The Pros & Cons of Calisthenics and Bodyweight Training
In this article, you’ll learn the pros and cons of calisthenics.
If you have been following SOA for a while then you must be aware that SOA is completely dedicated to bodyweight training.
But I want to be honest with you.
As I mentioned in the article “How To Choose The Right Bodyweight Training Plan”, there is no perfect training plan.
Similarly to this, I could say that there is no ultimate training tool or form of exercising.
In short, that means that calisthenics might not be the best training methodology for you.
Huh? What are you talking about Todd?
Let me explain myself.
During the last few years, I have taught you how to burn fat, build muscle, increase strength, and more using only calisthenics.
However, that doesn’t mean that bodyweight training is always the best option or the best training method for the accomplishment of your goals.
With this post, I am going to give you an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of bodyweight training so that you can see if calisthenics is actually the method that is going to help you reach your goals in the fastest way possible.
The Advantages Of Bodyweight Training
In this section, I am going to make a quick list of the benefits of bodyweight training.
This is not a definitive list and, of course, more benefits exist.
Also, the benefits are sorted randomly and not in terms of importance.
Advantage #1: No Need For A Big Starting Investment
A great benefit of calisthenics training is that you need very little to no equipment for your training.
Needing no equipment means that you don’t have to buy anything expensive to start training.
Of course, as you become more advanced some equipment might become necessary (e.g. pull-up bar, rings, etc), but the investment is still minimal in comparison to weight training, in which expensive equipment becomes necessary later on.
(There are some weight training methods that also share the same advantage like, for example, sandbag training.)
Advantage #2: You Can Train Everywhere
A direct byproduct of the first benefit is that you can train everywhere since there is no need for access to special equipment.
This was one of the reasons calisthenics seemed such an attractive choice to me early on in my training.
Being able to work out anywhere you desire is a great privilege that few other forms of training offer.
This way it’s very hard to miss workouts due to circumstances (i.e. when traveling) and you can stay in top physical shape wherever you are.
Advantage #3: Target Multiple Qualities Simultaneously
When you progress into advanced calisthenics moves you are going to be challenged in multiple ways and not only in regards to maximal strength.
As a result, you are going to build strength, balance, mobility, flexibility, etc.
Also with calisthenics, you are going to build a lot of kinesthetic awareness, body control and be in better touch with your body in general.
Advantage #4: Learn Awesome Moves
This is the biggest reason I started to train seriously with calisthenics.
My motivation was beyond imaginable!
Now that I can do some of the advanced movements myself, such videos are even more motivating because they remind me of my progress.
I assure you that the feeling of achieving an advanced calisthenics movement is unique and amazing.
Advantage #5: You Can Be More Creative
As you train with calisthenics you will be challenged to come up with new ideas on how to train.
This might be for various reasons.
Training in a new environment, for example, is always possible with calisthenics but most of the time you will have to come up with new ideas on how to implement your training in that new environment.
Calisthenics can also challenge your creativity when you are exploring new movements that you haven’t trained with before.
In addition, when you want to progress towards a new movement, many times you will have to come up with your own progressions. This is the main reason so many different bodyweight tutorials exist.
Take a look, for example, at these two single-arm pull up tutorials:
Both of these tutorials apply the progressive loading principle but use different exercise progressions.
While training for the one-arm pull-up, you may need to “invent” your own progressions or combine some already existing.
Advantage #6: It’s A No Excuse System
By combining the 1st and 2nd benefit, namely that you can train everywhere and with minimum equipment, comes a new benefit.
You have no more excuses.
With calisthenics, you can train right here right now.
No special equipment is missing and no special place is required.
If you want to train with calisthenics and you are not doing it, there are no excuses left for you. There is no one to blame except yourself.
Advantage #7: Ideal For Fat Loss
Calisthenics is one of the best training “tools” for fat loss.
These 3 methods are some of the best for fat loss and all of them require some bodyweight exercises to be in place.
Advantage #8: Fantastic For Building Whole Body Strength & Muscular Development
When you perform bodyweight exercises, you typically work your body as a unit. The muscle works together in synergy to perform the movement.
