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Which is better? I am told that calisthenic exercise is much more better than weight-lifting.

In the past I went to gym daily until 2 weeks ago when i am told that calisthenic exercise can actually make our body even more shredded and is better than weight lifting so I decide to try calisthenic exercise.

Different trainer are telling me different thing so need a little help in getting a better idea on which is better for me. I want to more shredded at the same time working on strength training but do not wish to go for both weight lifting and calisthenic exercises.

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+1 for a very good question as this is a very popular topic these days! –  DrTrungNguyen Mar 27 '13 at 23:56
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4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I kind of think this is somewhat of a false dichotomy. In other words, there's a lot more to "getting shredded" or building strength than focusing strictly on calisthenics or weight lifting will do. First thing is to identify your goal.

  • Getting shredded is having muscle mass, but very little (single digit percentage) body fat.
  • Getting strong is being able to move more weight.
  • Running a marathon is all about endurance.
  • Sprinting and Olympic weightlifting is about short, intense bursts of energy.

The truth is that your goals are going change over time as you set your eyes on new possibilities you didn't have before. The bottom line is that I don't see it as an either/or proposition, but more of a proportion question. Since your stated goal is getting shredded, the rest of the answer will be centered around that.

Losing Body Fat While Maintaining Muscle Mass

This is all about diet. It's usually the first step in "getting shredded" unless you are already underweight. The keys to getting shredded with your diet are:

  • Enough protein to maintain your lean mass
  • Enough work to maintain your lean mass
  • Managing total calories
  • Enough fat to keep your testosterone levels normal
  • Enough carbs to fuel your exercise but no more

The common adage of 1g protein per pound lean body mass (or total body mass) is "good enough" to be right. Truth is you really don't even need that much even as a genetic outlier. Protein requires more energy to process, so it isn't bad if you eat more than necessary.

Too little saturated fat will drop your testosterone (T) levels below normal. Too much fat will not increase your T levels above normal but will increase your calories. 3g of Omega 3s would be decent, and no more than 6-7% of your calories coming from saturated fat. NOTE: 1g fat = 9 Calories. Beyond that, the amount of fat you have is what's necessary to fill out your calorie requirements.

Carbs are the quick energy used in just about all strength workouts. These are the variable to think about manipulating. As long as you are at or below your target Calories for the day, if you see yourself getting a little softer cut back on carbs a little. Otherwise keep pushing them higher until you find that threshold.

As to work needed to preserve lean mass. Both calisthenics and weight lifting work well. They send the right signals to let your body know it needs the muscle.

Building Size

Muscle size is all about volume of work. If you focus on calisthenics, you will need to make up for the limit of the weight of the body with volume of work. Another tool to vary intensity is to change the leverages (wide pushups, narrow pushups, T pushups, as an example). With weight lifting, you merely need to change the weight being used.

That said, overall volume is the key to keep building muscle. Once the volume no longer changes, you won't add more muscle. That means for calisthenics you do a lot more sets/reps of whatever is on the menu for today. For weight lifting you use weights you can lift many times. 3 sets of 8-12 reps is the traditional bodybuilding ideal.

There will come a point where just adding weight will not work anymore, or you simply can't do more reps. That's when you have to introduce the concept of varying intensity and rep ranges. In calisthenics you go for more difficult techniques (like human flags, muscle-ups, etc) on high intensity days, and the old standby for volume days. In weight lifting it's a matter of increasing the weight and doing shorter rep ranges on some days, and decreasing the weight and doing longer rep ranges on others. The actual programming for this is outside the scope of the question.

Inherent Advantages

Both weightlifting and calisthenics have some inherent advantages towards your stated goal of being shredded.

  • Weight lifting increases your strength, which can help you increase the volume of work (weight * reps) beyond what's possible with calisthenics alone. That translates to more muscle mass like a Ronnie Coleman (steroid questions aside).
  • Calisthenics increase your conditioning which also helps burn fat. Arnold Schwarzenegger used this approach before he had access to a weight room and won his first youth bodybuilding competition.
  • Calisthenics can be recovered from very easily, allowing you to keep the volume up over time.
  • Weight lifting can let you use intensities much lower than your body weight if you aren't strong enough to perform the calisthenics properly yet.

