Bodyweight vs Weights
When comparing calisthenics/bodyweight vs weights/resistance exercises, you need to evaluate the various types of workouts involved. You may be surprised to find that certain bodyweight exercises can help fulfill your fitness goals better than weight training workouts. Besides, you need to consider more than the physical benefits.
Other various factors can make one type of workout better, despite offering fewer physical benefits. For example, bodyweight exercises don’t require equipment, so you can work out every day if you don’t have weights.
But there’s more!
And this guide on weights vs. bodyweight can give you an in-depth analysis of:
- the benefits of each training strategy;
- how they impact specific fitness goals;
- the specific exercises involved; and
- the most appropriate training strategy for various sporting events.
To start, here’s an evaluation of the benefits of weights vs. bodyweight workouts.
Bodyweight vs Weights: Which is better?
In order to figure out which is better between bodyweight and weights, you first need to understand the benefits of each.
Firstly, weight training offers numerius key benefits (1).
Weight training benefits:
- exerting force on your bones to keep them strong and healthy
- enhancing strength and increasing muscle mass
- easier options to vary weights based on your capacity
- ability to target specific muscles
- easy to measure progress based on varying weights
- preventing lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes and keeping you healthy
- boosting metabolism and burning extra fat due to more muscle mass
- improving your posture
- increasing your energy levels
- helping you sleep better
If you’re a boxer, wrestler, bodybuilder, or weightlifter, you would probably consider weight training as being more valuable than bodyweight exercises.
However, that is not necessarily true!
Perhaps these benefits of bodyweight exercises can show you what you can gain from them (5).
What you can gain from bodyweight exercises:
- building muscle strength for beginners
- enhancing muscle endurance (the ability to exercise for long durations)
- increasing flexibility
- easy to do anywhere since it doesn’t require any equipment
- supports natural body movements
- less likely to cause joint injuries compared to weight training
- preventing lifestyle diseases and keeping you healthy
- boosting metabolism and burning fat
- improving your posture
- increasing your energy levels
- helping you sleep better
At first glance, it may seem surprising to have a similar number of benefits for bodyweight exercises and weight training. The reality is that both types of workouts have many overlapping benefits. Also, some benefits that you get from either bodyweight or weights workouts may apply in specific situations and to specific groups of people. For instance, calisthenics will mostly help beginners build muscles, but pro weightlifters must use weights.
This table gives a clearer picture of the overlapping benefits:
|Benefits||Bodyweight Exercises||Weight Training|
|builds muscle strength||✓ (for beginners)||✓|
|enhances muscle endurance||✓||✓ (with low weights)|
|doesn’t require equipment||✓||✗|
|natural body movements||✓||✓ (with free weights)|
|less likely to cause injuries||✓||✗|
|preventing lifestyle diseases||✓||✓|
|increasing energy levels||✓||✓|
|helping you sleep better||✓||✓|
|target specific muscles||✗||✓|
|measure progress easily||✗||✓|
Based on these benefits, the best option depends on your specific fitness goals and on which type of workout will deliver that effectively.
You can analyze this a bit more thoroughly by evaluating specific fitness goals.
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Bodyweight vs Weights: Fat Loss
When comparing bodyweight vs weights for weight loss, you need to consider how each option works to reduce body fat.
Bodyweight exercises enhance the burning of fat during the workout. On the other hand, weight training/resistance exercises can amplify fat loss long after you finish the workout.
How does that happen?
It has to do with your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your basal metabolic rate refers to the pace at which you burn calories for energy when resting. This rate is influenced by various factors including the amount of lean mass that you have (13). Therefore, if you have more lean mass, your BMR increases.
Since weight training boosts your muscle mass, you can see why it also helps you lose weight even when you’re not working out. That’s like having a passive investment that brings in money while you rest; the way billion-dollar investors make money from stocks.
You’ll appreciate how valuable this is when you realize that your BMR makes up the largest portion of energy that sedentary adults expend daily. It can be as much as 3,000 kcal/day or more (4).
In comparison, an hour bodyweight exercise may burn a few hundred calories: ranging from 200 to 400 or more (9). But you can burn more calories with a higher intensity workout. However, you can only build muscles up to a certain point and not all at once. That means you won’t instantly benefit from an increased BMR due to muscle mass. Therefore, you should complement weight training with bodyweight exercises for weight loss.
Bodyweight vs Weights: Bodybuilding
It may seem like there’s no debate on whether resistance training/weight training is better than calisthenics for bodybuilding. However, the debate isn’t fully settled yet.
