Is Calisthenics Better Than Weightlifting for Fitness?

by Josh | Last Updated:  October 12, 2020
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Whether you are trying to lose weight or bulk up, one strong method is strength training. But digging further into it, you’ll find one of the biggest debates in health: calisthenics vs weights. But today, I’m going to be putting that question to rest once and for all.

So, is calisthenics better than weightlifting? Calisthenics can server to give you much better control over your body as much of the work isn’t isolated to specific muscles which can yield a better balanced physique whereas weights allow for specific isolation and muscle building to focus on a weakness.

While some would argue that calisthenics is better for various reasons, weightlifting does have merits as well. There are also other considerations at work such as what you are training and what sort of exercises you prefer.

There are also other misconceptions revolving around this too that you need to be mindful of. Instead of favoring one or the other, a smart person would leverage both.

To understand more about this debate, and more details of these exercises, I’d encourage you to read on.

What Is Calisthenics?

To understand the debate between calisthenics and weightlifting, it helps to know what these two are. While it can seem obvious for some, there are distinct advantages to using these techniques.

Calisthenics is a unique form of exercise that puts emphasis on body weight to build strength and flexibility. As complex as it sounds, it’s really not. In fact, if you’ve done any exercising, you’ve probably done this before since this exercise involves things like lifting, lunging, pulling and pushing with little or no equipment at all.

Urban fitness workout calisthenics, male in flag pose on wall over water - is calisthenics better than weightlifting
Urban calisthenics performing flag pose on wall over water

One could argue that yoga is a form of calisthenics since you are forced to use body weight for many kinds of exercises. Other exercises are things like lunges, push-ups, sit-ups, Turkish get-ups, and burpees.

What Is Weightlifting?

Naturally, weightlifting is incorporating weights into various exercises. Trainers define weightlifting as conditional training. It allows you to build up strength and endurance as well. In some circles, weightlifting is a sort of a cult. If you want to sculpt the perfect body, you’re going to need to be lifting weights some would say.

Differences in Calisthenics and Weights

So, which of these two is the better one to go for? Well, it depends on what you are aiming for. To help you better compare these two techniques, let’s look at five categories: training flexibility, endurance, strength, weight loss, and building body mass.

By looking at how these exercises contribute to these areas, you can get a better sense of which one you’ll want to consider.

Training Flexibility

First is looking at the flexibility of the training. As you might have expected by this point, calisthenics is easy to get into. Because you need no equipment, you can easily do these exercises in the comfort of your own home, office, or even out in public to some extent. Training in calisthenics is that easy.

When starting off with weightlifting, you’ll need some equipment. Specifically, you’re going to need some dumbbells. The other consideration with weightlifting is what area you want to be focusing on during your training too.

If you want to be sculpting your body in a particular manner, you’re going to need to balance which group of muscles you’re working on.

With calisthenics, you don’t have to focus so much on that. All you need is some all around full-body exercises and that’s it. Things like push-ups and sit-ups can do a  lot of good.

Endurance

When looking at the endurance side of things, you’ll find calisthenics to be not as extensive. That’s because calisthenics isn’t designed to be working out until you are exhausted. The focus is more on building up your core and strength.

For example, take a look at planks. While the exercise is simple to perform, being able to maintain that position is where the challenge is. Any kind of plank is a physical and mental challenge in and of itself. If you’re looking for better endurance, this is one of the best options out there.

Weight lifting on the other hand does offer endurance, but in a different manner. Weight lifting revolves around the idea of working out until exhaustion or until failure. By pushing yourself now, you’ll be able to lift more later as your bulk up the muscles in that specific group you’re working in.

Strength

When you think of strength, the first thing that comes to mind is the muscles bulging out of one’s body. While there is that aspect, strength is more than that as you can figure out with calisthenics.

With calisthenics, you’re involving your whole body into a movement. It engages your motor reflexes of the brain which in turn boosts your strengths. On top of that, calisthenics helps in developing physical coordination and movement control.

Weight lifting on the other hand focuses on strength in a core area. The essence of building strength or strength training is moving weight. While you can do that with calisthenics, weight lifting is more blunt about it since you’re holding, pushing, or pulling something at the very least.

