Calisthenics were once the choice exercise to build the Greek God physique you see depicted in sculptures and statues.
They were used by soldiers and athletes for centuries to build amazing bodies that put the average gym goer of today to shame.
Although early bodybuilders incorporated a large amount of calisthenics into their routines, lifting weights began to slowly take the place of calisthenics in gyms across the world during the 20th century.
With the invention of the Nautilus machine in 1970, weight lifting became all the craze. The pumped up muscles and bodies began to appear and the golden era of bodybuilding hit the world hard.
Once it was discovered that weights had the ability to build large muscles, they became the main source of strength training for many.
Unfortunately, the use of calisthenics to build a fit and muscular body was largely abandoned once weight lifting became popular.
Luckily, calisthenics have come back in a big way thanks to books like Convict Conditioning and Jailhouse Strong. Now that a different way of training has become popular once again, the million dollar question is, are calisthenics better than weights?
That is a very broad question however, there are 4 things that I think calisthenics do better than weights which just may make you fall in love with them.
# 1- They Strengthen your Joints
This is one of the main reasons that I began doing calisthenics on a regular basis. Lifting weights can be downright brutal on your joints. Day-in and day-out your are constantly overloading every joint in your body with heavy-weight. Overtime, that weight pressing down on your shoulders, elbows, knees and back can wreak havoc.
A few years back I was experiencing some problems with my joints. I was doing nothing but lifting weights. The joint pain began to mount and I realized that I had to change something up. No matter what I did, it just felt like my joints were getting weaker.
I thought back to when I felt the strongest and my body felt the best. For me, it was during high school when I played football and wrestled. Even though I was still lifting a lot of weights then, I felt awesome. I didn’t have any joint pain at all and my strength always seemed to increase.
I thought about why I had felt so strong a few years prior and now was struggling to maintain the strength I had without injuring myself. I realized that there was one thing I dropped from my workout routine. Calisthenics.
We used to do an insane amount of bodyweight calisthenics during football and wrestling. Pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, neck bridges. We did it all. Now that I wasn’t doing those sports anymore, I had no reason to do calisthenics, or so I thought.
I honestly did not think that calisthenics were that important. I thought we just did them for conditioning and to warm up but boy oh boy was I ever wrong.
Why would I want to spend my time doing calisthenics when lifting-weights was going to make me stronger and build bigger muscles?
While that was true to an extent, solely lifting weights was also making me weaker at the same time. Training my body in isolation was causing my joints to weaken.
On a hunch, I immediately began adding basic calisthenics to my workouts and like magic, I felt my strength come back. My hypothesis proved to be true. I then was able to make my conclusion that lifting weights without calisthenics thrown in, caused my joints to become weak.
Using calisthenics, you move your body and work your joints the way they were meant to be worked. Moving, squatting and pulling your body up are movements we evolved doing in nature. Preacher curls, deadlifts and lat pull downs are not.
# 2- They can be done anywhere
This is one of the best things about calisthenics. Due to the fact that you don’t need any equipment at all to do most calisthenic exercises, they can literally be done anywhere. All you need is a small amount of space.
Prisoners are well-known experts in calisthenics. Most prisons in the Unites States have removed weights from their yards which forced prisoners to become creative. With a very small space to work with, many are able to build impressive physiques without touching a weight. It is not uncommon for prisoners to do thousands of repetitions a day of calisthenic exercises in their cells.
When you have to rely on always going to the gym to get your workout in, that can be problematic. Life is chaotic and sometimes it’s hard to find the time to make it to the gym. I experience it often.
Once you learn the basics of calisthenics, your excuse of not having time for the gym is removed. I known that some will see that as good while some will see it as bad. Suck it up slackers.
Even the busiest of us can find time during our day to complete a calisthenics workout. My area of choice is typically in the middle of my living room. All you need is space and 20 minutes and you can get a great workout in. Even with 10 minutes I can get a great calisthenic workout in.
Calisthenics are particularly helpful when traveling. I can’t go many days without some type of exercise, even on vacation. In the middle of the hotel room, I can do a few hundred sets of pushups, squats and sit-ups and be set for the day.
