Calisthenics Vs. Weights Which is Better?
The age old battle of training styles – Calisthenics versus weights.
Which one is better? Which one makes you stronger? Can you even build muscle with calisthenics?
In this article, I’ll answer all these questions and more.
I’ll pick apart both training styles. And give you a definitive answer about which is better – Calisthenics or Weights!
So let’s get started.
Differences and similarities between calisthenics and weights
Equipment used Calisthenics Vs Weights
Both calisthenics and weightlifting needs equipment.
Sure, bodyweight training requires less specialized equipment to get started.
You can get an effective workout with only a pull up bar and the ground beneath your feet.
But, you could say that the barrier to entry for calisthenics is lower than it is for lifting weights. Although, both can be done very effectively for little to no money at all.
In fact, I’ve used sandbags for heavy weighted calisthenics, which I made for a fraction of the cost of joining a gym!
There is also the issue of space. Having a squat rack and weights doesn’t take up too much space. But it most definitely takes up more space than a pair of gymnastic rings and a dipping belt.
But, the only effective way to work the lower body is with heavy weights.
Training Anywhere And Anytime
Carrying your calisthenics equipment along with you is a breeze. Carrying a pair of gymnastics rings in your backpack is like carrying the gym with you everywhere you go. A gym for the upper body that is!
But in essence, that is all you need to get an effective upper body workout. In fact, a lot of weight lifters can benefit from a pair of rings in their backpack.
Although, weightlifting can be performed in the outdoors as well. Ever heard of odd object lifting?
Think about it, if you can find a tree, you can definitely find some rocks around. If you can’t find rocks, carrying a sandbag with you everywhere you go just turned into your own personal gym. All you have to do is fill the bag with a couple of bags of table salt or sand or rocks and you’re good to get your workout in.
In fact, sandbags change the game. This makes weight lifting more accessible when travelling. Remember, you can’t do pull ups in the dessert!
Training Efficiency Of Calisthenics Vs. Weights
When it comes to training efficiency, calisthenics loses out to weight training.
This is because calisthenics has a strong skill based aspect to it’s progression system.
Below are the most effective ways to progress with calisthenics:
- Changing Leverages
- Unilateral Training
- Increasing Volume
- Increasing Your Own Bodyweight
Whereas, to progress with weights, all you have to do is add more weight!
Below you will see why the training efficiency of calisthenics is so poor:
1. Changing the leverage of an exercise
Reducing the length of a lever makes an exercise easier to perform.
Take the humble push up for example.
Doing push ups off your knees (shortening the lever) makes the exercise easier to perform. Whereas doing a push up off your toes makes the exercise a lot harder.
This progression has a huge flaw in that it hits a ceiling once the lever reaches its maximum length.
As in the case of the push up, when doing the exercise off the toes, the lever gets maxed out. This is the hardest progression of the regular bodyweight push up.
Beyond this point, you will have to turn to other means of progression, like the ones mentioned below.
This type of progression incorporates the use of only one limb to perform the exercise.
It not only increases the load on the limb, but also introduces larger a balancing aspect to the exercise.
Take the example of the humble push up again. Performing the push up on one hand makes it much harder to perform.
In fact, the gap in difficulty from the regular push up to the one hand push up is quite large.
There is also an element of skill involved. As performing an exercise on one limb is much different than performing it on both.
And if you are limited to bodyweight training, the only way to progress from here is by increasing volume.
Increasing volume is the third method of progression in bodyweight training.
Increasing volume is defined as weight x sets x reps.
With bodyweight training, your weight mostly stays the same. Thus, increasing the number of sets and reps you do constitutes an increase in volume.
This is the only form of bodyweight progression that is not finite.
In theory, you can continue to increase the volume of an exercise indefinitely.
But in practice this is neither sustainable nor efficient.
After a point, simply increasing volume starts to yield diminishing returns. You’d be much better off spending your time progressing by changing other variables.
This is especially true when trying to gain strength.
Continuing to increase volume with your bodyweight won’t yield absolute strength gains. And after a while, this method of progression becomes impractical.
Increasing your bodyweight
Another way to progress with bodyweight training is to increase your own bodyweight.
In fact, if you are planning to gain muscle, then eating in a caloric surplus is a must.
Eating in a caloric surplus will help you can muscle as well as strength. But it will also make your bodyweight exercises harder.
