If you have been in the strength game long enough, you hear all kinds of things. “This supplement contains “this” compound, which leads to massive gains”, “I took two weeks off and all my lifts went up”, etc. Typically, I don’t usually pay too much attention to gym talk, after all anybody can say anything and people are going to believe whatever they want to believe anyway. However, when a topic such as calisthenics vs. weight training is brought up, I feel like I am obliged to speak my mind. Being very familiar with both of these two styles of training I can’t stand to see either one of them put on a pedestal and/or bastardized. In this post I hope to clear the air about this debate and to provide people with a reasonable understanding of these two styles of strength training.
Can Be Done Anywhere
The beauty of calisthenics is the fact that very little to no equipment is required, thus, they can be done anywhere. This makes them a favorable choice for those who cannot afford a gym membership, or those who are traveling for work. Need to work “arms”, do pushups, pull-ups and handstand pushups. Need to work legs, do pistol squats. How about abs? Spend 10-15 bucks and get an ab wheel.
Since you are only training your bodyweight for most of the exercises, you’re muscles, joints and connective tissue are going to recover much quicker. In fact, the comment that I hear from most lifters who de-load from heavy barbell training and switch to calisthenics is how much better their joints feel. This is also beneficial for those with workout anxiety who like to train more than 3 days per week in order to “keep weight off” and stay decently fit.
The joints are being loaded with much less weight with calisthenics than with weight training. This allows for a greater range of motion with less chance of injury. Now before I get ridiculed, just hear me out. When you perform heavy barbell exercises, such as the squat, you body is working hard to not only put the weight up, but also to stabilize the torso. This makes the body safe in a particular range of motion, but weak and vulnerable in any other movement deviation. Don’t believe me, just try it; but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Now picture an exercise lie pushups. The body still has to work to stabilize, but under much less load. Therefore, making making deviations in range of motion more achievable. To prove my point, look a pushup variation like deep pushups. The amount of shoulder mobility required for this is incredible and will help maintain shoulder joint integrity for years to come. Now try to do this extreme range of motion on the bench press, or overhead press. You will find that you can’t.
Applicable To Athletics
Due to the increased levels of strength with increased range of motion, bodyweight training can help athletes move better and prevent injuries. Weight training makes you stronger, but just being stronger is not going to make you a better athlete. You also need to have movement “skills”, or good proprioceptive feedback to control those movements, otherwise you will get an injury, or poor athletic carryover. Unfortunate for weight training, calisthenics takes the trophy for neurological “skills” necessary for athletics. There are plenty of athletes who can perform a 315 bench press, but not many who can do a one arm pushup.
Limited By Bodyweight
Unfortunately for most exercises in this realm of strength training, you are limited by your bodyweight. The only way to progress is do harder and harder exercise variations, i.e. planche pushups. This may not be suitable or particularly enjoyable for larger athletes, since the leverage required to perform advanced exercises such as this are extremely difficult if you have a bigger frame. There is an option to add weight to some of the calisthenics exercises, such as pull-ups or dips. However, to calisthenics “purists” this is no longer considered calisthenics and is now considered weight training.
Large Jump In Progressions
To add onto the earlier example, since you are limited by your bodyweight, the only way to progress is to manipulate the leverage of the exercise to place more demand on the muscles. These progressions can be a huge jump in difficulty for some individuals, which can mount to huge levels of frustration and seemingly endless road blocks. On top of that, your form has to be nearly perfect on each exercise in order to progress. Not that this is in any way a bad thing, but it just means that your typical meathead will find no satisfaction in calisthenics training, since you will not be able to muscle your way through an exercise with bad form. Who cares anyway, let them do their endless bicep curls while you get real results.
Not Good For Hypertrophy
Calisthenics will add mass at first, when the exercises are fairly new, but once the body has undergone a decent adaptation to the exercise, it will stop adding mass. This makes sense though, because if you have more mass when performing calisthenics, it makes the exercise much more difficult. This does not mean that you are not getting stronger, it just means that you wont be competing in Mr. Olympia anytime soon if you just do bodyweight training alone.
Limited Options For The Lower Body
I love pistol squats, they are such a great exercise for joint health and mobility, but they alone are not going to add sufficient strength to the lower body. Therefore, I firmly believe that barbell squats and deadlifts should be performed as well with any calisthenics program. This is especially true for power athletes, like football players and fighters. The legs play such a huge role in these activities that it would be foolish to not include them.
Can Progress In A Linear Fashion
Progressing in weight training is simple, just add 5-10 lbs per week to whichever weighted exercise you are doing and you are making progress. The movement patterns still remain the same, so just simple progressions will do. If 5-10 lbs is to much weight to progress with, use 1.25-2.5 lbs progressions. It is so simple that there is no excuse not to make progress.