Eventually Arnold used the weight room to win the world titles for bodybuilding. But the bottom line is both help you achieve your goal.

Use Both To Good Effect

There is nothing wrong with focusing on 3-4 main lifts a week, and using body weight exercises for all the assistance work. It's a very potent combination to help you use the inherent advantages of each to achieve your end goal. Wendler's 5/3/1 program even has a variation where all the assistance work is calisthenics.

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+ 1 Very helpful tips and clear explanation. –  DrTrungNguyen Mar 28 '13 at 17:21
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Weight lifting gains come from progressive overload, where "muscles are overloaded by attempting to lift at least as much weight as they are capable." (Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications) In other words, muscle gains come from constantly pushing your muscles to adapt by increasing the load (i.e. reps and weight) you place on them. I mention this, because understanding this simple concept is critical for evaluating your question.

Which is better? I am told that calisthenic exercise is much more better than weight-lifting.

With respect to building muscle / strength, traditional weightlifting is strictly better because with weightlifting it is easier to progressively overload your muscles. As I explained in the question why are pyramid sets used for body-weight exercises, when doing body-weight exercises it becomes a lot harder for people--especially beginners--to overload their muscles using body-weight exercises. In weightlifting, you have 20,30,45lb bars, and variable size plates you can load on the bar ranging from 1.25lbs all the way up to 45lbs+. In contrast, with body-weight calisthenics, you are always using a fixed weight (your body), so the only factor you can adjust is the amount of reps you do. Pyramid sets partially alleviate this issue, but don't get rid of the problem.

Take me, for example: I weigh 165 pounds and bench 3 sets of 3 reps of 200 pounds (I would be placed as a late-novice / intermediate lifter). If I wanted to get a similar burn doing only calisthenics I would have to do 3 sets of 50 reps of push ups, if not more. That is just one exercise, I do anywhere between three to seven more exercises per workout. If I replaced my workout routine with calisthenics outright, I wouldn't be surprised if my workout doubled or even tripled in length do to the amount of time wasted on doing so many reps.

In the past I went to gym daily until 2 weeks ago when i am told that calisthenic exercise can actually make our body even more shredded and is better than weight lifting so I decide to try calisthenic exercise.

Outright false. Getting "shredded", while possible to reach through either program, is far easier to attain through weightlifting for the reasons I described above. Calisthenics are great introductory exercises for novices, but if you want to break the barrier to intermediate/advanced and get "shredded", weightlifting will be the most optimal path there.

Different trainer are telling me different thing so need a little help in getting a better idea on which is better for me. I want to more shredded at the same time working on strength training but do not wish to go for both weight lifting and calisthenic exercise

I don't see why the two are mutually exclusive. Even in the Starting Strength barbell weightlifting program, pull ups / chin ups are recommended as supplementary exercises, and all are easily done within the gym. Additionally, some areas of my body (mostly the abs/core) I enjoy doing calisthenics for more than weightlifting, because of the diversity exercises and what I perceive to be a higher recruitment of muscles.

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+1 for a very good explanation and helpful tips! –  DrTrungNguyen Mar 27 '13 at 23:55
    
You forgot the important point that you can also vary the intensity by applying your bodyweight at less effectiv angles. E.g. do planches or super/spiderman pushups (that takes you way past 200 lbs benchpress), do one arm chin ups instead of pull ups, move from a tucked to a stretched position, and so on. –  Franz Kafka Jun 2 '13 at 14:50
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Jie Liang,

Moses pointed out a lot of good stuff already. This is a very good question, and it is very popular these days. Unfortunately, there are people out there will be biased regarding one or the other (body weight or weight lifting).

I just wanted to make sure there is accurate information and share some thoughts regarding what I do for a living, and what I've been doing for the past 10 years as a passion of mine - GetFitChimp - Body Weight Exercises (mostly).

Which is better?

