The free weight vs. bodyweight debate depends on how you define each term and the exercises in question. Free weights work better due to the ease of loading. Free weights allow you to choose a sound movement pattern and overload it with heavier weights over time.
Although bodyweight exercises are technically free weight exercises, free weights usually imply using a tool such as a barbell or dumbbell along with plates to add weight. Many would argue that bodyweight training with resistance is no longer bodyweight training, such as a weighted pull-up. Most would consider a pull-up using an overhead bar as still a bodyweight exercise even though you use a tool.
As you can see, the distinctions blur. Both possess the advantages of free weights over machines and most bodyweight exercises restrict you to compound over isolation. I will regard any exercise with your bodyweight as the main resistance, even if you add weight, as a bodyweight exercise. This means a weighted pull-up would be a bodyweight exercise but not a dumbbell row.
Bodyweight training has grown to associate with rugged, old-school training. It comes along with boot camps, group classes, gymnastics exercises, and military training. Some gurus support training with bodyweight alone and many at least push for more of it. It has grown popular with the emergence of functional training. People also act illogically, such as by doing bodyweight exercises more often, even when the loading and intensity equals what is possible with free weights.
Consider these reasons to mostly avoid bodyweight training.
Know well what leads you forward and what hold you back.
- It often relies on dangerous positions to replace a lack of weight.
On the barbell bench press, you keep a safe movement constant and add weight as you grow bigger and stronger. With a push-up, you can add a weighted vest, chains, or a plate across the back. Many performing the push-up without these options, or even with them, will become able to do too many reps. Many trainees then start to experiment with leverage.
You need heavy weight to add muscle. Much beyond 30 reps brings in limiting factors that compete with strength and size. Heavy breathing or too much lactic acid may limit how much tension you create, the main stimulus for more size and strength.
Unfortunately, changing leverage beyond basic squats and horizontal pushes and pulls can harm your joints and work your muscles with less tension. For example, as push-ups feel easier, many will place their feet on an incline or even progress to handstand push-ups. This turns the movement into an analogue for the harmful overhead press, using less chest and more shoulders. This works far less muscle and harms safety. The exercise may grow harder but for no good purpose.
Bodyweight options often use awkward grips and stances. You may go too close or too wide to make up for a lack of weight. Instead of applying a safe medium position, you may use a very close hand spacing to hit the triceps or go too widely to hit the chest. This places shearing forces on your joints. Instead you could have used a standard grip bench press and gotten much stronger to build up all the muscles evenly and safely.
Some trainees may struggle to perform the exercises at their bodyweight if it feels too heavy. If you cannot perform a pull-up because you weigh too much versus your strength level then you cannot even consider it as an option. You could use resistance bands for pull-ups. This assistance depends on the exercise though and resistance bands throw off your strength curves anyway.
- It may overemphasize the core.
Many experts list this as an advantage but it can act as a problem too. Push-ups and inverted rows may make it difficult to keep a neutral core. If your spine extends or flexes too much, this takes away your concentration on the active muscles. The core goes from a supportive role to dominating the exercise. This harms your safety both through the stress on the spine along with the focus fading on the lift.
- Lower body bodyweight training tends to be unilateral.
Our legs are very strong and our bodyweight fails to give much of a challenge. Using one leg at a time appears as a reasonable solution then. Unfortunately, good strength training favors bilateral over unilateral exercises due to more stability.
- It offers no special protection to the joints.
Bodyweight exercises have no special quality that allows them to avoid beating up your joints. Many still use poor motions and this matters the most. Performing a dip without leaning forward enough, and for many trainees performing a dip at all, will stress the shoulder due to the shear placed upon it. Bodyweight exercises have the same potential for risk as any free weight motion.
- They can stress you like any free weight.
Some people believe you can recover more easily from bodyweight training. They may perform pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups every day. They then wonder why they fail to make progress or perhaps they consider it akin to easy cardio like walking. Although this may allow some progress at first, eventually it would provide too much training and not enough recovery.
This fallacy may come from bodyweight training associating with less weight. All that matters is how heavy it feels to your muscles. This would be equivalent to bench pressing and rowing every day, a mistake very few trainees would make.
Anything heavy can stress your body and requires recovery. Heavy training requires much more recovery than cardio. Healing requires time and patience. It also then makes sense to apply the safest exercises when dealing with heavy weight or any form of exercise really.
Stick Mostly to Free Weights over Bodyweight
In theory, the push-up would have more potential than a bench press. It can bring about more core and shoulder involvement. It requires less equipment. Free weights require tools to perform and stay safe as well. A push-up will never pin you but a barbell on the bench press could without a power rack or spotter.
Unfortunately, the best bodyweight exercises simply have limitations in how much weight you can apply. This far outweighs any advantages. Most trainees outgrow the weight that can be applied to a push-up. The basic barbell exercises, such as a bench press, have no such limitation. You can also protect against the disadvantages of free weight tools with the right equipment and setup. You can obtain the bodyweight benefits with the right free weight exercise selection too.
Dips and pull-ups rank as two of the best bodyweight exercises. These allow for unlimited loading but can feel too harsh on the shoulders for some. Split squats, step-ups, and one-legged squats have the disadvantages of unilateral exercises. Using a barbell bench press, barbell squat, and chest-supported row works best and most safely.
Many people will say do both. This is redundant and variety itself serves no purpose. Sticking to the same great exercises reinforces learning and allows you to focus on progression while staying safe.
Free weights allow the best progression for strength and size. The right bodyweight options can work for some time. Still, consider the long run and choose free weights over bodyweight.