Think of a chain.
When one link in a chain is weak, it makes the whole chain weak. With bodyweight training, the whole chain becomes strong because all the muscles work together.
Compare this to isolation exercises in bodybuilding.
For example, when you perform seated bicep curls on a machine.
The only muscle you are working on is the bicep.
The complimentary bodyweight exercise, the chin up, works the bicep, back muscles, abs, low back, and more.
Advantage #9: Train Your Core At Every Move
When you train with calisthenics your core is going to be challenged at every move.
This is great for developing a strong and functional core.
The Disadvantages Of Bodyweight Training
While most people that train with calisthenics tend to put emphasis on the benefits of bodyweight training, it’s important to know the disadvantages of it so that you can have a complete picture.
In this section, I am going to cover some of the biggest disadvantages of bodyweight training.
Disadvantage #1: It’s Hard To Isolate Certain Muscle Groups
When you train normally for strength or endurance, isolating muscle groups might not be an interest of yours.
However, if you want to target only a specific weak muscle or to rehab from an injury, one of the best options is to practice with isolation exercises.
Isolating muscle groups or weak spots is very hard to do with bodyweight exercises.
In this respect, weight lifting is superior to calisthenics as it allows you to isolate areas that require your attention quite easily.
Disadvantage #2: It Has Limitations In Leg Training
This is the biggest disadvantage of bodyweight training.
While calisthenics can help you build muscle and strength as well as resilient and strong joints in your lower body with exercises like the pistol squat, the shrimp squat, the dragon pistol squat, explosive pistol squats, etc, it’s very hard to develop maximal strength in the squatting pattern and to build hugely muscular legs (like a bodybuilder).
As you progress with more advanced movements you are going to target mostly qualities like flexibility, mobility, strength in extreme ranges of motion, balance, etc.
However, you can’t provide the glutes and quads with the same resistance you can do with weight lifting (e.g. with heavy squats).
I can’t tell you that weight lifting is superior to calisthenics in regards to leg training since calisthenics has clearly many advantages in the area that weight lifting doesn’t.
But, if your goal is to develop hugely muscular and strong legs (like a football player) weight lifting is a better option for you.
Disadvantage #3: It Can Be Hard To Measure
The difficulty level of some bodyweight exercises is very hard to measure with accuracy.
These lead to 2 drawbacks:
#1: Progressions Aren’t Intuitive
Most people give up on calisthenics training because they can’t figure out how to progress towards harder moves.
Unlike weight lifting in which you just put more weight on the bar, in bodyweight training, you will have to move gradually towards more advanced progressions.
Sometimes, figuring out these progressions by yourself can be very hard.
In addition, these progressions can be measured only in terms of difficulty and not in terms of actual strength gained.
Let me clarify this a little more.
In weight lifting, you are progressing very accurately by knowing how much weight you are putting on the bar.
In bodyweight training, you are progressing from a mastered move to a harder one, but it’s very hard to know exactly how much strength is required for that new progression.
It can be like adding 5kg or even 20kg.
For this reason, achieving advanced calisthenics movements usually requires more complex planning than weight lifting.
#2: It’s Hard To Reflect On Your Progress
Similar to the previous issue, in weightlifting, after a while you can know exactly how much strength you have gained from your workouts.
You can be, for example, 50kg stronger in deadlifts than before.
With bodyweight strength training, you can’t be that accurate.
You can only know how far you moved towards a skill or how many reps you have added to a movement.
If you can’t see how much progress you’ve made, it can be hard to stay motivated.
However, the most important area of measurement in any fitness system is how you feel and how you look.
These are subjective and (in my opinion) outweigh statistical measurements like reps, amt of weight, etc.
Disadvantage #4: Harder To Build A LOT Of Muscle Mass
While bodyweight exercises are super effective for building a very muscular body, it’s very difficult, or impossible to get the body of a competitive bodybuilder (think Arnold, Ronnie Coleman, etc.).
With weight lifting, you can keep packing on more and more weight and force your body to get bigger and bigger.
Really, there is no limit to the amount of weight you can put on the bar (except for what the human body can structurally take).
