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It an age-old question that we here at Dioxyme get all the time: should I do calisthenics or lift weights? And the short answer is that choosing which one is right for you ultimately depends on your goals.
Each type of training has its own advantages and disadvantages, so understanding exactly what those are and how they line up with your goals is essential when it comes to seeing the kind of results you're after.
So what are the benefits of calisthenics vs weight lifting and what kind of goals are each type of training best suited for? Well, before we answer that, let's first discuss what some of the main similarities and differences are between the two.
They're both Forms of Resistance Training
Resistance training is a broad term used to describe any form of exercise in which your muscles are tasked with working against some kind of external resistance, with the ultimate goal being to increase the strength, size, or endurance of your muscles.
External resistance can be created in a number of different ways and there are ultimately all different kinds of approaches to resistance training, however, two of the most popular are calisthenics and weight lifting.
Calisthenic -- AKA bodyweight exercises -- is the simplest form of resistance training there is. They rely on your own body weight as the primary source of resistance and in most cases require little to no other training implements, meaning that they can be performed just about anywhere.
Most bodyweight exercises are compound movements, meaning that they engage multiple muscles at the same time. With a few different movements, you can potentially engage just about every major muscle group throughout your body, from your back, chest, and arms, to your core and legs.
While there are endless variations to choose from, here are some of the most popular (and effective) bodyweight exercises, along with a list of the different muscles each works.
Popular Bodyweight Exercises
|Exercise Name||Muscles Groups Worked|
|Crunch||Abs, Obliques, Lower Back|
|Pull-up||Back and Biceps|
|Push-up||Pecs, Triceps, Shoulders|
|Dip||Triceps, Pecs, Shoulders|
|Lunge||Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves|
|Squat||Quads, Glutes, Calves, Hamstrings|
As opposed to bodyweight exercises, weight lifting relies on weighted implements like dumbbells, barbells, and weight-loaded machines to create external resistance.
Like with calisthenics, weight training exercises can involve multiple muscle groups simultaneously, however, certain exercises can also allow you to isolate specific muscles to a greater degree than with calisthenics.
Most weight training programs will likely involve at least some of the following exercises (or variations of them). As you’ll see, there is a movement that specifically targets every major muscle group throughout your entire body.
Popular Weight Lifting Exercises
|Exercise Name||Muscles Groups Worked|
|Squat||Quads, Glutes, Calves, Hamstrings, Core|
|Deadlift||Hamstrings, Glutes, Quads, Core|
|Leg Press||Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes|
|Bench||Pecs, Shoulders, Triceps|
|Standing Overhead Press||Shoulder Muscles (Anterior, Lateral and Posterior Deltoids), Core|
|Row||Back (Lats, Rhomboids, Traps), Biceps|
|Lat Pull-Down||Back (Lats, Rhomboids, Traps), Biceps|
What Are the Benefits of Calisthenics?
⫸They’re Free and You Can Do Them Anywhere
One of the biggest perks to calisthenics is that they’re free. Because all you need is your body weight in order to perform the exercises, you don’t need to worry about buying any expensive equipment or joining a gym in order to get a workout in.
Even exercises like dips can be performed with makeshift equipment that can be easily found around the house or outdoors.
On top of that, many exercises can be performed just about anywhere. As long as you have enough space to do a push-up or a crunch, you’re good to go. That means no matter whether you’re on a work trip, or stuck at home, you still have the ability to get a quality workout in.
⫸Calisthenics are Easy to Modify
Another benefit of calisthenics is that the exercises are incredibly easy to modify, which is perfect for targeting your muscles from a different angle and keeping your routine fresh and enjoyable.
Compared to weight lifting, where you often need specialized equipment in order to perform different variations of an exercise, you can easily modify most bodyweight exercises. Take the push-up for example.
In order to modify the standard version of the exercise, all you have to do is pop your feet up on a chair or some other implement that can bear your weight and you’ve got a whole new angle to attack your chest from, not to mention you’ll be making the exercise considerably more challenging.
⫸They Can Help to Improve Your Flexibility
Finally, calisthenics can also help to improve your functional flexibility. Whether it’s squatting down to pick up a laundry basket, or trying to reach a coffee mug on the top shelf, the regular activities in your daily life can often become quite taxing if you don’t have enough flexibility.
But by regularly performing calisthenics, you can not only help to improve your overall fitness, but you can also help to make the routine tasks feel way less demanding.(1)
What Are the Benefits of Weight Lifting?
⫸Weights Are Easy to Adjust
One of the things that make weight lifting unique is that the resistance is incredibly easy to adjust. Unlike calisthenics, where you can’t change the level of resistance -- you’re limited to your own bodyweight -- with weights, you can easily increase or decrease the resistance.
Whether it’s with weight-loaded barbells, dumbbells, or cable pulley machines, with weight lifting you can make incremental adjustments to the weight you're lifting, which is the perfect scenario for seeing steady, gradual progress over the course of your training.
Instead of being limited to your own body weight, with weights, you can incrementally add weight to your lifts. Adding as little as 2.5 lbs to your lifts every few weeks may not seem like a big deal but over time that can really add up.
⫸Lifting Weights Can Improve Your Bone Health
On top of helping you to see steady gradual progress along your fitness journey, there is also plenty of evidence that lifting weight can help to improve the health of your bones as well.
As you get older, your bone mineral density naturally decreases, leaving you more susceptible to injury over time. However, numerous clinical trials have demonstrated that regular adherence to a weight lifting program can significantly improve your bone mineral density, which in turn can help to improve your quality of life, especially as you age.(2)
⫸You Can Isolate Different Muscle Groups With Weights
Lastly, another benefit of lifting weights is that you can isolate specific muscle groups, which is something you can’t necessarily do with calisthenics. Sure, you can hit your pecs, shoulders, and triceps all at once, but what if your triceps are underdeveloped and you really want to focus solely on developing them?
