The nature of the debate
Let me start by stating bodyweight training and calisthenics have been given a bad name.
For most people, this type of training conjures images of aerobics classes, school yard and military type calisthenics, and P90X-style workouts, all of which primarily target either the aerobic system, or –at best- muscular endurance.
Yet, examples abound of people who have developed striking muscular physiques using bodyweight only methods: Hannibal for King, Frank Medrano, The Fortress (all of youtube fame), and countless Olympic gymnasts. A few unorthodox fitness writers offer bodyweight-only hypertrophy programs: the French méthode Lafay (which has unfortunately not yet been translated into English) for instance, and Jay Waldron who runs the website StrengthUnbound. There is also a dearth of good bodyweight strength training routines, though I obviously have a bias towards the StartBodyweight basic routine and Antranik offers a very sound intermediate program on his blog.
On the other hand, bodybuilding hypertrophy routines and weight lifting-based strength programs abound, and the effectiveness of these routines is evidenced by the amazing physiques achieved by competitors in bodybuilding competitions such as Mr. Olympia (and yes, anabolic steroids do help)…
So who are we to trust? Kids doing pull ups on the monkey bars and a few unorthodox renegades, or proven programs yielding strikingly visible results?
It gets complicated…
Here’s the catch: whether we are talking about strength gains or hypertrophy (getting big), one of the major principles at play is that of progressive overload.
Progressive overload is the gradual process of adaptation that takes place in the body when increasing stress is placed upon it in the form of heavier loads. And unsurprisingly, progressive overload does not discriminate: whether you lift iron or your own bodyweight, at equivalent weight (or mechanical disadvantage) your strength or hypertrophy gains should be exactly the same.
Proponents of weight lifting will argue that it is much simpler and smoother to keep adding small loads to a barbell, than to keep coming up with bodyweight exercise variations to increase the stress placed on the body. On the other hand, bodyweight exercise progressions can also be fine tuned, and they can offer a very gradual way of increasing the difficulty of a given exercise…
There should be very little difference between the two, up to a point -at least- where you make full use of mechanical disadvantage/leverage, and of your own body weight.
And my contention is that, indeed, the results will be very similar.
An interesting question is, however: where does that point lie (and we will come back to this later)?
First of all though, let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages of both training methods:
- Progressive overload is achieved through incrementally adding small loads to exercises. Progressions are very smooth, and the basic mechanics of the exercises remain the same.
- Big compound movements are often closed kinetic chain exercises (which are considered safer), but isolation exercises (and also a few compound lifts) fall under the open kinetic chain category, which somewhat increases the amount of shearing forces placed on the joints
- CNS (Central Nervous System) gains are experienced very quickly at first due to the consistent mechanics of the exercises performed and their limited number (beginner programs such as Stronglifts for instance consist of only 5 basic lifts). As you get better, it becomes increasingly hard to maximize your CNS gains (something which most beginner programs completely ignore). Note however that whilst these movements may be simple to learn, their subtleties are hard to master.
- The greater variety of isolation exercises means you have more control over the way your body looks and develops than with bodyweight exercises. These isolation exercises are seldom used in beginner programs however.
- Progressive overload is achieved through exercise variations, making use of leverage and mechanical disadvantage. Progressions are perhaps not as smooth as in weightlifting, but arguably the constant changes from one exercise variation to the next target muscles from different angles.
- Most exercises are closed kinetic chain exercises and these are generally considered safer and more functional. It is worth noting however that some advanced movements such as back levers and one arm chins place a lot of stress on tendons, and connective tissue of the joints involved.
- CNS gains reoccur frequently: the constantly changing nature of exercise progressions means that each variation has slightly different mechanics than the previous one (basic programs consist of often well over 50 different variations of 6 or 7 basic exercises). These constant changes place far greater demands on coordination, proprioception, balance and flexibility than weightlifting does. Rapid CNS gains therefore happen with each new variation, arguably resulting in increased strength and muscle mass.
- Most exercises are compound exercises, which are widely considered to favour muscle growth far quicker than isolation exercises.
Whilst weight lifting may have a very slight advantage over bodyweight training in the sense that progression is smoother, bodyweight training makes up for it with its greater variety, and balance, agility, and flexibility gains. For all intents and purposes though, in the context of a beginner to intermediate program, the difference between the two in terms of strength gains and muscle mass increase should be negligible.
If that is so, why do you never see bodyweight guys who are ‘jacked’?
Well, you do see guys with noticeable and impressive muscle development.
It is true however, that there doesn’t seem to be any competitors in bodybuilding contests who train bodyweight only… There is a very simple reason for that:
Bodyweight guys tend to be interested in –unsurprisingly!- bodyweight exercises, the majority of which require an optimized power-to-weight ratio. In short, bodyweight guys aim to be as strong as possible whilst maintaining a weight that is as low as possible. For most, putting on more mass is not an objective, as it is simply counter-productive. It does not mean it cannot be done though…
Up to what point can you expect similar gains between weight training and bodyweight?
Well, your body weight is finite, whereas you can generally add more iron onto a barbell than it is humanly possible to lift. So yes, there is a limit to what you can expect from bodyweight training in absolute terms of strength and hypertrophy…
Gains experienced will be very similar between the two however, up to the point where bodyweight exercise progressions stop increasing in a smooth linear manner, and where they start relying too much on other skills such as balance and flexibility, or when you have to consciously slow down your progress to give tendons and connective tissue time to adapt to the stresses placed upon them by the exercises…
Here’s where I would contend that point lies (and therefore, if you cannot perform these exercises, you have not reached the limits of what bodyweight can offer you in terms of pure equivalent strength or hypertrophy gains):
One leg squats, archer pull ups, handstand push ups, decline one arm push ups, legs forward dips, tuck knees front lever rows.
You can obviously carry on making strength gains past that point with bodyweight exercises only, but they will be slower than what you would expect from a weight lifting routine. You will develop other skills though, such as greater agility and proprioception, balance and flexibility, and generally a stronger core (To the proponents of weightlifting who claim core strength gains from big compound lifts are equivalent to those of a good core routine: let me see your front or back levers).
“What about deadlifts?” some will say… there is no bodyweight equivalent, right?
Well, quite right: there isn’t. There are however a variety of posterior chain exercises that can be trained, such as bridges, hip thrusts, single leg deadlifts, glute ham raises and reverse hypers… Most bodyweight beginner programs glance over them (the one on this site included) because they are not simple to progress. It does not mean they can’t be trained though!
Gymnasts who have never lifted can often deadlift well in excess of 300lbs on their first attempt at the exercise for instance (and much more with a bit of practice!)
If you are a newcomer to strength training and do not have access to a gym, don’t worry. You can experience similar gains at home up to quite an advanced level (see above). You can also still make gains past that point, but they will be of a different nature, focusing more on skill and agility, and your progress in terms of pure strength will be slower (but nonetheless significant).