Updated: Jan 20, 2022
There's an ongoing debate between the two. Should you go to the gym and lit weights or should you train with your bodyweight?
Both of these training styles are fantastic. We've all seen people make great progress from both training styles.
But is one better than the other?
Which is better for strength gain?
Which builds more muscle?
In this post, I'll be comparing the two in many different aspects, looking at the advantages of each one and drawing a conclusion based off of that. Plus, we'll go over what this all means for you and how you can apply this to your training.
Which Training Style Should You Be Doing?
First of all, we need to make sure that we all know the difference between the two.
Calisthenics - This is a form of resistance training that has athletes manipulating and moving their own body through space against gravity. For example, the classic push up is a form of calisthenics.
It has you lifting much of your bodyweight against gravity by pressing it up and down against the ground and against gravity. The man on the left side of the image above is doing a calisthenics exercise.
Weightlifting - This is a form of resistance training that has athletes lifting external weights against gravity. You'll usually be lifting weight that comes in the form of dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and plates on a weight machine.
For example, the man on the right side of the picture above is lifting weights.
Both the exercises in the image above are working the same primary muscle groups. However, the man on the left is using his own bodyweight (calisthenics) to work these muscles, and the man on the right is using a barbell (weightlifting) to do so.
Now that we've clarified the difference between the two training styles, we can get into the advantages of each and compare the two.
We'll start with calisthenics.
NOTE: You can perform calisthenics exercises at the gym, and you can also do calisthenics exercises weighted.
Advantages of Calisthenics
Minimal Equipment Required
One of the major advantages of bodyweight training is that most of the time, it requires very little to no equipment to perform your exercises.
For example, in order for you to do a push up, all you need is a hard surface to push off of and a tiny bit of space. You could literally perform push ups in a public bathroom cubicle if you wanted to. Not that we recommend that.
And even when some exercises such as pull ups and dips do require equipment, it's not that hard to find. For example, you could do pull ups on a thick tree branch, a street sign, a door frame, you name it. Wherever you go, chances are there's a place for you to do pull ups on.
Now compare this to a lat pulldown (weightlifting version of pull ups), where you need the actual machine in order to be able to perform the exercise at all. Outside of a gym, the chances of you having access to a lat pulldown machine are very, very slim. Whereas with pull ups, you can practically do them anywhere you see fit.
Pull ups also require just your bodyweight, with no external resistance to be effective. And for the majority of the population, a set of 12-15 bodyweight pull ups is far more than enough to get close to or reach muscular failure.
And even for advanced trainees, pull ups can be modified or swapped for alternatives to make them more challenging, and continue to stimulate great muscle growth.
Lastly it's also much cheaper to get into performing pull ups if you're training at home. A stable, reliable pull up stand will cost you somewhere around $80-120, and a bar will cost just $20-30.
But a standard lat pulldown machine without weights will generally cost you upwards of $400, with an extra couple hundred if you want to add weight. Which we assume you do.
More Core Engagement
Most calisthenics exercises do also heavily tax the core body, and help you get more overall muscle engagement throughout your body.
For example, we'll use the push up and the bench press again.
During the bench press, you lie down on a bench that stabilizes your body for you. If you arch your back, that will engage your erectors a little more. However, you still are lying stable on the bench.
Your do still have to control the barbell and stabilize it, however your core body is not working as hard.
Now compare that to a push up, where you have to keep the abs engaged throughout the entire set to keep your body in a straight line. Failure to do so is going to lead to form breakdown and limited gains through reduced range of motion, poor muscle engagement, etc.
And you also have to stabilize your own bodyweight by using the same stabilizing muscles as you did in the bench press. You essentially work the same primary muscles in these two exercises, but engage the core body more heavily in the calisthenics version (push up).
This can be applied to several other exercises as well, such as the pull up and the lat pulldown, the overhead press and handstand push up, leg press/barbell back squat and the pistol squat, and many more.
Pretty much all calisthenics exercises are going to engage the core and stabilizing muscles more than the weightlifting counterparts would. We'll build more core strength and consequently help to build more muscle in those areas as well.
This means that calisthenics may be better if you want to improve your balance and overall athleticism. Athletes often have to be in total control over the bodyweight whilst they're placed in unstable positions. Training with calisthenics could potentially help to increase the ability to stabilize our bodies in times like this and improve athleticism that way.
