All training is effective provided you show up, stay consistent and keep your routines challenging. It doesn’t matter how you choose to train, whether it’s bodyweight training, weight lifting or special gym equipment - all exercise works when you do it and do it regularly, upping the difficulty level every time it gets easier. That’s how you evolve and that’s when your body changes and your fitness levels go up.
When it comes to training there really is no point in talking about which is “better”. There are just different ways to train for different purposes. Your circumstances and personal preferences also play a role. If you want faster results and you want to get bigger for the sake of getting bigger weight lifting is the way to go. If you find lifting boring, you don’t have weights or can’t afford a gym membership then bodyweight training is your light at the end of the tunnel. Both ways are perfectly valid, they are also non-exclusive – you can do both.
Training with equipment does two distinct things: first, it isolates a muscle group (like your biceps). Second, it fools the body into thinking the load this muscle group has to carry is exclusive to it. The body responds by building strength and size in that muscle group = you get bigger (probably bigger than your body can comfortably support, but that’s a different story).
Since gym equipment focuses on a muscle group alone it can deliver faster, visible results but what it cannot do is create a synchronized building of muscle groups that work in harmony with each other in order to build up functional strength and power. It’s a bit like taking the complex system of the body and treating it like a group of isolated simple systems. The deficiency of this approach can be seen when you pit a boxer against a bodybuilder. The bodybuilder will have incredibly impressive muscle. The boxer will have tremendous functional strength.
Bodyweight training uses more muscle groups than the specific ones targeted by a single exercise. Push-ups, as an example, target your arms (triceps). But they also work your chest (if you make them deep), your biceps, your core, your abs and your quads. Make the execution fast and your cardiovascular system really kicks in. Make it long and your aerobic performance (VO2 Max) comes into play. A single bodyweight exercise = your ultimate workout. You would have to visit several stations at the gym to hit as many muscles, it’ll take longer and the quality of the muscle is not going to be the same.
Lifting weights will feel easier but being muscle specific it is also not as challenging as bodyweight training. It is perceived as being more effective because it gives you faster visual results in your upper body, where everyone can see it. The only reason this is the case is because a pulling (lifting) motion is required to isolate and work you back and biceps more. The parts that make you look pumped right away to the naked eye. The best bodyweight exercises to achieve that are pull-ups and chin-ups and if you have ever tried to do either, you can understand why they are not so popular. Yet, they remain one of the best and most effective ways to build your upper body into a gladiator-style body. They are also hard and painful, never mind impossible for a noob. You are fighting gravity here and you are pulling your entire body weight so it’s bound to be challenging. It’s hard but it can be mastered - it just takes consistency and perseverance.
Bodyweight training is harder than it looks. It can be extremely challenging and it’s very effective. And unlike weight lifting it doesn’t get boring. You will get fit with either, though, it’s just the case of what suits you more. You can get big muscles with bodyweight training but it’ll be gymnast kind of muscles and fitness – it won’t be a bodybuilder’s bulk simply because supersized muscles are not natural. If you think how your body adapts it always tries to save on energy and the only way to do that is to make your body functionally fit, have explosive muscles that can be versatile, allowing you to do push-ups, jumps and squats at a whim and for as long as you want to. That’s real fitness, the ability to do anything, perform any kind of activity you want at will, catch your breath and do it again.
Sprinters, boxers, martial artists and gymnasts, all use bodyweight exercises to build muscle. Provided you keep on challenging your body with exercises that require strength it will build muscle in response, the kind of muscle it can support without going to extreme lengths in terms of nutrition.
The beauty of bodyweight training is that the challenge is constant. As your muscles get stronger your body can do more and you ask of it to do even more, the horizon never gets nearer.
Still you can challenge yourself further by adding equipment to your bodyweight training. Wrist and ankle weights will challenge your balance and core further and help your muscles become even stronger, faster. Heavier shoes (or ankle weights) when you walk, or a weight vest when you run will also up the load and help you level up.
Because of its versatility you can adapt almost anything you have lying around into an aid to help you get stronger. A laundry basket can become an impromptu load you can carry as you do deep lunges. Some hardback books can help you do deeper push-ups. Because what you can use is only limited by what you can imagine bodyweight training is a little like an online game: you use what you have to hack your daily training, if you want to. The key is to have fun with it and the results will come.