Calisthenics Vs Weights: [How To Pick The Best One For You]

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It’s no secret that if you want a healthy body, then you have to exercise.

But which type of exercise should you do?

This post will cover a comprehensive head-to-head comparison of calisthenics vs weights

I have used both of these strategies to achieve great results, and today I am going to share with you 7 considerations to help you pick the one that is best for you.

In the end, I will also show you the best calisthenic and weight exercise categories.

Keep reading.

Calisthenics Vs Weights: Which One Should You Pick?

Here is a quick summary of the main points that we are going to cover:

You should do calisthenics if:

  • You prefer to work out at home, or do not have time to commute to a gym
  • You prefer to use a minimal amount of equipment
  • You desire functional strength in all basic human movement patterns
  • You do not care about developing a lot of lower body muscle
  • You are an absolute beginner and want to start with the basics

You should do weight training if:

  • You have access to a fully stocked gym (squat rack, barbells, dumbbells, plates, bench press)
  • You understand how to mimic functional movement patterns using weights
  • You are willing to learn how to use proper technique
  • You desire to build more muscle mass than what is possible with calisthenics
  • You desire to isolate specific muscles
  • You are morbidly obese

You should do both if (preferred method):

  • You want to develop a very strong well-rounded body
  • You like to add variety to your training
  • You have access to a gym, but you also would like to master working out on the go

Okay, let’s go over these points in more detail.

If You’d Rather Watch Than Read- Here’s The Video Version

Calisthenics Definition: What Is Calisthenics?

Calisthenics is the practice of using your own body weight as a form of resistance for the purposes of exercising. In other words, you are lifting your own body weight instead of dumbbells or barbells.

Almost every major exercise that you can do with weights could also be done with calisthenics.

I’ll show you how a little later.


The Major Benefits of Calisthenics

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of training with your body weight versus weights?

Calisthenics provides four major advantages to weight training.

They are:

1) Calisthenics is Free

Besides needing access to some sort of pull-up bar, there isn’t much else that you would need to get a full body calisthenics workout.

This means that you don’t need weights.

You don’t need fancy equipment.

And you don’t need a gym membership.

Which brings us to the second point…

2) Calisthenics Provides A Greater Degree of Freedom

Because calisthenics requires little to no equipment, you can exercise just about whenever or wherever you want.

Your gym is closed? No problem.

You are away and the hotel gym sucks? No problem.

You don’t feel like leaving the house but you still want to workout? No problem.

*The only caveat is that a pull-up bar does become necessary if your goal is to develop a well-rounded body*

3) Calisthenics Will Improve Your Flexibility and Coordination

Performing several calisthenic movements requires a decent amount of body awareness, body control, and movement.

Unlike weights, your entire body has to move in unison when you are performing calisthenic exercises.

Take a simple pull-up for example.  You are literally bringing your entire body all the way up to the bar with each repetition.  Compare that to a machine exercise where your body is fixed, and you bring the weight down towards you.

In addition, some exercises like the lunge or the handstand require a decent amount of mobility in the hips and shoulders.

As you get stronger in calisthenics, your mobility and flexibility automatically improve as well.

4) Almost All Calisthenics Exercises Train Your Core

Almost every calisthenic exercise requires you to maintain a neutral or a hollow body position.

This automatically turns on and activates your core muscles as you need to balance yourself while doing bodyweight exercises.

A lot of weight exercises, on the other hand, lock your body into a fixed position, eliminating the stability component inherent in calisthenics.

5) Calisthenic Exercises Are Cool

If you can do some advanced calisthenic exercises – you will turn some heads.

Even the simple handstand is pretty awesome.

calisthenics-vs-weights

Disadvantages/ Cons of Calisthenics

While all of that sounds magical, let’s quickly go over the disadvantages of calisthenics.

There aren’t many.

1) Calisthenic Exercises Require An Understanding of Levers

You only have 125 or 175 lbs (or whatever you weigh) to use at your disposal.

As a result, you need to know how to leverage your body weight to increase or decrease the difficulty of each exercise.

For example, changing the angle in which you perform a push-up can drastically change the intensity of the exercise, as does your hand positioning.

It is important that you know how to change the levers appropriately so that the exercise provides you with the right amount of intensity.

Failure to use these levers correctly can also lead to injury.

2) Some Calisthenic Progressions Are Very Difficult

As you get stronger, some exercises are going to become easy.

Sure, it can be fun doing 50 or 100 push-ups in one set, but there comes a point of diminishing returns.

In order to continue moving forward, you will have to increase the intensity of the exercise by performing a new progression or variation.

Often times, the jump in intensity from one progression to the next is huge, which can lead to frustration and demotivation.

For example, handstand push-ups might be a huge jump for you after training pike push-ups.

3) Calisthenic Leg Exercises Are Limited Compared To Upper Body Exercises

The last disadvantage is that you cannot train your legs as good strictly using calisthenics.

Your legs are powerful, and you will quickly be able to progress through a lot of lower body exercises in the calisthenic library.

For example:

Once you master the 1 leg squat (aka the pistol), there isn’t much more intensity you could add to that exercise beyond adding weight to your body.

