The debate of calisthenics vs weights occurs frequently when discussing the topic of strength training.
Strength training, also known as resistance training is an activity that uses your muscles against resistance, in order to make them stronger. Within this article we will discuss the pros and cons of calisthenics vs weights, as we try to determine which practice is the better form of strength training.
Along the way, we’ll also discuss the debates surrounding calisthenics vs weightlifting, including what practice is better for specific tasks, as well as giving our advice on how you can start each practice.
- Weights vs Calisthenics - What’s The Difference?
- Benefits of Calisthenics vs Weights
- The Benefits of Weights vs Calisthenics
- Calisthenics vs Weights for Strength
- Calisthenics vs Weights for Building Muscle Mass
- Calisthenics vs Weights for Weight Loss
- How to Start Calisthenics
- Calisthenic Exercises For Beginners
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Our Conclusions
But if you’re already confident in your calisthenics, or you’re a weightlifting wonder, then perhaps a career in fitness is the next step in your journey.
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Weights vs Calisthenics - What Is The Difference?
Before we begin to unpack the benefits of weights vs calisthenics (and vice versa), we need to discuss what each practice actually entails.
Weights (or weight lifting) is the more commonly known of the two practices. This type of strength training uses weights for resistance. You’ll often see this practice in action at gyms with free weights such as barbells, and dumbbells, as well as other weight machines.
These will often follow a routine, and utilise the weights to work on different areas of the body - our comprehensive guide to a full-body kettlebell workout explores how a single weight can revolutionise how you work out.
When practicing weight lifting, it is the weight's pressure on the body that stresses the muscles, and causes them to adapt over time. This results in increased muscle mass, and an improvement in your overall strength.
On the other hand, calisthenics does not require any weighted machines or equipment. This practice is also known as bodyweight training, as you use your own bodyweight as a form of resistance training. Examples of calisthenics are exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, and squats.
So the most obvious difference in the debate between calisthenics vs weightlifting is the way in which resistance is created. With weight training, you’re always dependent on your equipment to create resistance throughout your body, but with calisthenics you're effectively improving your own strength with your own body, as that is the thing that creates the resistance.
But what are the specific benefits of each practice?
Benefits of Calisthenics vs Weights
As we begin this debate of calisthenics vs weights for strength training, we’ll first focus on the benefits that the practice of calisthenics can offer and how those benefits compare to weightlifting.
#1 - Easily Adaptable
The first talking point we need to cover is that calisthenics is a highly adaptable practice. Basic calisthenics for beginners requires bodily awareness, you need to know what is comfortable for you and the limitations of your own body.
This may sound basic in theory, but it can be beneficial for those of you who don’t have a lot of experience within fitness. For example, beginners can adapt calisthenics by making push-ups easier; you can perform them on your knees rather than fully extending your legs.
As you improve on your fitness journey, you can also make things more challenging for yourself. For instance, instead of using both arms to practice push-ups, you can attempt to do them one-handed.
Additionally, with the inclusion of equipment such as weighted vests, or pull-up bars, you can further adapt your calisthenics practice, tailoring it to your skill level and specific preferences. However, as we debate calisthenics vs weights for strength training, we need to compare this benefit to the adaptability of weightlifting.
Whilst you can increase or decrease the amount of weight you lift, you can’t really adapt your practice and form as freely as you can with calisthenics. With weightlifting, the risk of getting injured is greater, so you always have to maintain proper form to ensure that you don’t hurt yourself, and this rigid structure may not appeal to everyone.
Alternatively, calisthenics is viewed as more freeing and personable as you can bend and mold your form to your liking, until you’re practicing in a way that is both safe and comfortable for you.
#2 - Cheap and Affordable
One of the great things about calisthenics is that it’s incredibly cheap to get started with. For most of the workouts, you won’t even need to buy any equipment, as you’re relying solely on your body.
This gulf in price is arguably one of the biggest contributing factors towards the debate of calisthenics vs the gym. Technology has even meant that free calisthenics apps can get you going again if you’re struggling to start.
