It’s an argument as old as Greco-Roman times: calisthenics or weight training?
The resistance training universe has split off into multiple camps — CrossFit, gymnastics, StrongLifts, etc. — but at its core there are only these two methods of training that reign supreme.
But which one is best? Well, that’s too big and broad of a question, so let’s unpack it a little…
Each style of training has its own benefits and its own shortcomings.
So, when you ask if one is inherently “better” than the other, you have to put it into the context of what YOUR goals are.
Not what your favorite fitness guru says… not what your parents tell you… what you want to get out of your workout regimen.
This means a lot of different things for a lot of different people, so the best we can do at Athletic Muscle is give you all of the facts related to bodyweight training and bodybuilding.
That way, you can come to your own conclusion as to which one is “best” for your ambitions.
In this article, we’ll go over both calisthenics and weighted resistance training for bodybuilding purposes.
We’ll answer some of the top questions, including whether you can build muscle with only bodyweight exercises, as well as whether you can do both or not.
It’s calisthenics vs. weight training. Round One — fight!
Calisthenics vs. Weights
The definitions themselves are fairly easy to comprehend: Calisthenics is a fancy term for training that only uses your body’s weight as resistance, while bodybuilding involves weights and external devices to create an aesthetic physique.
Calisthenics can be mistaken for gymnastics, and with good reason, seeing as they both run on the same exact principles (bodyweight only, using it in different ways to increase the difficulty, etc.).
These are your push-ups, pull-ups, squats, sprints, and dips.
Any exercise that involves your body and nothing else — OK, maybe a bar or two — that’s calisthenics.
Bodybuilding is a form of weight training with one goal: To build your body. (Shocker!)
These are your bench presses, weighted rows, weighted squats, deadlifts, and isolation movements with dumbbells, barbells, or machines.
Any exercise that includes external equipment (excluding bars, of course) can be utilized for bodybuilding training.
Calisthenics Pros and Cons
Ah, the most natural form of resistance training.
Calisthenics are either praised or completely ignored, to which we say they should be in a middle ground of some sort.
They can provide wonderful benefits, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all of workouts.
- Zero equipment: This is calisthenic’s claim to fame. All you need is your body (and maybe a high horizontal bar and two lower parallel bars). The simplicity behind bodyweight workouts has terrific appeal to the minimalist athletes. On top of that, you don’t need to do any setup or go to a gym.
- Functional fitness: Each and every exercise you can do in calisthenics has some direct relation to real-life application. Push-ups, pull-ups, squats… these all can be used in some capacity in situations that aren’t working out (pushing away an assailant, pulling yourself up from a ledge, jumping). For the athlete, this is a crucial piece to their training.
- Compound movements: With functional fitness comes compound movements, or exercises that use a multitude of muscle groups to get the job done. Compound exercises are fantastic in that they build your body up in the most optimal way possible. Your physique will transform by making compound movements your workout focal point.
- Anywhere, anytime: The beauty with zero equipment is zero restrictions. Armed with a handful of sturdy bars, you can get a quality workout in no matter where you are or what time it is. You’re in complete control of your training with calisthenics… and this 24/7, no matter what approach does nothing but help you on your quest for peak fitness.
- Difficult to progress: The way you increase your muscle, strength, or prowess in training is through progressive overload. However, progressive overload is sometimes difficult to achieve with calisthenics. This is because you can’t really “up the weight” with your body (unless you eat to excess). So you have to progress in the difficulty of the movement, which gets you to things like planche holds, jumping pistols, and muscle-ups (which are all really tough to do), but on some exercises you can add extra weight with a vest or belt.
- Limited exercises: You can only do so many pushes, pulls, and leg movements with only your body and a couple bars. If you get bored easily with the basics, this could deter you from showing up at all.
- Sometimes demoralizing: To add on to the “difficult to progress” section, you can attempt these advanced moves… but to no avail. This can frustrate even the most dedicated of trainees, leading to a rage quit. However, if you’re slow and steady, you can eventually graduate to these advanced exercise variations (and be a built beast in the process).
- No isolation work: While compound movements should comprise about 80 percent of your training, there are still advantages to performing isolation work as well. Unfortunately, calisthenics don’t give you any true isolation exercises. They are literally all compound movements. For isolations, you’ll have to incorporate some type of equipment. Speaking of which…
Weight training Pros and Cons
What some like to call the king of resistance training, bodybuilding also has its shortcomings. While it’s terrific at crushing your vanity goals, you might not be able to handle the load in real life.
- Ease of progressive overload: Again, progressive overload is the key to developing an aesthetic, athletic body. And while calisthenics can do this — with great success — it’s more of a pain in the ass. Weight training, on the other hand, has a direct approach to this principle, where you simply add weight to your lifts over time. This makes you stronger and bigger.
- Both compound and isometric exercises: The Hannah Montana of workouts — you get the best of both worlds! Begin with big compound lifts (bench press, pulldowns, squats, deadlifts), then finish your training sessions with isolation movements (biceps and leg curls, pressdowns, deltoid work, etc.). This helps you beef up lagging body parts, along with a chance to cycle what body parts you isolate from workout to workout.
