From handstand pushups and one arm chins, to heavy deadlifts and bench press, arguments in the subject of free weights vs. bodyweight in achieving physical goals have gone on for decades. Each discipline has the ability to produce hard, chiseled bodies, as well as an increase in strength. At the end of the day, the choice that’s best for you is all about your goals and where you want to end up. Would you rather have a 20 inch bicep or be able to climb a 15 foot rope with just your arms, ‘cause chances are slim you’ll be doing both…unless you learn about and experiment with both until you find the combination of body weight and weight training that your genetics best respond to.
Bodyweight exercises are almost completely comprised of closed kinetic chain exercises, meaning they involve moving the body through space around a fixed point (i.e. the floor). This creates a completely different response than moving an external load (free weights) around your fixed body. This is also why bodyweight exercises are generally not used for bulking up, as you want the absolute minimum amount of muscle needed to do the job at hand, any more weight making the movement that much harder.
These closed chain movements almost always require more skill than the weightlifting equivalent as we can easily see by looking at handstand pushups vs. overhead pressing. The former requires not only the ability to lift your entire bodyweight with just your arms, but also demands the ability to balance upside down (in turn using many smaller muscles to hold entire body rigid). Contrast this with overhead pressing, where there is only the transference of the weight being pressed, balance being left behind, as well as all the smaller muscles that no longer have jobs to do.
Conversely, traditional barbell work tends to be easier to work with regarding gaining muscle size. This is due to being able to control the exact amount of weight used each time, it being much harder to make such precise changes in leverage using bodyweight alone. This is usually most useful when using training paradigms similar to progressive resistance…
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