Some aspects of calisthenics, though, may require purchasing equipment (such as pull-up bars or a skipping rope) but these aren’t a necessity.
Simply put, if you’re incorporating calisthenic equipment into your workout, it’s entirely by choice, and those of you who choose not to use them will still be able to get in a rigorous workout.
However, the opposing argument when it comes to weightlifting vs calisthenics is that, if you wish to practice weight training, then you’re going to need either your own set of weights or a weight machine.
To summarise, you’re going to need to spend some money in order to use weights in your workouts, even if that means spending money to make your own homemade set. However, it may be worth thinking about that some look at buying weights as an investment - it’s only a one-time purchase and then you can use them whenever you like.
As stated at the introductory section of this point, the argument of affordability can also be viewed as calisthenics vs the gym. We have just touched upon how the expense of equipment can influence which practice you choose to pursue, but the environment in which you exercise may also sway your thinking too.
Calisthenics can be practiced anywhere you want, whether that be in your bedroom or outside, whilst weight lifting traditionally needs to take place within the gym. So you’re not only paying for equipment, but you’ll be paying for the environment in which you work out too.
#3 - Works Multiple Muscle Groups at Once
As we discuss the pros and cons of calisthenics vs weights, it may be worth noting that when practicing calisthenics, you will be using multiple muscles at once. This can benefit your body as it can give you a better, more holistic experience, rather than just focusing on one specific area.
Calisthenics requires a lot more on your behalf when it comes to exercising. This is because calisthenics are what is known as a compound or ‘full body’ workout.
This makes them the perfect workout for those of you who have a busy schedule and simply don’t have time to dedicate 2 hours to a full body workout, focusing on different areas as you go from machine to machine.
However, beginners should note that when practicing calisthenics their body is going to require a lot of energy as you’ll be constantly moving and exercising, allowing very little time to rest. We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of helpful tips for getting started with calisthenics.
However, as we look at the opposing argument within this topic of calisthenics vs weight machines, we can see clearly that weight machines will only target one specific muscle at a time. Whilst this does hold some beneficial properties, which we discuss within the next section, it won’t offer you the same results of complete body workout.
The Benefits of Weights vs Calisthenics
Within the previous section we debated the topic of calisthenics vs weights, the pros and cons, so we now turn our attention to the opposing argument, and discuss the benefits that weights can provide, and how said benefits differ from the ones for calisthenics.
#1 - Allows You To Isolate Specific Muscle Groups
As this was the last point within the previous section, it only felt fitting that we start with it here. As we debate weights vs bodyweight training, we should recognise that training one specific muscle group at a time isn’t a bad thing.
Rather, we believe it can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, as focused isolated exercises have their own unique beneficial properties.
Using free weights or a weights machine will allow you to practice these isolated exercises. Constantly targeting the same areas of your body will allow you to improve your technique and form as you build muscle. Over time, you’ll be able to work out what methods work best for specific muscles, and for what you want to achieve.
Many athletes will use the practice of circuit training (read more in OriGym’s overview of the benefits of circuit training) in order to hit all of these machines in one workout. However, as we’ve previously, moving from one machine to the other will require more time on your behalf.
Perhaps when discussing weights vs bodyweight training, we can say that there are no downsides when it comes to building muscle. One practice isn’t definitively better than the other, but rather it’s what we make of each practice that brings out their beneficial properties.
Some people may find the targeted method of weight lifting works best for them, whilst others may prefer a quick burst of calisthenic exercise.
#2 - Easier to Progress
When it comes to exercising we all love to monitor our progression, whether that’s with a dedicated fitness journal, or just telling our friends on social media. Nothing fills us with more pride than running that extra mile or pushing on for another set of reps.
But what practice can offer us better progression when looking at weightlifting vs calisthenics?
When we want to progress with weight training the answer is rather simple - we simply add more weight. In terms of weight lifting or using another weights machine, the solution to this issue is also rather simple, you can easily increase the weight on the equipment you’re using in order to create a greater sense of resistance.
