Whenever I read an article on the topic of calisthenics vs weights I see one thing: bias towards any of these two forms of training.
I have been training in both calisthenics and weight training for seven years now. In this article, I am going to do a side by side objective analysis to determine which is better: calisthenics or weights.
Calisthenics is ideal if your goal is to build a nice physique with minimal equipment, do cool moves, and burn more calories while training. Weights are better for getting more muscular, gaining strength, training legs, and rehabilitating from an injury - but equipment is mandatory.
This is the answer in a nutshell.
Below, you will find a more detailed comparison in terms of:
Keep reading to get a better understanding of the calisthenics vs weights debate.
Calisthenics vs weights in terms of muscle building
Whenever the debate of calisthenics vs weight training arises, the argument against calisthenics is its lack of muscle building potential.
So, can you build muscle with calisthenics or do you need weights?
The answer is yes, you can build a respectable amount of muscle with calisthenics only. However, after a certain point, reaching the intensity needed to gain muscle mass becomes more difficult, so adding weight will be necessary.
So why, after a certain point, adding weight becomes a necessity?
To build muscle in an optimal way, your body needs:
For the purpose of this article, we will assume that nutrition and recovery are taken care of, and we will zero in on the progressive resistance training.
Why in the beginning calisthenics is as effective as weights for bodybuilding?
As far as your body is concerned, resistance is resistance.
Whether it is coming from calisthenics, weights, flipping tires, or tossing beer kegs overhead, your muscles cannot tell the difference. Your body knows only that your muscles have to get bigger and stronger to handle that resistance.
If you are a beginner, calisthenics and weight training will yield similar muscle building results.
With that said, there are a few major limitations to calisthenics:
The first three I will get into more detail later, in the pros and cons section.
As a conclusion to this section, if you are a healthy individual in terms of weight, you can get started with calisthenics and expect good muscle building results in the first year or two.
But where do we draw the line?
When do we say that calisthenics can no longer reliably build muscle mass?
This is where the difficulty of progressive overload with calisthenics comes into play.
When should you change to weights vs calisthenics to keep building muscle?
As you get stronger, the exercises or weights you are using in your training will feel less demanding. To keep building muscle, you need to keep the difficulty challenging.
Simply put, the intensity of your training should increase relative to your strength.
A popular way of measuring the intensity is through the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale, which is based on RIR (repetitions in reserve). Sounds difficult but it is not, trust me.
Essentially, RPE measures how close to failure you are after each set.
Rate of perceived exertion (RPE)
Repetitions in reserve (RIR)
Can’t do more reps or increase load
Can’t do more reps, can increase load slightly
Can do 1 more rep
Can certainly do 1 more rep, maybe 2
Can do 2 more reps
Can certainly do 2 more reps, maybe 3
Can do 3 more reps
Can do 4-6 more reps
Very light to light effort
To conceptualize, if on your first set you hit an RPE of 8 - which according to the table is a RIR of 2 - it means that you can only do two more repetitions.
The third repetition would not be possible.
So what does this have to do with calisthenics vs weights?
Well, I am sure most of us are familiar with a table similar to this one:
Number of sets
Reps per set
Even though it is an oversimplification, this table will help me get the point across.
According to the above guidelines, for each attribute you should train as follows:
And here goes...
Manipulating intensity with weight training
With lifting weights, staying within the above guidelines is pretty straight forward.
And progress is just a matter of training with bigger weights.
If the exercise gets under RPE 5 for your target rep range, you add a bit more weight to increase the intensity and continue training as usual.
On the other hand, if you add too much weight and the RPE increases so much that you hit failure before you reach the minimum repetitions in the rep range, removing a bit of weight should fix the issue.
Manipulating intensity with calisthenics
In the beginning, things are simple with calisthenics too.
You go from, perhaps, being unable to do a push-up, to doing sets of 10 push-ups. As you gain strength though, you will soon find that push-ups are pretty darn easy.
In fact they are so easy, you will shortly reach an RPE of 1-4 for the 8-12 rep range.