- Body reaction: Your systems fire on all cylinders when you go through a bodybuilding workout. Blood rushes to various places in your body, your nervous system gets fatigued, and metabolic processes are underway. When you go to sleep that night, your body is flooded with human growth hormone, leading to bigger, stronger muscles in the next few days. (Note: Calisthenics provide the same sensation, but weight training is more prevalent and pronounced than its bodyweight brethren.)
- Can be routine: This can be seen as a pro or a con, depending on your disposition. A routine is HUGE for the beginner, as it develops that training habit. Bodybuilding has a few rules, like you need equipment — so you probably need a gym with set hours. Having a known timeline and collection of equipment, you know what to expect each and every workout… which is nice.
Read also: Dumbell Deadlift: Ultimate How-To Guide
Weight training Cons:
- Gym or equipment necessary: The pro becomes the con. Of course, with great equipment comes great cost, either with a gym membership or building your own home gym. Calisthenics is rather inexpensive — you can do it at a park, for crying out loud — while weight training is not. Whoever said vanity was free?
- Limitations with time: To piggyback on that last one, a gym membership can only go so far. You have to play by their rules, their schedule. An unexpected delay or prior obligations leads to you saying, “I missed my window. I guess I’ll work out tomorrow…” This is a challenge for some, but not a problem for others. Still, you only get so much time.
- Not as fundamental: If you use more isolation movements — heck, even if you don’t — bodybuilding isn’t as applicable in real life. Why? Because almost none of these exercises are 100 percent natural. A pull-up makes sense in the wild; LAT pulldowns do not. Now, there are some functional movements, such as presses and farmer’s carry, but nothing beats calisthenics in terms of functional fitness.
- Not linear in progression: With an easier path to progressive overload, you’d think it’d be a straightforward, consistent improvement. Right? Wrong. Your body will eventually hit a sticking point. A plateau, if you will. Just like with calisthenics and those daunting advanced movements, putting one more plate on your bench press starts to look real intimidating. Seeing as both calisthenics and bodybuilding have this issue, perhaps its best to include variance into your normal training routine.
Can You Build Muscle With Just Calisthenics?
The short answer is: YES.
But it’s more complicated than that.
Like we’ve said before, you build muscle with progressive overload, i.e. putting your body through more and more metabolic stress over a period of time.
And the way you do this with calisthenics is to increase the difficulty of the movement.
A classic example involves pushes for your anterior chain: push-ups on knees, incline push-ups, regular push-ups, decline push-ups, assisted one-arm push-ups, one-arm push-ups, tuck planche, tuck planche push-ups, planche holds, planche push-ups.
At the beginning, it might be easier for you to graduate from incline push-ups to regular ones, but this starts to get real tricky, real fast.
So long as you take your time and get through the variations with prowess, you can get all the way to planche push-ups.
And if you’re doing planche push-ups, your body is going to show this fact.
Of course, as with any muscle building training regimen, proper dieting and recovery practices are just as essential as the workouts (if not more so).
Are Weights Better Than Calisthenics?
The term “better” is incredibly subjective. So when someone answers this question with a “Yes,” that means in their opinion weights are better than calisthenics.
But it isn’t the God’s honest truth.
In Athletic Muscle’s opinion, the BEST way to optimize your workouts for functionality, appearance, and athleticism is to incorporate both weights and bodyweight exercises.
This lets you master multiple modes of fitness, which creates a more athletic and aesthetic body… which, if you’re reading this, is no doubt part of your fitness and health goals.
Is Calisthenics the Same as CrossFit?
Not at all. Calisthenics is the use of bodyweight movements to improve your athleticism, physique, and overall functional fitness.
CrossFit is exactly what the name suggests: a crossing of different modes of fitness training, which includes calisthenics movements but also includes weights and more.
Here are the main categories CrossFit uses to create a complete athlete:
- Olympic weightlifting
- Strongman-type events
- Aerobic exercise
- Running, indoor rowing, and swimming
As you can see, CrossFit is a blend of calisthenics, bodybuilding, and powerlifitng lifts used in a power or Olympic way.
CrossFit is definitely in its own camp of training. However, you can definitely get proficient in calisthenics by doing CrossFit.
Can You Do Both?
Of course you can! Just because they might do some things better and other things worse doesn’t mean they can’t coexist… in fact, this probably means incorporating both is encouraged.
Following in CrossFit’s footsteps, you can do a calisthenics-bodybuilding hybrid that tackles functional fitness and improving lagging body parts, all while increasing overall muscle and strength.
Your fitness goals aren’t beholden to one style of working out; what you want to do is use whatever is at your disposal to crush those goals as efficiently as possible.
And whether your goal is to look great, perform great, or possess great strength, both calisthenics and bodybuilding can help you out.
As you can see, we’re pretty agnostic when it comes to fitness training here at Athletic Muscle.
That’s because we believe that the best type of workout is the one that you actually DO.
If you like one more than the other, do that. If you want to use one, two, or more kinds of training to effectively and consistently reach your goals, do that.
But, whatever you do, do it!
And if what you want is an athletic, aesthetic physique, we can only suggest that you give both calisthenics and weight training a try.
This will keep you from being bored with your workouts and will make sure your body is well-rounded in terms of strength, muscle, and functionality.
Best of luck with your fitness journey!