Free Weight vs. Bodyweight Exercises (BACK EDITION!)

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If you had to choose between free weight exercises or bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength, which would you pick? In this video, I’m going to break down the most popular back exercises to show you the differences between equivalent movements as they relate to the motions performed in the exercises. Beyond that, you’ll see which versions hold certain advantages over the other as well as which exercise you should be swapping in when you only have access to either the bodyweight or free weight version.

We start today by looking at the back exercises. This series will eventually cover all of the major muscle groups in the body and arm you with the ability to make smart exercise selections regardless of what environment you’re training in.

When you do your back workouts it is helpful to think of the different planes of motion that the back can be trained in to make sure you overlook none of them in your training. First, we look at the the vertical pulling movements. Right away, the bodyweight back exercise that should stand out to you here is the pullup or chinup. Depending on which direction your hands face on the bar will determine which of these you do, however mechanically they are very similar.

If you wanted to transfer the pullup or chinup to a free weight exercise in the gym however, the obvious choice would be the lat pulldown. Again, here you can perform this with either an overhand or underhand grip. Keep in mind, when you perform either the chinup or the underhand pulldown, you are getting a heavy involvement of the biceps as well. While the pullup and the traditional pulldown are better at focusing the work on the lats.

The biggest difference between the muscle activation of these two different exercise options is the involvement of the core muscles. When performing this back exercise as a free weight lat pulldown, your abs and core don’t work nearly as hard as they do when doing the bodyweight pullup. This is because of the activation of the hip flexors pressing up into the pad to lock yourself into the machine. When the body is suspended on the bar and free to rock and sway, it is the abs that have to contract hard to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Next, we look at the horizontal pulling movements. On the free weight side is the classic barbell row. On the bodyweight side is the inverted row. Both of these work the back muscles in the same way in the same plane of movement. That said, there are some distinct differences that you want to be aware of when making your selection. First, the barbell row clearly provides an opportunity for more precise progressive overload and is therefore a much better strength option.

That said, the inverted row can be modified to make it more difficult. You can simply straighten out your legs or even place them up on top of a box for a greater challenge if needed. Additionally, while the barbell row can be somewhat strenuous on the lower back if you are having back weakness or pain, the inverted row will place no such stress on this area.

Finally, the straight arm pushdown is one of the best free weight exercises you can do for your back. This allows you to work on developing your straight arm scapular strength, an overlooked element of a complete back workout. If you don’t have access to a gym however, all is not lost. As promised in this series, I show you an alternative you can do with bodyweight. This is the inverted straight arm pushdown. By pushing down into the bar and initiating with the lats, you are working your back muscles in the same way and have an opportunity for great benefits as well.

As you see, there are back exercise equivalents regardless of whether you are using bodyweight exercises or free weight exercises. The key is to understand what it is you are trying to accomplish with each move so if you have to make a swap due to limited equipment or skill, you know exactly which move to make.

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