Tonight’s Main Event: Calisthenics vs. Bodybuilding
By now it’s clear there is a growing community of people who are committed to training with only the weight of their own bodies, plus some minimal equipment like bars and perhaps kettle bells or dumbbells.
You may be part of that community.
There is also a strong belief among gym-goers that calisthenics do not give the same physical benefits that they get from pumping iron.
Here’s what I have to say.
You can build your body with bodyweight exercises.
Calisthenics vs. Bodybuilding
Is it possible to structure a bodyweight workout for mass?
Should mass be the primary outcome by which a method of working out is evaluated?
For answers to these and other questions, let’s define our terms.
Calisthenics are a segment of bodyweight exercises that uses movements of the body through space, generally intended to develop strength, fitness and flexibility.  Muscle size, however, is not usually a goal of calisthenics.
Bodyweight exercise is an umbrella term for a number of disciplines that use the body as the primary form of resistance. Two of the best known disciplines are gymnastics and yoga. Parkour is another form that has increased in popularity of late. These forms of exercise deliver a number of benefits around flexibility, strength, endurance, balance and more. 
Personally, I also consider cardiovascular exercise like walking and running to be forms of bodyweight exercise.
Todd Kuslikis of AShotOfAdrenaline.com considers the forms of bodyweight exercises I listed as forms of calisthenics, but regardless of our lack of alignment on the hierarchy, we recognize bodyweight exercise as a wide-ranging and endlessly challenging form of physical development.
Weight training is a form of strength training generally intended to build size and strength of skeletal muscles. Though flexibility and general fitness aren’t core outputs, muscle size is a core desired outcome.
Strength training refers to the disciplines that use resistance (external or body weight) to build strength, endurance or size of skeletal muscles.  Strength training methods include weight training, calisthenics, plyometrics, isometrics, yoga, and more.
Simply by evaluating the words themselves, we can see that calisthenics and weight training are both methods of strength training, that differ around the extra outcomes they offer.
So how do we compare them? We have to evaluate each benefit, identify how each approach delivers, and then weigh them based on how important those goals are to the individual.
So…What’s your goal?
Let’s get to the point. People who take up weight training typically place more importance on building muscle mass than those who gravitate toward calisthenics.
Those who consider themselves “bodybuilders” are often primarily focused on adding size.
Weight training often involves bulking up with a calorie surplus to provide energy for the body to grow the muscles, and often involves loading as a percentage of one-rep-maximum to optimize muscle growth.
Since calisthenics uses only the body’s weight, it’s difficult to experience the same level of intensity by use of leverage alone.
However, the problem with comparing calisthenics to weight training is just that–they’re not really intended to deliver the same thing.
Calisthenics enthusiasts are usually interested more in core strength and overall full-body strength than they are in increasing the size of isolated muscles.
The obvious disqualification here is power lifting. If you’re trying to compete in power lifting, you’ve already read too much of this post. Go to the gym, period.
Those of you who are still reading, let’s continue. 🙂
Both calisthenics and weight training offer a number of benefits. Let’s take a look at each of these benefits and see which method comes out on top.
When it comes to flexibility, calisthenics may not get the nod on its own, but whether you do weighted strength training, you’ll need to join some body weight stretching and flexibility (perhaps using yoga) into your routines or you’ll end up causing yourself lots of pain.
Stretching–whether it’s dynamic, static, isometric, passive or other –is useful because it helps you gain muscle by stretching the fascia that contain your muscles, and because it prepares your muscles for movement and avoidance of injury.
Most people who are into calisthenics respect the body itself and strive to gain strength without a ton of external equipment. Similarly, I find there is an overlap with those who wish to gain control of the mind and some sense of spiritual practice through meditation and yoga. For me, it’s hard to separate these — which desire came first?
Those who are seeking muscle growth and have a bodybuilding focus often look at flexibility as a nuisance, as something they have to do but would prefer to skip. Why waste time stretching that one could use lifting?
Outside of the external load, both calisthenics and weight training place resistance on the muscles to grow them. Flexibility is not part of either, but should be pursued alongside whichever is a better fit for you.
General fitness is really about overall health and well-being. Both calisthenics and weight training contribute to this goal, but they are not alone enough to achieve it.
Can you get through the airport carrying your own luggage without being short of breath? Can you carry your groceries without a struggle? Are your cardiovascular numbers sufficiently good when you get your annual checkup?
- are you height to weight proportionate?
- Are you keeping inflammation under control via exercise and diet?
- Are you managing cancer, cognitive decline, diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk?
If so, you have a sufficient level of general fitness.
What does it take to get there? There are a few key components to general fitness, in my opinion, that I borrow from Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint:
- Lift – Lift heavy things from time to time. This can be weights, or it can be bodyweight, as long as you stress your muscles.
- Eat – Eat healthy–avoid excess sugar; favor vegetables and protein and FAT over carbohydrates (especially simple carbs).
