Bodyweight Versus Barbell Movements: Is One Really “Better”?

Before we can talk about building strength, let me start by asking you a question: how do you define “strength”? In the world of athletics, the concept of “strength” is rather ambiguous. Take elite powerlifters and elite gymnasts, for instance: both are, undoubtedly, examples of athletes that possess remarkable strength.

However, if you ask a powerlifter to perform a planche on a set of still rings or ask a gymnast to deadlift triple their own bodyweight, you’ll probably have them both stumped.

This brings us to the question: which will ultimately make us stronger, lifting external weights or lifting our own weight? Well, let’s take a closer look at some common lifts and their corresponding bodyweight exercises and find out!

1. Bench Press vs. Push Ups

We all know that Monday is International Chest Day, but should you get up on Monday morning and hit the bench or crank out a few sets of push-ups instead?

The simple answer is: it depends on your goals and your circumstances. If you want to lift the most weight possible, then bench press is for you, since having your upper body stabilized on a bench allows you to focus on your chest and push a larger amount of weight. However, if you want to really activate your abdominal muscles and build core stability, you might want to opt for push-ups instead.

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Research has shown that when it comes to building pushing strength, there’s not much of a difference between bench press and push-ups, as long as both are performed with the same intensity.

This is where the catch comes in. With bench press, it’s extremely easy to increase the load; all you have to do is chuck on a few more plates. With bodyweight push-ups, things can get a little more complicated, since you can’t really increase your own weight on the spot. To increase the intensity of push-ups, you have to progress to more advanced variations, such as decline push-ups, single-arm push-ups, diamond push-ups, and clap push-ups. The upside is that, unlike the bench press, push-ups and push-up variations can be done anywhere, so there’s never an excuse to skip chest day (not that anyone does anyway).

When deciding which chest exercise suits you best, ask yourself: Do I want to build my maximal/absolute pushing strength, or do I want to develop functional strength that will carry over to other movements? And if you can’t decide, you could always just be like me and do both.

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2. Lat Pulldown vs. Pull-Ups

As strength athletes, we know that pulling exercises are what really give you wings. So which is the superior wing-builder: lat pulldown or pull-ups?

Unlike the bench press vs. push-ups debate, there’s a clear winner here: pull-ups always come out on top. That isn’t to say that lat pulldown isn’t an effective exercise or that it has no place in a training program. It’s a great alternative exercise for those who can’t yet do a substantial amount of pull-ups. With lat pulldown, it’s easier to control the weight being lifted, and you can incorporate intensity techniques such as drop sets and high-rep sets. For someone whose main focus is to build a wide and aesthetically appealing back, lat pulldown is a great exercise to include. However, if we’re talking about building true strength, lat pulldown can’t hold a candle to pull-ups.

Not only do pull-ups develop overall body control, but they also activate your core and build insane functional upper body strength. Not to mention the fact that you look like a beast doing them. Get up on the bar and bust out a set of strict pull-ups and you’ll see exactly what I mean. As another added bonus, pull-ups can be done pretty much anywhere as long as you’ve got something to grip. And if you’re already at the gym, I can almost guarantee that, unlike the lat pulldown machine, there won’t be any line for the pull-up bar!

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3. Overhead Press vs. Handstand Push Ups

This is the part where you might actually be picturing a powerlifter and a gymnast battling it out. Pressing a barbell over your head and turning your entire body upside down and proceeding to lower and lift it repeatedly might seem like two wildly different things, and that’s because they are. Nonetheless, both are typically classified as shoulder exercises, so let’s evaluate which movement will lead to maximum shoulder strength gains.

You may be a heavyweight powerlifter or a fitness newbie reading this and thinking, “Handstand push-ups? Yeah, right.” For some, handstand push-ups may be entirely out of the question. And that’s perfectly understandable! I think we can all agree that pressing a barbell overhead requires a lot less skill and technique than doing a handstand push-up. For those who find advanced gymnastic movements to be either too intimidating or downright impossible, overhead press is a fantastic shoulder-building exercise suitable for everyone from complete beginners to elite lifters.

If you’re up for a challenge and want to develop incredible stability and body awareness as well as freakishly strong shoulders, it might be time for you to get inverted. When it comes to shoulder-strengthening exercises, handstand push-ups are in a league of their own. Even if you can overhead press your own bodyweight for reps, you’ll find that trying to do the same thing upside-down is a lot more difficult. Because the points of contact when performing the exercise are limited, handstand push-ups lead to greater muscle activation compared to the overhead press. And you know what greater muscle activation means? More strength gains! Though it may take a fair bit of practice before you can even achieve one handstand push-up, trust me, they’re well worth the investment. Besides, think about how cool you’ll look when you whip them out at your next party!

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When it comes to getting strong, there’s no one-size-fits-all; it all comes down to your own definition of “strength” and your own personal goals. If your goal is to become a real-life Hercules and lift the maximum amount of weight possible, then barbells are your best friends. If your goal is to develop ninja-like athleticism and be able to move your body through space with maximum control and efficiency, you might want to focus on bodyweight training. Of course, there’s absolutely no need to pick sides. Lifting and calisthenics training aren’t mutually exclusive; they can go hand-in-hand! If you really want to derive the unique benefits of each, why not do both?

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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Lindsay, otherwise known as LindSlaaay, is a calisthenic athlete, self-taught hand balancer, and overall fitness enthusiast. Originally from South Florida, Lindsay now resides in Los Angeles, California. From a young age, Lindsay has had a passion for movement, spending the majority of her youth as a dancer. As a student at UCLA, Lindsay took up interest in yoga, acrobatics, and calisthenics, combining her love of art and movement with her love of strength and fitness. While living abroad in Sydney, Australia, Lindsay further developed her passion for movement and began gaining attention on social media due to her unique combination of strength, balance, and creativity. Today, she can often be found standing on her hands or playing on the bars at Original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica.