Is there a difference between barbell and bodyweight training?


barbell bodyweight differences

Last post we waxed some context by basically saying that both “barbell training” and “bodyweight training” are ambiguous concepts that need a stronger definition. Being an Olympic weightlifter is “barbell training,” as is being a powerlifter. Being a gymnast is “bodyweight training,” as is being a twelve year old kid struggling to do five push-ups while watching Dragon Ball Z. (That last example may or may not be self anecdote.)

So the first step is really clarifying not only where your abilities are now, but where you want them to be in the future — you need a some sort of compass guiding your way.

Beyond the philosophical introductory layer, we can start to look at the differences between barbell and bodyweight training. And this topic is probably best seen under the direction of the age old question:

Is it possible to get good gains with just bodyweight training?

Stated another way, is there something one does that the other doesn’t? 

In my opinion, absolutely. 

The body only knows tension…right?

Talking about the differences between barbell and bodyweight training starts with a heuristic often thrown around: the body doesn’t know the tools, it only knows the tension. 

The body only knows that it needs to strain a certain amount to overcome an unfavorable situation (like being nearly crushed by favorably arranged hunks of iron). It doesn’t really say, “This is a barbell. This is a kettlebell. This is a dumbbell. This is…,” and then go on to give special attention to one tool over another.

And because of that, the body doesn’t necessarily respond in any unique or special way to any one piece of equipment, which brings us to this:

There’s no difference between barbell and bodyweight training because it’s all about tension produced; as long as you’re producing the same tension, you’re good to go. 


The trouble with tension

The most tension my calfs have ever experienced come at 2AM in the form of muscle cramps, and I don’t really see those as training sessions. (Although maybe I should keep a post-workout shake on hand every night, just in case!)

This view of tension is a problem because everything becomes muscle, muscle, muscle. We break our training down by muscle groups. We massage muscles. We gauge fatigue on how our muscles feel. We look at muscle tension.

We ogle over muscles.

But training and tension taxes more than the muscle. Consider that the muscle itself funnels into a tendon and that tendon funnels into bone. All of these things remodel under stress, not just the muscle. And then there’s the nervous system, endocrine system, immune system — yeah, you get the idea.

Training isn’t necessarily about tension

Training is about stress.

In order to really compare the two, we have to take a look at the stress each form of training makes the body deal with.


Although you can tax muscles with bodyweight training, the over all systemic effect doesn’t quite match up to the blow you can deliver with a barbell.

You can produce tension in the upper body pressing muscles with a push-up, but compare the systemic effect of a push-up with something like a bench press. In a push-up, you only have a certain percentage of your bodyweight being born by the bones of your arm — a percentage that always depends on your own bodyweight. With the bench press, “weight” isn’t a limiting factor, so you can load up the bar with more than your bodyweight (pending strength), which generally makes for a greater systemic overload.

This systemic effect potential of barbell exercises often can’t be replicated with bodyweight exercises because you can’t “load” the system in the same way. (A lot of people smarter than me often say that loading the spine make for great neurological demand.) You might be able to create comparable tension, but that doesn’t exactly equate to comparable stress. 

In a sense, you can say that barbell exercises can be more fever (widespread effect). Bodyweight exercises can be more head cold (local effect).


Let’s jump back to tension. Beyond systemic effects, you might be able to create comparable tension with bodyweight exercises.


To understand this, we have to bring back to the bodyweight levels from last article.


Bodyweight squats, push-ups, inverted rows, etc.


Cossack squats, chin-ups/pull-ups, parallel bar dips, etc.


One arm push-ups, one arm chin-ups, pistol squats/shrimps, etc.


Levers, planches, handstands, and other floor/bar skills.


Basically the third level done on rings, and other advanced ring skills.

It’s not simply about producing tension, it’s about being able to scale tension overtime to continually challenge the status quo of adaptation. These layers put scale and tension in perspective given your current ability.

If you’re below LEVEL 0, then working towards LEVEL 0 will likely give you the tension and stress you need to see change. Same can be said of LEVEL 1. But once you pass LEVEL 0 and 1, scaling tension and overload is tough.

I’d bet you’d gain muscle taking yourself from being able to do one push-up per set to twenty. But twenty to thirty? To one-hundred?

Not so sure.

And so when you get good in the LEVEL 0 and 1 range, often times high training frequency is one of the only ways to continue the overload. You’re not really producing the same high tension (because you’re stronger), and so the only way to amass more is to do more.

Of course, you can move onto a higher level, but that doesn’t come without hiccups.


Something funky starts to happen around LEVEL 2. It would seem that, given the skills are tougher, they’d naturally overload the targeted muscles more than the lower levels…but that’s not always the case. 

Let’s take the one arm push-up, for example. By all means, supporting more weight on one arm means more overload. It also means more responsibility for the bones, tissues, and entire upper body pressing structure.

Things look good.

Except that, for a lot of people, the limiting factor in the one arm push-up isn’t necessarily the pressing strength, but rather the torso strength and being able to lock down and stabilize the the offset loading. Same thing happens with the pistol squat. Single leg makes for more stress than any bodyweight bilateral version, but poor ankle mobility — not leg strength — is often the limiting factor.

Moving up the chain into LEVEL 3, a weak set of wrists can (and likely will) limit the maximum tension you’d be able to produce up the chain and into the chest and shoulders. I could go on and on, but the main message is that for a lot of bodyweight exercises, technique (on some level) interferes with the ability to produce decent tension.

A quick recap

The body doesn’t know tools, only tension…but there are two caveats:

  1. Tension is nice, but it doesn’t represent the totality of what’s going on inside the body – the total stress. 
  2. Even though bodyweight exercises can produce some worthwhile tension, they can also be self limiting.

Naturally, this makes it seem like I’m flushing bodyweight exercises down the toilet, but I’m not doing that at all. (So to all you zealots ready to bash my face in: have patience.) Some of the bodyweight training’s supposed downfalls are actually upsides. And besides: barbell training ain’t perfect either. This is why I think combining them both is ideal, and that’s something we’ll keep unraveling next time.

The basics of combining barbell and bodyweight training: qualifying context


combining barbell and bodyweight training anthony mychal

A lot of the questions I get asked pertain to the relationship between bodyweight and barbell training. Some of the hard hitters include:

  • How do you merge both?
  • Which is better?
  • Is there a way to get gains with just bodyweight training? Or just barbell training?

Being my contextually obsessive self, I have a hard time answering these questions because it’s like asking about ingredients in a recipe…without actually having a recipe.

And so, most often, I’m sure I answer in some snide philosophical tone that makes it seem like I’m dodging the question, even though in reality I’m just saving myself from my own self induced existential crisis. So before we start to tackle the bodyweight and barbell bucket, let’s start with some context.

BB + BW Combo: the barbell side of context

What does “bodyweight” training mean? “Barbell” training? We need to qualify these things before we do anything else.

Barbell training seems obvious enough, but it’s not. Bodybuilders, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and even CrossFitters—all of these athletes use the barbell for a high percentage of their training, yet each athlete spats out differently.

Plopping bodyweight training atop an Olympic weightlifting ethos of pulling from the floor, putting things overhead, and squatting with a high frequency is different than plopping it atop a powerlifting ethos of more benching is different than training like ‘roided up bodybuilder that hits every muscle group hard once per week.

Qualifying barbell training is important because it usually determines (a) not only lifts that are prioritized, but also (b) training programming. The biggest implication of all of this being stress, and how to manage the stressors that each philosophy brings about.

If you’re a powerlifter that can’t give up bench pressing, then you’re in a different situation than a goonie like myself that holds no allegiance to any sort of sport. I can pick and choose my spots given my overall interests and goals, which is why I have barbell stones that err on the Olympic weightlifting side but aren’t fully immersed there.

BB + BW Combo: the bodyweight side of context

Qualifying bodyweight training is more frame of mind than anything else. One the questions we’ll eventually get to (and one I’m asked a ton) is whether or not it’s possible to get gains with just bodyweight training.

There are two unknowns to that question, and we’ll deal with this one first: what does “bodyweight” training mean to you? Doing a push-up is “bodyweight” training, but so is doing an iron cross.

Bodyweight skills, in my opinion, have tiers:



Bodyweight squats, push-ups, inverted rows, etc.


Cossack squats, chin-ups/pull-ups, parallel bar dips, etc.


One arm push-ups, one arm chin-ups, pistol squats/shrimps, etc.


Levers, planches, handstands, and other floor/bar skills.


Basically the third level done on rings, and other advanced ring skills.


This classification will pop its head back up again for different reasons, but primary point now is that if you have a LEVEL 4 frame of mind then you’re in a totally different place than someone with a LEVEL 0 frame of mind.

(For curious minds: the levels aren’t linear. You don’t have to accomplish LEVEL 2 before moving to LEVEL 3, for instance. The classification has a different purpose beyond progression.)

BB + BW Combo: the end game

The last initial contextual layer is qualifying the end game: what gains are you seeking? Prioritizing skill development is different than prioritizing hypertrophy is different than wanting a combination of both.

For instance, CrossFit merges barbells and bodyweight training, but I’d never do CrossFit. Yet I merge barbell and bodyweight training—see how context is an important thing to tackle?

This sort of reroutes back to the above two buckets, in a way. CrossFitters compete in certain lifts and events and not others. There are not a lot of high level bodyweight skills in the sport, as the muscle-up was a long time pinnacle of bodyweight investment. For a gymnast though, a muscle-up is a ground zero fundamental skill.

BB + BW Combo: recap of context

Before going anywhere with a barbell and bodyweight conversation, you have to hit those three layers of context:

  • What kind of barbell training? What to do value? How does that determine how you’re going to train and the stressors you’re going to put on your body?
  • What kind of bodyweight training? Where’s your head at? LEVEL 0?
  • What’s the end game? Do you want to prioritize barbell training and use bodyweight as something “extra?” The reverse? What do you value and to what end?

And I think that’s a decent enough launch pad. We’re in a much better spot now to talk about merging both barbell and bodyweight training.

How I’m training one arm chin-ups


one arm chin-up training pinky chin-up

I never really dove into one arm chins until a few weeks ago. With previous experience toying on rings and doing weighted chin-ups and archer chin-ups and just hanging from things a lot for the past few years, I expected to have a decent chance of doing one.

And then I found out I couldn’t even hang from one arm let alone pull myself up. 

Turns out, hanging from things with two arms is a great ball of cheese different than hanging from things with one arm. And so, the quest began.

If you don’t have a lot of weighted chin-up experience, some band and towel one arm chin methods (one arm on bar/ring, other holding the band/towel) are probably good for more strength.

But in my opinion, if you’ve been doing weighted chins for a long time you probably have the overall bilateral strength you need. What you need is to attack the weaknesses — the specific goobers that don’t get hit during bilateral work.

I decided that the best plan for me (as of usual) is to burn the fancy. With the pistol and one arm push-up, I learned those in a matter of weeks simply by getting as specific as possible to the movement and really exploiting my weak areas.

When you get too fancy or absolute strength oriented, it usually isn’t specific enough to the weak spots. So with the one arm chin, I’ve found two/one finger chin-ups to be the go-to.

Grab the bar normal with one hand. With the other hand, only loop your pinky (or ring and pinky) finger around the bar. (I guess, if you’re not as strong, you can use three or four fingers, focusing on ditching the fingers over time.)

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Come to a relaxed hang at both the start and finish.
  • Go slow on the negative.
  • Focus on using the pinky hand less and less.

How to make the last one happen? Use both hands going up. Obviously, you won’t get much out of your finger gripping hand, but it will help just enough.

When you get to the top, shift your weight to fully gripped hand. You should be able to ditch your grip on the pinky/ring hand, holding at the top with only one hand, but when you want to fully ditch your grip depends on your own strength level.

Since you’re stronger in the negative, lower yourself trying to use only your gripped hand. And that’s really the goal. Go up with the power of just your pinky, and then do the negative without it.