Weight Loss

In terms of weight loss, calisthenics is a better form of weight loss in that it cuts down fats in a big way. The reason this is the case is that calisthenics often burns more calories. It incorporates so many movements compared to weight lifting where what’s making you sweat in that is the sheer weight.

Oddly enough, doing planks, push-ups and sit-ups requires more energy to do than lifting heavy weights.

All that said, weight lifting does contribute to weight loss overall. Because you’re focusing on strength and muscle, your muscles are boosting your basal metabolic rate. This means your body is going to need more calories in order to sustain itself.

Since fat is effectively a calorie storage, your muscles will start to work away at those areas while you rest.

Building Body Mass

The last aspect to look at is building body mass and where you see the differences is in the method since both are good at building body mass.

When it comes to calisthenics, you are using your own body weight to build body mass. Consider pull-ups and push-ups. In order to lift yourself, you need to use force. This builds body mass since you have to use areas of your body to force yourself up.

Weightlifting on the other hand is the more literal approach. You grab a weight and you’ll be lifting it. Simple as that.

The only thing to note is again, weight lifting gets you working a specific group of muscles. When doing calisthenics, you are using a mixture of muscles. Again, a full body workout in calisthenics entails situps and push ups.

The Verdict

From looking at these differences, you can see how both of these areas shine the most and what you need to be looking out for to some degree.

Calisthenics is easier to get into and commit to for those who struggle with exercising regularly. There isn’t a whole lot of intensity to it when you compare it to weight lifting.

At the same time, you get most of the same benefits from calisthenics as you would with weight lifting. That said, some of the issues with it is that you can only challenge yourself for so long with that method.

For example, while push-ups train your entire body, your progression can be stifled after a while. Say you’re doing a push up and doing the exercise off your toes, it’s physically demanding, but that’s as far as you can go. The only way to raise the level is by doing more of them.

Another thing to note with calisthenics is the progression. It’s very slow when compared to weighted exercises or weightlifting. One prime example is looking at lower body training.

In calisthenics, you’d be looking at squats or even single leg squats. And let me tell you, no amount of those will make your legs as strong as using basic weighted squats.

The reason for that is that your legs can carry a significant amount of weight beyond bodyweight. Looking at beginners, squatting weight equivalent to their bodyweight can be achieved in a matter of months. Legs adapt fast when you’re lifting heavy weights.

Weight lifting has more intensity to it and focuses on smaller groups of muscles. It’s more blunt with what needs to be done and you can see natural progression by adding in more weight

The downsides are the fact you need equipment or a gym membership and not many people would be willing to do that at first – especially if you live a sedentary lifestyle like most people do.

Furthermore, too much focus on a specific area leads to neglect in others and that can catch up to you. Remember all those pictures of built up dudes with big arms but have puny legs from skipping leg day? Yeah, that’s from weight lifting and focusing too much on the upper body.

From looking at these areas, it really comes down to what your focus is. What sort of health goals are you looking to achieve? Based on the answer to that question, you have some options to consider.

Before getting into those specifics, let’s look at some other benefits to keep in mind.

What Other Benefits Are There To Calisthenics?

Even though we’ve looked at some differences, there are still other benefits to calisthenics than you might think outside of it being very affordable and convenient for most people. Some other benefits are:

Better understanding of your body

Because you are focusing on specific movements, you’ll need to learn to control various parts of your body to move in that specific way. This will improve your overall body awareness which is a good foundation for a lot of things.

When it comes to exercises, getting the form down properly is essential at the start. The more you know how your body works, the easier getting that form and maintaining it will become.

They’re very easy to modify

I wouldn’t recommend doing this from the start until you’ve got some good understanding of your body. That said, once you have more awareness, you can start to be more creative with these exercises.

Going back to push-ups, I mentioned there is a ceiling to how much you can get out of it. While there still is, you can still make them challenging in different manners.

Doing push-ups from your knees will make it easier, but if you want a challenge, you can do pushups with one arm. Even more challenging is switching between each arm between each rep.

Focuses on many muscle groups

As I’ve mentioned already, calisthenics focuses on a lot of muscle groups. Push-ups and sit-ups provide a full body workout for example.

