A debate I see often--body weight versus free weight. Should I do bench press or push-ups? Can body weight exercises build muscle? Are free weight exercises safe? There are lots of opinions on the matter--mine is that they both have their pros and cons. Let me explain why I believe they can both be beneficial and why you should be doing both.
Free weight exercises are basically any exercise that incorporates an external load, such as those done with dumbbells and barbells. Because they work your muscles and stabilizers, they’re great at building a strong, balanced physique. Free weight exercises also allow you to more easily isolate individual muscle groups. They can be harder to learn at first, especially when compared to machines (and to a lesser extent, body weight exercises). Learning proper technique as a beginner can be difficult but is extremely important. There are a couple things that you want to keep in mind when comparing body weight and free weight exercises.
The first is progression. Whether we are talking about strength gains or hypertrophy (getting big), one of the major principles at play is progression. There has to be a gradual process of adaptation that takes place in the body when increasing stress is placed upon it in the form of heavier loads. For free weight exercises this is very simple--just increase the weight you are lifting. For example, if you are squatting 200 lbs then all you have to do is increase the load to 225 and you have effectively progressed the movement, granted you are still able to do the squat. This also makes for an ideal scenario for increasing muscle mass.
Many of the typical excuses for working out based on money, time, or space vanish when you begin a training program utilizing body weight exercises. They are convenient and effective which is what draws many people in.
Since you use your own body as resistance, you don’t need a gym membership or even any equipment. You can workout for free. Whereas with free weight you must buy your equipment which can be very expensive, or pay a monthly gym membership fee which for a lot of people just isn't an option. Then you are tied down to that gym's location so that if you want to workout, you must drive to that gym. Just the thought of driving to go to the gym can be enough to make someone not want to workout, especially after a long day at work or in less than ideal weather. Another great thing about body weight exercises are that they promote Functional Training, which is essentially exercises that easily translate into everyday life. They encourage the development of overall functional strength in which multiple muscle groups throughout the body act in concert to achieve optimal movement.
But there can be drawbacks to training without free weights and one of those is progression--since your weight stays relatively the same. In order to progress, you must find a way to make the movement more difficult. A simple push-up can be made harder by putting your feet on a box--making it a decline push-up and effectively progressing the movement. So to progress any body weight exercise you must find a way to change the original to make the exercise hard. This is why calisthenics, or body weight exercises, involve a more complex process than just simply adding more weight.
So which one is better? I don't think there is one concrete answer for that. The biggest factor that comes into play to figure out what exercises and training methods are best for you are your goals. If your goal is to add muscle to your frame without having to use more complex exercises, then doing mostly free weights is probably for you. If you don't have time or money for a gym, then body weight exercises are perfect for you. I believe that a balanced plan that includes both free weight and body weight exercises is the best option for the majority of people. Venture out and try something new--you might discover a new exercise you enjoy and reap the benefits in the process!