Calisthenics does also tend to be more creative than weightlifting. Due to the inability to simply add more weight onto our exercises, we do have to get creative at times when we want to increase the difficulty of our workouts.
Simply adding more reps indefinitely is going to eventually turn the exercises we do into endurance exercises. Instead of this, we need to be looking for ways that we can make each rep we do more and more challenging.
Most of the time in calisthenics, this is going to mean finding tougher variations for us to do. For example, many people are able to bang out a set of 25-30 push ups without too much trouble.
Adding more reps would shift the focus of this exercise towards training for endurance instead of strength and hypertrophy.
Instead, these people would likely need to find tougher variations such as decline push ups, archer push ups, pseudo planche push ups and more.
You can also play around with the elevation of your feet to shift more or less of your bodyweight onto your upper body, depending on your capabilities and desired difficulty of the exercise.
You can get creative and add some explosiveness onto your exercises, such as the clap push up, clapping pull up and more.
Or, you can play around with the time under tension and make reach rep you do more difficult that way. By increasing the amount of time that your muscles spend resisting the weight, you're causing more muscle damage and stimulating more growth.
However if you do decide to alter the time under tension of your exercise, it's important for you to know that you should only purposely go slow on the eccentric portion of the movement, or the lengthening phase (usually the way down).
Don't go too slow on the concentric part of the lift, as this will limit the number of motor units you recruit and lower the muscle engagement.
A good general tempo tip is to control the weight down for a couple of seconds, pause briefly then explode and bring the weight back as forcefully as possible (still keeping control) on the concentric portion of the movement.
This is all going to increase the difficulty of your workouts and continue to allow you to apply progressive overload.
Since you do have to think about all of this instead of just adding more weight onto the exercise like you would be able to with weightlifting, you do have to be more creative with calisthenics.
Can be More Fun
And of course, once you get to a more advanced level of calisthenics, training can be extremely, extremely fun.
You can do all these party tricks that others could only dream of ever doing and can train pretty much anywhere as well!
You can put on awesome performances for others to watch, and it will generally gather interest pretty quickly as you don't see people in total control over their bodyweight all that often.
People have also said that hitting a new calisthenics exercise/trick such as your first handstand push up or the human flag for the first time is more satisfying than hitting a new PR on a weightlifting exercise.
However, we assume it's sort of like hitting 100kg or 225lb on the bench press for the first time. Well, this is all going to be individual and is for you to decide which one is more impressive and more satisfying.
But yes, generally, we'd say advanced calisthenics workouts are more fun than weightlifting workouts are.
Look at the video below by the THENX team showcasing Chris Heria's workout at Miami beach!
Advantages of Weightlifting
Easier to Isolate Muscles
One of the main advantages that weightlifting has over calisthenics is the ability for you to isolate your target muscles.
Like we mentioned before, pretty much every calistenics exercise is a compound movement. There isn't an abundance of isolation exercises that you can choose from like there is in weightlifting.
For example, take the triceps. The only way you can isolate them are by using bodyweight tricep extensions, which even then still work the core body and draw some of the focus away from the target muscles. There's no real way for you to do a calisthenics exercise that is going to solely work the triceps.
However, with weightlifting, there are so many options for you to choose from. You can choose to do cable pushdowns on a straight bar, EZ bar skullcrushers, katana extensions and more. The same will go for the biceps, the shoulders, etc.
It's simply much easier for us to isolate our muscles with weightlifting than it is for us to do so when we're training with our bodyweight.
Having this ability to isolate our muscles can come in pretty handy towards the end of our workouts when we're feeling fatigued and really want to focus on a single muscle group. When we've done all of our heavy work and simply want to finish off a target muscle group.
More Straightforward Progressions
Now this is probably the main advantage of weightlifting. The progressions are incredibly simple.
All you have to do is add weight to the exercise, or increase reps and sets for a short while until you're ready to handle bigger loads. Progressing in weightlifting is much more straightforward and simple than progressing in calisthenics is.
Like we said earlier, calisthenics athletes often have to get a little creative and find tougher variations, or find other ways to increase the difficulty of each rep that they perform.
However with weightlifting, all you have to do is add weight over time and you'll make great progress over time.
For example, a progressive overload plan for someone on the bench press might look something like this:
50kg or 110lb
50kg or 110lb
50kg or 110lb
52.5kg or 115lb
52.5kg or 115lb
52.5kg or 115lb
55kg or 121lb
As you can see, the progressions are quite simple compared to that of calisthenics. You don't have to spend any time learning the form of a tougher variation, you don't have to spend too much time finding a way to make each rep harder. Instead, you can do more reps until you can do more weight.
