Weight lifting and calisthenics are both forms of strength training. If you're trying to pick between one and the other, here's what you need to know.
Read more: What Is Calisthenic Training?
What Is Strength Training?
When you think of exercise, activities like walking, running, jogging, cycling and swimming are usually the first to come to mind. Harvard Health Publishing notes that these activities fall under the umbrella of aerobic exercise. Also known as cardio, aerobic exercise gets your heart pumping and helps you burn calories.
However, strength training is another, often overlooked, type of exercise. According to Harvard Health Publishing, strength training challenges your muscles with a strong counterforce. Since this type of exercise often involves resisting the opposing force, it is also referred to as resistance training.
The American Council on Exercise explains that strength training damages your muscles and breaks them down, forcing your body to repair them. The repair process leads to muscle growth, or hypertrophy as it is known in scientific terms. The end result is bigger and stronger muscles.
Harvard Health Publishing states that strength training activities include:
- Body-weight exercises, also known as calisthenics, that use the weight of your own body to create resistance.
- Weight training exercises that use either free weights like dumbbells and barbells, or weight machines like the chest press and leg press.
- Resistance band exercises that use elastic bands of varying tension and length.
Harvard Health Publishing describes a good muscle-strengthening program as one that works out all your major muscle groups, like your arms, legs, shoulders, chest, back, abdomen and hips. It can take anywhere between eight to 12 different exercises to work all these muscle groups, although you don't necessarily have to do them all in the same session.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends that adults do muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups at least two times a week. The activities should ideally be of moderate or high intensity.
Benefits of Strength Training
Harvard Health Publishing says that strength training helps you maintain the muscular strength you need for activities of daily living, like carrying your groceries, rising from a chair, lifting a child, opening doors or climbing stairs. These activities become increasingly difficult as you get older because muscle mass starts declining. From the age of 30 onward, you begin to lose 3 to 5 percent of your muscle mass per decade.
Regularly doing strength training workouts can help ensure that your muscles stay strong and functional. A September 2016 study published in the journal Sports Medicine found that consistent resistance training helped prevent and treat musculoskeletal disorders associated with aging.
Regardless of your age however, Harvard Health Publishing states that muscle-strengthening activities help you move better, feel better and even look better.
The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) explains that strength training also helps you burn calories by increasing your metabolism. Metabolism is the chemical process by which your body burns calories. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is a measure of the number of calories your body burns when it's at rest, without taking into account exercise and other physical activity.
Your BMR is based on the amount of lean muscle in your body; the more lean muscle, the higher your BMR. Per the ISSA, this is because muscle tissue burns more calories when it is at rest than other types of tissue. Therefore, by helping you build muscle mass, strength training raises your BMR, which in turn helps your body burn more calories per day.
In fact, the ISSA notes that strength training contributes to calorie burn in another way as well. After a strength-training workout, your body continues burning calories for hours, sometimes up to 24 hours. Cardio workouts typically burn more calories per session than strength training workouts. However, your body doesn't continue to burn calories after the session. With strength training, you burn fewer calories per session but the calorie burn continues after the workout.
According to the ISSA, strength training also helps improve body composition. Body composition is the proportion of lean muscle and fat mass in your body. When you want to lose weight, what you really mean is that you want to lose fat. Strength training exercises help you build lean muscle and lose fat, thereby resulting in a leaner body composition.
Strength training has other benefits to offer as well. A study published in the July-August 2012 issue of the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports likens resistance training to medicine, because it can improve markers of heart health (blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides) and diabetes (HbA1c and insulin sensitivity).
The authors of the study state that resistance training also strengthens the bones, by improving bone mineral density. Furthermore, it can help with back pain and ease the discomfort associated with conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Both calisthenics and weight lifting can offer you these health benefits. However, if you're trying to figure out which one would be best for you, here are some factors to take into account.
Pros and Cons of Calisthenics
The ISSA explains that a calisthenics workout involves body-weight exercises, where the resistance provided is a combination of gravity and your own weight. The University of Arizona says that body-weight exercises are safe for almost everyone to do, and involve minimum risk of injury.
The ISSA lists push-ups, pull-ups, dips, crunches, squats and lunges as some examples of calisthenic exercises. These exercises target large muscle groups in your body.
