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Calisthenics Versus Weights: Here’s How to Balance the Two, According to Trainers

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsAugust 13, 2020

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Calisthenics and weight training have a lot in common: Both can be your partner-in-crime in getting stronger, both target every last muscle of your body, and furthermore—they’re perfect complements to one another. When you’re first getting into strength training, however, you may struggle to decide which modality you need, or if a combo of both will actually suit you best. And thus, I consulted two top-of-the-line trainers to answer the question of calisthenics vs weights when you’re just kicking off your strength training journey.

Before we get down to business and discuss whether you should invest in dumbbells, kettlebells, or bands, or stick to bodyweight, Johry Batt, head of athletics at F45 Training, and Jonathan Tylicki, NASM, director of education at AKT break down the benefits and limitations of each so you can make the most informed decision about how to sweat.

Calisthenics vs weights: What is weight lifting and why is it good for your body?

“Weight training utilizes props like weights, barbells, kettlebells, et cetera, as an external force on the body,” says Tylicki. “What’s important to think about here is that our body is always under constant force and resisting against gravity, so adding weight to that can significantly increase muscular strength.”

Increasing that muscle strength is so important because it essentially makes you better fit to tackle your everyday activities without pain. “When executed correctly, lifting weights reinforces proper posture by strengthening the muscles and muscular contractions that support and stabilize the body. That improved strength and alignment can lead to better movement mechanics,” adds Tylicki. And that’s just the starting line: In the last few decades, the benefits of kettlebell swings, good mornings, and other weight-heavy moves have been well-researched by scientists. Here are just a few reasons to work out with weights.

1. Weight training has been found to improve bone health and increase bone density

When it comes to having a healthy, functional body, your muscles are really just the half of it. You also need a strong skeleton that will keep you walking, dancing, and going up the stairs well into the later years of your life.

2. Weight training has been shown to protect you against chronic disease

The primary risk factor behind a number of chronic diseases including mobility disability, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer is aging—but researchers have demonstrated that resistance training is one way to combat them. So, consider this yet another way that checking off your weight training now will help your future self stay healthy and mobile.

3. Weight training releases feel-good, happiness chemicals

“Resistance training also offers great physiological benefits including dopamine and serotonin release, which plays a role in your mood,” says Batt. Pair your workout with a happiness-boosting playlist and you’ve got a perfect formula for pep in your step.

4. Weight training boosts your cardiovascular system, too

Weight training and cardio are often pitted against each other—and that’s a shame because they’re actually great together. “The longer your muscles are under stress the longer you can go (that’s ‘endurance’) and the harder you can push your intensity (or stamina),” explains Tylicki.

TL;DR: Weight training has earned a ton of accolades, but because you’re lifting heavy things, injury and muscle imbalances are both possible. Keep an eye on a decrease in flexibility, says Tylicki. “If you are only training the concentric, or lifting, phase of a muscle, then this may lead to muscular imbalance. That imbalance may decrease flexibility or potentially cause injury.” There’s also the possibility of choosing a weight that’s too heavy for you right off the bat and winding up with another kind of injury, so make sure you’re keeping things light in the beginning and working your way up slowly. There’s no rush.

Here’s a strength training workout in action:

Okay—and what are calisthenics? What are its benefits?

Now onto calisthenics, which comes from the ancient Greek word kallos, meaning “beauty” or “beautiful.” Trainers confirm that calisthenic are, indeed, a beaut because you don’t need any equipment to do them. “Calisthenics are bodyweight exercises—think squats, lunges, push-ups,” says Tylicki. “The misnomer here is that these are not ‘weight-bearing,’ but you are still performing exercises under the resistance of gravity so you can get many of the same benefits as weightlifting.” In other words, subtract the weights from weight training and you’ve got calisthenics.

Calisthenics can be spiced up in multiple ways to make them more cardiovascular, more strength-oriented, or just more fun. “Depending on the exercise you can increase the challenge by changing the angle of the exercise, adding speed to the exercise, or increasing your range of motion. These types of exercise incorporate more of your full body which makes them extremely efficient. Also, because you are incorporating more of your body, you improve the neurological connection, aka mind-body connection, to your movement,” says Tylicki.

As mentioned, calisthenics offers many of the same rewards as weight training—except one thing. Without weights, you won’t be able to build as much muscle mass as you could with them—and that may or may not feel like a big deal to you. “If your goal is to increase muscle size and definition, then it just takes a more regimented focus on the programming element of your exercises and workouts,” explains Tylicki.

Apart from being a little less effective at increasing muscle mass, calisthenics also doesn’t allow for very much flexibility if you need to modify for an injury or another reason. “These types of exercises are great for all populations but can be harder to modify if you have an injury,” says Tylicki. “For example, if you have a shoulder injury, then it might be hard to hold a plank or execute many other upper body exercises, whereas using weights could still allow you to perform more upper body focused strength movements. As well, it can be harder to get certain types of exercises, like pulling exercises, without having other equipment like a pull-up bar or dip bars.” All things to keep in mind when you decide what melange of calisthenics and weight training will suit you best.

Here’s one example of a calisthenic workout class:

The short answer about the difference between calisthenics and weight training

“I like to think of it this way: Weightlifting trains more specific muscles or groups of muscles, and improves your strength and muscular contraction,” says Tylicki. “Bodyweight training gives you more full-body benefits and improves your balance, coordination, and range of motion.” For example, a push-up is a calisthenic exercise that will engage your upper body including your chest, triceps, shoulder, core, and basically your full body; meanwhile, a chest press (the weight-bearing version of the move) will work just your chest while the rest of your body is relaxed. And that, my friends, is the short and sweet version of calisthenics vs weight training.

So how do I know which one is right for me?

Great question! For most people, the answer is likely both. “The two are most beneficial when used together in your program,” says Tylicki. “Getting the combo gives you the strength and range of motion benefits, keeping your body and muscles well balanced. When you think about it functionally, the basis of functional movement is to utilize exercise that makes you better at what you do every day. In our lives, we have a balance of weight-bearing—like carrying groceries—and bodyweight movements—like sitting in a chair—so it just makes sense to get a mixture of the two.”

One easy way to make sure you’re using both modes in your workout is to use supersets, or two exercises repeated back to back in one set of your workout. Do 12 reps of a move, like a squat, with weight and 12 without. And bam, you’ve incorporated both types in your workout. Easy.

To make a long story short, calisthenics and weight training go together—there’s no such thing as a weight-training person or a calisthenics person (or, at least, there shouldn’t be). Calisthenics are non-weight-bearing and remarkably functional, while weight training will help you build muscle and strengthen bone to keep you healthy all your life. Really, they’re the perfect match.

This workout combines strength training and calisthenics: 

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