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Gym vs. Calisthenics - Which One is Best for You? (Ultimate Guide)

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.



Comparison between calisthenics training vs weight training in the gym

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


Fit and lean man doing chest dips on gymnastics rings and building lots of core strength

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.


More Creative


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.