As a result, your legs will pale in comparison to your upper body if you only use bodyweight exercises.

Speaking of weights, let’s talk about their major benefits.

ProsCons
Calisthenics is free You must understand and know how to use levers
Provides a lot of freedom : workout anytime anywhere Some progressions are very difficult
Calisthenics improves your athleticism Calisthenic leg exercises are very limited
Most calisthenic exercises train your core

The Major Benefits of Weight Training

Ok, that’s enough about calisthenics. What about weight training?

Weights do offer some unique advantages over bodyweight training.

They are:

1) Weights Are Easy To Scale

If you want to make any exercise more difficult, all you have to do is add 5 lbs to the barbell or the dumbbell. This is by far the easiest way to implement progressive overload into your training.

Conversely, if an exercise is too challenging, all you have to do is take some weight off the bar.

2) Weights Can Help You Develop A Powerful Lower Body

If you want strong, toned, or muscular legs, then you should squat.

If there is only one exercise that you could perform, it would be the squat with added weights.

The second best exercise is the deadlift.

There is no comparison.

The squat and the deadlift are the king and queen of fitness.

3) Weights Allow You To Isolate Individual Muscles

Weights allow you to train one specific muscle group in one specific pattern.

This is beneficial if you have an injury or a muscular imbalance that requires you to strengthen a specific movement pattern.

Calisthenic exercises tend to be compound exercises.


Disadvantages/ Cons of Weight Training

Last but not least let’s go over the disadvantages of weight lifting.

1) Weight Lifting Requires Expensive Equipment

In order to train your body in the manner in which it is meant to be trained, you will need a few things.

  1. A barbell
  2. Dumbbells
  3. A Bench
  4. A Squat Rack
  5. Plates

It is ideal to find a gym that has all of these things.  The other option is to purchase all of this equipment if you have the money and space in your home.

2) You Better Make Sure That Your Form Is Adequate

Proper technique during exercise is ABSOLUTELY critical.

If you perform any kind of weight lifting with improper form, you significantly increase your risk of injury.

This is also true with calisthenics, however, you can do A LOT more damage with external weights loaded onto your body.

Always practice good technique.

3) Weight Training Requires An Understanding Of Human Movement

Everyone thinks that doing bicep curls and Russian twists is a great way to workout.

Our bodies weren’t designed to isolate little muscles like this. Sure, it can be aesthetic, but it is not improving your health nor fitness.

You need to learn how to do the six functional human movement patterns, which include

  • The Horizontal Push
  • The Horizontal Pull
  • The Vertical Push
  • The Vertical Pull
  • The Hip Hinge
  • The Squat

We cover these in greater detail in our post on designing a gym workout.

ProsCons
Weights are easy to scale – you can always add 5 lbs to increase the intensity Weight lifting requires a fully stocked gym and good quality equipment
It is easier to build muscle with weights, especially in the lower body Poor form increases injury risk significantly
Weights allow you to isolate specific muscle groups Many weight exercises are non-functional

Other Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Build Muscle With Calisthenics?

Yes, you can build a lot of muscle with calisthenics. Once you can perform one arm pull-ups or one-handed push-ups, you will have a lot of muscle on your body.

This is because…

Your Body Doesn’t Know The Difference Between Resistance!

Whether you are doing an overhead press or a handstand push-up, all your body knows is that it is encountering resistance and it must build muscle to compensate.

In addition, your core muscles will be very developed as all of these advanced exercises require a high level of core strength.

For example:

Take a look at Austin Dunham, who primarily trains calisthenics, or take a look at high-level gymnasts. No one would say that these people lack muscle.

You will not, however, be able to build as much lower body muscle as you can with weights.

What Makes You Stronger- Weights Or Calisthenics?

It depends on how you define strength.

Your body will get stronger at the specific task you are training.

This is because of the SAID Principle.

It stands for specific adaptation to imposed demands.

In other words, if you want to get stronger at pull-ups, the best way to do it is to train pull-ups. You wouldn’t’ go for a swim and expect to get better at pull-ups.

So weight training will get you stronger at weight training, and calisthenics will get you stronger in calisthenics, although you may notice a carryover in strength between the two.

What Burns More Calories: Calisthenics Or Weight Lifting?

Both types of training are equally good at burning calories. It all depends on how much volume you decide to do.

Keep in mind that neither type of training will burn a significant number of calories, probably somewhere in the realm of 5-10 calories per each minute of work.

The Final Head to Head Comparison- Calisthenics Vs Weights [8 Tests]

In this next section, we will go over a few categories one by one to determine where each training excels.

Which is better in terms of ease of progression, exercise variety, training flexibility, ease of learning, isolating muscles, functional strength, building muscle and losing weight?

Let’s get started.

1) Ease of Progression:

Which type of training is easier to progress on?

Weight lifting.

It is much easier to add 5 lbs to a barbell than it is to perform a new variation of a calisthenic exercise.

2) Variety:

Which type of training provides more variety?

Draw.

If you are the type of person who gets bored easily, weight training can keep you entertained through variety.