Plus, you're less likely to hit plateaus with weightlifting than you are with calisthenics. The fact that you have to switch between different variations of your calisthenics exercises can sometimes lead to plateauing between two exercises, where you can do the easier one but can't quite master the tougher variation.
This is one of the major advantages of weightlifting. It's got the most simple and effective progressive overloading abilities.
Better for the Lower Body
Weightlifting also allows you to hit the lower body much better than calisthenics does.
You see, with calisthenics, there is an abundance of advanced upper body movements that you can work towards and try to master. By the time you manage to get the hang of all of them (if you ever do), you'll be in the best shape of your life. You'll be incredibly fit and strong at that point.
However, there are nowhere near as many tough leg and lower body exercises that you can do. Really, the most advanced you can get is the pistol squat. Maybe the Nordic ham curl. You can play around with time under tension and range of motion, but that's really as far as you can progress in terms of your lower body.
The legs are a very strong body part, and bodyweight squats and Romanian deadlifts aren't going to be challenging enough for most people to be meaningful exercises.
With weightlifting, once again you can progress indefinitely. If you were able to, you'd have the ability to work up to a one million kilogram squat (provided you've got a long and strong enough bar). The ability to hit your legs is unlimited, whereas you don't really have that freedom with calisthenics.
Plus, you've also got more options to hit your legs with when it comes to weightlifting. You can deadlift, leg press, front squat, hack squat, and so on. The ability to hit your lower body with weightlifting is much greater than that of calisthenics.
Definitely a big advantage of weightlifting.
Can be More Beginner Friendly
Weightlifting can also be easier for people to get started with. By getting started, we mean people who are completely new to physical exercise and are not very strong yet.
Many people, when they first begin are not able to perform a single push up or a single pull up. Some might struggle with bodyweight squats.
And unless the issue is something to do with flexibility, it can actually be pretty tough for beginners to build up the strength to perform the proper movement with the right form.
They would either have to do assisted versions of the exercise or use some other technique such as jumping negatives on the pull up. Sometimes this can be tough for beginners to understand and it can create extra confusion.
However with weightlifting, almost any beginner can lift the minimum amount of weight that their gym offers. Whether that's a pair of 1kg dumbbells or an empty stack on a weight machine, it's often easier for beginners to get settled immediately into learning the proper form of the exercise they're trying to master.
Almost anybody can row the empty stack on a chest supported row machine. Almost anybody can chest press the weight of the handles on a machine. Beginners can then quickly build up their strength and learn proper form before progressing onto heavier weights.
And for that reason, we'd say that weightlifting can be more beginner friendly than calisthenics is.
So Which is Better for Strength Gain?
Well, if we're simply talking about lifting heavy things, then weightlifting is going to be better for strength gain. It already has you training everyday picking up heavy objects and putting them back down.
Since it's easier to progressively overload and make progress, you'll likely be able to build more strength and muscle faster than you would. Of course, calisthenics can be just as effective at building muscle.
However you will likely not build the same amount of strength in terms of simply picking up heavy objects as you otherwise would lifting weights.
However if you're looking to build functional strength, then that is a completely different story. Calisthenics is going to crush weightlifting in terms of functional strength gain.
For example, being able to pull yourself up against gravity is an example of functional strength. You want to have as much control over your bodyweight as possible if you're doing something like that.
Weightlifting is going to get your good at picking up heavy objects. However, it can often leave you with muscular imbalances and decreased mobility. This is definitely not desirable if you're going to be carrying your own bodyweight for any reason such as an obstacle course, firefighting, or whatever else.
Calisthenics, on the other hand, naturally improves your flexibility, co-ordination and therefore helps you gain strength that can actually be applied into the real world.
Having the ability to press yourself up or pull yourself up against gravity when you need it is always a huge bonus, and is something that calisthenics is great at training.
We think that weightlifting and having the ability to pick up heavy objects is going to be more useful and desirable for most people, so we'll give this one to weightlifting.
Which is Better for Building Muscle?
Weightlifting has a slight edge over calisthenics here. Since you're able to progressively overload your exercises more easily, you're going to be able to lift heavier loads over time more quickly and therefore build more muscle.
You see, the main driver of muscle growth is mechanical tension. That's basically the amount of weight that you're lifting with your muscles. Lifting more weight is going to place more mechanical tension onto your muscles.