Happy chinning.

And may the gains be with you.

Trying to find the magic card


There are fifty-two cards in a standard deck. Numbers go from 2 to 10. The face cards are the jack, queen, and king. And then there’s that ace thing, of course. Each card has four suits: clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades.

Fifty-two total known cards.

It never changes.

The goofy thing about cards? If you aren’t playing a game, they’re nothing more than a shiny piece of paper or a thrifty coaster. But if you are playing a game? Everything changes. The cards represent a lot more.

But even when you’re playing “games,” there’s not one card that wins all the time — there’s no magic card that only a handful of people know about and are keeping secret.

Losers look for magic cards.

Because it’s not about the cards. The cards aren’t the hard part.

It’s about the game. The hard part is finding out the game you’re playing, and then arranging the desk so that you can’t lose.

Yes, the known deck.

It’s not a secret. Most everything you need is out there. And if you don’t know about it, it’s probably not hard to find. Instead of looking for new, think about context.

The rules of exercise order of operations


A few “rules” exist:

  • Fast stuff before slow stuff.
  • Technical stuff before fatiguing stuff.
  • Big stuff before small stuff.
  • Complex stuff before simple stuff.
  • Difficult stuff before easy stuff.
  • Strength stuff before hypertrophy stuff.
  • Power stuff before strength stuff.
  • Speed stuff before power stuff.
  • Tough stuff before easy stuff.

But perhaps the most relevant:

Whatever you want to get better at most, do it first and do it fresh. 

Handstand training and balancing tips from my notebook


Anthony Mychal Handstand Tips

Take your shoes and socks off, close your eyes, stand on your left foot, and then lift your right knee to the sky. Try to balance on your left leg. You might just tip over. At the least, you’ll probably notice that your weight is shifting all over your foot as you fight to maintain balance.

Balancing is hard, especially when you’re in positions and using muscles you aren’t used to using. If you get into handstands later in life (in other words: beyond five years old), the muscles and bones of your wrist haven’t necessarily adapted to support your entire bodyweight, let alone contract and relax to maintain some kind of equilibrium.

Just like balancing on one foot, it takes time to develop the proprioception and awareness to have your muscles fire on and off based upon the feedback your brain is processing in an inverted position (which is isn’t exactly used to).

A good friend of mine, Yuri Marmerstein, once said something that translated into: a very important part of learning how to handstand is learning how keep your body in balance. (By the way, Yuri has a personal website you can visit here.) Just like standing on one leg, you need to expect that you’re going to sway back and forth. It’s your job to fight this by contracting and relaxing the right muscles and understanding what it means to balance in the handstand position.

You shouldn’t expect to just fling your legs in the air and stick the position. You have to fight to maintain balance.

Although you should strive for “perfect” position, it won’t always happen. Sometimes you feel like you’re going to tip over your body (like if you threw your legs up too hard) — consider this tipping forwards. Other times you feel like your legs will just return to the ground (like if you didn’t throw them up hard enough) — consider this tipping backwards.

The picture above is a page from my training log a while back with thoughts on just that.

Tipping forwards

  • Contract glutes hard, as that makes it easier to contract abs
  • Point your toes to the sky
  • Jam your weight onto your fingertips

Tipping backwards

  • Open your shoulders
  • Get your head in between your shoulders
  • Break at the hips to try to get your hips more vertical
  • Get more weight on the base of your palms
  • Lead with the heels

You should go up with the best intentions; don’t get me wrong. These are just things you can do or think about once things start to breakdown.

And if you’re having trouble or are wondering about anything else handstand related, Gold Medal Bodies wrote up a pretty amazing tutorial for my site many moons ago that you can read here.

Training lesson from Goku and Gohan in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber


Goku and Gohan Training Tip Hyperbolic Time Chamber

In prep for the fight against Cell, Goku and Gohan go into the hyberbolic time chamber and get to work. While inside they come across a funky idea: transforming into a Super Saiyan is rough business, and too much energy is lost in the transformation itself.

The fix?

Learn how to stay in Super Saiyan all the time. That way, the mondo amount of energy loss doesn’t happen.