There are about 30 different bicep curl variations you can perform, 20 different tricep extension exercises you can do, and hundreds of machines each serving different purposes.

In addition, you can also find 50 different ways to do a push-up or a pull-up. You are only limited by your creativity.

3) Training Flexibility:

Which type of training provides you with more flexibility/freedom?

Calisthenics

With calisthenics, you can workout anytime, anywhere.

With weight training, you need access to a gym, the right equipment, and a lot of space.

4) Ease of Learning:

Which type of training is better suited for a beginner?

Calisthenics

Every major calisthenic exercise can be performed using a very simple beginner variation. In general, it is easier to handle your own body weight than it is to handle an external weight.

With that said, you can perform every weighted exercise with very light resistance as you are learning proper form.

Also, if you are obese, it is much safer to start with weight lifting.

5) Isolating Muscles:

Which type of training is better for isolating specific muscles?

Weight Lifting

Not much to say here. Almost every calisthenic exercise is a compound exercise.

Weights, on the other hand, allow you to specifically target any muscle in the body. But if your goal is to develop total body strength, then muscle isolation shouldn’t be your focus.

weight-lifting-for-muscle
Isolating your biceps is best done with weights

6) Functional Strength:

Which type of training is better for building functional strength?

Calisthenics

When you lift weights, you will get good at lifting weights. Unless you train specifically for weighted functional strength, weights can decrease your mobility and leave you with muscular imbalances.

Calisthenics on the other hand naturally improves flexibility, coordination, and improves your real-world strength.

If you are a complete master of the pull-up or the freestanding handstand, there is very little that you cannot do with your body.

7) Building Muscle:

Which type of training is better for building muscle?

Weight lifting

You will build more muscle in your legs using weights.

However, proper training can help build equally impressive amounts of muscle in the upper body using weights or calisthenics.

8) Losing Weight:

Which type of training is better for losing weight?

Draw

Calisthenics and weight training can be equally effective for losing weight provided you train correctly for it.

What’s the best way to exercise for weight loss?

High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT for short.

You can do HIIT workouts with weights, calisthenics, or both.

So To Sum It Up: You Should Lift Weights & Do Calisthenics!

So we have 5 points for calisthenics and 5 points for weight lifting. Each has its pros and cons, but if you use them correctly, you can achieve amazing results.

Now that you understand the pros and cons of each, it’s up to you to decide.

Or, do what I do.

Get the best of both worlds and incorporate both into your training.

Alright, so have you made your decision?

Good.

Now it’s time to learn the best exercises from each category.

Which Calisthenics Exercises Are The Best?

The best calisthenic exercises can be divided up into 7 categories.

These include:

  •  The Upper Body Push
  • The Handstand
  • The Upper Body Horizontal Pull
  • The Upper Body Vertical Pull
  • The Squat (Or The Lower Body Push)
  • The Hip Hinge (Or The Lowe Body Pull)
  • The Core Stabilization Pattern

These include the staple calisthenic exercises that everyone knows such as push-ups, pull-ups, and dips.

But it’s also so much more than that.

Every one of these exercises has numerous variations to provide you with new challenges.

To learn more, check out our comprehensive post of the best calisthenic exercises.

Which Weight Training Exercises Are Best?

The best weightlifting exercises mirror the best calisthenic exercises.

A bench press is nothing more than a push-up with a bar in your hands.

An overhead press is the equivalent of a handstand push-up.

The best weightlifting exercises can be broken down into the same categories as the calisthenic exercises.

They include

  • The Upper Body Horizontal Push
  • The Upper Body Horizontal Pull
  • The Upper Body Vertical Push
  • The Upper Body Vertical Pull
  • The Squat
  • The Deadlift

We have included 46 variations of all of these exercises in our compound exercise post.

Rather than strictly doing calisthenics or weightlifting, I suggest you combine your favorite weight lifting exercises with your favorite calisthenic exercises.

Here’s how to make your workout program.

How To Create A Simple Calisthenics and Weight Training Workout Plan
1) Choose one exercise from each of the 7 major categories
2) Select three exercises to perform each day (ideally, they shouldn’t overlap)
– For example, don’t train the horizontal and vertical push back to back
3) Create 4 unique workouts, each with a different selection 3 exercises
4) Aim to train each major category 1-2x per week
5) Focus on using different rep ranges every 4-6 weeks.
– Reps in the 7-12 range primarily tone and build muscle
– Reps in the 3-6 range primarily build strength
– Reps >12 primarily build endurance
6) Use progressive overload every week
7) Lastly, do not spend more than 30-45 minutes working out

So that’s all there is to it.

But we have good news for you.

We have already done all of this work for you.

If you want to tone up, build muscle, or gain strength using weights and calisthenic exercises, check out our strength program for busy professionals.

If you do not want to go to a gym, and you prefer to workout at home only with calisthenics, then check out our home workout program.

Both are comprehensive workout plans that will get you strong and ripped in 15 weeks.

So that’s all that you need to know about calisthenics vs weights.

So which do you prefer?

Next You Should Read

Comment below and let us know.

Don’t forget to enter your email below to get a free copy of our workout template!

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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, a NASM CPT, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer, a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy individuals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

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