From the time man discovered the glories of the gym, a cataclysmic war has been waged in the fitness world.
Like the Allied versus the Axis powers, this war is waged by people divided into two camps: Calisthenics (Bodyweight) versus Free Weights (IRON!).
Today I propose we put an end to this war, and help you choose the best path to fitness glory.
The Iron Conquest
The chamber reverbs with the thudding of drums. Candles alit with purple flames waver in the heavy air. A robed acolyte ascends the altar to a sigil engraved on the marble plateau. With the aid of the sigil and his surrounding disciples, the acolyte prepares to summon the Iron Chancellor.
“Fitness, Strength, and the Glory Of Gains,” the acolyte chants. “We gather to summon the Iron Chancellor, Commander of the Freeweight Army, Wielder of the Barbell and Plates, to illuminate us in our quest for knowledge. Spirit, Awaken!”
A sheet of wind blasts out from the sigil, throwing back the acolyte’s hood to reveal the face of… is that FitNate?!? Crimson light flashes, followed by a clap of thunder, and standing within the summoning circle is Herculean man adorned with weighted chains and 20-lb plates.
“I am the Iron Chancellor,” says the colossus. “Name your request, mortal.”
“Great Iron Chancellor,” responds FitNate, “impart to us knowledge of your ways.”
The eyes of the Iron Chancellor glows purple, as does FitNate’s eyes as he receives a vision from the spirit.
The Weigh of the Iron
There is something thrilling about hoisting iron. The blood rushing to your muscles as you battle gravity ignites a pleasure like nothing else. One of the greatest pros for many people regarding weightlifting is that it’s damn fun.
Secondly, progression is very straightforward. When you want to increase the difficulty of the exercises, you simply add more weights or do more reps. While there are additional techniques you can do to up the intensity, overall it’s not a complex process to make workouts harder. On the same thought, this means it’s also easy to measure how you’ve improved. If you can lift more weight or do more reps, you’ve gotten stronger. This in turn can serve as motivation to keep you training.
Furthermore, the majority of compound lifts — squats, deadlifts, bench press, barbell rows, etc — are rather intuitive and easy to grasp. However, they do require that you practice them in order to be safe. One of the downsides of weightlifting is many persons tend to ego-lift, which means they attempt exercises with weights they cannot do with proper form, so as to appease their ego. This greatly increases the chances of injury, and ego-lifting is likely the biggest risk of moving iron around. If you want to stay injury-free (you’re smart, of course you do), start with a manageable weight, then progress with small increments — usually 2.5 to 5 pound increases.
Another facet of weightlifting is isolation, which can both benefit you and hinder you. On one hand, isolation allows you to target certain muscle groups you want to strengthen, to correct muscle imbalances, or to help rehabilitate from an injury. On the other hand, this isolation factor can result in the very same imbalances you’re trying to correct, such as the guy who spends hours training chest and neglecting his back, or the women with buns of steel, but limited upper body strength. The danger of these imbalances is that they put you at greater risk as you begin more advanced lifts.
The final downside to weightlifting is that it requires (duh) weights, which can carry a pretty hefty price tag. If you are someone who dislikes lifting their wallet, the cost of home equipment or getting a gym membership can be a huge turn-off.
The Ninja Warriors
In a swirling cloud of dust, the Iron Chancellor vanishes. The acolyte stumbles, attempting to regain his footing. He steadies himself, ready to summon another spirit: Gwen the Lithe.
“We now summon Gwen the Lithe, Leader of the Bodyweight Legion, Master of the Calisthenic Art. Spirit, Awaken!”
Once the swirling wind dies down, a being with an athletic build hovers in the sigil. He carries no adornments except a fitted Under Armour shirt.
“What is your request,” says Gwen.
“Teach us your ways,” replies FitNate.