Then you have the option of changing progressions to make the exercise harder.
You may go from regular push-ups, to pseudo planche push-ups, archer push-ups, or one arm push-ups. This applies to most exercises in calisthenics.
Unfortunately, you may encounter several issues:
- 1Some of these progressions will get easy in and of themselves until you are left without a more difficult substitute
- 2Certain progressions will target different muscles than the previous ones. For example, pseudo planche push-ups emphasize the shoulders rather than the chest
- 3Some progressions are too difficult for the 8-12 rep range. For example, one arm pull-ups, planche push-ups, front lever pull-ups, etc.
- 4Sometimes, there are huge gaps between a progression and the one that follows it. For instance, you may be able to easily do 10 advanced tuck planche push-ups, but not a single straddle planche push-up
Such issues can easily place you outside the RPE 5-10, the 8-12 rep range, or both.
With these in mind, if your main goal is to pack on muscle mass, this is the point where you should change from calisthenics to weights or weighted calisthenics.
What about high volume calisthenics?
After reading the above you may raise the question: can’t high volume calisthenics build muscle, even though it is outside the 8-12 rep range?
And the answer is yes, it can.
With high volume calisthenics there are two avenues you can take:
These approaches both work with similar results. At the end of the day, it is total volume (the total amount of work) that counts, not the volume on a per set basis.
Is it optimal though? In this case, science disagrees.
High sets moderate repetitions
With this approach, your number of repetitions will stay moderate - about 8-12 - but you will be doing a high number of sets per exercise - about 5-6.
If you are training 3 days a week with a total of 6 exercises per muscle group per week, that is anywhere between 30 and 36 sets per muscle group per week.
This is where this 2018 study by Heaselgrave and colleagues comes into play.
In the study, 3 groups of trained males performed either 9, 18, or 27 total sets consisting of pulldowns, rows, and biceps curls to establish the relationship between volume and biceps growth.
Even though all groups have noticed notable differences from the baseline, the group performing 18 sets per week in total had significantly greater increases in their biceps muscle thickness, as compared to the low and high volume groups.
The conclusion is that high sets will bring results but not in an optimal way.
High repetitions moderate sets
With this approach, your number of sets will stay moderate - about 3-4 - but you will be doing a high number of repetitions - about 15 to 20, or even more.
In a 2015 study by Schoenfeld, a group doing 3 sets of 25-35RM (hitting failure anywhere between 25 and 35 repetitions) had similar muscle building results to a group doing 3 sets of 8-12RM (hitting failure between 8 and 12 repetitions).
However, the higher repetitions group experience a lot of discomfort during training, with vomiting being a common occurrence.
Some other data:
One important thing to consider if you plan on going this route is fatigue.
Before you get close enough to proximity to failure to elicit a muscle growth stimulus, you have to go through a lot of “useless volume”.
Closing thoughts on the debate of calisthenics vs weights for muscle building
I want to make it clear that calisthenics is something very close to my heart. I have no bias.
With that said, if your sole purpose is bodybuilding, then weights are better than calisthenics. I’m not saying weights are better overall. But strictly from a muscle building standpoint, calisthenics are inferior to weights.
You can still build a very nice physique with it but you won’t be able to maximize your results.
And if you want the best of both worlds, consider combining them or doing weighted calisthenics.
Calisthenics vs powerlifting: what to choose for sheer strength?
When it comes to gaining a lot of strength, powerlifting is the go-to option for most people.
But is calisthenics something to consider too?
Surprisingly to some, calisthenics is actually an effective way of gaining strength. Even though it doen't have the strength building properties of powerlifting, it is not uncommon for advanced calisthenics athletes to bench press almost twice their bodyweight with no prior weight training.
However, if you are trying to maximize strength, powerlifting is still the go-to option.
Calisthenics is great at building relative strength; that is, strength relative to your bodyweight.
Powerlifting is meant to build absolute strength, which is the most amount of strength your body is able to exert, regardless of your size.
However, that can only be done with specific training.
