calisthenics vs weightlifting
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Calisthenics vs Weightlifting | Which One Is Better?

Many individuals aiming at improving their body composition, in other words gaining muscle and losing fat are looking for different training protocols. Here is a good recap of all the pros and cons, differences and similarities, effects, and benefits of calisthenics in comparison to weightlifting training.

What Is Calisthenics

Calisthenics is a type of training that incorporates strength exercises using our body weight as resistance, against gravity. It is also known as a “street workout” or “bar training” as it is mostly trained outside on different bar systems, parralettes, or on the ground.

For deeper insights, check out our Calisthenics 101 Guide Here

It is the preferred training used by thousands of people around the world, pretty cheap and convenient. From preparing military units, to physical education in schools up to the pro-athlete level, calisthenics is a great tool to improve one’s strength.

Calisthenics comes from the ancient Greek words “kalos” and “sthenost” which mean beauty and strength. The idea is that with calisthenics training we can target both the aesthetic part, the so-called “natural beauty” one gains from training, and strength, also known as the ability to exert maximal force against resistance.

What Is Weightlifting

Weightlifting, on the other hand, is a type of fitness training that uses different apparatuses and objects to add weight as the main resistance. Also called resistance training, it incorporates different machines, kettlebells, dumbbells, plates, and barbells.

With properly structured training, lifting weights will result in muscle growth and strength gains. Many other benefits come along with it, from increased metabolic rate, increased libido, and improved brain function, to posture correction and injury prevention in sports. It should be a crucial part of anyone’s training as it helps with stability, testosterone, bone density, functionality, and strength.

Calisthenics vs Weightlifting

We’ll discuss the biggest differences between calisthenics and weightlifting here, so if you are doubting which one you should start, you’ll definitely have a better understanding at the end of this article.

Generally, there are dozens of benefits and effects of strength training. These can range from enhanced muscle growth and strength, improved posture and bone density, muscular functionality, and joint mobility, etc.

Note

There is no right type of training between calisthenics and weightlifting, it’s just about which one is more suitable for your goals. If you’re more on the whole-body stability, strength, and balance side calisthenics is better. If you want to grow muscle more efficiently, faster, and become stronger, weightlifting will do it.

Similarities: Bodyweight vs Weight Training

Both training types have many things in common. The first one’s obvious. We produce force against external resistance. In Calisthenics we use our body weight, while in weightlifting we lift the weights against gravity, thus forcing the muscle to contract.

This affects muscle growth, which consequentially can boost metabolic rate and put our body at a more efficient calorie-burning state. Aside from this, strength gains are obvious, we become stronger. Fat loss also comes as a side effect, as this sort of workout can also indulge the cardiovascular system and get us moving and sweating, which burns calories.

Effects on Muscle Growth

Yes, you can gain muscle with both calisthenics and weightlifting. There is no reason to think you can’t since we use the muscle to overcome resistance in both. Now the muscle may be used in a different motion, targeted from a different angle, or activated faster or slower, but nonetheless, we produce force.

Training for growth uses contractions that tear the muscle fibers down, which causes inflammation and stimulates an adaptation response, which is muscle growth.

Low-load bench press and adjusted push-ups resulted in similar muscle growth and strength gains. (1)

  • Generally, weightlifting is far more practical and efficient in terms of targeting specific muscle growth. There is more place for manipulation of training metrics such as load, sets, reps, rest, and type of contractions.
  • For hypertrophy, the optimal range per workout is 6-12 exercises, 8-12 reps per set, 3-5 sets, 65-86% RM Load, 60-90 sec. rest and slow eccentric contractions, coupled with consistency and high volume. This is much more practical with weightlifting than calisthenics.

A 2019 Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods has shown that keeping the reps at 6-12, with loads of around 60-80% RM and shorter rest periods (60 sec.) produces the most efficient muscle growth. (2)

Rest is kept at 60-90 seconds between sets, at such high volume, to further fatigue the muscle. The point is to feel the burning sensation of lactic acid building up, which causes an effective growth response.

Effects on Strength Gains

While it is true that weightlifting will be more efficient in terms of maximal strength gains, calisthenics can improve whole-body strength and stability. The thing is, you gain a different type of strength from doing different types of practices.

With weights, you’d do squats, deadlifts, or bench press to stimulate your nervous system. With calisthenics, you don’t gain as much maximal strength, but you profit in stability more.

Research also shows that circuit weight training was significantly better in terms of dynamic strength and muscular endurance gains, compared to calisthenics training for Navy men. (3)

However, calisthenics can be great for increasing overall body strength. Maybe not that explosive force production like we get with power training, but calisthenics improves complex, full-body functional strength using compound movements.

