Calisthenics vs Weights: Which One Is Better?

Is weight training healthy? Can you even build muscle with calisthenics? Isn't calisthenics only for endurance?

Which one is superior? Which one builds more strength?

In this blog, we will take a deep look into the benefits and disadvantages of each discipline and do an in-depth comparison of weight training and calisthenics.

Here are the 5 categories we will discuss and compare:

  • Cost
  • Accessibility
  • Legs
  • Progressive Overload
  • Efficiency
  • Isolation

Then we will conclude with our final recommendations on which will benefit you more.

Cost

Calisthenics can be done with essentially zero equipment. All you would need is a pull-up bar. and if you don't have access to a pull-up bar, you can even make do with a ledge of some sort to grab.

You can always purchase parallettes, dip bars, wrist wraps, chalk, gymnastic rings and although they are recommended, they are not a necessity.

Weight training on the other hand requires a lot of equipment. You will need barbells, bench, squat rack, weight plates, dumbbells, cables and many machines.

Gym memberships will run from $30-$100 a month. If you choose to get a home gym, the equipment can cost to have the bare minimum (squat rack, barbell and weight plates) will cost around $1500 dollars and to have a proper set-up it can cost up to $20,000.

Accessibility

Calisthenics can be done anywhere on land. As long as there is gravity and a floor you can perform push-ups, squats, handstands, planks, planche, dragon press and much more.

Weight training can only be done where there is equipment, In most cases, unless you have a home gym with tons of equipment, you are limited to using a gym.

Furthermore, when the weather is nice, there are plenty of outdoor fitness parks. It's a great way to get some fresh air and vitamin D while doing your workouts.

Legs

There is no doubt that if you're trying to build tree trunk legs, then your bodyweight is no where near enough weight to do this.

One legged squats are an option but even this is most likely not enough weight at advanced levels. furthermore, they are uncomfortable to perform and its also feels more like a balancing exercise rather than a strength exercise.

Even those that have mastered calisthenics will admit that when it comes to leg training they prefer just performing heavy two-legged squats, deadlift s and some heavy weighted lunges.

Pistol squats, a calisthenics leg exercise

8-time Mr. Olympia squatting 800lbs

Progressive Overload

It's fairly straight forward to increase the difficulty in weight training. It is a matter of adding a few more pounds onto the barbell or moving up to the next bigger dumbbells.

However it's a bit more complicated for calisthenics. There are a few ways to increase the difficulty

  • Unilateral exercises
  • Changing Leverages
  • Increasing the frequency

Let's use push-ups as an example. If the regular push-up is too hard, one option is to place your knee onto the ground to "shorten the lever".

increasing the difficulty by adjusting the lever

If the regular push-up becomes too easy you have two options. Either start performing archer push-ups, one arm push-ups or some variation where you have one arm performing more of the work than your resting arm.

One issue with these two methods is that the jumps in difficulty can be very big. For example, the percent change in resistance between the knee push-up and the regular push-up is approximately 30%.

Moreover, in a one arm push-up , you are lifting twice as much as a standard push-up.

One benefit of calisthenics when it comes to progressive overload is that there is one method of overloading that you can very easily do that is much harder to do with weight training.

Greasing the groove is a method to improve your strength by performing a movement with very high frequency. That means performing a set 5-10 times throughout the day. Unless you plan to live in the gym, This is most likely only possible with calisthenics.

Efficiency

Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio

Here is probably another reason that body-builder use weights instead of calisthenics. An exercise with a high stimulus to fatigue ratio means that it causes a lot of muscle growth without tiring your body.

For example, barbell squats have a very nice stretch component, and since it has a large range of motion and uses a lot of muscles, it generally considered to be a very high stimulus exercise. However it can also be a high fatigue exercise because there is a lot weight on your back that causes spinal

Now don't be mistaken, axial loading isn't necessarily a bad thing. In small doses, axial loading is amazing. They improve bone density, total body strength, muscle mass and your central nervous system(CNS). Training the CNS is truly the secret to super-human strength.

