Saturday, November 26, 2011

Weights vs. BW

Of all of the things I have blogged about over the past three-plus years, there's one, glaring blog topic that I've actually never directly touched on: a post directly comparing Bodyweight-based strength training to the weight-based stuff. Sure, it's been an underlying theme here since the very beginning but I've never felt the like I should do a direct, head-to-head comparison. I've been accused of being cocky, or even arrogant, before but in reality I do my best to not speak about what I don't know about first-hand. Since I didn't really start doing some weighted stuff in mid-2008 (and even then, I did it very sparsely) I didn't feel qualified to write such an article.

Now fast-forward to summer, 2009 and that's when I started throwing the weights into my workouts with any sort of regularity. I won't claim to be anything but a novice with weights now but I've worked and studied with them enough to notice some distinct advantages and disadvantages that BW and weights have.

One thing I also noticed when I decided to write this entry was how difficult it would be to make a comparison in the first place. A lot of people who train with weights fall into certain, somewhat distinct, types of weight trainers, depending on the strength sport that they do. Which one do you use for comparison? BW, on the other hand, doesn't really have competitive events and it just recently started breaking down into distinct styles much like weight training did years before.

Another difficulty that arises from such distinct styles of strength training is that one mistake or shortcoming of one strength sport may not exist in another. Plus, each one has different goals. Each person has a different take on the merit of, for examples, doing an iron cross or deadlifting 700 lbs.

These reasons alone are enough to make many say that a pitting weights against BW is pointless bickering.
Thing is, I don't really see it that way. Something gets lost in the thousands of wasted words spewed on this usually-pointless debate. As far as I'm concerned, the BW vs. Weights fight revolves around is the near-hegemonious domination of adding weight as the single-best method of making a movement harder in strength training. When you work exclusively with BW, and the weight moved doesn't change, it becomes a search for variations on the exercise and using other methods to make the exercise harder.

So, the debate really isn't strictly BW-Weights but more along the lines of where does adding extra weight have its advantages and when you should look for another way to increase the difficulty. If the debate were looked at from this standpoint, we might actually arrive at some valuable insight.

So What distinct advantages does BW and weights have over another?

Initially, I planned on one blog entry on this subject but the size of the article quickly shot up in size. I don't know about you but my attention span for blogs is limited and I decided that it was best broken into two parts. For now, I thought I'd do the heretical thing and start discussing what I perceive to be the advantages of the old add-iron approach to getting stronger.

What lept out at me the first couple of weeks of picking up a barbell-for-for strength was the legs. I think that when it comes to training below the belt line, weights take it over BW. The legs are made to manipulate the weight of the body for an entire day, if necessary. That might not be a problem if it weren't for the simple fact that motion that the hips, knees, and ankles have to use for strengthening purposes is more limited that the shoulders, elbows and wrists. So, I'd have to admit that adding weight to lower body exercises makes a lot of sense since your options for progression are more limited down there.

While I haven't made any more attempts to bulk up lately (I'm thinking about doing that more and more.) and it pains me a bit more to admit this, I'd have to say that it's probably easier to bulk with weight training. After all, some of the biggest muscles in the body are down south. If adding weight for lower body has the advantage over not adding, then you'd have to give a slight advantage to weights for gaining muscular weight.

I also give a couple of mental advantages to adding weight. The first one is that I feel most acutely is when you have a weight in front of you that you want to move, you have a tangible goal in front of you. You can see it with your eyes rather than just simply imagining it. There's something to focus your aggression on. I do have times where I find this very helpful in training.

A second, slight edge I give to the iron is measuring and keeping track of progress. Since you can see the weight you're moving and how much it weighs, it's very simple to make a note (mentally or physically) of where you are in relation to where you were before. When you're trying to do the same with BW, it gets more tricky. Most of us who use BW exercises often times have to mark down three different variations from one time to the next. When you bench press and move from, say 200 lbs to 220 lbs, well, that's easy enough. On the other hand, if you wanted to account for one-arm push-up progress, it's entirely possible that you've manipulated hand positioning, foot positioning, and/or the an incline or the height difference on the incline/decline. There's clearly a convenience factor in measuring the progress with weight moved.

Since I'm beginning to push 1,000 words on this entry almost as bad as I'm beginning to push the limits of my limited expertise on strength training. Like I mentioned earlier, I'll be discussing BW's advantages over weights in another topic. In the meantime, I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this often-times tense subject. In the meantime, regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, train hard!


Paul said...

Justin, I'm so glad to see such an objective, honest account of your experiences and it reminds me why I've been reading your blog for two years now. It's also my experience that nothing in this world will ever surpass the Squat or Deadlift in building powerful, thick legs. I use a barbell for these two exercises only. Everything else is bodyweight. I believe it to be the best all-around strength training regimen. Do a set of Deadlifts and follow it up with some Ring Dips, Back Levers and rope climbing, and you will grow and be a mighty human being.

Justin_PS said...

Thank you, Paul. I'm in the middle of reading the "Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors" books and if there's one thing that we're chronically short in this subculture, it's honesty.

Furthermore, this topic is rarely brought up without a, "beat the dead horse," type of arguement. Weight has it's places. Like I said, I've got another coming up about when it's inferior.

Andy said...

Hi Justin,

One plausible argument is that there is there is a much smaller margin for error with weights, especially for folks with injuries. With that said, once a sound foundation is built, sensible weight lifting can and should be a welcome addition to anyone's fitness regiment. I train for general wellness and to use the "F" word...functional strength for general physical preparedness for whatever life may throw my way. That's why I am roughly 85% BW and 15% weights. Cheers dude!!

Anonymous said...

I had large muscular thighs from high school through college, her name was Betty.

Justin_PS said...

My kind of woman!

Justin_PS said...

My kind of woman!

K said...

Right now I've switched to weights and it's been four months of 5/week HEAVY workouts with the last month being squats everyday and I must say that is the first time my thighs have increased. However, I'm missing the bw shit, but given that I was never able to even do a handstand pushup against the wall, which is sad, plus the fact that now my legs weigh more, I'm unwilling to get back to them. Albeit, I'm starting to see myself as a pussy for being scared of starting from zero once again...
What a shame, I know I won't be able to lift weights for ever because my gym is an utter shit and because I'll be travelling next year, but I don't want to stop lifting. What's more I'll miss my legs.

Jim said...

Hi Justin,

I had this BW vs Weights debate with a physiotherapist friend a few weeks ago, and he aligned himself with traditional gym weights, and strangely, weights machines.

We specifically discussed forearm builing. I have noticed some forearm size gains and defined muscles/tendons from regular pullups, and after reading convict 2, am going to add towel grip hangs.
However, he stated, and he seems to really know his anatomy etc., that the forearm doesn't work like that, like Paul Wade describes, and infact wrist curls are the best way to grow forearms.

Thinking about old time images of sailors, farmers etc with massive forearms, and the type of work they did, perhaps BOTH are routes to forearm power? But for an average modern man with limited time, which is more effective? I don't intend to start wrist curls anyway as I don't have equipment, maybe towel ringing is a substitute though

Justin_PS said...

Jim, you're really starting to get into the difference between bodybuilding vs. everything else. What makes forearms, like everything else on your body, big isn't always what makes them strong. A youtube search can yield a video of a dude who can close a CoC 4 and a video of Ronnie Coleman unable to close a CoC 3, despite having monster-like forearms.

Paul Wade's talking about making forearms strong first and maybe big if it helps out.

As far as making your forearms either bigger or stronger, don't bother with reps. Do whatever for time. Most anything you do for the forearms that constitutes a rep is barely a half-second. Do it for 30-60 seconds.