Progressive calisthenics push-up training showed an increase in 1RM and push-up progression, similarly to the group performing the bench press. (4) This just shows once again that calisthenic exercises can also increase strength gains. Research analyzing 28 studies confirmed that strength gains were possible when the load is heavier, while hypertrophy occurred in low, moderate, and heavy load training too. (5)

Effects on Fat-Loss

Weight loss is a result of calories in vs. calories out. Diet is more important here, as you can’t overtrain your calories. Research suggests aerobic training is better for fat loss than strength training, but there’s a catch. (6)

Gaining muscle will increase metabolic rate, burning more calories faster which results in fat loss. (7) It increases the after-burn effect, and improves your metabolic rate – making you more efficient in burning calories.

So, with the same diet, in terms of calories and macronutrients, the individual with higher muscle mass will burn more calories and will use up some of the carbs to replenish glycogen in the working muscle, and protein to build it up.

Research shows that calisthenics can be effective in terms of weight loss, but we need the proper volume and training individualization. (8)

key point

Both calisthenics and weightlifting can be great activities to increase muscle mass, gain strength and reduce fat tissue.

Weightlifting Wins

While the primary mechanism behind fat loss and muscle gains are the same, weightlifting can be slightly more efficient in both. For fat loss, it enhances the hormonal response achieving a greater after-burn effect, for muscle gains, it is easier to target specific muscles and stimulate growth and for strength, while being customizable enough to allow higher nervous system stimulation.

Calisthenics, Still Great

Nonetheless, calisthenics is still a great complementary tool to add complexity and variation, target deeper muscles, increase intramuscular coordination and coactivation, increase stability and improve posture.

The Biggest Differences

Enough with the similarities, now let’s see how these two differ and what’s better for your goals. From the overall looks and ability, stabilization and balance up to posture improvement, core strength, and individuality, there are quite a few differences.

Stabilization and Balance

The largest difference between calisthenics and weightlifting is the overall ability of your muscles to contract in a given position. With calisthenics, you target specific and deep muscles with full-body complex exercises that drastically improve your stability, balance, and intermuscular coordination.

While properly structured weightlifting training can also improve one’s functionality, mobility, strength, and stability, poorly structured training with machinery and isolation exercises only gives inferior results to that of calisthenics.

Weightlifting can increase strength and muscle mass faster, yes. However, not everyone trains with weights in a functional way. This can result in poor muscle function, although muscle mass and strength numbers have increased. This is why you can see bodybuilders being unable to do a muscle-up while calisthenics pro can pull off 20 reps in a row. It’s just a different type of training.

If you can train with complex movements, and do more compound work with kettlebells, dumbbells and barbells, weight training can also result in functional strength gains too. This is why combining weights with bars is a great idea.

Body Composition

In terms of body composition, both training types will result in muscle gain and fat loss. For weightlifting, we don’t even have to look at the research to confirm that with proper diet, correct structure (load, reps, sets, rest), and consistency, you can drop fat and gain muscle.

But is calisthenics that efficient In changing body composition? Here are three studies:

  • In Soccer players, 8 weeks of calisthenics training has been shown effective for whole-body development and body composition, improving numbers like body mass index, fat mass, body weight, and fat-free mass. (9)
  • For morphofunctional parameters in youth, calisthenic exercise incorporated in physical education lead to improvements in strength, but not BMI significantly. (10)
  • In 28 male participants, calisthenics exercises for 8 weeks improved their posture, body composition, and strength, without any effect on hand-grip strength. (11)
key point

Clearly, both activities pay off in terms of improving body composition, meaning they help burn fat and gain muscle. With the correct diet, if the main goal is body sculpturing, weightlifting can exert effects faster.

Isolation vs. Compound

With weight training, you can easily get stuck on machines, performing isolation exercises. But you’re not doing much. The thing is, weight training can be organized and structured with great complexity. With lots of compound, multi-joint exercises that target specific muscles, improve range of motion and functionality.

On the other hand, calisthenics is more functional in its nature. When doing a pull-up, push-up, or dips you have to stabilize your shoulders, you have to retract your scapulae, and tighten your core, otherwise, it’s harder to do the repetition.

Calisthenics will ensure you target the deeper muscles, and properly stabilize your body with coactivation. This improves the strength, stability, and balance of your body as a whole, not just one muscle.

On the other hand, if you can properly structure weight training, and add a lot of compound exercises and full-body movements that require stabilization, weight training can be very functional. We are talking squats, one-legged deadlifts, lat pulldowns, overhead press, bench press, weighted dips, and so on.

Posture and Core Strength

At the base of physical health, are core strength and correct posture. Proper posture and core strength are related to each other. Correct posture is the proper alignment of your body parts, which allows for smooth and painless movement and posture, supporting your frame and reducing forces on the joints.