However it also causes fatigue especially to your CNS and it takes a few days or even a week for your CNS to fully recover. So if strength is not your goal and you are strictly going for muscle mass, an exercise such as the leg press where you are seats ad the load is not on your back may be beneficial.

Generally may exercises in calisthenics are high fatiguing even with axial loading because they require stabilization and fully body control. For example when performing a push-up you need to keep your glutes, abs, serratus all tense, where as a bench press it is not as important.

Isolation

If you want to isolate your biceps in calisthenics it requires you to hand upside down and to perform inverted curls.

Not only does this put you in an uncomfortable position you are also required to have your entire body tense and rigid throughout the exercise.

If you are already fatigued this can be very annoying to have to do. Isolation exercises are usually performed at the end of your workouts after your compound movements.

So it is highly likely you will already be fatigued. Furthermore, it even be the case that your fatigued core and glutes can be the weakest link tot he exercise and can fail before your biceps do.

calisthenics bicep curl

Athleticism

When it comes to athleticism, calisthenics is the clear winner. Many extremely good athletes whether it be swimmers, martial artists, runners are known to have had done gymnastics as a child. The coordination and full-body control that is required to perform handstands, flips, and L-sits transfer very well to all ranges of sports.

On the contrary it is often common to see guys that can squat 400lbs that look very awkward when running or jumping.

Which Should I do?

It's actually depends on what your goals are.

If you strictly care about gaining size, we recommend just straight weight lifting.

However, for the average individual who wants strength, size, and athleticism we recommend a combination of weights and calisthenics.  

What exactly do you mean by a combination?

Here is our recommendation:

1) Use weights for leg workouts.

As we previously discussed, calisthenics is at a disadvantage when it comes to leg training. Ditch the one legged squats and perform weighted back squats, lunges and deadlifts instead!

2) Use weights and calisthenics for upper body exercises

One of the benefits of incorporating both is that you get more exercises to choose from. Instead of being limited to barbell bench press and dumbbell bench press, now you can also incorporate push-ups, ring push-ups , dips and ring dips to your regiment.

Being able to choose from more exercises has two benefits.

firstly, it allows your body to constantly have to adapt. This prevents plateaus and allows your body to constantly improve.

Second, it allows you from being bored from just doing the same exercises all the time. And the constant improvement and PRs will be you motivated to keep training.

3) Use weights for isolation exercises.

As we previously discussed, calisthenics is at a disadvantage when it comes to isolation. Use weights machines and cables for your delts, bicep, tricep hamstrings and squads!

4) Use calisthenics for warm-ups

Calisthenics are closed-chain movements. They are much safer. When your body isn't warmed up, its at a higher risk on injury. so use calisthenics to warm up safely! Warm up for the bench press by doing push-ups! A side benefit of doing this is that you won't be hogging up the bench too long if you get your warm-up done by doing push-ups.

5) Use calisthenics when you don't have access to the gym.

Don't have access to a gym on your vacation? Don't want to get an expensive 1-day gym pass to a gym thats a 30minute commute away? Do a quick outdoor calisthenics workout while basking in the sunshine so you have more time to do the fun vacation activities you came to do!

The Best of Both Worlds
Introducing Weighted Calisthenics

So now that you understand the idea of combining the two and performing exercises from both calisthenics and weights. Now there is another concept that may be even superior!

The idea is to combine weights and calisthenics to create a totally new exercise.

The concept is simple, yet brilliant!

Are push-ups too easy? Add weight to it!

Need a progression between regular pull-ups and archer pull-ups? Do weighted push-ups! The benefit of weighted calisthenics is that you get the benefit of athletics, safety, accessibility, and cost from calisthenics and get the benefits of efficiency and progressive overload from weights.

How do I add the weights?

The best way to add resistance to your calisthenics movements would be to get a weighted vest.

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