Enhances other areas as well

Because of all the movements involved, you are also improving other things that you might not notice at first. Overall, calisthenics can enhance coordination, flexibility, balance, and endurance too.

Muscular man weightlifting - is calisthenics better than weightlifting
Lifting Weights also can provide large benefits

What Are The Benefits Of Weight Lifting?

Aside from what I’ve mentioned before, weight lifting has other benefits I haven’t quite covered yet. Some of those benefits are:

There is more progression

Again since calisthenics uses bodyweight, progression there is the number of reps you can do. With weight training, its a matter of putting on more weight in what you are lifting.

It’s an ego trip

I don’t know about you, but there is a certain level of satisfaction from lifting a large amount of weight. It creates a sense of powerfulness from within and can be a nice motivator. Just don’t let it get too much to your head.

It isolates specific muscle groups

As mentioned, weight lifting focuses on specific areas. Because of that focus, you’ll be able to boost the size of those muscle groups in a matter of months

Which One to Focus On

In the grand debate between calisthenics and weightlifting, which one to focus on comes down to your own goals. By this point, you have a good idea of what both of these do. What it comes down to is what are your own priorities in achieving your health goals?

If you are looking to build strength, both will do wonders, but weightlifting is the more reliable one long term. The whole idea with muscle growth is to cause strain to them and tear them.

By physically hurting yourself, you are causing your muscles to grow stronger to handle more weight next time. This whole process is called hypertrophy. This will boost your muscle strength.

Calisthenics will make you strong, but you need to be creative in order to get those muscle tears and that’ll take some time to get there.

On the other hand, if you are looking to burn more calories and lose weight, calisthenics will shine more. Again, the movements will require a lot of energy which will cause you to burn more calories.

You can incorporate so many different things to it, one being a form of vigorous workouts called HIIT (or High Intensity Interval Training). You can also do circuit training which is a series of exercises done in quick succession.

How About I Combine The Two?

While focusing on one or the other is good, I think it would be smarter for people to set aside the debate of which is better and do the two of them side by side.

As you can tell, both of these training techniques are similar in fashion and have a lot of benefits to them. Why not get the best of both worlds and do both?

How you can go about them is in two ways:

Based on what you want to be doing, here are some of my suggestions.

Doing Both, Same Day

If you want to be doing them the same day, you’ll need to find a balance between these two techniques. With this in mind, I suggest following your weight training regimen and have calisthenics focus on those same areas a little bit while putting more emphasis on other parts.

For example, if your weight lifting training is on your back and chest, do some callisthenic training in those areas a little bit through push-ups and sit-ups.

That said, most of your calisthenics in that instance should be on legs, core and hips. Things like hip airplanes, and lunges (even weighted lunges if you like) works.

Some other considerations are to do calisthenics leading up to the actual weight training as well. This can stretch out the muscles in that area more and you could perform more since those muscles will be more released.

Also, if you are doing this method, I’d also suggest putting in cardio in there. It’s as simple as going for a brisk walk/jog or getting onto a treadmill.

Doing Alternative Days

For those who want to be alternating between the two of them, this can be easier to manage and to get into. My only suggestion is to be coming up with a plan for what exercises you’ll be doing.

In the end, if you’re doing them separately, you’ll want to do full body workouts for both weight lifting and calisthenics. The big question is how you’ll go about it. For calisthenics, it’s easy to do situps and push ups. That said, you can also look into other exercises like pilates, and yoga as well.

For weight training, it’s more blunt since you’ll be focusing on specific groups of muscles. Just make sure you’re focusing on each aspect in their own way.

Final Thoughts on Is Calisthenics Better Than Weightlifting for Fitness

Both calisthenics and weightlifting have their merits and their drawbacks. But instead of feuding over which one is truly superior, I’d consider incorporating both into your life in some fashion.

You can reap massive benefits and start to see great results in your life when you use both of these methods. Choose whichever is more appealing and that you can do continually over the long term, this is what build results.

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I grew up in a home where most our days were spent inside, and sports were not a family priority. I did play soccer and baseball as a kid, but the older I got, the more I lost interest. To regain my health, I decided to adhere to the three tenets of health and longevity. I hope you will join me, by making it your purpose to live as long and well as possible.