The demands of advanced calisthenics can get you strong enough to lift about twice your bodyweight - whether that is measured through a bench press, weighted pull-ups, or one arm pull-ups.
However, if you want to get stronger than that you need specific training.
You need to have the option to lift more than twice your bodyweight, and adding weights to a bar gives you this option.
Is calisthenics more dangerous than weights? A look at the injury rates
This is the second most asked question in the calisthenics vs weights debate.
And the answer is right here:
1.288 injuries/1000 hours
0.24-1.0 injuries/1000 hours
1.0-5.8 injuries/1000 hours
2.4-3.3 injuries/1000 hours
For calisthenics I have used the data from a 2018 study from the German Journal Sports Medicine which looked at 72 athletes and their rate of injury per 1000 hours.
And for bodybuilding, powerlifting, and olympic weightlifting, I have used the data of this 2017 study which looked at the injury rates per 1000 hours in several weight training sports.
And this is what a graph with this data looks like.
The results are very good for calisthenics, with one of the lowest rates of injury.
Now, if you plan on doing bodybuilding style weight training, then you will have a lower risk of injury as compared to calisthenics. That said, the rate in calisthenics is very small, so I would go as far as to not even worry about injuries.
Does calisthenics burn more calories than weights?
When it comes to calisthenics vs weights in terms of calories burned, calisthenics is a clear winner.
Calisthenics burns on average 35% more calories than lifting weights does. The results stay consistent for different weight groups - 125lbs, 155lbs, and 185lbs person - as well as for moderate and vigorous intensities.
According to an article by the Harvard Health Publication, the rate of calories burned over a period of 30 minutes is:
Calisthenics - moderate
Weights - moderate
Calisthenics - vigorous
Weights - vigorous
These results are not surprising.
When doing calisthenics you are forced to move more than when training with weights, not to mention that generally your body will recruit more stabilizing muscles.
This is an indication that calisthenics is a better choice than weight training if you intend to maximize fat loss (as long as your diet is in check).
Pros and cons of calisthenics vs weights
The analysis so far looked at some of the most important common points of calisthenics and weight training. In this section, I want to point out their individual strengths and shortcomings.
Calisthenics pros and cons
When we are talking about pros, calisthenics excels at:
But is kinda bad at the following:
1. Location and equipment convenience
Whether you are at home, in a hotel room, or camping outdoors, there is always some sort of calisthenics workout you can do. Since you are using your body for resistance, the possibilities are limitless.
Besides, you don’t need much calisthenics equipment; a pair of gymnastics rings will do the trick.
2. Promoting flexibility, mobility & stability
With most calisthenics exercises you are limited by one of the following attributes:
As you are doing the exercises and progressing with them, so will all of these attributes.
Due to the small load you experience with calisthenics, you can safely build these attributes in a passive way - i.e. not training specifically for any of them.
Am I saying you will be able to do the split after training calisthenics?
Certainly not. But as you progress with this style of training you will notice significant improvements in your shoulder mobility, flexibility, and core stability.
3. Burning calories
In the section above, we could see how calisthenics burns about 35% more calories than weights. This is an advantage especially if you are on a weight loss phase, because you can either eat a bit more food, or do a bit less cardio.
However, if you are trying to be in a calorie surplus, where you are packing on weight, it can be a disadvantage because it means that you have to eat more food.
4. Being fun and engaging
The best part about calisthenics is that it is… well, calisthenics.
There are dozens of different elements you can learn and strive to learn.
You can see it almost as a game. You train specifically to “unlock” different skills, most of which are not even related to one another. It is a very humbling experience which will help you better see your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations you have to work around.
This sport is very dynamic and is backed up by a very passionate community.
And above all, it is so much fun. I’ve never spent more than two hours in the gym, but there were times where I’ve trained for 6-7 hours in a calisthenics park surrounded by like minded passionate people.
1. Entry point can be high
The first issue you will encounter with calisthenics is the high entry point.
What I mean is that before you can get a real taste of what calisthenics has to offer, you need to be able to do at least a few pull-ups and push-ups.
Some people may have to train several weeks before reaching this point.
