As discussed in a previous post, the ‘better’ method is going to be the one, which is most specific to your goal; you can (and should) combine the two, as part of an effective training program.
Bodyweight training is sometimes looked upon as being a beginner’s way of training; typically through strength endurance with things like circuits, and weight training is for the more advanced trainee.
I can tell you from my own experience and from talking to those who perform bodyweight training regularly. Bodyweight training is not just for beginners, it can be progressed to very high levels of strength that many who weight train would have a very hard time being able to complete.
Note: I am a meathead, I love weight training and couldn’t imagine performing bodyweight only workouts all the time but I have a huge amount of respect for those who do train this way and the things they can do.
Here are of the common debates between Bodyweight vs Weight training
What Is Better For Building Muscle?
To build muscle you have to provide the body with some form of progressive overload to promote a response to grow alongside decent nutrition. Adding weight, total volume, progressing to a harder variation of a movement, varying the time under tension are some of the ways to do this as I have written about before.
These principles can be applied to both bodyweight & weight training to build a strong physique.
How can bodyweight movements be overloaded?
Regular push ups are a basic movement to perform but how about a planche push up? This takes a lot of practice and will provide more overload compared to a regular push up. You have more weight going through the upper body, as the legs are not supported and the range of movement increases.
Another example is the handstand push up. If you are performing these and weigh say 80kg you are still pressing a lot of weight above your head. Just how you would with a barbell overhead press.
A point those who are pro bodyweight training for building muscle, is to take a look at the physiques of gymnasts, which are very impressive; in particular they have really well developed upper bodies.
After doing a bit of research on a Olympic level gymnast, I found that those who train on the rings/pommel horse tend to have more muscle mass compared to those who don’t. The common finding was that the professional ones would train 2-3 times a day for around 25-35 hours per week, focused around their events, plyometrics and lots of core work. They follow a high frequency approach that allows for a lot of total volume to be completed. I couldn’t find any information, which said they performed weight training.
The argument against this is that the average trainee isn’t going to be able to dedicate this amount of time to training, so are you going to be able to develop a gymnast’s physique in less time & likely with less skill?
You certainly can build muscle through a bodyweight only routine but to maximize muscle size, I think bodyweight training can only take you so far, at some point if your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, you need to incorporate some weights.
On the weight training side, to my knowledge I am yet to see a bodybuilder step on stage that only performs bodyweight training ( I could be wrong). Bodybuilders natty or enhanced carry the most muscle of any athlete. They lift predominantly weights combined with some bodyweight movements.
Another argument from the weight training camp is that progress can be faster using weights compared to bodyweight movements. In my experience it is certainly easier to add 10kg to the bar than it is to go from a tuck front lever to a full front lever.
Can You Get Strong From Only Bodyweight Training?
What is your definition of being strong?
Different opinions will give a different answer.
Someone who only performs a routine of calisthenics may not be strong with lifting weights but they are considered strong by some with their ability to do front/back levers, muscle ups and tons of pull ups.
Who is right?
Yes you can get strong using bodyweight training. Going from doing 1 pull up to 10 pull ups, is a gain in strength. Being able to hold a back lever for 20 secs is strong.
These are skills, just like lifting weights is a skill; with either method the aim should be consistent practice to get you stronger.
Bodyweight training is also a great tool for building relative strength (power to weight ratio), which is particularly good if you are an athlete that competes in a weight category.
Is Bodyweight Training A ‘Safer’ Option For Health?
This is something that comes up a lot that weight training posses a higher risk of injury compared to bodyweight training.
Let’s look at some studies that have looked into injuries.
A study in the international journal of sports medicine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24886919) looked at injuries and overuse syndromes in competitive and elite bodybuilding.
The aim of this study was to investigate rates of injury, pain during workouts and/or overuse syndromes, as well as the influence of particular intrinsic and external factors. Data was collected using questionnaires from 71 competitive and elite bodybuilders. The information included training routines and prior injuries. 45.1% of athletes reported symptoms while training. The overall injury rate was computed to be 0.12 injuries per bodybuilder per year (0.24 injuries per 1 000 h of bodybuilding).
Athletes over 40 exhibited higher rates of injury (p=0.029). Most injuries occurred in the shoulder, elbow, lumbar spine and knee regions. A large proportion of bodybuilders complained of pain not resulting in interruptions of training/competition. The injury rate is low compared to other weightlifting disciplines such as powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting or strongman competition. In comparison to team or contact sports the injury rate is minimal.
These findings are not particularly surprising in my opinion, it is rare to find someone who performs some sort of physical training regularly, that says they feel 100%, professional athletes are rarely 100% fit yet manage to perform at a high level.
The comparison of reduced injury rate to the other sports isn’t surprising either, they are all sports that involved certain movements, which need to be practiced frequently, hence the higher rates compared to bodybuilding which often has more variation in training.
For the bodyweight training, Westermann et al. conducted a study “ Evaluation of Men's and Women's Gymnastics Injuries: A 10-Year Observational Study. “
During the 10 year period, 64 male gymnasts sustained 240 injuries, while 55 female gymnasts sustained 201 injuries. The injury incidence was 8.78 per 1000 athlete-exposures for men and 9.37 per 1000 athlete-exposures for women.
Female gymnasts more commonly suffered major injuries compared with men, and more commonly underwent surgery after injury (24.4% of female injuries required surgery vs 9.2% in males).
The anatomic region most often injured in men was the hand and wrist (24%). The anatomic region most often injured in women was the foot and ankle (39%).
My own conclusion in the difference of injuries between males & females is due the differences in events that they perform. A lot of gymnastic training puts stress through the areas that were reported most injured.
This study does show that bodyweight training does still carry a risk of injury.
Injuries & overuse conditions are going to be common if you are repeatedly performing the same movements regardless of the method of training.
If you predominantly weight train, adding in some basic bodyweight movements is a good way of adding volume without overloading the body with the same movement patterns using external loads.
If I need to perform some variation of pulling movement and I find barbell rows are irritating my elbows, I could perform inverted rows on rings that allow me to:
1. Move through a more comfortable/natural range of motion
2. Work similar muscles, without the extra load.
I know a bodyweight Ring row compared to a 80kg barbell row may not provide me with the exact same stimulus, but if it allows me to work the same muscles in some way and train more frequently, without feeling in pain then what is a better option?
If you are just starting out training, either method of training will help you to progress and build a decent body. Depending on your goal, it will depend which direction you will go.
Bodyweight training wise, once you have built a solid foundation and become skilled at the harder movements, your physique isn’t going to change massively muscle size wise, but your skills at the movements can improve.
If you want to focus more on muscle size, I would recommend spending more time weight training. Bodybuilders, powerlifters and strongmen all weight train, they tend to have a high amount of muscle mass and strength. However they still include some bodyweight movements within their programs so don’t feel as if you have to be married to the weights!
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