3 Myths About Body Weight vs. Weighted Exercises

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Whether you’re a gym veteran or you just started working out, you have most likely encountered people who swear by a certain mode of exercise. Even those who choose strength training are often split into two categories: those who adopt resistance training, and those who won’t go near a dumbbell or a barbell. There are many reasons that people believe what they believe, but the truth is, there are still a lot of misconceptions circulating in the world of health and fitness that lead people to adopt one form of training as the only way.

Rather than take a side and argue in favor of either body weight or weighted exercises, I want to debunk a couple common myths, explain how different populations may benefit from one more than the other, and how you can use that information to optimize your own training.

Myth 1: “I can’t improve my performance in lifts with bodyweight movements.”

Although this myth seems perfectly logical, research has indicated the opposite. A study done in 2012 found that athletes placed on the following exclusive training regimens – resistance training, plyometric training, and a mix of training, all concluded the study with identical gains in the squat and deadlift. This is good news for those of us that travel often and don’t have access to a gym. As discussed later, the best program combines multiple forms of training.

Myth 2: “Lifting weights will only make me look bulky.”

I often hear endurance athletes as well as young women new to training voice this fear. This assumption is not backed by evidence, but is rather the result of a distorted culture that has long associated lifting weights with masculinity, and masculinity with bulkiness. Those who train to gain significant muscle mass have their workouts and diet programmed in an extremely precise manner. Years of weight training will not cause you to automatically look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it may very well help you prevent injury, improve your sport performance, or feel stronger in your daily activities. Molly Galbraith, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong, devotes a whole article to debunking this myth here.

Myth 3: “I’ve been training for a while, and bodyweight exercises can’t challenge or benefit me.”

If you have ever been subjected to Coach Vince’s core-engaged hip lift in your Force program, you already know this statement to be a lie. I have been working out with weights in hand for nearly a decade, but the first time I did this reverse crunch variation six months ago, my abs were so sore for the next week that I could hardly laugh. Not only that, but I continued progressing this body weight movement, and I found, to my delight, that my core/pelvic position was improving during my running. Improvements from training happen because of progressive overload – varying and advancing movements as our bodies adapt. A lot of people think this can only be done by upping the weight, but progression can happen in a variety of ways – increasing time, focusing depth, incorporating belly breathing, or removing points of contact. In addition, bodyweight movements often require activation of more muscles than exercises with a barbell, because they require you to stabilize yourself. If you’re interested in reading more, fitness author Mark Sisson has written a fascinating article on this topic.

Of course, for people with very specific performance goals, one form of training may be better than the other. It would be ludicrous to suggest that a power lifter abandon the barbell in favor of push-ups and TRX squat jumps. For most athletes, working under load that goes beyond bodyweight is also crucial if they desire gains in strength and power to boost their performance. Coach Wil claims that the best way to improve athletes’ power is by Olympic weightlifting movements, so if you’re an athlete and you don’t use the barbell, you are missing out on key element to performance improvement.

For a lot of us who aren’t training for any specific sport or competition, but rather have goals to get stronger and improve our overall life and health, there is a lot to be said for switching up your training from time to time. I have witnessed that people who have been training in the gym for years or even decades periodically come back to fully body weight programs when they feel like they are burned out, have lost touch with good form during weighted and more complex exercises, or are bored with following the same progressions.

Longtime Force client Brian Ellison has tried nearly every type of exercise possible in the gym. Though his programs nowadays are primarily written with a gymnastics emphasis, he has had more than his fair share of time laboring under the barbell. It was a conversation I had with him the other day as he finished up his workout that in fact gave me the idea for this blog post. Brian told me that coming back to bodyweight exercises in his last couple programs has not only helped him improve his form in everything he does, but has reminded him of how much value and variance there is in movement basics such as crawling, marching, and bracing the core. He says it has been a nice change, and that he might keep the weights on the rack for a while to continue with this kind of training for a while.

So what does all of this information mean for you? Of course, it depends who you are and what goals propel you forward in your training. Programming for optimal results for the vast majority of people involves putting bodyweight exercises and weighted movements in harmony. However, the bottom line is that whatever you are looking to do with your training, anytime, anywhere, and at any level, it is always essential to base everything else off your personal answers to these two questions:   

  1. What are my goals? Why am I training?
  2. What resources do I have available?

If you’re on an extended vacation with no access to a gym, the answer becomes easy. Drop down and hit a plank, work on depth in body weight squats, challenge yourself with some scap push-ups or a few sets of the lateral bear crawl. Rest assured you can still make significant strength and fitness gains using your own body weight as the load. This is true because success and improvement toward your goals comes not from any certain form of exercise, movement, or technique, but from progression.

In Health,

Coach Emily

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