Should I Use Body Weight or Free Weights?

An African American man doing push ups, a type of calisthenics, in a green shirt.

Sometimes there is no right side.

Body weight exercises or free weights? Which one is superior? People have argued over this for years, and it doesn’t look like the debate will end. There are people in both sides that believe their method is the superior option of the two. Some go as far as saying that doing the other is a waste of time.

Now we know that that’s just not true. There are many examples of individuals in both sides that have gotten great fitness results, such as improving strength and muscle growth. Anyone that tells you to avoid doing one or the other for whatever reason does not appreciate the full benefits of the alternative.

Free weights are superior for certain goals, but the same holds true for body weight. 

What are body weight exercises?

Body weight exercises, aka calisthenics, are renowned for their ability to improve the functional movements you need on a daily basis. The purpose of calisthenics is to increase your ability to move and exercise in a natural and organic way.

What are free weight exercises?

Free weights comprise static loads, in which you take a standing, sitting, or lying position while you move a weight or resistance through your muscle’s range of motion. For example, if you want to be able to move through a rocky environment on a hike with out straining yourself, stair runs and box jumps will suit you superior than improving your squat.

Complexity

Free weights have the advantage of being intuitive. If you wanted to build strength, all you need to do is lift heavier weights. You pack on more muscle by increasing volume through adding reps, sets, or load.

I have said before that it is not as easy to improve strength and muscle growth using body weight exercises, and this remains true. Calisthenics progression is much more complex than your standard “add on more weights” progression. Take the push-up, for example. The most common progressions are raising your feet off the floor, dips, or single-arm push-ups. When it comes to free weights, you progress your dumbbell bench press by lifting heavier dumbbells. For your average Joe that wants to build a stronger chest, free weights require less of a learning curve.

Cost

There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides. Body weight exercises cost nothing. Free weight exercises requires you to either purchase weight equipment or a gym membership.

You can do a lot of calisthenics exercises at your local park. You can always invest in a pull-up bar if you want to work out at home.

Targeting Muscle Groups

A winning advantage of free weights is being able to target specific muscle groups. Because calisthenics comprise many natural and functional movements, it requires that someone targets multiple muscle groups at the same time.

However, there are cases where you want to isolate a specific muscle in a workout, and a great way in doing so is by using weights. Whether it’s because you want a particular muscle to be stronger or larger or because you’re recovering from an injury, isolation movements are best achieved with weights.

Injury

Speaking of injuries, many calisthenics enthusiasts will tell you to avoid free weight exercises because it’s easier to get hurt. Now, on paper, it might make sense, since free weights require you to lift heavy loads and put a lot of stress on your muscle, tendons, joints, and ligaments. The fact of the matter is that, with a proper training program and learning proper form, there will never be a time where you’ll place yourself in danger of getting hurt.

The only issue you will face would crop up if you’re trying to lift a weight out of your capabilities or if you’re performing an exercise with improper form. And that goes the same with body weight fitness. Try to do a movement you’re not capable of doing or do a movement the wrong way, and you will injure yourself.

Who wins?

A pair of 8 kilogram dumbbells lying on a worn gym floor.

Did you know? All types of exercise boosts dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, making it a natural antidepressant.

With all that being said, which one is superior? Well, as boring as this may sound, it all boils down to it depends.

If your goal is to pack on muscle fast with little learning effort, free weights are for you. If you want to improve your capabilities in moving your body through space rather than pushing big things around, then calisthenics are the way to go.



Which do you enjoy more?

It also depends on what you enjoy doing more. Some people like moving big heavy weights around and some enjoy working out in the fresh air, free of weights limiting their body movement. And the thing is, even though each have advantages, it doesn’t mean the other is bad.

Even though free weight exercises seem to be the superior option for building strength and muscle, calisthenics can help you progress in more practical aspects of fitness-as long as you’re willing to dedicate your time to learning different ways you can progress. And that’s the catch. Most people just want to be healthier or look superior than they do now: and calisthenics requires more of an intellectual investment than free weights. That is not to say that you free weights do not require research-they do.

However, once you have mastered the basics of free weights, it is easy to progress by implementing minor tweaks and increasing intensity, volume, or weight. Progression in calisthenics requires you to constantly learn new techniques and new, more advanced exercises.

Push-ups and pull-ups can be beneficial to the average person, but exercises such as flagpoles or front levers mean little to them. But if that’s what you want to do, then do it. And that goes for free weight training too.

You can do many standard calisthenics exercises with weight added, which transforms them to a free weight exercise.  Leg presses and back rows are great for pretty much anyone. Most people don’t want to dead lift 500 pounds off the floor. If you are into something like power lifting, then it’s reasonable to stack plates on the bar.

The best thing you can do is for yourself is… both! As we can see, they both have great advantages that anyone can enjoy.

Why limit yourself to just one?