Most everyone tries to push their ceiling — it’s all about pushing the max. Go Super Saiyan 1, then Super Saiyan 2, then Super Saiyan 3 . . .

Consider this pinnacle. You have a certain absolute power level and it’s all about ticking on another number.

Some food for thought though, especially if you have a decent power level: instead of constantly trying to increase your power level, think about whether it might be worth it to learn how to train at a higher % of your current max with less emotional investment.

It’s nice to be able to ramp up to a high level, but there’s a difference between being able to do that once in a millennium and once . . . every day. 

(Just saiyan: Super Saiyan 2 was right around the corner after implementing this strategy.)

Louis CK on first world hunger and third world hunger


I’m a little hungry. I mean I “feel” hungry. Americans shouldn’t say “I’m hungry” they should say “I feel hungry.”

If you ate today you shouldn’t say “I’m hungry.” Hunger is a real thing.

I don’t have third world hunger, I have first world hunger: I would like a doughnut.

Some people say I’m starving. That’s offensive. Don’t say that… Because some people are starving, and they don’t say it.

How lucky we are to have this thing called “intermittent fasting” for our contemplation as a way to get jacked. It seems funny, doesn’t it? We’re so well off that we succumb to purposeful short term starvation in order to look better naked.

Although intermittent fasting has done a lot of things to me (both good and bad), one of the things I am grateful for is that it taught me what it means to be hungry. It also taught me how lucky I am. Even at my most desperate hour of hunger during my longest fake fast I could fathom, food is so simple to get a hold of.

How great that we exercise to increase our energy beyond normal so that, in a manner of speaking, we create a self inflicted energy crisis within our body.

If you’re reading this, you’re lucky. Luckier than you can imagine. If you’re trying to recreate your physical self — even if you’re at a place of total self hatred right now — remember that simply being in the position to do it is something special. It’s like the artist being given a notepad and pencil for the first time.

Beyond calories, sets, reps, exercises, and everything that everyone get’s caught up on, it comes down to this: are you going to care enough and feel lucky enough to pick up the pencil and draw?

Listen to your whispers, save yourself some pain


You can’t hear a whisper unless you’re actively listening. Your body whispers to you all the time, mostly with pain.

I have five places that whisper to me: my formerly broken foot, my left knee, my left hip, my right elbow, and my right shoulder.

If I hear these whispers, things aren’t going well. A severe injury is probably around the corner. Or I’m going down a hole that will be hard to climb out from.

So this past Sunday, I was doing bodyweight squats. My knee felt foggy, and my left hip popped. When I moved to pull-ups (again, during the warm-up), my elbow didn’t feel quite right. The nerve pain in my foot has also increased.

All things considered, I’m not in a boatload of pain. Nothing hurts to the point of grandpa movement, but I would be an idiot not to listen. Sadly, most people don’t listen. Whispers are easy to ignore, after all. It’s not a slap in the face. Not a shout. Just a murmur of a warning. The faintest, “Psst.”

Find out the spots that like to whisper to you. And when you hear them, don’t ignore them. Your body is smarter than your mind sometimes. Listen to it.


(I wrote this quite some time ago.)

Either bred or bled


I talk about skinny-fat syndrome a lot. With that, I often talk about how being skinny-fat isn’t exactly hitting the genetic lottery. I’ve worked with Division I athletes, and so I know what “hitting the lottery” is all about.

It’s one thing to come to terms with not matching up to someone else, but it’s something else entirely to let this sort of thing get in your head.

I get a lot of questions about having bad genetics or starting from a bad place and whether or not there is hope for change. I usually say, “Of course.” But to be honest, I don’t really know.

What I do know is there most successful people fall under one of two categories:

  • Bred for it – maybe hit the genetic lottery or whatever
  • Bled for it – gave it their all for as long as possible

You don’t really know what you can do until you bleed for it. And then bleed again. And again.

If you don’t think you’re bred for it and not willing to bleed for it, then you’re lost.

Mindblower: perhaps the willingness to bleed is what you’re bred for.