- Move – Walk a lot. Lots of low intensity activity helps avoid insulin resistance and is a health principle that everyone should stress. Speaking of stress, lots of walking helps reduce stress.
- Sprint – Work in some high intensity interval training. Like Mark, I don’t believe in extended cardio sessions, but I do work in climbs up the stadium risers or sprints occasionally.
With those as the guiding principles of general health, it makes sense that lifting external weight or body weight both qualify.
In this sense, the best workout is the one that you’ll actually perform.
Pure strength comes from increasing the load your muscles are able to move. This is one area where weight training has a distinct advantage.
It’s pretty clear that bodyweight exercise is limited to how much you weigh and your level of skill. Progressive resistance is a principle used in calisthenics to increase the load of a given exercise by performing it in increasingly challenging ways.
For example, you can start with wall pushups and knee pushups before progressing to a standard pushup, and then to make it more challenging you can elevate your legs to put more weight on your arms. Then from there, you can do diamond pushups and, if you’re particularly motivated, you can work in some single arm pushups.
Weight training makes this a little easier. When you are ready to put more load on your muscles, you put heavier plates on the bar.
In both forms of training, there’s a need to use good form to prevent injury. Without external load the risk is perhaps reduced with calisthenics, but injury risk is still present from the poor form and overuse perspectives.
But it’s definitely easier to ramp up your workouts by grabbing additional weights than it is to train your muscles for what is, in essence, a totally different exercise to take on more load.
This is an attribute on which calisthenics wins, hands down.
Many calisthenic exercises require you to balance your body’s weight at unusual angles–or on one limb–to stress your muscles. You have to develop balance to perform the exercise.
In contrast, with weight training, you generally find yourself a stable position and then perform an exercise requiring you to move weight in space. You have to balance the object, but your body itself is supported.
You may not think of balance as a distinct goal of your program, but you can at least think about it as something that does improve when you adopt the skill required to perform calisthenic exercises.
Here’s another area where weight training has the advantage.
If your goal is purely hypertrophy, weight training using isolation exercises is probably your best bet. Adding weight appropriately to the muscles you want to enlarge is going to get you there the fastest.
Gymnasts and calisthenics enthusiasts can grow muscle, but it’s commonly understood that it takes longer to do so without external load. The metric of muscle growth per unit of time is smaller in calisthenics and gymnastics.
Stamina and endurance can be addressed using either type of strength training. Crossfit and similar programs encourage this by mixing up the forms of exercise.
They combine cardio with strength, push you through circuits with little rest, encourage compound movements, recommend a different workout each day, and other methods that build stamina. 
Whether you lift a barbell intermittently among your bodyweight squats and your 100 meter run, or whether you do the most challenging pushups you’re capable of, you’re still pushing your body further on the stamina spectrum.
Here is an area where both strength training modalities benefit you as well. The difference is that with weight training, you’re more likely to more quickly increase muscle size along with tone.
If you don’t push yourself at all–if you plateau at a specific level within a progression and don’t try to go any further–your muscle tone will only improve so much. Same as if you go to a given weight on an exercise and don’t ever increase it.
It’s all about the progression.
There are other indirect items to compare as well.
This is hard to back up with statistics, but it’s common sense that you can injure yourself pretty significantly with free weights. I personally have been pinned under a barbell when I failed to stop before failure. 🙂 Thankfully I was able to push it off to one side and wasn’t really hurt.
If you move the wrong way, perhaps during a squat, the weight won’t stop moving. You can really mess up your back that way.
It’s a little harder to hurt yourself significantly with calisthenics. Yes, you can bend the wrong way, but you’re only moving your own weight–not external weight.
Convenience isn’t really a fair comparison either.
Yes, calisthenics can be done at home without visiting a gym. But you can build a home gym if you spend enough on squat racks, barbells, plates and the like.
Some people are more likely to work out at all, if they have workout partners at the gym to hold them accountable.
Some have the intrinsic motivation to do it on their own.
Which one are you?
Types of Exercises
You can work most any part of the body with either approach. It is, however, a little challenging to find a bodyweight alternative to the deadlift.
Otherwise, do a little homework and you’re good to go!
The Conclusion: How to Choose
The takeway should be relatively clear. Your personal goals–and the relative importance of strength, size, muscle tone and general fitness–have to be considered as you evaluate training methods.
Do you spend more time lifting than you do walking or running? Do you train for strength using weights, calisthenics, or yoga?
You have to think about whether you’re in it for the muscle growth, the overall strength, or even in terms of complete control of your body–flexibility, strength, stamina and balance.
This article cannot provide an answer for you.
You have to evaluate your goals and make your own decision.
We do hope that bodyweight exercise at least becomes part of your program, and perhaps that you explore it a bit more than you might have otherwise.
Please leave your questions and thoughts in the comments!
Image source: Pixabay