Movements Are Easier To Learn
Lets face facts learning how to do a deadlift is much easier and way less intimidating than learning a handstand pushup. Whenever I get a new client, I can get them to master the deadlift in 1-3 days easily. However, when I get them over to the wall to teach the handstand pushup, it takes 3x as long just because of fear. In fact, all barbell exercises, with the exception of the olympic lifts, are pretty simple.
Better For Hypertrophy
With simple progressions and simple movement patterns, the greater the potential for significant gains in muscle mass. With the linear progressions in weight and patients a lifter can eventually lift 1.5-2x their bodyweight. In order to for the body to adapt to this stressor it must grow bigger to lift these big weights. This is especially true for the squat. Think about it for a second, have you ever seen a small person squat HUGE weight? No! Neither have I. When squatting with big weights, the body must grow bigger in order to support that heavy barbell. If it doesn’t then you will get buried.
Greater Overall Strength Development
Since the movement patterns are mastered quite easily for most of the barbell lifts, you just need to remain patient and add more weight as the days and months go by. As mentioned above there is really no reason not to develop sufficient strength in the lifts. This is especially important for athletes in strength and power sports. If you really want to get better at your sport and earn a scholarship, then quit doing “arms” and start getting that deadlift, squat and bench press up in weight. These exercises will give you a total body boost in strength which will make you better on the field. There are a number of programs out there ( i.e. 5/3/1) that can help you do this. Pick one and get on it.
Equipment Is A Must
You can always spot a serious lifter at any gym, they are always carrying around a huge gym bag full of goodies. No, not steroids, but necessary apparel and gear. Every serious lifter should have lifting shoes, chalk, a belt, wrist straps and knee sleeves. As the weight starts to get heavier, you want to give your body as much support as it is going to need. Lifting gear can help your performance, prevent injuries and help with recovery for the next training session.
Aside from personal equipment, your gym must provide the necessary equipment to help you get stronger, mainly a squat rack and bench press. However, when you start to get really strong, this equipment alone will not do. You will need more advanced equipment, such as bands, chains, boards, a monolift, etc. Most commercial gyms that I have been to do not provide this equipment, therefore, you will eventually need to find a more appropriate training facility if getting as strong as possible is your ultimate goal.
More Taxing On The Body
Heavy weight training places a huge amount of stress on both the muscles and central nervous system. This can have you feeling as if you have been hit by a truck the day after your training session. Eventually after training at this high of an intensity your body is going to need a break.
After all, remember that whole yin/yang thing. Heavy strength (barbell) training is a yang activity and calisthenics and yoga training are yin activities. The goal is not to chose one and declare war on the other. The goal is to have a balance between the two.
Every athlete that I know tell me that the part of their training they look forward to the least is heavy barbell training. After a few months of doing it yourself, you will understand why.
Easier To “Cheat” Exercises
Weight training for the most part, with the exception of the olympic lifts consists of simple, non-technical exercises. A simple exercise requires less mental focus and neurological proprioception, thus allowing them to be done with more weight.
Of course, this attracts boatloads of meatheads and other “bro” types to these exercises. People like this only go to the gym to train one thing, their ego! The ego wants to look good and impress others at all times to flatter itself. This leads to unrealistic training progressions and a large jump in weight between training sessions.
When the weight gets too heavy too quickly, form starts to break down and lifters will often “cheat” with bad form in order to “complete” reps. Of course, this is a great way to get injured or to reach a never ending plateau. So, do yourself a favor, don’t cheat!
Most weight training in gyms involves isolation training. This is practiced mostly in the bodybuilding community for their shows. Unfortunately, the majority of the general public believe that this is the one and only way to train to have an amazing body. As we know this is not true.
In fact, it is unwise to use isolation training if you are not a bodybuilder because isolation training often lead to muscle imbalances.
Most people prefer to train only the muscle groups they like the best (chest, biceps, abs) and neglect the other areas of the body. This can lead to huge mechanical problems if not corrected and it can also severely limit your training.
I know in this article I took more time to explain the cons instead of the pros. This was not a coincidence. I did this because most people are aware of the pros of almost anything, its the cons they choose not to look at. Unfortunately for them, they are making a big mistake. No training style is perfect, they all have their pros and cons. Which is why I recommend that you should do both calisthenics and weight training. Instead of being a purist, be a hybrid and claim the best of both worlds. All the functionality, balance and coordination of calisthenics plus the strength, power and mental toughness of weight training will turn you into an unstoppable beast.