The better one’s core strength and core stabilization, the more efficiently and correctly one can move. In any compound strength exercise, the core is the king. The stronger it is, the more fractional pressure is reduced on the spine (mostly the lumbar part).

Training calisthenics has been shown to help with posture, mainly because back muscles are a big part of it. Scapular retractors, trapezoids, lower back muscles, serratus, teres, and rhomboids are trained to keep the spine upwards, reducing kyphosis or slouched shoulders posture.

While many individuals with large muscle mass may have bad posture, this is caused due to tightness and poor flexibility, not because the muscle is large and strong. As we are performing strength exercises, we need to take the proper time to lengthen the muscle.

Individualization and Customization

Weightlifting wins here. Because of customization, weight training can be a lot more practical for the everyday gym-goer. It is highly versatile, and there are tons of equipment elements. From kettlebells, dumbbells, resistance weights, plates, barbells, and machines, we can use so many different tools.

This gives that edge over individuality, which is a lot harder to pull out with calisthenics. We can still do assisted or incline reps for beginners, regular and standard reps for intermediary or decline, and weighted reps for advanced practitioners. 

This again, shows that weightlifting will be more effective and practical if we are aiming to target specific muscles, to grow in size. Compound weightlifting exercises are also more suitable for maximal strength gain in terms of the type of contractions we perform for strength and the position we’re in.

Conditioning Efficiency

For proper conditioning of athletes, weights are dominant again. The reason why is that we can perform countless movements, target the muscles from different angles, and adapt the weight (load) we lift and the position we are in.

The main part of conditioning is training metrics. The reps, sets, loads, volume, frequency, rest, exercises, and type of contractions. With weights, this is far easier because we are the ones choosing the weight. In calisthenics, we have to position our body differently in space, to target those muscles more or less, giving us less space for manipulation.

From a conditioning perspective, weightlifting works for all four: hypertrophy, endurance, strength, and power, plus some sport-specific movements. With calisthenics, we aren’t usually aiming at only one of these abilities, but rather target more of them at the same time.

Pros & Cons

Generally, both types of training have their own pros and cons. Calisthenics is primarily bodyweight training, which can be adapted and individualized. This means adding weights is always an option, or making the exercise easier by doing an assisted variation with resistance bands.

Weightlifting, on the other hand, is far more customizable because it can target more and different muscles. The manipulation in weight training is easier, as we can always pick the desired weight. In terms of practicality, I’d go with weightlifting.

Here’s a quick recap of their pros and cons:

Calisthenics PROS | CONS

  • Calisthenics PROS
  • Calisthenics CONS
  • Is more functional in nature, aiming at the main abilities that improve functional movement
  • Targets and activates deeper “forgotten” muscles, triggering higher stimulus for these
  • Increases stability by engaging the stabilizers through coactivation, also improving intermuscular coordination
  • Increases functional strength, improves full-body control and body awareness
  • Requires core activation consistently, as most moves performed require balance
  • Increases grip strength and activates scapular retractors, which can improve posture
    Improves body composition, reduces fat tissue, and increases muscle mass
  • Great for beginners, very cheap and convenient, not much equipment is required
  • Relatively safe, even for beginners, as no extra load needs be added, following the bodyweight method
  • Very narrow in terms of individualization and customizability, a smaller window for adaptation
  • Bodyweight leg training is usually insufficient for proper growth, compared to the upper body musculature, as it is not sufficient enough load to produce these effects for symmetrical growth
  • Less practical to adapt for beginners, special groups of people, or after injury
  • Less versatile, only a few exercises per muscle group with less room for manipulation
  • Has an inferior hormonal effect, producing inferior muscle growth and after-burn effect in comparison to weight training
  • Maximal strength training is inferior, as its harder to activate the nervous system as with compound weightlifting exercise

Weightlifting PROS | CONS

  • Weightlifting PROS
  • Weightlifting CONS
  • Increases muscle size more efficiently, as it is easier to target specific muscles and fatigue the muscle
  • Increases testosterone, growth hormone, and other anabolic hormones quicker, creating a great transformative environment
  • Very adaptable, customizable, and versatile. You have lots of tools and different weights to choose from
  • Better for maximal strength, because the type of contractions are suitable with the compound training method, incorporating exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift which allows for higher nervous system activation
  • With proper structure can be great for full-body functionality, joint mobility, injury prevention, and overall strength 
  • Increases bone density, and improves coordination which prevents falls and increases longevity
  • Reduces Fat and speeds up weight loss, having a superior after-burn effect to calisthenics
  • More practical for athletes’ conditioning like hypertrophy, endurance, strength, and power
    Improves confidence, physical looks, and attractiveness
  • With harder access to weights, it is more expensive to go to a gym or create your own
  • Higher risk of injury with improper posture as higher loads produce higher pressure on the joints
  • Can become quite expensive to hire a personal trainer and buy all the “needed” supplements
  • Working on machinery, just isolation can result in gaining bulky and not functional muscle, which causes worse posture and limits the range of motion
  • Isolation exercises target only one muscle (group) at a time, not full-body
  • With poor structure, it is easy to miss out on core strength, stabilization, and deeper “forgotten” muscles
  • Can become quite overwhelming considering the broad array of complex programs, exercises, and tools

Who’s Stronger?

