So you’ve got your diet and cardio routines down, or you have a plan, and you’ve been researching strength training. You know that it’s something every well-rounded exercise program includes, so you know you should have it in yours, too.
But in your research, you’ve found that there’s a debate — one between which training modality is best for the resistance training portion of your efforts to lose weight and improve body composition: free weights or bodyweight exercises.
Review of Strength Training
As a quick review, here’s the “science” definition of strength training (also referred to as “resistance training”) courtesy of Mosby’s Medical Dictionary:
“a method of improving muscular strength by gradually increasing the ability to resist force through the use of free weights, machines, or the person’s own body weight.”
This means you get stronger and more capable of performing the activities of your regular- or sport-life: carrying groceries or children, moving furniture, running, jumping, and any other physical activities you engage in.
Beyond this base-level, strength training has numerous benefits, including but not limited to:
- Improved metabolism
- Increased lean mass
- Reduced fat mass
- Improved bone strength and density
- Greater physical performance
- Improved cognitive abilities and self-esteem
- Prevention and management of type 2 diabetes
- Reduced resting blood pressure
- Lower “bad” cholesterol and higher “good” cholesterol
- Reduction of pains associated with chronic conditions
And ladies, if you’re worried about getting massive muscles from hoisting weights (or your body) around — don’t.
Does strength training mean big and bulky?
The myth of women becoming “big and bulky” is just that — a myth. Scientists disproved this all the way back in the ‘70s, and numerous studies have supported it since.
In that study, scientists took 7 track-and-field athletes and took “strength, body composition, and anthropometric measurements” before and after 3 and 6 months of strength training. Using large, compound (many-joints used) exercises like the bench press and half-squat with dumbbells, barbells, and leg press machines, 5 of the subjects trained 3 times per week.
After 6 months, the 5 weight-trained women had improved their bench press strength by 15-44% and half-squat strength by 16-53%. While upper-body girth increased across the board (including in the 2 non-weight-training subjects), thigh girth did not, and lean body weight increased only in the largest weight-trained woman.
These results led to the study’s organizers concluding that “women are capable of responding to strength training with considerable increases in strength and only minimal evidence of muscular hypertrophy [emphasis added].”
Different reps for different goals — but it’s all strength
With strength training, different repetition ranges are traditionally used for different goals as supported by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (see image below).
To have well-rounded muscular-strength, it’s good practice to include reps in all ranges. With a review of strength training done, you can move onto the comparison of free weights vs. bodyweight.
Strength Training with Free Weights
Using free weights for your resistance training involves lifting weights that are external to your body — i.e., adding resistance to a barbell with weighted plates and lifting it, or using dumbbells.
Many traditional strength training programs rely on barbells and dumbbells — programs like Starting Strength, for example.
The reasoning behind using free weights is simple: to continue to get stronger, you have to increase weight or repetitions. Increasing the weight of a barbell or dumbbell is simple — just add plates (commonly by as little as 5 pounds, or with special “microplates” that go down to fractional amounts, like 0.5 lbs). This allows for ease-of-progression — it’s a matter of math.
Many of the benefits of free weights line up with resistance training in general:
- Greater strength (leading to greater physical performance)
- Improved muscle mass
- Greater bone density and strength
Using free weights also allows you to target very specific muscle groups to correct muscle imbalances. For example, if one bicep is larger or stronger than the other, you can easily target the weaker one by doing a bicep curl for just that side. You are not restricted to using both hands and perpetuating the imbalance.
Similarly, if one side of your chest or back is weaker than the other, you can target just that side with a variety of exercises. Which leads to the next point: variety.
There are almost limitless variations of exercises that can be performed with free weights. Even in the basic movements of pushing, pulling, squatting, and deadlifting, you can change the position of the weight — from across the back of your shoulders to the front — , your hands — wide grip, shoulder-width, narrow, one-handed — , your stance — wide, shoulder-width, narrow, one-legged, staggered — , etc.
Further, lifting weights has been proven to stimulate the production of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones like Human Growth Hormone (HGH) — which is directly in line with the goal of losing weight and improving your body composition.
On the opposite side of things, however, there are some drawbacks to free weights.
