Rabbi Fitness, what’s up? Love the column. :-) I’m thinking about starting a workout program and haven’t really made up my mind on which direction to go – calisthenics or weight training. They both look good. My friends have their opinions on which one is better. Need info to make an informed decision.What do you say, Rabbi?
Hi, Rafi, I appreciate the love and the question. I actually had this dilemma when I started to get into fitness many years ago. I’ll explain the pros and cons of both types of training and answer some of the most commonly asked question about the two. After reading this you’ll be able to decide for yourself which option will suit you best, depending on your personal lifestyle and fitness goals. So let’s get to it.
What’s the difference?
With calisthenics you are using just your bodyweight to work out, and most of the time the focus here is on building your relative strength – meaning your strength in relation to your total bodyweight.
Now, with weight training you are using external resistance to work out, and the focus is on building your maximum strength – meaning how much weight you can lift, regardless of your body weight.
So, for example, pull-ups, chin-ups, dips, and pushups are bodyweight exercises falling under the calisthenics umbrella.
And exercises such as bench press, deadlifts, overhead presses, and barbell rows are weight-training exercises.
Nevertheless, there are calisthenics exercises you can’t ever reproduce in weightlifting, and vice versa.
Pros and Cons of Calisthenics
The major advantage of calisthenics or any bodyweight type of routine, for that matter, is that you will need minimal or no gym equipment to do it. You can do it at home, in the park, or pretty much anywhere else as long as you have a pull-up bar/area to suspend your body weight from (e.g., TRX ropes).
Another benefit of calisthenics is that it will allow you to access a lot of different muscles in your body that you can’t really hit by following a weight-training-only type of routine. And here we are referring mainly to core muscles and a whole lot of stabilization muscles that you will use in calisthenics to create that body awareness, but not that much when you are weight training.
With calisthenics, you can advance to learning cool skills that the average person can only dream of doing; even something as simple as a muscle up will WOW people. You don’t really have that same option with weight training.
With calisthenics, you progress by using different angles and leverages to make exercises harder, so you will learn how to move your body in space, defying gravity at different levels, and do some really cool moves, but progressive overload is not as simple or linear as just adding more weight.
The biggest disadvantage of calisthenics is that you probably can’t get into it if you are severely overweight, since all exercises are based on your body weight. (There are certain modifications that you adapt, which I will show in a later article/video.)
You will be less likely to pack on muscle as quickly using calisthenics only. Yes, you will get toned up; there will definitely be some muscle definition and muscle gain, but calisthenics is not the optimal way of training if your goal is purely to build a muscular physique.
Pros and Cons of Weight Training
Weight training is the best way of developing your muscles and your strength. These two right here – muscle and strength development – are the most important benefits of weight training.
It’s no secret that progressively overloading your muscles by lifting heavier and heavier weights is the optimal way of building more mass and more strength. Working out using weights that are heavy enough will target the fast-twitching fibers inside your muscles that are capable of great strength output over a short period of time and also have a great growth potential.
It’s very easy to track your progress when weight training. Simply look at the weight you’re using for your main compound exercises and see how much heavier they’ve gotten over the course of your training.
It’s also very easy to progressively overload your muscles when weight training. Since you’re using an external load, you just up the weight of that load from what you were doing before and you will have progressive overload.
You will definitely need a gym membership to do your workouts. You need to have access to at least a handful of heavy gym equipment such as a power rack for your squats and deadlifts, some dumbbells, barbells, a bench, and the list of equipment and machines could potentially keep going on and on.
Another potential downside is that with weight training, the risk of injuries is higher than in calisthenics. Using heavy weights can possibly affect your joints or your back and knees, especially if your form is not good. So definitely make sure your form is in check and don’t ever use weights that you can’t handle.
It can get boring. Let’s face it: the most impressive thing you can do with weight lifting is upping the weight. And while it’s cool to see some guy benching 315 lbs., it will never compare to seeing a guy doing a full planche or a front lever.
Frequently Asked Questions:
#1 Can you build muscle with calisthenics?
Even though calisthenics is not the fastest, most optimal way to build muscle, you can definitely develop your muscles with bodyweight exercises. Additionally, if you want to take things to a new level, you can start attaching weights to your body to develop your muscles more.
So you can do weighted dips, weighted pull-ups, or you can start playing around with the tempo or the leverage to activate a specific muscle group more.
#2 Does calisthenics strength transfer to weight lifting and vice versa?
Sometimes. Of course, there is a certain overlap between the two, but this will greatly depend on the specifics of the routines followed by each individual.
For example, most calisthenics athletes who attempt weight lifting will be able to move pretty impressive weight if they’ve done a calisthenics equivalent to that certain weight-lifting exercise. Doing a move like the handstand push-up will definitely carry over to something like an overhead press.
As for weight lifters attempting calisthenics, they will be able to do the basics (pull ups, push-ups, etc.), but a lot of weight lifters have poorly developed core and stabilization muscles that will not allow them to perform many (if any) of the more advanced calisthenics movements.
#3 Can calisthenics get your shredded?
Most people who are into calisthenics have a six pack, great muscle definition, and are pretty lean. So, does calisthenics get you ripped? Well, if you are looking at what science tells us, it’s a caloric deficit that gets us ripped, not a specific sport.
Of course, you will need to have a pretty low body weight to be able to perform most of the calisthenics movements, so that’s why people who are into calisthenics are usually lean. But as long as you are eating fewer calories than your body burns, you will be losing fat regardless of the type of sport you are performing.
The real question here is not which one is better, but: what is your goal? If you want better mobility, a nicely built and overall strong and fit body you will probably be better off with calisthenics. But if you want to get bigger and stronger, and you are not that much concerned with being able to perform bodyweight movements, then weightlifting is the best way to go.
So, with that being said, simply take a step back, think a little bit about what you want to achieve, and just pick the option that is going to serve your goals best. Also, keep in mind that calisthenics and weightlifting don’t need to be two totally separate worlds.
There are ways to incorporate different exercises from both of them and create really fun and effective workout routines that will build you an all-around nicely developed and functional physique.
*Understand the pros and cons of each method individually, weights vs. calisthenics.
*Decide for yourself which option will suit you best, depending on your personal lifestyle and overall fitness goals.
*Learn the most efficient and effective exercises of both and begin to incorporate into your weekly routine. Check out my YouTube channel, “Rabbi Fitness,” where I lay down some of my favorite staple exercises and a sample routine you can begin with.
The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Rabbi Fitness LLC is not a doctor. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician. Always consult your physician or qualified health professional on any matters regarding your health and/or engagement in physical activity, especially if you (or your family) have a history of high blood pressure, heart disease, or if you have ever experienced chest pain when exercising or have experienced chest pain in the past month when not engaged in physical activity, smoke, have high cholesterol, are obese, or have a bone or joint problem that could be made worse by a change in physical activity.