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Getting fit and healthy is a very real battle for many of us, and it’s one that statistics suggest we are losing. Even though we have more access to information and resources than ever before, we cannot seem to turn the tide against rising problems with physical and mental health. But what if there were…

Weights vs. Bodyweight

Bodyweight training is a legitimate option for anyone interested in building an impressive physique, strength and athletic performance.

Body weight training is generally considered something for beginners who are not ready for heavy weights. Another commonly held concept is that weight training is for muscular strength and body weight is for muscular endurance, or for conditioning for sports such as boxing or martial arts.

The muscle fiber is the basic component that allows you to produce force. At the level of a single muscle cell, there is no difference between the resistance of gravity or inertia acting on a barbell or gravity’s resistance on your own body.  To the solitary muscle fiber, resistance is resistance. 

This holds true for the entire muscle; your pectoral muscles contract against a barbell in a bench press the same way they contract against the floor in a push-up.

The manner in which you make exercises more difficult is the chief difference between training with weights and with your own body weight. 

You simply add more weights to the bar to increase the difficulty of the bench press. You can increase the repetitions, but after a certain point body weight resistance produces more of an endurance exercise than a muscle-building one.

Bodyweight Training

For most people a program comprised entirely of exercises that use your own bodyweight as resistance – push-ups, pullups, planks, rows, squats, and sprints – can work great. 

People who’ve never lifted a weight in their lives can jump right in with the beginning progressions, move on up through the more difficult variants, and get fit in the process.

Some people are skeptical about the efficacy of bodyweight training programs, and wonder if it’s enough. 

Well, this depends entirely on what you mean by ‘enough’, but the answer is generally “yes.” Bodyweight training is a legitimate option for anyone interested in building an impressive physique, increasing their strength, improving their athletic performance, mobility, and flexibility, and establishing excellent mind-body-space awareness.

Advanced Bodyweight Training

The real difference between training with body weight versus weight lifting is when you want to take your training to the next level. Yes, a smart bodyweight program can rival the best barbell training, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

These guys aren’t just mindlessly doing progressively greater numbers of pushups, pullups, and air squats. If you want to get as strong as possible, just doing more reps won’t cut it. You need intelligent progression.

Progression isn’t just adding reps. Eventually, you have to make the exercises harder to keep getting stronger, either by adding weight, increasing the degree of stabilisation required, or decreasing the amount of leverage you have. 

Normal dips too easy? Move onto ring dips, and then weighted ring dips. 

Doing twenty pullups in a row without much issue? Try wearing a weight vest or work your way toward a one arm pullup. 

Bodyweight rows with your feet up on blocks a cinch? Try taking one foot off, then both, then trying front levers.

And that’s part of the reason why most people opt for barbells over bodyweight training: it’s easier and far less humbling to add weights to a bar than remove leverage from a bodyweight movement. 

In many cases, to progress in body weight means learning an entirely new movement from scratch. Starting over from zero. It’s harder to quantify than weight training and easier to get stuck.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. In fact, the degree of difficulty required to perform some of the more intermediate and advanced bodyweight exercises implies their effectiveness.

The Pros

Bodyweight exercises require activation of more muscles.

Bodyweight exercises are closed kinetic chain movements; rather than moving an object toward or away from your body, you are moving your body toward or away from the ground. 

This requires cooperation between all the muscles that form the kinetic chain and provides an arguably more complete stimulus of the musculature. For instance, in a bench press, your core is supported by the bench; in a pushup, your core is supported by the core musculature.

Bodyweight exercises develop proprioceptive zawareness.

Bodyweight training refers to moving your body through space, and this movement provides additional feedback to your body and brain when compared to lifting a weight with your arms. Neuromuscular activation is highest during exercises that move the body.

Bodyweight exercises can’t be replicated by weight training.

Many people avoid bodyweight exercises because they can’t figure out how to replicate some of their favorite barbell exercises…

Overhead press (try handstand pushups)

Bench press (try ring push ups)

Barbell rows (try tuck front lever rows)

But what about the inability of barbell exercises to replace many bodyweight movements? You can’t replicate swinging on bars, climbing a rope, doing a muscle-up, crawling on your hands, or performing an L-sit with weights, just to name a few.

The Cons

The one area where bodyweight training probably falls short is the lower body. 

For the most part, our legs and glutes are just way too strong to reach their full potential through air squats – and most bodyweight proponents will agree. 

However, a program consisting of plyometrics (jumping lunges/squats, broad jumps, depth jumps), single leg squats, and sprinting, especially hill sprints, can produce a strong lower body. 

You may not get the same degree of hypertrophy without adding weights to your lower body work, but you can certainly get stronger.

Progress with weight training can be much easier to measure.

To increase the difficulty of an exercise, you just add weights. If you lift more weight today than you did six months ago, you are stronger. 

Body weight training is less clear cut. A one-armed push-up is more difficult than one with both hands but the level of difficulty between the two is difficult to quantify.  There’s no clear multiple of difficulty as there is with weights. 

Finally, the increments between variations of push-ups are not uniform. You cannot progress from a standard push-up to a planche push-up by just lifting your feet off the ground. There will be a period where no outward progress is made while you are learning the new skill. 

Conversely, once you have mastered a 100kg bench press, your next goal will probably be a 105kg bench — progress that is much easier to see.

Where To Go From Here

Body weight training or resistance, which one will work best for you? 

That depends on your goals, access to equipment and what appeals to you the most (the best form of training is always the one you will enjoy and stick at).

If you have no access to quality gym equipment, if you live next door to a park with an awesome outdoor workout station, if you hate weight training, if you fear weight training, or even if just prefer bodyweight exercises, then you can build an awesome body and get incredibly strong by emphasising bodyweight training.

Do you have to choose one over the other? No. 

The two can coexist quite happily. In fact, I tend to use a fusion of bodyweight training (gymnastics, ring work, pullups, dips) for the upper body and weight training (lunges, squats, deadlifts) for the lower body.

Resistance training, whether it’s with your body weight or free weights, does take some consideration, but it’s not rocket science. As we covered last week the benefits from resistance training are many and far reaching. 

These become even more important the older we get, so even if it’s only a couple of times a week I highly recommend giving it a go.

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