A study of the issue
A study published in 2018 compared the increase of muscle thickness and strength from push-up exercises (bodyweight exercise) and bench press workouts (weight-lifting exercise) (7). The study recorded a greater improvement in the test group that did bodyweight exercises (they could do more pushups than the other test group). Moreover, there was no significant difference in terms of muscle thickness or strength between the two test groups.
Note that the study was done for a limited period of four weeks. However, that may indicate that bodyweight workouts can help beginners develop strength and endurance faster. This may change for longer periods lasting several months.
Also, note that your diet can also play a role. Various foods can boost your strength, like red meat, whole/organic/free-range eggs, raw nuts, salmon, seeds, and spinach.
Another study of the issue
Another study highlighted the limitations of weight training. A 2019 study, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, revealed something interesting about the effect of resistance exercise on muscle strength and muscle mass (12). The study showed that longer weight training sessions produced the same level of muscle strength as shorter sessions. That means you won’t necessarily get stronger by lifting weights longer.
Fortunately, you do get bulkier from longer weight training sessions. That’s typical of most activities, like how you get better at playing the piano or guitar by playing longer.
So, what does that mean?
The best way to go about bodybuilding is to combine weight training with bodyweight exercises.
Here is a further evaluation of bodyweight exercises vs. weights for various body parts for better understanding.
Bodyweight Legs vs Weights
Calisthenics alone may not be sufficient to build long-term muscle mass for your legs. On the other hand, weight training alone may not build muscle endurance.
But that’s not the whole story!
Based on the particular muscles exerted and the benefits derived from specific exercises, you may focus more on either bodyweight or weight training workouts. After all, that’s how you evaluate many things in life, like how you would evaluate different battery cell products when setting up an off-grid solar energy system.
So, here’s an evaluation of the muscles exerted in several bodyweights and weight training exercises:
- Bodyweight squat (bodyweight exercise): exerts quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, calves, inner thighs, and spinal erectors.
- Skater lunge (bodyweight exercise): exerts quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, calves, inner thighs, spinal erectors, abdominal obliques, upper back, lats, biceps, outer hips, and shoulders.
- Walking lunge (bodyweight exercise): exerts quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and abdominal obliques.
- Cossack squat (bodyweight exercise): exerts quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, calves, inner thighs, spinal erectors, and outer hips.
- Barbell squat (weight training exercise): exerts quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, calves, inner thighs, spinal erectors, abdominal obliques, upper back, and lats.
- Leg press (weight training exercise): exerts quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
- Zercher squat (weight training exercise): exerts quadriceps, glutes, abdominals, spinal erectors, upper back, and biceps.
As you can see, you’ll need to select specific exercises based on the particular muscles you want to target.
Weight Machines vs Bodyweight vs Free Weights for Mass
You can perform weight training workouts using your bodyweight, free weights, or weight machines. So, you may be curious about comparing the benefits of bodyweight vs free weights vs weight machines for building muscle mass.
Well, one benefit that free weights have over weight machines is that they tend to exert a wider range of muscles. That’s because you need to incorporate a range of muscles to stabilize your body when working out.
Bodyweight workouts have some similarities to free weights.
When using your own body as a weight, most of your muscles will be activated when exercising. Even the passive muscles would be exerted to some extent, even though only the target muscles would be active. Therefore, you may need longer rest periods between workouts that use bodyweight or free weights. This will give your entire body time to recover, not just the muscles you exercised.
On the positive side, workouts that exert most of your body can help you save time, especially if you’re busy working, running a business, or needing to take care of kids. Just one or two days of working out in a week may be sufficient.
That’s different from weight machines.
Weight machines have the capacity of focusing on specific muscles or muscle groups. This may be useful in helping you rest one group of muscles on alternating days. It will help you to continue working out different muscle groups as you rest the others, without interrupting your daily workout schedule.
However, you still need to evaluate the specific muscles exerted by particular workouts.
Here’s a sample of different free weight, weight machine, and bodyweight workouts showing the muscles targeted (8):
- Bulgarian split squat (bodyweight exercise): targets quads, glutes, calves, hamstrings, adductor thigh muscles, and abdominals.
- Squat jump with floor touch (bodyweight exercise): targets glutes, leg muscles, and lower abs.
- Burpees (bodyweight exercise): targets hamstrings, quads, calves, rectus abdominis, abdominal obliques, pecs, deltoids, and triceps.
- Spiderman pushups (bodyweight exercise): targets chest muscles, shoulders, triceps, forearms, abs, and obliques.
- Deadlift (free weight exercise): targets quadriceps, adductor magnus (inner thighs), glutes, hamstrings, lats, spinal erectors, rhomboids, traps, abdominals, and obliques.