The alternative for calisthenics practices is to increase your own body weight. This can be done using equipment such as weighted vests, which when debating weighted calisthenics vs free weights, can be seen as the more challenging calisthenic option.
However, for the purposes of this debate between bodyweight vs weights, we need to look at how increasing your body weight may not be as beneficial as you may think.
If you’re looking to gain muscle through calisthenics at a quicker rate, then you’re going to have to increase your weight through a caloric surplus diet.
Unfortunately, gaining body weight at a healthy rate is too slow of a progression for any beginner, not to mention that eating a high calorie diet may also mean that you put on fat instead of muscle in the short term.
This is a dangerous cycle to enter, as losing this fat also means losing body weight, which will negatively affect your training and progress, taking you back to square one.
So, when faced with the debate of bodyweight training vs weights, we can say that using weights makes it easier to progress. Alternatively, bodyweight training can become a time consuming hindrance, which may leave you feeling stagnated in your exercise routine.
#3 - Boosts Hypertrophy
As we debate the benefits of weights vs calisthenics, we should acknowledge that weight training can be more beneficial when training for hypertrophy (also known as an increase in muscle mass).
While calisthenics is useful for providing a solid foundation in terms of strength, flexibility and mobility (which are all crucial for improving your weight lifting technique), it isn’t as effective for triggering hypertrophy since your own body weight doesn’t provide enough resistance to work against.
In contrast, you can lift a much greater weight when working with free weights, which creates the perfect conditions for hypertrophy to occur. Typically, this would involve 6-12 repetitions of a relevant exercise for the muscle group that you wish to target, for 3-5 sets.
That being said, introducing calisthenics into your workout programme is a great way to diversify your training, especially if you increase the resistance that you are working against.
Resistance bands and weighted vests are both popular options, but even bodyweight movements alone can help you to build muscle mass when performed in conjunction with free weight exercises.
The main point to take away from this section is that, while extra resistance can be added to calisthenics exercises, you wouldn’t be able to safely add enough of this to trigger hypertrophy without some form of weight training.
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Calisthenics vs Weights for Strength
If you want to improve your overall strength, then you may be wondering which is better for building strength. Obviously, as the name strength training implies both techniques can be beneficial for your health, although you may find one practice more effective than the other.
When looking at calisthenics, it’s important to realise how exactly the practice is beneficial for your strength. In 2017, research found that participants' posture, strength and overall body composition can be positively influenced by practicing calisthenics for a total of 8 weeks.
This was monitored by analysing their performance rate, e.g. how many push-ups and pull-ups they could do at the start of the 8 weeks, compared to the amount at the end of the research.
We can now look at the opposing argument within this debate of bodyweight vs weights. Weightlifting is arguably more beneficial for your strength, as you can directly alter the amount you wish to carry.
The practice not only benefits your progression, but also allows you to take rest days where you’re not lifting as much, but still engaging with strength training. To achieve this, weightlifters often choose to lift a percentage of their maximum amount of weight.
When you alter the amount of weight you carry each day, you will begin to see an increase in your overall performance. However, by carrying the same weight each time you are depriving your body the chance of any real progression within the field of strength training.
We can relate this point regarding progression to calisthenics, as you cannot drastically alter your body weight overnight. This means that you will be engaging with the same weight again and again, not allowing yourself to have any variety of possible rest days.
We’ve put together a thorough report on the importance of rest days, and how to take them.
Ultimately, in this debate of the strength of calisthenics vs lifting weights’ strengths, using calisthenics to improve your strength does have its beneficial properties, particularly if you’re looking to see major results you should pursue weight lifting.
Calisthenics vs Weights for Building Muscle Mass
When it comes to the debate of calisthenics vs weights physique may mean everything to you, and as such you may solely be interested in each practice's effects on muscle mass.
As we have already discussed, weight lifting targets specific muscles and can be used for compound exercises. Progression within this practice is easy, and as you begin to increase the amount of weight your body engages with, so will the tension within your muscles.
Adding extra weights to your routine as opposed to just using your body weight is arguably a more effective method of muscle building. As more tension is created within your muscles, they will initially struggle to sustain and adapt to the new weight that has been added to them.