Since it's easier to progress and lift heavier and heavier with weightlifting, you're going to be able to build more muscle over time in your target muscles than you otherwise would be able to if you were training with calisthenics.
Since your core is also less engaged throughout most of the movements, you're able to press more weight (since less overall muscles are working) and place more mechanical tension onto your muscles. You don't need to worry about stabilizing your body or keeping your core tight. You can focus solely on lifting the weight.
Calisthenics is going to allow you to build up a stronger core, which again helps with functional strength and overall athleticism. It's better for building muscle in the core, but not your target muscle groups.
However, this does not mean that calisthenics is bad for building muscle either. We've seen people get absolutely ripped and jacked doing calisthenics alone. It's also a great option for building muscle. Weightlifting is just the slightly better option overall.
Which is Better for Fat Loss?
As long as you do the proper training, both weightlifting and calisthenics can be great ways to lose fat.
Both training styles will allow you to burn a lot of calories if you train intensely enough, and both will allow you to change your body composition over time, meaning you lose fat and build more muscle.
However, calisthenics does have a slight edge over weightlifting when it comes to burning calories and losing weight. Since most of the exercises do engage more stabilizing muscles and the core body to a larger degree, you're going to be working more overall muscle mass throughout the body.
This increased engagement is going to mean that you burn more calories than you would if you otherwise hadn't engaged all those extra muscle fibers.
It's likely not a significant difference, but is still a slight edge in terms of weight loss and is something for you to think about when you come to pick your training style.
Which Allows for More Training Flexibility?
Calisthenics does win here. Like we mentioned earlier, bodyweight exercises generally require very little to no equipment at all to perform.
Whereas many exercises that you do in the gym can only be done in the gym if you want it to have the same effect.
You can do calisthenics workouts at home, at a park, at work, anywhere.
However, to lift weights, you'll either need to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on your own weights and setup, or have access to a gym/training center.
Because of this, calisthenics is the more flexible training style.
So Which One Should You Do?
We hate to say it, but it depends on your goals and your preferences. Neither training style is definitively better than the other. Each has their pros and cons, and is more preferable to different people.
Generally, if you're looking to increase your athleticism and want to build a more functional body, then train with an emphasis on calisthenics movements.
However if you just want to build muscle and want to lift heavy weights, then obviously weightlifting is going to get you there the quickest.
It's also dependent on several other factors such as your budget, equipment available, existing physical capabilities, and so on.
You should look to train with an emphasis on calisthenics if the following applies to you:
you don't have access to a gym or prefer to train at home
you have very limited equipment
you want to achieve more overall athleticism
you care more about functional strength
you travel regularly
you don't mind the lower body lagging behind a little
And you should look to train with an emphasis on weightlifting if the following applies:
you just want to build muscle
you want to compete in weightlifting sports
you want to gain raw strength
you want more simplicity and potentially less confusion
you don't really care about being athletic or having a functional body
you want more exercise choices
you have access to a complete gym or weight training center
However if you can, we'd recommend that you lift with both training styles. This is going to allow you to build the most well rounded physique and athletic body, and help you really become the fittest person that you can be.
Plus, you want to get the benefits of both training styles. Paired together, calisthenics and weight training exercises can be very effective at achieving almost any goal in fitness.
You'll see many trainees in the gym or on social media already combining these two training styles. For example, on a back day they'll include a combination of rows, lat pulldowns and pull ups. This is generally a good idea for most people.
We'd recommend that you incorporate both into your training program as well.
Whatever your goals are, perform the training style that best fits that first, when you've got the most energy. For example, if you want to get stronger at lifting more weight on the bench press, do your heavy bench pressing first. Then you can get into dips and other exercises.
This is going to ensure that you can give the most attention and focus to your primary goals when you've got the most energy and can push the hardest for the most gains.
You see, it's all about centering everything around your goals and preferences, and making smart choices about what you do and how you go about doing it.
Wrapping It Up
Overall, choosing between calisthenics and weightlifting doesn't have to be difficult. However you can't just pick one and jump right into training either. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each training style and then pick the one that suits you and your goals as closely as possible.
Remember that we do recommend you incorporate both training styles into your training if you can. This is going to allow you to get the best of both worlds and make the most progress towards basically any fitness goal out there.
Weigh everything, and don't be in a hurry to make your decisions! If you're ever in doubt, you can always give both a try as long it's safe for you to do so.
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