- Bent over rows (free weight exercise): targets glutes, latissimus dorsi (back muscles), back shoulder muscles (rhomboids), forearms, biceps, spinal erectors, and hamstrings.
- Lat pulldown (weight machine exercise): targets latissimus dorsi, biceps, forearms, and rotator cuffs (shoulder muscles).
- Seated row (weight machine exercise): targets latissimus dorsi (middle back muscles), rhomboids (muscles between shoulder blades), trapezius (muscles in shoulders, neck, and upper back), and biceps.
As you can see, the number of muscles activated also depends on the specific type of workout. That means you may exert more muscles with a weight machine than a free weight or bodyweight exercise.
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Bodyweight vs Weights for Athletes
To make a good analysis of bodyweight vs weights for runners and other athletes, you need to evaluate each athletic event individually.
Different athletic events have varying strength and endurance requirements. Therefore, one event may require either more bodyweight or weights exercises than others.
Here is an overview of various athletic events established by the International Olympic Committee (2).
Long-distance races include the 10,000 meters men/women, 20 km racewalk men/women, 3,000 m steeplechase men/women, 5,000 m men/women, and 50 km racewalk men.
In such races, muscle endurance is a key factor in performance. This means training places far higher importance on bodyweight exercises compared to weight training. However, resistance exercises are still a necessary part of the training.
Short-distance races/sprints include 100 m men/women, 110 m hurdles men, 100 m hurdles women, 200 m men/women, 400 m hurdles men/women, 400 m men/women, 4 x 100 m relay men/women, and 4 x 400 m relay men/women.
These races require short bursts of energy. Hence, athletes need muscle power more than endurance. This means stronger muscles give an added advantage. Therefore, resistance exercise plays a crucial role in training. However, that is also complemented by bodyweight exercises.
Middle distance races are longer than sprints but shorter than long-distance races (3). They include the 1,500 m men/women, and 800 m men/women.
Such races require a combination of speed and endurance. That means a well-balanced combination of resistance exercises and bodyweight exercises is necessary during training.
This athletic event for men consists of ten activities in the following order (15):
- 100 meters sprint
- long jump
- high jump
- 400 meters
- 110 meters hurdles
- pole vault
- 1,500 meters
Due to the variety of activities in this event, athletes need a range of physical abilities including strength, muscle power, endurance, and agility. For instance, shot-puts require upper body strength while 1,500-meter races require endurance. Therefore, the training schedule should include a combination of multiple weight training exercises as well as bodyweight exercises.
A hammer throw requires a combination of flexibility, brute force/explosive power, and agility. Without these physical capabilities, it would be hard to throw the metal ball weighing 16 lbs (7.26 kg) for men or 8.8 lbs (4 kg) for women (10).
Simply having strong muscles may not work well in this event, you also need a good amount of flexibility. Therefore, as you build muscle strength through weight exercises, you also need to develop flexibility from bodyweight exercises.
Similar to the decathlon, this event features a combination of different activities. Athletes participate in these activities in the following order (6):
- 100 meters hurdles
- high jump
- shot put
- 200 meters
- long jump
- javelin throw
- 800 meters
Based on the variety of activities, athletes must train with a combination of weight training and bodyweight exercises.
Evidently, there’s no fixed rule on whether weights are better than bodyweight exercises.
Only after examining your specific fitness goals can you determine which training strategy is better. That may also vary based on your physical weaknesses and strengths.
Most importantly, the goal for most people should be: to build wholesome physical fitness. And that can only be achieved through a combination of multiple types of workouts. Check out the 20 Minute Full Body Workout at Home below!
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- 8 reasons why weight training is incredible for your health (2017, globalnews.ca)
- ATHLETICS (n.d., olympic.org)
- Athletics (n.d., tokyo2020.org)
- Basal Metabolic Rate (2016, sciencedirect.com)
- Benefits of Calisthenic Exercises (n.d., webmd.com)
- Decathlon and Heptathlon (2019, tokyo2020.org)
- Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness (2018, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Exercise Database & Library (n.d., acefitness.org)
- Exercise for weight loss: Calories burned in 1 hour (2019, mayoclinic.org)
- How to get the gold in hammer throw: it’s physics. (2016, research.arizona.edu)
- Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Strength Training for Fitness and Weight Loss (n.d., issaonline.com)
- The Effects of a Calisthenics and a Light Strength Training Program on Lower Limb Muscle Strength and Body Composition in Mature Women (2003, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Training Optimization for the Decathlon (2009, jstor.org)