This process breaks muscles down and forces the body to repair the damaged muscles utilising protein we get from our diets, or from other sources such as protein powder shakes. This repairing process in turn leads to muscle growth, resulting in an increased amount of muscle mass.
So, when it comes to building muscle the obvious choice of exercise to go for may seem like weight lifting, but calisthenics also has some beneficial properties that we feel you should be aware of.
Before we begin, we must stress that, when looking at gaining muscle mass through the lens of calisthenics vs free weights, the calisthenic process does require more time than that of weight training. So, if you're looking to see more immediate effects then you may be better suited for weight training.
However, for those of you who want to follow this calisthenic journey, you’ll need to practice what is called hypertrophy. The conditions for which must ensure that you’re providing your body high levels of tension and force. With bodyweight training, your weight may stay the same but that doesn’t mean that the resistance has too as well.
When push-ups become too easy and don’t provide the same levels of resistance that you need, then you can adapt your practice and make them more challenging for yourself, either by doing them one handed or by practicing pike push-ups.
Pike push-ups load the shoulders and upper chest more vertically and create more resistance than more traditional push-ups.
Therefore, just like with weight training where you can gradually add more weight to the barbell, bodyweight training can be adapted by altering your body angles, lengths and depths of range.
Therefore, when it comes to calisthenics vs weights for physique purposes, both aspects of training provide you with an increased level of muscle mass. Whilst the final destination is the same, the practices offer two vastly different journeys.
If you want instant results with a straightforward method, then we would recommend pursuing weight training. However, if you want to get creative with your exercise routine, and are after a long-term plan, then calisthenics will be the practice for you.
Calisthenics vs Weights for Weight Loss
When it comes to the debate of which is better calisthenics vs weights for weight loss, the main focus of this debate can come down to which practice requires more energy and how many calories they burn.
As we look at calisthenics vs weights for body modifications purposes, the topic of weight loss may be of interest to you. Explore more on weight loss and body fat in OriGym’s comprehensive guide to the different types of body fat.
Due to the fact that they require more movement on your behalf, in order to perform calisthenics accurately you’re going to need more energy. Your body will provide you with more energy by burning calories, and the more calories you burn the more weight you’re likely to lose.
If you want to push your calisthenics practice even further, you can increase your movements intensity and speed by practicing high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This training will require you to push yourself to your maximum limit for short bouts of time, resulting in even further calorie burning.
When it comes to calisthenics vs weights for weight loss, the isolated movements of weightlifting keep your body practically static, and as a result it does not require as much energy as calisthenics does.
As with many of the topics surrounding calisthenics vs weights, the body has many ways of adapting to the practice, and you can find a way to burn calories whilst still practicing the isolated practice of weight lifting.
Exercising is known to boost your metabolic rate and muscles help to burn body fat, even when we’re not working out. Bigger muscles will help to boost your metabolic rate, in light of this we can argue that the more muscle mass you gain, the higher your metabolic rate will increase by.
So, as we look at this subtopic within the existing debate of calisthenics vs free weights, we can say that both methods of strength training can successfully help you to lose weight, however they do so through different methods.
Once again it may be worth noting that increasing your metabolic rate may take more time than you expect, so weightlifting may not produce instant results in this department. However, you can augment this process with the right metabolism boosting foods, and a balanced diet.
How to Start Calisthenics
If any of the arguments we have discussed have made you want to take up calisthenics, then we can impart on you some advice, that may be beneficial when starting this bodyweight practice.
The best thing you can do as a beginner is to take it easy on yourself. Remember to not rush into things, as you’ll be more likely to slip up and potentially hurt yourself, and therefore be more reluctant to push yourself in future. So keep these points of advice in mind, before deciding to pursue the practice.
- Warm Up: Some aerobic activity such as a brief jog or brisk walk will get the blood flowing into your muscles, bracing them for the tough workout that’s ahead. They act as a form of flexibility training, loosening the muscles and preparing them for exercise. It is not recommended that beginners just jump straight into bodyweight exercises. If you’re not used to upholding yourself, then it could result in pulled muscles or injured joints.
