Bodyweight exercises or free weights? Which one is better? Now, there are avid people in both camps that adamantly believe that their method is very clearly the better option of the two. Some go as far as saying that doing the other is absolutely pointless.
There are many examples of individuals in both camps that have gotten great results in aspects of fitness, such as improving strength and muscle growth. The thing is, anyone that tells you to avoid doing one or the other for whatever reason does not the full benefits of the alternative. Truthfully, yes, one can be better in some ways than the other.
Bodyweight exercises are better suited to improve functional movements that are used in daily life. After all, the whole basis of calisthenics is to move your body through space without any restrictions. Calisthenics progression is much more technically complex than your standard “add on more weights” progression. Take the push-up, for example, where the most common progressions are raising your feet off the floor, dips, or single-arm push-ups. Bodyweight exercises, for the most part, is absolutely free.
Free weights are mainly static loads, where you stay in a single place and manipulate the weight from point A to point B. For example, if you want to improve your capabilities of moving more fluidly through a rocky environment such as on a hike, stair runs and box jumps will be better suited than improving your squat. However, free weights have an advantage when it comes to simplifying progression. If you wanted to build strength, you simply have to lift heavier weights. This goes the same for building muscle, by increasing volume through increasing reps, sets, or load. Free weights, you can similarly progress in a dumbbell bench press simply by lifting heavier dumbbells. For your average Joe that simply wants to get a stronger chest, free weights clearly require less learning effort. Free weight exercises requires you to either purchase weight equipment or a gym membership.
Which is better?
It all boils down to it depends. If your goal is to pack on muscle fast without much 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. It also depends on what you enjoy doing more. Some people simply 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 can’t be good at it, too. Even though free weight exercises seem to be the better option for building strength and muscle, there is no doubt that calisthenics can be pretty much limitless in these aspects as well, as long as you’re willing to dedicate some work to it. And that’s the catch for most. Most people just want to be healthier or look slightly better than they do now. Yes, doing something like push-ups and pull-ups can be beneficial to the average person, but things such as flagpoles or front levers mean very little to them. But if that’s what you want to be able to do, then by all means do it. And that goes for free weight training as well. Many of your standard calisthenics movements can be done with weight added to it, which technically transforms them to a free weight exercise. But of course, we’re talking about the typical exercises done in a gym. Leg presses and back rows are great for pretty much anyone, but the majority of people don’t care to deadlift 500 pounds off the floor. But again, if you’re into something like powerlifting, then it’s completely reasonable to start stacking plates on the bar.