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas and more, but for most of the time I stayed in Santa Monica. In case you didn’t know, Santa Monica is a very lively location full of happiness and joy. Also, people are highly aware of how to keep their health and fitness. Moreover, Gold’s Gym and the Muscle Beach are located in Santa Monica, where Arnold Schwarzenegger used to train, when his bodybuilding career was at its peak.
It didn’t take much time until I had found friends, as everyone was into fitness and had a similar mindset. Immediately, I replicated movements from others and luckily, I got a lot of support and advice from professional gymnasts, dancers, circus artists and other athletes. Handstands, Front-Lever, Ring Muscle-Up, Back-Lever, Bent-Arm-Handstand-Press, Bar Muscle-Up, my enthusiasm and excitement allowed me to learn extraordinarily fast and in a short period of time, I had become one of those, who was constantly asked for advice. My biggest achievement definitely was mastering the Iron Cross on the rings. I got there with hours of practice, or how Arnold Schwarzenegger would say:
“There are no shortcuts – everything is reps, reps, reps.”
365 days of bodyweight training
During my stay in Santa Monica, I followed a weight lifting program and I also practiced for several hours at the beach daily. My training was indeed very time-consuming. There were days I was so sore, that I could barely do 15 pushups, not to mention a handstand press. I had to admit that I could progress much better If would focus on one thing, either bodybuilding and weightlifting, or bodyweight exercises and skill development.
Later in 2014, when I returned to my home in Switzerland, I joined a CrossFit gym and decided to work out only using my bodyweight for the following months. I used typical CrossFit equipment such as gymnast rings, bars, boxes and sometimes even tires. In total, I trained almost an entire year Calisthenics, which is also known as Street Workout.
Reflecting one year of working out using only my bodyweight, I could notice the following results:
- Strength increased slightly
While I always deadlifted 100kg for 8-10 reps, I’m now able to lift 130kg for 3 reps (the proof).
- Mastered awesome skills
Mastered some awesome bodyweight skills such as L-Cross (Iron Cross combined with L-Sit) and Straddle Planche (me doing the L-Cross).
- Reached a pretty low body fat percentage
Due to the high amount of calories I burnt, my body fat dropped (Simply Me 🙂)
- Gained crazy Core strength
Even though I didn’t dedicate a workout session to the abdominal muscles, my core got much stronger (One Arm Dragon Flag).
- Lost some muscle mass
As a results of not doing any isolated exercises and not focusing on hypertrophie training, I lost muscle mass (I used to be heavier).
In the meantime, I now work out in a regular gym, more specifically in a bodybuilding gym. Luckily, there’s a pole bar and also rings, so I can still practice skills. Nevertheless, my training now consists of weight training as well as bodyweight exercises.
The benefits of bodyweight exercises
That bodyweight exercises can lead to muscle gain is out of question. Still, I’d like to demonstrate how powerful bodyweight training can be.
Advantage #1: Bodyweight training allows you to work out anywhere at anytime
Pushups, Squats, Planks, Leg Raises, Burpees, L-Sit, all these exercises and many more don’t require any equipment and can be done in a park, at home, in a hotel room or everywhere you want. The more creative you are, the more different varieties of exercises you’ll find. Moreover, bodyweight training is free and honestly, what’s better than to work out at the beach in the sun?
Advantage #2: Bodyweight training will build a strong core
Most bodyweight exercises engage your core muscles. Even though you may not be aware of it, performing pushups and even holding a handstand require core strength. With bodyweight training, you’ll develop extraordinary abdominal muscles.
Advantage #3: Bodyweight training is challenging at any fitness level
There are hundreds of different bodyweight exercises. Therefore you can easily mix up your routine by adding other exercises or making an existing exercise even harder. Working with a variety of exercises not only relieves boredom, it can also help break plateaus and spark further progress.
Advantage #4: Bodyweight training allows you to learn awesome skills
If you want to learn bodyweight skills such as levers, handstands or planche, then you should mainly focus on bodyweight exercises. Your body needs to get used to such positions and that’s why it’s best to perform exercises which allow you to get stronger and are similar to the end result.
Advantage #5: Bodyweight training promotes aesthetics
Have you ever noticed the physique of professional gymnasts? They are not only crazy strong, but they also have muscular, aesthetic bodies. And the best is, they mostly train with their own bodyweight. Bodyweight exercises show results, partially because they involve compound movements – meaning numerous joints and muscles are engaged in each move.
Disadvantage #1: It’s Hard to isolate certain muscles
As most bodyweight exercises are compound exercises, it’s hard to find exercises which only work on certain muscles.
The benefits of weight training
If you ask a professional athlete for a muscle building program, nine out of ten times they come up with weight training. Like bodyweight training, also weight training has its Pros and Cons:
Advantage #1: Weight training allows you to train certain muscles
Isolation exercises allow targeting certain muscles and shaping your body to achieve the desired look. For example, you can easily perform exercises which only work on biceps or triceps in order to get bigger arms.
Advantage #2: Weight training makes it easy to measure progress
As you use dumbbells, barbells or machines, it’s easy to determine whether you got stronger. Working with different weights also help to keep your workout challenging.
Advantage #3: Weight training builds muscle
Another benefit of weight training is that it actually leads to muscle gain. There are different lifting methods like supersets and dropsets which help to fully stimulate muscle. Literally every bodybuilder does weight training and there are proven workout routines in order to gain muscle.
Disadvantage #1: Weight trainings needs equipment
Obviously, weights in form of plates, dumbbells or barbells are needed to perform weight training. While most people buy a membership at a fitness center, another option could be setting up a home gym. Either way, equipment is essential.
Disadvantage #2: Weight training won’t prepare your body for bodyweight movements
Even though you can simulate certain bodyweight moves with weights, without practice, you’ll never be able to do them. You can do 100 sets of overhead presses and triceps pushdowns, but this does not guarantee you can perform a single handstand-pushup.
Bodyweight exercises vs. weight training – What’s better?
Both, bodyweight exercises and weight training can lead to muscle gain, as long as the other aspects of muscle growth, such as diet and recovery, are in place.
There is not really a ‘better’ choice to make when it comes down to getting a muscular body. On one hand we have bodybuilders who focus mainly on weight training, on the other hand there are gymnasts whose training is based on bodyweight movements and don’t tell me they’re not strong, athletic nor jacked.
The choice between bodyweight exercises and weight training depends on individual preferences and goals. However, I consider a mix of weight lifting and bodyweight training as most effective when it comes down to building muscle and gaining strength. Also, activities like rope climbing, box jumps and sprints can benefit an aesthetic physique and help become stronger.
Personal experience has shown, that your body looks way more athletic and ripped, when you incorporate bodyweight exercises in addition to weight training.
Unfortunately, most programs are based either completely on weights OR bodyweight exercises. In fact, every bodybuilding program contains at least 90% weight training. On the other hand Street Workout and Calisthenics programs are completely programmed for bodyweight training.
As I didn’t want to choose between these two possible ways of training, I experienced a lot in order to set up a program which combined both. In my opinion, you should not have to choose – you shouldn’t have to sacrifice bodyweight exercises for weight training and vice versa. For these reasons, I created the Performance meets Aesthetics muscle building program, which combines weight training and bodyweight exercises for best results, aesthetic and performance wise. The program is basically for everyone, that wants to look muscular and aesthetic, but also has the goal to be able to perform handstands, pushups, levers and such.
This way you’ll never get bored at the gym. It’s challenging and also great fun! A detailed program description can be found here.
What are you experiences with bodyweight training?
Do you prefer weights or bodyweight exercises?
I’m looking forward to read your opinions and experiences.