- Make Steady Progress: If you feel that you can easily reach your reps goal, it may be worth sticking to the 5% and increasing aspects of your routine slowly. For example, if you do 50 sit ups a day, then it may be worth increasing to 52 situps, before moving onto 55. But before diving into this new system, have a test rep to ensure that things are comfortable for your body. Fitness is a process, and it’s important not to rush into things.
- The Importance of Rest: Always make sure to rest for at least 60 seconds in between sets, this helps to prevent muscle fatigue which plagues newbies who push themselves too hard, too fast. It is also important to note that your calisthenics workouts should not be longer than 60 minutes. Long sessions whilst you’re still a beginner further increases the risk of muscle fatigue and may cause you to burnout quickly. Rest days between workouts will be your best friend - give your muscles time to recover, and remember that it’s during your rest days that the muscles will break down and build themselves back up.
- Stretch: Make sure to gently stretch your muscles after your workout. Stretching can help boost your flexibility, ease any tension that has been created in the muscles during the workout, and reduce your risk of further injury. If you’re seeking to push yourself even further, you can start to explore the benefits of dynamic stretching.
As you can see from the points made above, it is important to keep your safety in mind when practicing calisthenics. As a beginner, you’re more susceptible to injury, so having this information on hand before you start will only benefit your practice and health in the long run.
Calisthenic Exercises For Beginners
If any of the arguments made above have made you want to take up calisthenics, then we’d like to pass on some advice that may be beneficial when starting this bodyweight practice.
The best thing you can do as a beginner is to take it easy on yourself, remember to not rush into things, as that’s when you can slip up and potentially hurt yourself.
We’ve put together a few calisthenic exercises that we’d recommend trying:
Starting Position: To execute walking lunges accurately, stand with your feet hip distance apart and keep your torso tall and upright. You may want to put your hands on your hips, but this is entirely optional.
- Breathe in, and ensure that your core is engaged.
- Breath out and take a large step forward with your right foot and plant it roughly two feet ahead of where you’re currently standing. Your right knee should be at around a 90-degree angle in relation to the ground, and your left knee should stop before it makes impact with the ground.
- Hold this position for 2 seconds, and breathe in.
- Keeping your core tight and your shoulders upright, breathe out as you drive your body upwards using your right leg. You should be back in the starting position at this stage.
- Repeat this with your left leg, and alternate for the duration of the exercise.
What Muscles Does This Exercise Engage? These will strengthen your leg muscles as well as your core, hips and glutes.
How Long Should I Do this Exercise For? The recommended amount of time you should practice walking lunges for is 5-10 Minutes.
Starting Position: Simply lay on your back either on the floor or a bench. Bend your knees and make sure to hook your feet under something that will offer you support. For example: a bench or the bottom of your couch.
- Place both hands behind your neck (or place your fingertips on your temples) and take a deep breath in, ensuring to engage your core as you do so.
- Using the weighted support provided by your feet, slowly begin to pull yourself upward off of the ground.
- As you’re pushing yourself forward, breathe out, until you’re sat up perfectly straight.
- Slowly lower yourself back to the ground, laying your back completely flat against the mat or floor.
What Muscles Does This Exercise Engage?: Sit-ups are great for engagement with your core muscles.
How Long Should I Do this Exercise For?: If you want to engage with hypertrophy, then it is recommended that you do 6-12 reps of Sit-Ups.
Starting Position: To execute push-ups in the most efficient way, we would recommend using an exercise mat (such as your best yoga mat) which provides your body with cushioned protection. Get on all fours and position your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Extend your legs behind you, so that you’re balancing completely on your hands and toes.
- Keep your body in a straight line from head to toe, try to avoid any sagging within your middle area or arching of your back.
- Brace your core by contracting your abs and pulling your belly button towards your spine.
- Breathe in as you slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle.
- Breathe out as you begin contracting your chest muscles, pushing yourself back up, until you’re back up balancing on your hands.
