Calisthenics vs Weights: Which Is Best For Your Training?

When it comes to strengthening your muscles and improving your overall fitness, there are so many types of exercise and approaches to turn to.

Many beginners and seniors grapple with the question: “Is it better to do calisthenics vs weights to increase strength and improve my fitness level?“

In this calisthenics vs weights fitness guide, we will discuss what calisthenic exercises are, their benefits, and the benefits of lifting weights vs calisthenics for different fitness goals, aiming to answer the question: “Is calisthenics better than weights for my fitness routine?”

We will cover: 

  • What Is Calisthenics?
  • Should You Lift Weights Or Do Calisthenics Workouts?
  • Is It Better to Do Calisthenics Vs Weights?

Let’s get started!

A person doing a calisthenic exercise, a push up.

What Is Calisthenics?

Before we look at the benefits of calisthenics vs weightlifting workouts or other types of exercise, it’s helpful to answer the basic question:What is a calisthenic exercise?”

After all, there seems to be an ever-expanding glossary of fitness terms and gym lingo, which can make it hard to keep track of what type of exercise or exercise equipment you are even discussing.

Although calisthenics certainly have a complicated-sounding name, calisthenic exercises are some of the most basic, “old school“ types of bodyweight exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks.

Calisthenics typically involve exercises that strengthen all or some of your muscle groups depending on the particular calisthenic exercise.

Many calisthenics may also increase your heart rate simultaneously, depending on the particular movements that you choose and the types of calisthenics workouts that you are performing.

A pistol squat.

For example, push-ups are more of a strengthening exercise for the upper body and core, whereas jumping jacks—arguably the “classic calisthenic exercise”—are more of a cardio calisthenics vs weights focus in terms of your fitness.

In this way, calisthenics have the ability to increase muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular health and aerobic fitness, coordination, mobility, flexibility, and balance.

Although not true across the board, one of the most significant differences between calisthenics vs weightlifting workouts is that a large majority of calisthenic training uses just your body weight without the need for external resistance.

You won’t need to use traditional or newfangled strength training equipment like dumbbells, weight machines, kettlebells, medicine balls, barbells, or even resistance bands.

Note that this statement is provided with the disclaimer that some calisthenics exercises require simple calisthenics equipment. 

For example, pull-ups and chin-ups require a pull-up bar, and dips require parallel bars or a bench or chair.

A pull up bar.

Additionally, some people who are trying to decide if it is better to do calisthenics vs weights based on the benefits of lifting weights vs calisthenics with just body weight do choose to add resistance bands or other calisthenics fitness equipment to calisthenics exercises.

Even if you don’t have access to a “calisthenics gym“ with an array of exciting tools and calisthenic equipment to up the difficulty and variety in your calisthenics training workouts, you may be able to try specific bodyweight calisthenics with dumbbells or other weights depending on your fitness level and the particular calisthenics exercise.

Should You Lift Weights Or Do Calisthenics Workouts?

As mentioned, one of the fitness questions related to strength training that still lingers, particularly among older adults, is “Are calisthenics better than lifting weights for exercise?”Years ago, calisthenics and calisthenics gyms were all the rage.

Circuit training, in particular, which primarily focused on calisthenic exercises, was really popular in the United States along with other European countries, Canada, and even eastern countries like Japan and China.

Racks of dumbbells.

Although calisthenic equipment still exists at gyms, the focus on calisthenics vs weights like dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells have largely supplanted the “strength training equipment“ in gyms to be more geared towards free weights and dumbbells vs weight machine and calisthenics equipment.

But, just because the exercise equipment for strength training at the gym has primarily adopted squat racks, rows and rows of barbells, kettlebells, and other free weights as the predominant training equipment vs calisthenics exercise equipment does not necessarily mean that calisthenic workouts have no place in your fitness routine.

Both calisthenics exercises and calisthenics workouts as well as workouts with dumbbells and free weights have numerous benefits (as well as drawbacks!).

Therefore, in order to help you determine whether it is better for you to do strength training with traditional weights or do calisthenic workouts for strength and cardio, we will look at the pros and cons of calisthenic exercises and the pros and cons of using weights.

A plank position.

Is It Better to Do Calisthenics Vs Weights?

So, what’s the difference between regular weightlifting vs calisthenics? 

Is calisthenics better than weights?

Whether it is better to do calisthenics vs weights for your own fitness and strength goals really depends on those particular goals, your current fitness level, what other types of workouts you perform, your injury risk, your age, and what type of exercise equipment you have available to you.

In other words, there isn’t a single answer that is applicable to everyone about whether lifting weights is better than calisthenics or whether calisthenics vs dumbbells or traditional weightlifting is  “better.”

Even when we talk about “weights vs calisthenics,” the term “weights“ can mean numerous things, from free weights like dumbbells and barbells to weight machines like the leg press or a seated biceps curl machine in a circuit strength training machine setup.

Putting weight on a barbell.

There are also resistance bands and cable machines, often called functional trainers, and any combination thereof.

All of this is to say that one person’s weightlifting workout can look quite different than another person who is considering the benefits of calisthenics vs weights.

Even with calisthenics workouts, as discussed, some focus more on strengthening while others have a larger emphasis on cardio and improving aerobic fitness.

That said, while both calisthenics and weights share the common goal of strengthening the muscles, calisthenics exercises use only body weight for the resistance and tend to involve lots of reps at a faster rate, whereas weight training exercises use some external load with fewer reps with much more resistance.

Therefore, as a broad generalization, the primary difference in the benefits of calisthenics vs. weight training is that calisthenics tend to be better for increasing muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness, whereas strength training exercises with weights are better able to increase muscular strength and mass (hypertrophy) because of the external load.

A tricep dip.

However, according to research, if you do enough reps and sets in your calisthenic exercises or you use calisthenics equipment that adds even more resistance, you should be able to increase strength and build muscle.

Thus, as a takeaway, here are some guidelines as to whether you should do calisthenics or weights:

  • Lift weights vs calisthenics if you want to build muscle or make significant increases in strength, mainly if you have already been strength training rather than a novice lifter.
  • Do calisthenics vs weights for improving muscular endurance.
  • Do calisthenics vs weights if you are short on time and want to combine cardio and strength training in one workout. Good calisthenics exercises for cardio include jumping jacks, high knees sprinting in place, mountain climbers, jump squats, bodyweight squats, and burpees.
  • Do calisthenics vs weights if you are traveling or don’t have access to strength training equipment. Calisthenics can be performed anywhere, from at-home workouts to cramped hotel rooms to outdoor parks.
Tricep dip.
  • Try starting with calisthenics if you are a beginner. Using just your body weight with some classic exercises that you are likely somewhat familiar with can be less intimidating and safer than jumping into a gym with lots of people wielding heavy weights.
  • This is not to say you can’t start lifting weights at the gym (or home!) as a beginner, but if you’re finding intimidation or gym anxiety to be holding you back from starting strength training or working out in general, take things one step at a time with easing into fitness with calisthenic exercises like bodyweight squats, lunges, wall push-ups, walking lunges, crunches, high knees marching, jogging in place, jumping jacks, etc.
  • Consider combining both calisthenics and weights, if possible. You can combine calisthenics with weights in one workout (alternating some bodyweight calisthenics with weight lifting) in a circuit training workout, or use calisthenic training on days you can’t make it to the gym or when you want a hybrid cardio/strength workout and strength training separately.

Ultimately, there’s no “right” or “wrong” approach; choose whatever form of exercise feels best for you.

For more ideas on how to combine calisthenic exercises with resistance training, check out our guide to circuit training here.

A pull up.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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