Well with weight lifting, you have a whole host of different exercises to choose from that specifically target your triceps (or whatever specific muscle group you’re looking to isolate). Now that’s not to say that isolation movements are better, but rather that they can be a useful tool for complementing your main compound exercises.
Calisthenics vs Weights: Which One Should You Choose?
As you can see, there are benefits to be had from both calisthenics and lifting weight, so deciding which one is the best choice for you ultimately depends on what your goals are.
While both forms of resistance training can certainly help to improve both your general health and overall fitness, each may be more or less suited for certain goals.
Which is Better For Weight Loss?
If your main goal is to burn as many calories as you can during your workout, then calisthenics may be the way to go. Compared to weight lifting, calisthenic exercises usually involve considerably more movement, which at the end of the day, ultimately requires more energy. The higher your energy needs are during your workout, the greater your calorie-burning potential.
And indeed, numerous studies have confirmed that bodyweight exercises, in general, have significantly higher total energy costs when compared to moderate-intensity weight lifting exercises.(7)(8)
With that being said, you can increase the number of calories you burn during a weight lifting session by working at higher intensities and reducing the amount of rest you take in between sets. However, if your main goal is to burn as many calories as possible and you’re not looking to work with heavy weights, then calisthenics are the way to go.
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Which is Better For Building Muscle?
When it comes to building muscle, nothing is better than weight lifting -- it is, after all, the cornerstone of just about any serious bodybuilding program you’re likely to come across.
While it appears to be true that calisthenics can produce similar amounts of muscle growth when weight lifting exercises are performed at a lower intensity (around 40% of your max), the research is clear that a weight lifting routine involving higher intensities (65+% of your max) leads to greater gains in muscle size when compared to calisthenics.(3)
For example, one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of a high-intensity weight lifting program (85+% 1RM) to that of a high-impact bodyweight training program (known as plyometrics). Both the weight lifting and bodyweight groups participated in a total of 36 training sessions over the course of 12 weeks.(4)
Both groups focused on 3 leg-dominant movements in their training and the researchers measured their gains in size and strength over the course of the study. The weight lifting group performed the leg press, knee extension, and hamstring curl in their training sessions, while the bodyweight group performed 3 different jumping variations (countermovement jumps, hurdle jumps, and drop jumps).
After 12 weeks, the researchers ultimately found that while both groups saw significant increases in muscle size, those who participated in the weight training program, on average, saw significantly greater increases in muscle cross-sectional area in comparison to those who only performed bodyweight exercises.
Which is Better For Strength Gains?
Not only can you build more muscle with weight lifting, but you can also build more strength. That’s because, working with external resistance -- especially at high intensities -- has been shown to overload your muscles to a greater degree than your bodyweight alone, leading to greater gains in strength over the long term.(5)
For example, one 2018 study compared the effects of a progressive calisthenic push-up training program to that of a traditional high-intensity bench press training program. Participants in each group trained three days a week for four weeks with the researchers closely measuring multiple aspects of their strength progressions.
At the conclusion of the study, the researchers ultimately found that while both groups ultimately saw significant improvements in strength compared to when they started out, those who participated in the bench press group, on average, saw significantly greater gains in strength compared to those in the progressive push-up group (6.5% increase vs. 3.4%).(6)
Can You Combine Calisthenics and Weight Training?
If the benefits of both calisthenics and weight training seem attractive to you, there’s no reason you can’t do both. In fact, many people incorporate both approaches into their regular resistance training routines. It’s incredibly common to see calisthenic exercises like pull-ups, dips, and crunches sprinkle into your traditional body-building weight lifting routine.
At the end of the day figuring out how to combine the two approaches depends on your goals. If your main goal is building muscle, then favoring weight lifting in your routine is probably the best bet.
On the flip side, if you’re primarily interested in burning up some calories, but also wouldn’t mind gaining some strength, maybe the best approach for you is to pepper in a few primary weight lifting movements into a calisthenics-focused routine.
While both are forms of resistance training, calisthenics uses your own body weight as the primary form of resistance, whereas weight lifting, relies on external resistance.
Each type of training has certain advantages and disadvantages, which can make each better or less suited for particular goals. In general, research suggests that, over time, you can ultimately develop more size and strength with weight lifting, in comparison to calisthenics.
Now that doesn’t mean that calisthenics is ineffective when it comes to getting bigger and stronger, but rather that lifting weights is simply more effective. Additionally, calisthenics may actually be more effective than weight training when it comes to burning calories, which may make them a particularly attractive form of training for anyone interested in weight loss.
- “Effect of calisthenics workouts for weight loss and flexibility” Poti, K.P., Upadhye, J.A. International Journal of Physiology, Nutrition, and Physical Education. Dec. 2019.
- “Effectiveness of resistance training or jumping-exercise to increase bone mineral density in men with low bone mass: A 12-month randomized, clinical trial” Hinton, P.S., Nigh, P., Thyfault, J. Bone. Oct. 2015.
- “Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain” Kikuchi, N., Nakazato, K. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness. Jun. 2017.
- “Muscle Adaptations to Plyometric vs. Resistance Training in Untrained Young Men” Vissing, et al. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Nov. 2008.
- “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training” Schoenfeld, B.J. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Oct. 2010.
- “Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness” Kotarsky, C.J., et al. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Mar. 2018.
- “Comparison of the Acute Metabolic Responses to Traditional Resistance, Body-Weight, and Battling Rope Exercises”Ratamess, N.A., et al. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Jan. 2015.
- “Total energy costs of 3 all-out Tabata routines: calisthenic, plyometric and resistance exercises”Scott, C., et al. European Journal of Human Movement. 2016.