After you realize that you can workout anywhere, it becomes fun. Why should I force myself into the gym on a beautiful sunny day when I can be out in the sun at a park doing calisthenics?
# 3- They keep your muscles firm
This is purely my experience and definitely bro science, but my muscles always feel firmer and tighter for longer after calisthenic workouts than they do from weights.
When I lift weights, my muscles will feel sore the next few days but they also feel puffy and swollen. Swollen no doubt from the damage that occurred when they were torn down during the workout. I like the feeling but I also feel weaker while I recover not stronger. My muscles are also softer to the touch after lifting weights.
When I do a calisthenics workout, my muscles feel totally different. I don’t experience the same level of soreness and my muscles feel tight and firm to the touch, not soft.
They stay that way even up to a week after I did the workout. If I go a few days without lifting weights, it feels like I never lifted a weight in my life. It’s a very strange phenomenon.
I also feel stronger in the days after a calisthenics workout. Perhaps because it strengthens the joints in a way that weights do not. It’s like the strength gain happens immediately with calisthenics while the strength gain with weights takes a few days to kick in.
The appearance of my muscles is also different. After a pure calisthenics workout, they don’t look swollen. They look more defined and denser.
# 4- They are safer
If you have lifted weights for any period, you have likely experienced some type of injury. I known that some who lift with the intensity of a Yahtzee tournament will be critical of that statement.
I love weights more than the next person but the truth is that you will have to put up with injuries overtime if you make it a part of your life. Doing the heavy compound movements day-in and day-out is going to mess you up. Usually not to a serious extent, but it will happen.
I have luckily never been seriously injured lifting weights but I have had more than my fair share of minor injuries, one of which required surgery.
The aches, pains and joint pain begin to emerge the more you lift. As these injuries begin to build up, you will likely be forced to take time off from the gym to let them heal. Sometimes for months.
I work hard at lifting as smart as I can and still deal with these occasionally. Injuries suck. No doubt about it. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to build strength without having to deal with injuries?
This is where calisthenics come in. With calisthenics, you are using only your body weight and moving in natural ways that the body is meant to move.
The body is designed to move as a single unit through space. It functions best this way. Isolating body parts and muscles through the usual bodybuilding exercises throws our bodies out of whack. It’s unnatural to train this way.
When you do the basic calisthenic exercises like pushups and pull ups, you are using your bodies own weight as resistance and moving your body through space. You are not working it artificially by moving weights through space to your body. Think of a lat pull down exercise versus a pull up. They may work the same muscles but the movement for each is very different.
Not only have I never been injured doing calisthenics, I have fixed and rehabilitated many injuries with them. You do not realize how out of sorts your body has become through weight lifting alone until you begin doing calisthenics.
In fact, I am now at a point where I have to train calisthenics routinely. If I go weeks lifting weights without also doing calisthenics, my body will begin to break down and weaken. The joint pain and nagging injuries will usually return.
When calisthenics are done in a smooth, controlled movement there is very little chance of injury in my experience.
A better way
I think that it’s fruitless to argue about whether weights or calisthenics are better. I do not believe that one is inherently superior to the other. To me, it makes much more sense to discuss the ways in which one is better than the other.
The final decision of whether weights or calisthenics is better rests on the individual. Fitness is such an individual process. How could such a general statement be made as to which is better for everyone?
There are strong arguments to be made for either side however, I think that someone who chooses to solely lift weights or solely do calisthenics will miss out on the benefits of the other.
Although I haven’t been given much choice due to the reasons I discussed above, I incorporate both weight-lifting and calisthenics into my routine. There are times and days when I will do one or the other or mix them both together.
My intention in writing this article to help shed some light on the great things that calisthenics can do for you if you invest the time in them. I personally experienced the 4 benefits I listed above and it has tremendously improved my body and training.
If you are interested in calisthenics, check out my recommended reading to see my favorite books on calisthenics. There are so many sources out there to learn them. I recommend you start slow with the basic movements and go from there.
Have you experienced the benefits of calisthenics before in your training? I would love to hear your experience as well as answer any questions below.