Furthermore, since this sport relies heavily on the athlete’s bodyweight, overweight people may find it close to impossible to do strength building exercises before losing a bit of weight. In cases like this one, weights are not only better, but also the only reasonable option.
2. Leg training is very limited
Another issue with calisthenics is its limited potential for leg muscles development.
Your legs have been moving your entire weight for hours on end, every single day, from the moment you learned how to walk. Doing a few squats, even if they’re pistol squats, is not going to cut it.
If you want big legs, you have to add extra weight. There is no workaround.
However, there is a caveat. Most of the advanced calisthenics exercises are levers, where your lower body is part of the load (oversimplification). Therefore, the more muscular your lower body, the more strength you will need in your upper body.
If you do not care much about aesthetics, you can get away and even thrive without training legs with calisthenics.
However, if you care about aesthetics and overall athleticism, you need bigger legs.
And for that you need weights.
3. Isolation exercises are limited
The most common lagging muscle groups for people who workout are the biceps, triceps, and lateral deltoid.
With calisthenics, as opposed to weights, you don’t have many means to train these muscles.
Isolation exercises are great to build these lagging muscle groups, so you can look better. But that is not all. You also need to train your arms to get full performance and bulletproof your joints against injury.
Training your biceps is mandatory for one arm pull-ups.
Developing both your biceps and triceps will make you better at straight arm exercises, like the front lever, back lever, and planche, while simultaneously conditioning your biceps tendon.
Lastly, you can also use isolation exercises to rehabilitate an already existing injury.
As you can see, if you want optimal results you can’t be dogmatic about any way of training. Take what works, and ditch the rest.
4. Progressively overloading calisthenics is not as straightforward as weights
The last issue with calisthenics is the confusion of overloading an exercise.
First of all, progress is not entirely objective.
For instance, going from a tuck front lever to an advanced tuck front lever is a seemingly objective way of measuring progress. However, your weight fluctuates, how much or little you extend your legs can’t be accurately measured, and the weight of your equipment plays a role.
Don’t believe me? Look for the athletes who can’t do a planche unless barefoot.
Secondly, overloading after a certain point is difficult.
Going from a straddle front lever or planche, to a full variation is a bridge too big to gap. Going from an archer pull up to a one arm pull up will present the same issue.
On the other hand, being objective with weight training is easy.
If you want to get stronger or lift more, you add a couple plates and you’re good to go.
Weights pros and cons
As far as the pros of weight training go:
However, weights fall short at the following:
1. Best suited for building muscle mass
As we have already concluded above, weight training is the best way to build muscle mass.
The entry level is very low, so anyone can get started.
Progressing is straightforward and objective.
As long as over your career of training you are increasing the weight you move, you will inevitably put on muscle mass. You may not be doing it the optimal way, but you will still do it.
If you take care of your nutrition, learn about progressive overload, intensity, volume, and periodization, then you are on a fast lane to buff city.
This is the area where weightlifting wins in the calisthenics vs weights debate.
2. Can be used to isolate muscles
To reiterate, most people who work out have lagging biceps, triceps, and lateral deltoids.
The best way to develop these muscles is through isolation exercises which directly target these areas - biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, etc.
The benefit of training these muscles is not only aesthetics, but also increased performance in lifts that involve them, as well as conditioning of the tendons that support them.
3. Ideal choice for leg training
The muscles of your legs need a lot of intensity to grow.
They have been supporting your body since forever so bodyweight training won’t cut it.
Weight training is the ideal choice if you want to get bigger legs, giving you the option to work with both free weights as well as machines.
Having the possibility to include multiple repetition ranges - 4 to 6, 8 to 12, and 15+ repetitions - through the manipulation of weight, will optimize your legs' development in terms of size and strength.
4. Useful for rehabilitation after injury
Weights are the best way to rehabilitate an injury.
Physiotherapists all around the world use a wide array of weighted exercises to treat or prevent potential injuries. Unfortunately, an injury can’t be treated with push-ups or other bodyweight exercises.
You have to specifically address and focus on the injured area.