Calisthenics vs. Weightlifting, who’s stronger, who do you got? Well, it’s not that easy. See, there are thousands of dynamic and static exercises that bodybuilders can’t do that calisthenic athlete can. On the other hand, if we compare what load can a powerlifter lift on the bench, squat, and deadlift, it’s a lot higher than the calisthenic athlete, so it all comes down to what you train for.

  • Calisthenics
  • Weightlifting

Calisthenics is designed to increase functional strength and stability, not to bulk up. It is not designed to condition you for maximal strength or power. Calisthenics can make you stronger, help you grow muscle, and shred fat. But at the end of the day, calisthenics emphasizes body control in space. Being able to hold a planche, human flag or front lever requires a high level of synchronization, core strength, stabilization, and coactivation.

Weightlifting, on the other hand, is far more versatile. It can be used to gain muscle, increase maximal strength, and shred fat off your frame, and is more efficient in all of these three, compared to calisthenics. But without proper training structure, you can easily lack joint mobility, and functional strength and have poor posture, although strength numbers and muscle mass goes up.

Which One’s The Right For You?

It all comes down to your goals, and how good your training structure is. If you want to become stronger, shredded, and control your body in space and you have no problem discovering and adapting each exercise as you progress, calisthenics is for you. If you want to gain muscle and strength faster, and you love simple planning, and have enough cash for a gym, weightlifting is better.

Ideally, you want to combine both of them. But not in the sense that you go from the gym out in the park for another workout.

Combine them both in this way: when you are doing back in the gym, don’t do just the machines, do pull-ups and chin-ups. Don’t just go for the chest flyes and triceps extensions, do your weighted dips and weighted push-ups, you’ll thank your functionality later. On a leg day, do some lunges, unilateral RL one-legged deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, and jump squats. This is how you add complexity and break through plateaus.

The Big Takeaway: Combine Both

Both calisthenics and weightlifting can be great types of training to increase muscle mass, reduce fat tissue and gain strength.

  • While calisthenics is less adaptable, it targets more of a whole-body musculature, aims at core strength, and improves overall stability, weightlifting can do all these things too if only a couple more exercises are implemented.
  • On the other hand, weightlifting is far more adaptable, versatile, and individualized. It can result in faster muscle gains, more efficient fat loss, and maximal strength gains. To achieve this, make sure you incorporate enough compound exercises to target larger muscle groups and improve functionality, joint mobility, and core strength.

Combining them both in one training can ensure you get the benefits of both worlds, the calisthenics stability, and coactivation, and the weightlifting efficiency in muscle growth and fat loss.

key point

If you pick calisthenics, it’s good to progressively add weights for lower body training. If you choose weightlifting, go for compound weightlifting dominantly, and add some bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, dips, push-ups, squats, and lunges for stability.

Frequently Asked Questions

Calisthenics vs. weightlifting, which one is better?

In general, both practices can make a hell of a strength workout. With calisthenics we’ll usually improve our balance, core-stability, posture and body-control in space, along with gaining muscle and some strength. With weightlifting however, we can adapt the training protocol easily for proper hypertrophy, maximal strength and power. At the end of the day, there isn’t a better one, cali wins for body-control and core strength, weights are superior and more practical for maximal strength and muscle growth.

What are progressive exercises or progressions?

Progressions are harder variations of a specific exercise. They are meant to challenge our current strength and stability, and with enough training we can progress through, to another harder variation. Progressive exercise can be harder variations of a given exercise (position-wise), or they can add weights, or require more balance that makes the exercise harder to perform.

Is core activation important in calisthenics?

Core activation is another crucial part of bodyweight and weight training in general. With a weak core, it is hard to keep our spine neutral and increase intra abdominal pressure (IAP) which is important to reduce the gravitational forces on the spine. The core is a key component of a strong body, it is where the strongest bridge/connection of lower and upper limbs goes through. It helps us to stop, speed up, change direction, balance our body and exert force.

What is the best strength training to do without equipment?

To build strength with no equipment, it is worth looking into calisthenics and bodyweight training methods. The key to building muscle is to activate our muscles to produce force against external resistance. However, it is worth noting that for maximal strength gain, in a sense of maximal power output (pure strength) we probably won’t get far with neither one, as it is best to lift weights. In terms of general strength, building muscle and shredding fat, these two methods can be pretty effective.

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