One of the greatest debates in the history of bodybuilding has always revolved around the most effective styles of training for strength, physique, and size.
Today’s traditional bodybuilders may sway towards weights as being the best medium for bodybuilding.
Yet, old-school bodybuilders will know that calisthenic movements gave rise to strength and physique as we know it today.
This leaves the big question open for debate, which is best for strength and physique – Calisthenics vs. Weights?
The purpose of this discussion is not to push you in one direction or another. From the perspective of balanced strength, we must remember that a combination of all styles of training will always be the most effective.
With that said, we do want to understand what will be best for you to focus on. Some people may find much more success with a particular style of training – especially if they have the correct guidance.
When it comes to measuring calisthenics vs. weights, the most significant deciding factor will always come down to your physiology and motivation.
Those who have a body catered towards calisthenics and have the motivation to accomplish strenuous exercises will naturally thrive in this style of training.
In this article, we will discuss the benefits (and cons) of each, their applications in bodybuilding, and how to optimize your training.
Calisthenics vs. Weights
Let us say something right out of the gate – both calisthenics and weights have great applications to your strength and physique.
Both will provide you with a healthy way to train, discover new hobbies, and build the body you have always dreamt of.
With that said, calisthenics may provide a more complex application to training – just as weights may give a more specific approach to sports situations.
The best way to help you understand the difference and find the training style best for you is to break down each into pros and cons. Let’s start with calisthenics.
Pros and Cons of Calisthenics
I really enjoy calisthenics. This is the stuff that motivated me to start training – and many of my workouts still strongly revolve around this style of training.
Just because I enjoy, this training does not mean it is without fault. Let’s start with the benefits of calisthenics.
Good for Relative Strength
For those who are unaware, relative strength is a measure of how strong you are proportionate to your bodyweight. Calisthenics, a sport dominated by bodyweight-only movements, will train you to be very strong – regarding relative strength.
Good for Any Athlete
Calisthenics is a unique style of training that stems from straightforward compound bodyweight exercises, yet, since the movements can be adapted to suit any muscle group or sport, the applications are endless.
This is why most, if not all, trainers will use explosive calisthenic exercises to train power athletes.
They may also use isolation core exercises to strengthen the spine and structural integrity of that athlete. Only calisthenics has these unique applications to sport.
Easy to Complete in Any Environment
One of the major draws for the average person is that calisthenics can be completed in virtually any environment. You can complete most of the workouts at home with little to no equipment.
Just having one basic tool like a set of parallettes will allow you to complete entire workouts!
This also carries over to the gym setting as well. If you are a calisthenic athlete who chooses to train in a structured gym environment, you are basically in a giant adult playground full of pull-up bars and various devices to build strength.
There are many applications to calisthenics in the world of bodybuilding, but there are also some pretty significant downsides. Here are some of the things you should keep in mind before you jump into calisthenics.
Difficult to Put on Mass
This is perhaps one of the biggest reasons people avoid this style of training. Mass training is not impossible, but it is difficult, and it does take considerable amounts of consistency and motivation to accomplish.
Since much of your training will use a consistent amount of resistance (bodyweight), your muscles will not adapt to a hypertrophic stimulus – or the increase in cell size.
This is not to say that you will not build muscle. You will undoubtedly build muscle, but it will take you some time and dedication to build mass.
Difficult to Make Advancements
Many people become extremely motivated to start training in calisthenics because they want to do cool movements like a planche or a handstand.
The reality of these movements is that they are incredibly complicated and take a long time to train correctly and avoid injury.
Although this is not necessarily a con (because these movements are fantastic), it is essential to realize that these movements take time and dedication to complete.
This means you will spend many months (if not years) training the basic movements before you get to the “cool” exercises.
Not Easy to Isolate Specific Muscles
Many movements in calisthenics are compound, and by nature, this makes them difficult to isolate a specific muscle while training.
Take the example of a pushup, a movement that will train the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Isolating a specific muscle, say the chest, will require you to complete a fly – which can be difficult unless you have rings or a suspension trainer.
Calisthenics Score: 4.5/5
Given all the pros and cons, calisthenics should remain one of the most effective styles of bodybuilding today. Given its wide variety of applications to specific sports and athletes, calisthenics receives a score of 4.5/5.
Pros and Cons of Weights
Weight training is the most common form of bodybuilding we have today.
Most of all, the guys and girls you see in the gym today are either using free weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells) or using resistance machines to complete their strength training.
In both cases, the individual who is training is using resistance in the form of deadweight to create strength and development in muscle tissue.
There are many advantages to this style of training. Not only are weights highly adaptable, but they are also highly available in most gym settings.
Let’s break down some of the major pros and cons of using weights.
Good for All Levels
Weights are highly adaptable for the simple reason that they come in all weights. Typically, dumbbells can be found from 1 pound to 200 pounds. This makes training at all levels very accessible.
Easy To Progress With
Since weight training can be completed with a variable amount of resistance (1-200 pounds and higher), you can quickly progress in strength.
If you wanted to grow stronger, it would be as simple as using more weights for the same amount of repetitions.
Easy to Isolate Muscles
One of the most significant benefits of weights is that since it is just an isolated amount of resistance, it becomes straightforward to isolate a specific muscle.
Take, for example, a dumbbell curl. This exercise will easily isolate the biceps muscle. Progression in strength is as simple as using more weight for the same amount of total reps.
Calisthenics is just coming into modern popularity, but weight training has a large community full of advocates and trainers alike.
This means if you are looking to find good strength programs and people of similar motivation to train with, you will have minimal issues.