The Mayo Clinic states that perhaps one of the biggest advantages of a calisthenics workout is that it doesn't require any equipment. This means that you can do it anywhere, at any time. All you need is some space and 30 minutes. This can be especially convenient if your schedule makes it hard to commit to a fitness class, or if you want to work out while traveling.
A body-weight workout can also be a good fallback option if you have to miss your regular workout. According to the ISSA, disruptions in your workout schedule can lead to muscular imbalances. For instance, if you usually have a scheduling conflict that causes you to miss leg day on Thursdays, doing a calisthenics workout at home can help ensure that you don't end up with a lower body that is underdeveloped compared to your upper body.
The fact that you don't need equipment also means that a calisthenics workout doesn't cost you anything. Fitness classes and gym memberships can be pretty expensive, so you would save quite a bit. The ISSA recommends calisthenics workouts for people who are looking for maximum return with minimum investment. At most, you could buy a pull-up bar and install it in your home.
The University of Arizona adds that you can easily find several workout videos and tips online; they can help you build a workout routine and demonstrate the correct form. However, one of the drawbacks to consider here is the fact that you may not realize if you're doing something wrong. If you work out under the supervision of a trainer, they can correct your mistakes and help you improve your technique. This can help prevent injury.
The ISSA states that your own body weight can give you a resistance workout that is as effective as a workout with free weights or weight machines. Calisthenics workouts can be adjusted according to experience level and fitness goals. For instance, the Mayo Clinic says you can start with a wall push-up, if you're having trouble doing a classic push-up. From there, you can switch to a modified push-up, and then work your way up to a classic push-up.
However, the University of Arizona notes that with a calisthenics workout, the amount of resistance is fixed at your body weight. With free weights and weight machines, you have the option to raise or lower the amount of resistance as required.
Pros and Cons of Weight Lifting
When it comes to weight training, you can use either free weights or weight machines. Both options have their pros and cons. You can use free weights like dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells at the gym or invest in a set for your home.
If you prefer going to the gym, you would have to pay a membership fee, but you would benefit from a trainer's supervision, which can help ensure that you don't get injured. The stakes are slightly higher when weights are involved, because if you drop one you could hurt yourself pretty badly. The University of Arizona recommends hiring a certified fitness trainer if you're a beginner.
If you're comfortable using weights and prefer to work out at home, you can buy a set of weights. The University of Arizona says that you can use the same set of weights for a number of different exercises. This option gives you the same flexibility as a calisthenics workout in terms of timings, because you can work out at your convenience. However, the disadvantage is that you can't take weights along with you when you travel.
With weight machines, you usually have to go to a gym or health club to access them. You would have to pay a membership fee, however that's more economical than purchasing these machines. The University of Arizona notes that each machine typically works only one muscle group, so you would need several machines to cover your whole body. The advantage of focusing on one muscle group at a time is that it allows you a specific range of motion.
According to the University of Arizona, weight machines involve very controlled movements and don't require as much balance and coordination as free weights or body-weight exercises. The advantage of this is that it reduces your risk of injury. However, free weights and calisthenics come out slightly ahead in this regard, because they help improve balance and coordination and allow your body to move more freely and naturally.
Read more: The Effects of Lifting Weights Every Day
- Harvard Health Publishing: “How and Why to Add Strength Training to Your Exercise Plan”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Seven Tips for a Safe and Successful Strength-Training Program”
- American Council on Exercise: “Nine Things to Know About How the Body Uses Protein to Repair Muscle Tissue”
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans”
- Sports Medicine: “Resistance Training as a Tool for Preventing and Treating Musculoskeletal Disorders”
- International Sports Sciences Association: “Strength Training for Fitness and Weight Loss”
- International Sports Sciences Association: “Lift Weights to Lose Weight”
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: “Resistance Training Is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health”
- International Sports Sciences Association: “Integrating Bodyweight Workouts With Corrective Exercise”
- University of Arizona: “Resistance Training: Health Benefits and Recommendations”
- Mayo Clinic: “Is Body-Weight Training Effective as a Strength Training Exercise?”
- Harvard Health publishing: “Preserve Your Muscle Mass”