It all depends. I mean to gain absolute strength and continue to put on muscle mass, you have to follow the progressive overload principle. Moses is right when he said that it is much easier to progress weights when it comes to progressive overload comparing to body weight.

However, there are ways you can progress (resistance) with only body weight. For example, a beginner may start out with 3 sets of 15 reps with the regular push-up. He then can progress towards 3 sets of 15 reps with the single leg push-up, then towards plyo push-up, single leg plyo push-up, side to side plyo push-up and chair dip for examples to continue to follow the progressive overload principle.

Again, it may not be the exact formula when comparing with weight lifting (bench press for example). However, I've been training many high level athletes and gymnasts using this formula for all of their body weight exercises. More with gymnasts in a little bit.

Body weight and getting shredded

Unfortunately, the answer again is depending on the way you train, your diet and your genetics. For example, you can train with super heavy weights, but only training at 50% of your max in addition to eating poorly, then you probably will not get shredded.

However, if you train hard using body weight only at a very high level (most gymnasts), and you eat good in addition to good genetics, then you will be shredded. Just look at the Olympic Gymnasts - purely body weight exercises!

I want to get shredded and gain strength at the same time!

Well, the truth is that you can gain absolute strength and get shredded at the same time. Just look at some of the running backs, linebackers, sprinters and of course wide receivers and cornerbacks in the NFL. They are all shredded and very strong at the same time, especially the running backs and the linebackers.

Now, you may be surprised, but body weight exercises like chin-ups, diamond push-ups and chair dips are very effective exercises for targeting the shoulders, biceps and triceps (gymnasts). And surprisingly, one the most effective body weight exercises to target your abs is sprinting.

In short, you can and should perform both weight lifting exercises and body weight exercises for a fun, effective and efficient workout each time. And if your goals are to gain strength and get shredded, make sure you do these things:

  1. Lift heavy (4-8 reps) - squats, benches, chin-ups, clean and presses, deadlifts, bent over rows, etc.
  2. Eat clean and eat well throughout the day (every 2-3 hours) - lots of good calories (proteins, good fats and carbs) - lean meats and fruits and vegetables (avocados, peanut butter, fish, chicken breast, whole eggs, etc.)
  3. Stay away from sugary snacks and drinks - regular milk, sodas, juices, sweet snacks, etc.
  4. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  5. Try high intensity interval training (HIIT).

Hope this helps, and take Moses advice as he already gave you plenty there.

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+1. You bring up a good point about comparing BW to WL, as they cant always be 1 to 1 comparisons. A poorly structured WL program would fall very flat compared to a well structured BW program, and vice versa. –  Moses Mar 28 '13 at 3:31
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Nobody can tell you what is "better" when answering your question. They are different and will provide you with different results.

I have been weightlifting for 7 years and did calisthenics for around 5. I did them separately as that would mean that nowadays I only do body weight exercising. I would say I got more definition in my muscles but lost size, volume. At the same time gaining size and volume. Same goes for strength.

What I mean by this is that before I stopped weight lifting I could biceps curl with 27.5kg dumbbells per arm for 6 reps. Last year when I checked I could biceps curl with 22.5kgs only. However I gained strength on gymnastics rings. When I was biceps curling so much I couldn't do much on the rings and now I can do a gymnastics cross. So I gained some strength and lost some strength in the biceps. The cross is a complex exercise that involves the whole upperbody but I am mentioning the biceps only since that is the muscle group that I made a comparison about.

Now about the volume in the muscles. I will refer to my arms again. After I stopped doing weight my arms got smaller. However my biceps on their own got a lot bigger, all the biceps curling never managed to expand my biceps as much as they did expand just after one year of continuous ring workouts. They also got a lot leaner. Then last year just after one workout of biceps curling in a weight lifting gym I noticed my biceps gained more size(got thicker) but lost definition, got bulkier looking. Of course that was not too obvious for it was just one workout but I am used to noticing changes in my body after so many years.

Thus I chose body weight training for I find it more entertaining and I like the results better(looks and strength gained). It doesn't mean it's better or worse compared to weight lifting. Nor is it going to prevent any injuries, the risk is equal with both activities.

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