Training with weights isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Let’s delve into some of the major cons that come along with training, specifically with free weights.
Need Basic Equipment
If you were to try and train for strength, there is a set amount of equipment you need to get started. Barbell, dumbbell, squat rack – just to get started.
Of course, this is generally not an issue if you are training at a gym, but those who are looking to train at home will find that start-up cost to be much higher than calisthenics.
Complicated and Technical Movements
Many weight lifting exercises are complicated, perhaps even highly technical. The body was not built to move with a barbell – training your body to be effective in this manner will take time and a high level of dedication.
High Injury Rate
Injury rates can occur for pretty much any reason – especially in weight lifting. Sometimes it is as simple as falling over with more weight than your body can handle, and sometimes it is as complicated as stress-induced injuries.
Either way, training with weights seems to have some of the higher onsets of injuries.
Weights Score: 4/5
Weight training is the most popular method for developing strength and optimal conditioning – and for a good reason.
There are many benefits you can find from training in this way. Still, the high injury rate and complicated movements necessary to become a professional in this domain may sway more people toward the simplicity and beauty of calisthenics.
Training With Calisthenics vs. Training With Weights
Both styles of training have significant benefits and detriments. In the eyes of most qualified trainers, you should always look for a happy balance between the two.
Not only will this help you to grow stronger over time, but it will help you to develop a complete foundation that will limit the onset of the injury.
When it comes to bodybuilding, there are a few critical factors and differences between calisthenics and weights you must consider.
Training for Size
- Tempo will always be your best friend on this front.
- Tempo training is the speed at which you complete each repetition. Slower tempo speeds will help you increase size.
- High resistance is your best friend for size using weights.
- Allowing your body to adapt to an ever-changing stimulus of resistance will allow hypertrophy and an increase in muscle size.
Training for Physique
- Control and tempo can help you to achieve a better physique in calisthenics.
- Depending on your limb length, plyometrics can also be a great style of training to increase strength and physique.
- A higher volume of repetitions will always work best for the physique. Typical bodybuilding works in the 8-12 rep range (if not higher).
- This higher rep range allows your body to condition and develops an optimal physique.
- Growing stronger over time will require you to complete more challenging exercises.
- Instead of staying on a pushup, you will move into exercises like handstand pushups or archer movements. This will allow you to put more strength on as the months and years progress.
- Resistance and the difficulty of exercises should be combined with progress.
- Weights will always work best when you have a consistent amount of overload in the muscle – in other words, slowly increasing the weight you have on the muscle.
- Limited rest time – using less than 2 minutes is usually the most amount of time you will need between sets to allow your body to resynthesize energy for the next training set.
- The name of the game in calisthenics – especially for the physique is generally to keep the intensity as high as possible. This is done by limiting your rest time.
- Weights should always have a higher rest time. Since much of your training is completed for strength, a rest time of around 3-4 minutes per set is usually recommended at the start.
- This longer rest time will allow you to complete near-max lifts in each of your sets – perfect for hypertrophy training.
Understanding Tempo and Intensity
Calisthenics vs. Weights requires you to have some basic understanding of tempo and intensity.
Tempo is the amount of time you put stress on the muscle – in seconds.
For example, a high tempo means you are moving slowly through the muscle contraction sequence. This makes the exercise much more difficult than a slower tempo (faster rep speed).
Check out this video for a detailed breakdown of tempo training.
Intensity is defined by the amount of work you complete in a given time.
High intensity means you are training very hard through a short period – this is like a 100m sprint. Low intensity means you are training moderately for a long duration – like a marathon.
When it comes to Calisthenics vs. Weights, calisthenics is more suited to a higher intensity, and weights are better suited to a lower intensity.
Calisthenics vs. Weights – What's Best For You?
The simple answer to this question is that what's best for you will always come down to personal preferences.
An argument can be made that depending on your body, you will experience better results from one discipline rather than the other – but for most people, you should stick to the style you enjoy best.
Calisthenics is excellent for those who want to develop foundational strength that is practical and relative to training in all sports. It does not require very much space and does not require a vast array of equipment.
On the other hand, weights are great for building long-term strength and size. Many people will find the weightlifting community larger and easier to progress in, but you do need a good gym and a wide variety of expensive equipment to get rolling.
Both are great styles of training with pros and cons. Both will help you build strength and confidence and reshape the way you view personal fitness.
I would suggest that you do not decide between the two and instead, use a bundle of both to create a stable and robust environment to develop strength and physique.
Is It Ok To Do Calisthenics Every Day?
Yes and no. You should never do any style of training every day. You should always allow your body to recover after a workout (generally 24-48 hours), especially if you are using a high intensity of training.
With that said, stretching is considered calisthenics, and this could be something that can be completed every day.
Does Calisthenics Burn More Calories Than Weight Lifting?
This question depends highly on the person and the workout. Generally, weight lifting will burn more total calories than calisthenics because of the higher amount of resistance being placed on the muscle. Regardless, both will burn calories and help you to build strength over time.
CSEP-CPT, Expert in Exercise Physiology.
Gabriello is a writer and strength expert best known for his science-based yet practical approach to exercise physiology, nutrition, and strength. After serving in a directors position for The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, Gabriello moved towards writing to help more people understand the importance of living a healthy life. Gabriello's articles have been published globally, in several languages, on some of the largest health and fitness websites helping people learn, grow and understand the complex components of optimizing human performance in a simplistic way.
Gabriello also takes on specialized, high-performance athletes who seek strength, mobility, and conditioning. Through individualized and progressive programming he can optimize your fitness through his Earned Fitness program.