If you’ve ever envisioned yourself as a functional, leaping-off-walls ninja, calisthenics is the way for you. Most bodyweight movements are compound movements — think pushups, pull-ups, squats, pistol squats, and so on — which means they require use of many muscle groups and joints to perform. Calisthenics also requires greater amounts of coordination and balance than weightlifting, which may pose a bit of a hindrance to performing some of the advanced moves, but the functionality gained is worth it.
On account of the exercises being compound movements, calisthenics also allows for great overall athleticism and muscle development. You are less likely to develop imbalances, as calisthenics offering little in the ways of isolation exercises. Unfortunately this makes calisthenics a poor choice for rehab, as there is no easy way to isolate and work around an injured muscle or joint.
One of calisthenics’ greatest attribute is that you can perform it ANYWHERE. Once you have space to hop, skip, or drop and do 20 pushups, you can work out. Convenience, my friends, is the name of bodyweight. The only equipment you may want to buy is a pullup bar, but a tree branch or park swing can also be used for back exercises. Overall, it’s far cheaper to do calisthenics than to splurge on building a home gym or getting gym membership.
You have no real excuse not to workout. Ever.
On the downside, calisthenics is more complex to progress than weights. Progressing in calisthenics involves decreasing the mechanical advantage of your muscles, which means they will need to be stronger in order to perform the movement, or by picking harder exercises. This non-linear style of progression is harder to track as well, and this may demotivate you. Additionally, the difference in difficulty of two exercises can be HUGE, such as moving from pushups into one-hand pushups, which means you may be stuck performing the easier exercise for a long time before you can progress to the more advanced one. Even transitioning from archer pushups to one-hand poses a challenge.
A point of note here. Rumors abound that you can’t use bodyweight exercises to pack on serious strength and muscle. I would like to direct your eyes to gymnasts
See that physique? That’s strength and muscle for you.
What often happens however, is that many workout programs use calisthenics only for aerobic conditioning and muscle endurance. Calisthenics can do far more for you than simply helping you breath better.
Since I clearly love telling stories, I want to wrap up with another. When I just started training, I started with a barbell and a couple plates.
Because it made everything incredibly simple. I had one workout composed of compound movements, so I didn’t have to think about a new workout every time. All I had to do was up the weight as I got stronger. And I just found the simplicity of hefting iron plenty fun.
There was also the fact that I couldn’t do a single pushup…
So I detested anything bodyweight at the time.
After a couple years, there was a transition period where I was doing almost entirely bodyweight, as I was working out with my friends and we didn’t have access to a gym. I didn’t like this as much, but I made incredible strength and functionality gains this way. Calisthenics allowed us to work out wherever there was space, and working out together is far more fun than training alone.
I say all this to point out that both calisthenics and weights will give you fantastic results, certainly far better than sitting on the couch doing neither. While I personally prefer weights, the convenience and versatility of bodyweight is undeniable.
I feel the best option for you, if it’s available, is to use both in your training. Both offer incredible benefits, and calisthenics are a viable option if you can’t make it to the gym on a certain day. Even if you’re in the gym, it may be in your best interest to use bodyweight exercises such as pullups. My favourite combination of the two is taking a bodyweight exercise, and slapping on a few pounds of iron to up the intensity. For example, I will take the simple pushup, sling on a backpack with two 15 lbs plates in them, and start repping out. The use of the weights dramatically improves the difficulty of the exercise.
Part of the reason I wrote this post is because a friend asked me if she should incorporate lifting into her routine. To answer her, and you, if you’ve experienced a plateau doing solely bodyweight, the use of free weights can help you push past that plateau. Conversely, if you’ve used mostly free weights, bodyweight training can help you shatter your current limit. If you’re still reaping results from doing just bodyweight or free weight training however, don’t stress trying to do both. Focus on doing your workouts and getting your nutrition in.
Speaking of bodyweight training, you can sign up here and get your hands on the Beginners Fitness Checklist, which includes a free bodyweight workout. And of course, I have more great content to share with you if you do sign up.
May The Gains Be With You,
P.S. If you feel this post can help someone you know, feel free to share it! I certainly won’t stop you.