- Try to avoid locking your elbows, keep them bent slightly to make the reps easier.
What Muscles Does this Exercise Engage? With push-ups you are going to be targeting your pecs, deltoids, triceps and the core.
How Long Should I Do this Exercise For?: If you want to engage with hypertrophy, then it is recommended that you do 6-12 reps of Push-Ups.
Starting Position: Put yourself into the plank position on the floor or padded mat. Plant both hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart, arms extended and shoulders positioned directly over your hands, your legs should be behind you at a feet hip-width apart.
- Push the toes of your left foot into the floor, then raise your right foot off and external rotate your leg.
- Contract your glute muscles, keep your back flat and bright your right knee to the outside of the right elbow.
- When your knee approaches the elbow, begin to squeeze your core muscles.
- Extend your left arm out in front of you, place your palm on the floor while your knee comes towards the elbow.
- Staying low on the ground, alternate your bent knee and hand as you walk/crawl forward.
- Continue this pattern, alternating between your right and left leg.
What Muscles Does this Exercise Engage? Spiderman walk engages your shoulders, chest, upper back, triceps, quadriceps, calves, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and abductors.
How Long Should I Do this Exercise For? If you want to engage with hypertrophy, then it is recommended that you do 6-12 reps of this exercise.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Injury Rate for Calisthenics vs Weights?
When it comes to debating the injury rate in the calisthenics vs weights debate, we have acknowledged that both practices have the potential to cause injury, however it is only when we do them wrong that these injuries are likely to occur.
With weightlifting, if you don’t have access to a teacher, then things could very easily go wrong - you could injure a joint, you could throw your back out, or you could drop the weight onto your body. If you don’t wish to use a personal trainer, then it is so important to take things slow and steady, only lift things that are manageable for you and your body.
OriGym’s comprehensive guide also offers tips on how to mitigate against or even prevent common weightlifting injuries.
Alternatively within this debate of injury rate in calisthenics vs weights, we can also say that calisthenics has the potential to cause injury if done incorrectly too. With calisthenics you’re more than likely to be practicing on your own, which means you will have no one to correct you if you’re doing things incorrectly.
This incorrect form and behaviour could then become reinforced, which may make you more susceptible to injuries and strains. To avoid this, we would recommend doing some research and following a guide to calisthenics, so you can properly execute the exercises you’re attempting.
So, we can conclude by saying the injury risk for both is quite high. However, you are the only person who can protect yourself. Make smart choices when exercising and you should be fine.
Is it Beneficial to Combine the Two Practices?
This article has been centered around the debate of calisthenics vs weights, however the practices don’t necessarily need to be pitted against one another - they can coexist in a combined workout, or as a form of cross training.
You could either try to incorporate them at the same time, for example: trying lunges whilst holding a set of dumbbells. Ensuring that you get a single strength training session, that will greatly benefit your body. Alternatively, you could alternate the practices in different days, practicing one method at a time.
The only thing we would say here, is try to not overdo it. Both techniques add resistance to your muscles, so too much strength training could lead to injuries.
Before You Go!
Whether you want to view this debate as calisthenics vs weights or bodyweight training vs weighs, the fact of the matter is that they’re both highly beneficial practices. There isn’t one clear decisive winner, and that is because you are the person that makes or breaks each practice. For some calisthenics will be the way forward, for others it will be weightlifting and some may benefit from a combination of the two.
We here at OriGym hope this debate has been both informative and educational. If it has inspired you to take up one of the practices, we wish you nothing but the best with your future success within your chosen field.
Or, if you’re looking to elevate your fitness game to the next level, then a career as a personal trainer could be ideal.
OriGym’s world-beating personal training courses offer unparalleled support and advice, and with guaranteed post-course interviews at gyms across the country, they’re the sensible choice if you’re considering a career in fitness.
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Written by Professional S & C Coaches
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- Antonino Patti, Ewan Thomas, Antonino Bianco, Esamuela Pieretta Mancuso (2017) The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength and body composition. Isokinetics and Exercise Science.