The “Chicken-legs” Case
The most common argument weight lifters use against calisthenics training is that calisthenics athletes have skinny legs.
Most of the time this is true.
But that doesn’t mean that it has to be this way.
You can build muscular legs with calisthenics you just won’t be able to build the same amount of muscle like a bodybuilder.
Also, most competitive calisthenic experts try to keep the least amount of muscle on their bodies but have the maximal amount of strength.
Less muscle means you weigh less so it’s easier to perform advanced moves like the front lever).
As you can see the effectiveness of a tool is totally related to one’s goals and a certain disadvantage might have an advantageous effect on your goals.
Beware Of The Bodyweight Cults!
Now that you know the benefits and disadvantages of bodyweight training I would like to talk about one of the biggest problems in the calisthenics community.
This problem is the bodyweight cults.
There are various groups online that train only with calisthenics and disregard all other forms of training as ineffective and inferior without even trying them.
It’s very easy when you invest a lot of time and effort into one training “tool” to get attached to it and try to defend it at all costs.
I have been there and it’s not a good position to be in as it limits your perspective and your training opportunities.
Do I use only bodyweight exercises?
But that doesn’t mean other systems aren’t as effective (or more effective depending on your goals).
Of course, such cults exist in other training communities as well and it’s not a problem related to calisthenics only.
The best way to avoid being too attached to a single tool is to educate yourself more on different systems.
Resistance Is Resistance
Strength training is resistance training and if you want to get stronger you just have to apply the progressive loading principle.
That means that as long as you increase the resistance you are going to get stronger, whether you are training with calisthenics or weight lifting, or other forms of training.
The only difference is in the way the principle is applied.
Train in Accordance To Your Goals
So, what should I do Todd?
Should you train with calisthenics or with weight lifting?
This depends largely on your goals.
The main reason I included the benefits and disadvantages of calisthenics training was so that you can have the whole picture and be able to make the right choice depending on the goals you have right now.
If your goal is to get as big as humanly possible, then weight training is the best option for you.
If you just want to get fit and you already have access to weights, there is no reason to abandon them completely for bodyweight exercises.
Instead, you can combine different training “tools” and reap the benefits of all of them.
There is no doubt that calisthenics training is a very effective and efficient way to get stronger, build muscle.
Nonetheless, no method is perfect and the same rule applies to calisthenics training.
I hope with this article you’ve got a fairly good idea of the benefits of calisthenics training and where it stands in accordance with your goals.
Here are some bonus links for you if you’d like to take a deeper dive into calisthenics.
- Start the 30 Day Calisthenics Workout Plan (Plus FREE PDF Download)
- Complete Calisthenics Progression Guide (Beginner to Advanced)
- Al Kavadlo: One of my favorite calisthenics experts (and genuinely nice guy!)
Frequently Asked Questions Is Calisthenics Better Than Weights?
It really depends on your goals.
If you are looking to become the next Arnold, you’ll want to stick to weights.
But if you are looking for functional strength, a lead body, and overall health, calisthenics are a perfect training plan.
Is Calisthenics Cardio?
Cardio exercise is a type of training that works your cardiovascular system.
So you could have calisthenics-based cardio or weight-based cardio.
For example, running, elliptical machines… even jumping jacks are all cardio-type exercises because you are not using weights and improving your cardiovascular health.
Is Calisthenics a Sport?
Calisthenics just recently has become a sport.
It’s incredible to see the evolution of this simple training methodology and morph beyond an underground “street workout” movement.
Now it is a worldwide sport with competitions across the globe.
Check out the World Calisthenics Organization for more details.
Is Calisthenics Hard?
Hell yeah! Calisthenics can be extremely difficult!
Is Calisthenics Good For You?
Calisthenics improves your strength, endurance, mobility, muscle mass and helps you lose fat.
It’s one of the most effective types of training of all time.
Not only that, they are amazing at helping you stay injury-free since you are using your own body weight.
How are you going to apply the information you learned in this post?
Is calisthenics training the fastest way to reach your goals? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.
– Bodyweight Todd