Bodyweight vs Weights: What’s Better For Muscle Gain?

Bodyweight vs Weights: What’s Better For Muscle Gain?

Bodyweight vs Weights: What’s Better For Muscle Gain?

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Weight training is better for muscle gain than bodyweight exercises. That’s because you are able to progressively overload the muscle with weights. With bodyweight, you are limited in this ability.

Weight training equipment also allows you to exercise your muscles in a way that loads them through a full range of biomechanical motion. You cannot do this for most body parts with bodyweight exercises.

The reality, however, is that you should selectively include some bodyweight exercises in your workout program for muscle gain. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

In this article, I’ll delve into the bodyweight versus weights for muscle gain debate. I’ll then lay out the case for combining the two based on my decades-long experience of helping my personal trainer clients pack on solid muscle mass.

What it Takes to Build Muscle

Your body is designed to adapt to stress. When it faces a challenging situation, processes take place to better meet that challenge in the future.

Hypertrophy, or enlargement, of your muscle fibers, is how the body responds to muscular stress. When you place a load on the muscle that it is not used to, that stress can cause muscle fiber damage in the form of microtears. When the stress is over, the body is able to repair the fiber and add a tiny bit of size in order to better meet that load next time.

This process of hypertrophy will only happen if you are providing it with the nutrients which are the building blocks of muscle tissue. That means consuming amino acids in the form of protein. If you don’t give your body enough protein, the adaptive process cannot take place.

But there is another factor that is required for continued muscle growth. That is progressive resistance. If you continue to use the same load when working a muscle, it will soon adapt to that level of stress. At that point, the adaptive process will stop.

Bodyweight Training and Muscle Growth

Bodyweight training is more correctly known as calisthenics. Calisthenics is a Greek word and is a contraction of kalos (beauty) and sthenos (strength). This beauty strength training is achieved with your body weight along with the odd extra piece of equipment, such as a pullup bar.

Bodyweight training makes use of your body as the main training resistance. There are two things you can do with your body – you can pull in towards the body or you can push away from the body.

Most bodyweight programs, including those you would have done at school, are weighted towards push training. The classic example, of course, is the push-up.

Even though your body is going to be your primary tool for bodyweight training, if you are doing your bodyweight workout at home, you will also be making use of various pieces of everyday furniture to complete your training session.

Typically, this will include a door frame for doing pull-ups, and a chair for step ups and bench dips. You need to make sure that these pieces of equipment are well secured and stable to ensure your absolute safety when exercising.

Bodyweight training is not a hypertrophy (muscle building) focused means of exercise, although you certainly can build muscle with calisthenics (just take a look at the physiques of gymnasts!)

Rather, the training focus of bodyweight training is to improve strength, flexibility, and speed. In addition, calisthenics will burn some serious calories so that you can burn off body fat. This is especially the case when you perform your calisthenics in circuit training fashion.

A lot of people have the view that bodyweight training is like riding a bike with training wheels. It’s what you do before you advance to ‘real’ workouts with barbells and dumbbells.

There are two problems with bodyweight training when it comes to building muscle.

  1. Limited load potential
  2. Limited movement ability

Limited Load Potential

Bodyweight training relies on your body weight and gravity to provide resistance. Both of these are limited. After some time, your muscles will no longer be challenged by them. When that happens, the level of stress on the muscle will not be high enough to bring on the adaptation response.

Take the push-up, as an example. A beginner may struggle to pump out a dozen push-ups. Within a month, however, he should be able to rep out with 20 or more of them.

The problem here is that the ideal rep range for strength and muscle development is in the 6-30 range. To fully stress the muscle fiber you need high reps, but you also need low reps. The ideal set structure will see you pyramiding from 30 down to six reps over four or five sets.

Now, you might find a set of 30 push-ups a challenge. But you will not find a set of 12, 10, 8, or 6 very challenging. Yet those sets performed to near failure are necessary for muscle growth.

It is possible to add some weight to body weight exercises by wearing a weight vest or putting a weight plate on your back. But this ability is very limited. It is also essentially a conversion of bodyweight to weight training.

Limited Movement Ability

In order to ideally train a muscle for growth, you need to move it through its full natural range of motion under a progressive load. You cannot do that with most bodyweight exercises.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the example of the latissimus dorsi (lat) muscle, which is the largest of your back muscles.

The lats originate on the lower two-thirds of the spine and on the lower third and fourth ribs, as well as on the bottom tip of the scapula and the upper posterior part of the pelvis. All of these fibers insert onto the upper-inner joint of the humerus, or upper arm bone.

The muscle fibers of the lats are mostly diagonal. The function of the lats is to pull the arm down and in toward the hip in a diagonal movement from the insertion point to the origin of the muscle.

The most commonly performed bodyweight exercise for the lats is the chin up. Yet, this exercise moves the body vertically, straight up and down. There is no diagonal movement, making it impossible to move the lats through their full range of motion.

You can, however, perfectly simulate the natural movement of the lats through its full range of motion with a cable machine. When you do the single-arm lat pull-in, you will be doing the ideal exercise to work your lats for muscle growth.

We could run through this exercise with every muscle group. To work it through its full range of natural motion under load, you need to be using weights.

You can also see here how Henry Cavill got so jacked for his iconic role as Superman.

Weight Training Benefits for Muscle Growth

In identifying the deficits of body weight training for muscle growth, we have already identified the benefits of weight training. That’s because it does the two key things that bodyweight training doesn’t do …

It provides progressive overload and it allows you to work the muscle through its full range of motion under load.

As we’ve identified, continued muscle growth requires progressively increased load. Weight training allows you to do that by either adding a plate to the bar or changing the pin selection on the machine.

That allows you to follow the progressive training principle. Here’s an example of how that principle works:

  1. Start with a weight that will allow you to do 8 reps. The weight should start to feel heavy at around rep 5 and be very challenging for the last two reps.
  2. As you get stronger add reps until you are doing a set of 12.
  3. Add a small amount of weight to the bar and drop back to 8 reps.

Weight training also allows you to work a muscle under load through its full, natural range of motion. We saw this with the example of the lats. It’s the same with every muscle group. Weights, especially cable machines, allow you to get the ideal movement pattern that is impossible with bodyweight training.

If you’re looking for the best adjustable dumbbells to add to your home gym check out this research.

Combining Bodyweight and Weights for Muscle Growth

From what we’ve considered so far, you might conclude that bodyweight training is a waste of time for building muscle.

But that’s not the case.

Bodyweight training is beneficial for beginners. It also depends on whether you have a goal of building size or strength. It allows them to develop a foundation of strength. It will provide enough stress for some initial muscle development.

Bodyweight exercises can also be beneficial at a finishing exercise when training with weights. For example, push-ups can be done at the end of a chest workout. Doing a couple of sets to failure will give you an awesome chest pump.


Weight training is better for muscle gain than bodyweight training for two key reasons:

  • Limited load potential
  • Limited movement ability

However, you can effectively use bodyweight exercises as a finishing move at the end of your weights workouts.

If you’re looking for an effective workout to kickstart your muscle gains, check out these 5 key compound exercises for beginners.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and check out some more articles you may like to continue your self improvement journey!

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