Unfortunately, gaining bodyweight at a healthy rate is too slow of a progression for any beginner.
A beginner can make strength gains at a much higher rate than the 1 or 2 kilograms of bodyweight gained per month.
This is one of the reasons why increasing your bodyweight is a limited method of progression.
Eating in a surplus while working out will also put some fat on your frame (along with a lot more muscle if done right).
But if overdone, there will come a time when you have to cut (drop the body fat). Losing this body fat will result in a loss in bodyweight, thus making the exercises easier again. Which would lead to regression, which is the opposite of progression.
And, if someone is already overweight, this method will not work for them, as they might want to lose weight. Thus, gaining bodyweight is only a supplemental method of progressive overload. It is not sustainable in the long run.
These are the reasons why progressing with bodyweight calisthenics calisthenics is extremely inefficient for building size and strength!
Lower Body Training
Bodyweight calisthenics also falls short with lower body training.
No amount of single leg squats are going to make your legs as strong as basic weighted squats.
This is because your legs can carry loads much more than your bodyweight.
In fact, beginners can squat weight equivalent to their bodyweight in a matter of months! That’s how fast the legs adapt to lifting heavy weights.
Again, no amount of single leg, bodyweight work can trump that. Weight lifting is the clear winner here again.
When it comes to building as much strength as possible, there can only be one king.
This comes down to the fact that strength is defined as the amount of force you can exert on an object.
This “object” doesn’t have to be a barbell or dumbbell. It can be anything, even your own bodyweight. But a closer look at the definition of strength reveals the secret to getting stronger.
To get strong, you have to move more weight. And the best way to move more weight is by actually adding it to your exercises.
This is where mixing calisthenics and weights shines. You can get better at moving your body through space by simply adding more weight to it.
Take the pull up for example. A one arm pull up is an excellent display of strength. But, it is possible to take your one arm pull up training to the next level and that is by adding weight.
You can greatly improve strength, size, balance and control by adding weight to calisthenics exercises.
But bodyweight calisthenics alone cannot make you stronger than weighted calisthenics. And that is a fact!
To get stronger you have to move the most weight, through the greatest range of motion.
Thus, exercises that allow you to do this, will make you stronger. Unfortunately, bodyweight only exercises have a cap to the amount of weight lifted. This is what makes weight training far superior to bodyweight calisthenics.
Which is more “functional”
Functional training is the new buzz word these days. And in all honesty, that’s all it is, a gimmick to make training sound cool.
There are several functional exercises between calisthenics vs weight. Some being more functional than others.
This is especially true when you talk about strength carryover into real life.
Movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges are excellent examples of functional movement patterns.
These are exercises that we use in our daily lives.
You can also add movements like the overhead press to this category.
All these exercises are best trained using heavy weights only.
But what about exercises like the bench press and the lat pull down. These two movements mimic movements we perform in everyday life. But, they fail in comparison to the functionality of their calisthenics counterparts. The dip and the pull up.
The pull up and dip allow the human body to carry itself through space in everyday life. That too, using just the hands.
Think about having to climb a high wall or fence. In fact, rock climbers train these two movements to become better climbers.
Which brings me to the topic of carryover.
Can you carryover strength from calisthenics to weight lifting and vice versa?
This is one of the most intelligent and relevant questions to this debate. Does calisthenics strength carry over to the weights? And does weight lifting strength carry over to calisthenics?
To be honest, there is no clear winner here. There are aspects of strength that you can carry from one to the other, but not all strength is the same.
Take the example of the lat pull down and the bench press. They do not carry over well to their calisthenics counterparts.
Whereas, if you take the squat and deadlift for that matter, the tables are turned. No amount of heavy pistol squats will carry over well to a heavy weighted barbell back squat.
There is no bodyweight exercise that can replicate the deadlift!
Conclusion: Calisthenics Vs Weights – Which One Should You Choose?
I truly hope that this article puts into light the benefits of calisthenics and weights.
Both training styles have great exercises that cannot be replicated by the other.
Moving the body through space is important, but training with your bodyweight can only go so far.
Adding weight to bodyweight movements will put on the most strength and size to your body.
The calisthenics community prides itself in not having to use any tools to get the job done. But when have you ever driven a nail through a concrete wall with just your bare hands?
Without having any biases, and trying to be as objective as possible, I cannot help but say – DO BOTH!! It has never been about calisthenics Vs weights. It’s always been calisthenics and weights!