And the best way to do so is through light isolation work.
1. Can get boring
As opposed to calisthenics, weight training can get boring fairly quickly.
Day after day you do your benches, rows, curls, and squats. Any potential goal you may have revolves around the same exercise with only a little weight added.
In contrast, two variations of a calisthenics skill can differ widely.
For instance, there is a big difference between a tuck planche, where your knees are close to your chest, and a full planche where your legs are fully extended.
Doing both calisthenics and weight training on their own for a while, I could see my excitement with weight training drop. With calisthenics there was always a new skill to attain, or even a skill to attain as a prerequisite for another one - for instance, a handstand before a handstand press.
Weight training, on the other hand, can get dull.
And when you get bored with your training, you start skipping sessions.
2. Limited by location or equipment
Lack of equipment is a big deal when it comes to weight training.
You could compare it to being a driver without a car.
Unfortunately, if you lack weights or machines you can’t train.
I found that the best way to still get a good training in is to be fairly advanced at both calisthenics and weight training. This way, when you don’t have equipment you don’t have to only rely on push-ups.
Your body has the ability to do more difficult calisthenics exercises to compensate for the lack of weights.
3. Not forgiving in terms of form
With most calisthenics exercises you can get away having bad form.
I do not condone it, but what I am saying is that if the only resistance is the weight of your own body, chances of getting injured for doing an exercise with less than proper form are slim.
However, try to do that with a heavy squat or heavy deadlift and you are going to have a bad time.
Calisthenics is more forgiving in terms of form.
Bad form in calisthenics can only mean an unaesthetic way of doing an exercise.
Bad form in weight training can mean an ugly injury, so you have to pay special attention to your form.
How to get the best of both worlds
By now you must have understood the difference between calisthenics vs weights.
Based on this article, you can choose either or. But there is another way, which is better.
You can mix calisthenics and weights to help you become a better athlete, reach your goals faster, and generally have more fun with your training.
If you are mainly a calisthenics athlete:
The first option is a good choice if you want to increase your maximal strength, look better, and get some help with your calisthenics skills.
This option relies only on weighted calisthenics exercises like dips, push-ups and pull-ups.
For instance, heavy dips will have good transferability towards the planche.
Being able to pull up 2x your body weight will make your one arm pull up journey that much easier.
The second option is more geared towards bodybuilding, and is the better choice if all you care about is aesthetics and performance. With this approach you will hardly do any calisthenics exercises, other than specific work towards your goals.
For instance, you will ditch the push-up for the bench press.
The bodyweight row will be replaced with barbell rows, seal rows, etc.
Instead of doing pike push-ups to build strength for the handstand push-up, you will be doing the overhead press.
Your workout will mostly consist of weightlifting with some elements of calisthenics.
If your main focus is looking good but also want to do skills, this is a great choice.
For example, you can train your isometric skills. Then you maximize the strength of your bench press, overhead press, pull ups, and rows for transferability towards the skills.
Following that, you use isolation exercises to work on the potential weak links like deltoids, biceps, and triceps, as well as build an aesthetically pleasing physique.
If you are mainly a calisthenics athlete:
The first option is a good choice if you want to spice up your workouts.
Training some skills that won’t interfere with your workouts, like the handstand, is a great way to add some variety in training. This can open up different possibilities of practice, like striving to do a few freestanding handstand push-ups, or even a one arm handstand.
The second option can work if you want to supplement your weight training with calisthenics.
For instance, you can superset the bench press with some push-ups, the rows with some inverted rows, and so on, that will act as extra accessory exercises which will not tire you as much.
As you can see, the calisthenics vs weights debate boils down to your personal goals.
If you want to build muscle mass or sheer strength, build big legs, isolate certain muscle groups, or rehabilitate injuries, then weights are certainly the go-to. However, keep in mind that equipment is a limiting factor.
On the other hand, if you want to be equipment independent, burn more calories while training, have loads of goals to pursue, all while building a nice physique in the process, then calisthenics is a good choice for you.
Ultimately, if you want the best of both worlds, do both.