To get the most out of an exercise, you need to know how to perform it with the proper technique for your goals. For example, more complex exercises like barbell back squats or deadlifts — or the “Olympic” lifts of clean and press and snatches — can be difficult to learn if you’re training alone.
And while there are great resources out there like how-to videos and articles, unless you have someone watching you during your workout, you can’t get real-time feedback on your technique.
Without that feedback, you risk injury — either from chronically poor movement patterns, or — if you use too much weight — sudden, acute trauma to your muscle, joints, or other structures.
That being said, don’t run just yet — this study and the study above concluded that most injuries suffered by free-weight lifters were chronic in nature. If you train “smart” by avoiding weights heavier than you can safely handle and using proper technique, you should be able to avoid acute injury.
Strength Training with Bodyweight
Bodyweight strength training involves movements that use your body as the resistance. This probably conjures up images from grade and intermediate school of pushups, situps, rope climbing, and chin ups.
Which is accurate, because those are all bodyweight strength exercises. But bodyweight exercises can be more than that, too, allowing you to climb to incredible levels of strength.
Just take a look at a competitive gymnast, like this one:
She trains with her bodyweight daily, and no one would say she’s weak or out of shape.
Returning to our review of “strength training,” remember that the definition included,
“a method of improving muscular strength by gradually increasing the ability to resist force through the use of… the person’s own body weight” [emphasis added].
By this definition, there should be no real difference between training modalities, but bodyweight training does come with a few differences from free weights.
First of all, if you’re just starting out with resistance training, the free weight area at your gym can be intimidating — but bodyweight exercises can often be performed at home, where you might feel more comfortable if strength training is new to you.
Technique is often less complicated than free weights, and since you aren’t hoisting a heavy barbell or dumbbell, you can take your time learning without a coach, and without risking dropping the weight on your foot. Bodyweight training — think yoga — also incorporates a lot of balance and functional movement to help with stability and activating smaller muscles.
Similar to weights, you can scale exercises from beginner-level upward, or regress them backward as necessary. For example, if you’re unable to do a full push up on your hands and toes, you can lower your body so your knees are touching the ground instead. Or, place your hands on a higher object, like a wall, sturdy table, or chair.
Once you get stronger, you can play with different hand (or foot) positions — wide, narrow, staggered, feet elevated, one-armed, etc to activate different muscles and change the dynamics of the exercise.
Not to mention, you move your body every day — pushing yourself up from the floor, standing up from a chair, playing with your kids, or participating in “extracurricular activity.” Building strength through these movements means greater ease-of-movement doing so.
However, just like with free weights, there are failures to bodyweight-only training.
With bodyweight strength training, you can’t isolate muscles as effectively — or easily — as with free weights. Trying to isolate that weak left bicep will require a lot of creativity.
And knowing how to make the exercises harder (or easier) often requires a bit of imagination and dedication. After all, progressing by adjusting the angle of your body just an inch at a time — although you’re getting stronger — can be discouraging.
Further, although there are many hard lower-body exercises that require no extra equipment (like one-legged “pistol” squats) there’s only so far you can strengthen your lower body before you need to add weight. And even if you’re able to do 100 pistols with each leg, eventually to keep progressing, you need to increase the resistance.
So… what’s the Verdict?
Laid out to the unbiased eye, the debate between free weights and bodyweight strength training looks pretty even. But everyone is biased.
What’s best for you depends on your goals and situation. If you’re impatient to see progress in the amount that you can lift, bodyweight training might not be the best choice for you — free weights, with their tracking-friendly poundages, might be better.
Likewise, if you’re deathly worried about wandering into the free weights section of the gym, being able to start out at home could make bodyweight training a good place to start for your strength work.
Yet in regards to improving your body composition, either method will work: both are training your muscles against resistance, which improves muscle, strength and metabolism — and ultimately fat loss.
Bodyweight exercises can be convenient, easy to start with, and potentially build and protect your joints, but the limitations of lower-body strength on a bodyweight-only workout regimen make lifting weights — at least for your lower body — still worthwhile.
So if combining the two modalities gives you the best of both worlds — why restrict yourself to just one?
Matthew Seiltz is a writer and lifelong strength and fitness enthusiast. When not writing or working out, he can be found with a book or spending time with his wife and sons outdoors.