Although weight training does have benefits, calisthenics has many of the same benefits with a lower risk of injury and more muscles incorporated at one time. I want to start with mentioning, I have no real problem with weight lifting, I did it for a long time. As a matter of fact, I have a lot of friends who prefer weight training to other forms of fitness. However, calisthenics, or body weight training, is the optimal way to exercise. Before we get into the workouts, we will start with the very long-standing history of body weight training. Calisthenics has been around since the dawn of man. Our early ancestors uses their hands and feet to climb trees to pick fruit and evade predators. Calisthenics is a form of exercise using body weight to achieve fitness. In ancient Greece, the human form was important; there was even the belief that, the better the physique was, the closer to a god you were. Their gyms didn’t have fancy equipment or huge amounts of weight, they had calisthenics. As a matter of fact, an early mention of calisthenics was found in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus from between 450 and 420 BCE. In his writings, he mentions a spy from Xerxes’ army who witnesses the Spartan army practicing calisthenics in the nude before the Battle of Thermopylae. It wasn’t only the Greeks that trained calisthenics, but also people of India with Yoga and the Shaolin monks of China with Kung Fu and body conditioning. In Yoga, you are constantly stretching your muscles and then holding them in isometric poses with no weight. Keeping them in this flexed position can induce muscle growth. In Kung Fu body conditioning, something I have years of experience in, the practitioner uses their own body and the local environment to become fit. This can include crawling up and down stairs on your hands, climbing trees or doing elevated push-ups while a partner hold your feet while they hold a squat. Body weight training has been around since the start of fitness and is still being used today.
Muscle Activation When Comparing Body Weight Vs. Lifting Weights
In exercise your progress comes down to proper muscle activation, so let’s compare results in muscle activation. Push-ups recruit more muscles at one time than the bench press. Why is that? When a push-up is done with proper form, they will engage your all the core muscles, not just your chest, shoulders, and triceps. When the bench press is being used, the bench provides the stability for the core muscles. This means that all muscle in your body other than your chest, shoulders, lats, and triceps will have little activation. The pull-up not only activates the lats, and the rest other upper-back muscles, but also activates the abs more than many other known ab exercises like sit-ups and crunches. When compared to the pull-ups, pull-downs, purposefully remove the core muscle stimulation by having the user in a seated position with their legs held in place by a cushion or a harness. Weight training typically isolates one muscle at a time, so it doesn’t emulate real life situations. To be functionally fit, each exercise should incorporate multiple muscle groups at one time. This is what we do in everyday life. It is clear to see that using your own body weight is the optimal training method to activate multiple muscles at one time.
Another aspect to look at is simplicity of the exercise. Do you need to buy bunch of equipment or need a gym or can you do it anywhere you are? A huge advantage of calisthenics versus weight training is the ability to workout anywhere you are at any time. All you need is space to practice your routing and maybe a pull-up bar or a level stool. I personally like to go to local parks, even more so on nice days. The playgrounds and parks have all the bars and benches you will ever need. As for weight training you may have to get a gym membership or buy a lot of expensive equipment. Another thing to consider is, if you are lifting heavy weight, enough needed to stimulate the muscle growth, you may need a spotter or have to hire a trainer to ensure safety. The worst injury to worry about in a failed push-up is a bruised ego. Also consider, when lifting weights, your possibility of getting injured increases, so if you are new to weight lifting should seek training from a qualified trainer to ensure you have proper form in each lift.
Both calisthenics and weightlifting are both great for strength training, and useful for developing muscles, weight training is a faster means to gain strength. The real question is, is it better? When put to the test, the pull-up came out on top as the better pound-for-pound way to build strength. The pull down, although it is great for the new gym goer, it didn’t offer much in the way of functional strength gain. However, the pull-up will provide an unbiased way to judge your strength-to-weight ratio. You could argue that the pull-up will eventually get easier, where the pull-down becomes more challenging when you just add more weight. Although this holds a truth, you can change the difficulty of a pull-up by advancing to the one-arm pull-up, which is an incredible challenge. Overall the strength gains is a tie. But, it depends on what you consider strength. If pushing as much weight as possible is the goal, there is no better choice than the bench press. While push-ups can help you create greater relative strength, the bench can foster greater absolute strength.
Working in the fitness industry for as many years as I have, I have seen my share of fitness injuries. All the injuries I have seen have been weight lifting related, never calisthenics related. This isn’t to say you will never get injured. With anything you do in the fitness world comes some risk. You can see hundreds of videos online displaying many different fitness related injuries, but let’s not be too hasty to judge. The possibility of injury when weight lifting is far more likely than it is in calisthenics due to bad form when training. People who get injured in training usually do so because they attempted something far outside of their current abilities. In a heavy bench press, poor form can cause shoulder problems such as muscle or tendon tares or other issues particularly in the long term. Push-ups with bad form can also be an issue, but since your body is what creates resistance there won’t be as much strain on the joints. With weighted squats I have witnessed gym members rip their ACL and meniscus, and with lifting too heavy on deadlifts I have seen hamstring tear and bicep tears or even go as far as ripping muscle in the lower back. As I said, it isn’t to say you will never get injured in calisthenics, it is just far less likely than it is with weight training.
Both, calisthenics and weight lifting offer many varieties of exercises you can perform, but there will be a winner in the end. The pull-down machine offers many different handles you can attach to pull giving you various grips and widths, but the pull-up offers even more than you can imagine. There are tournaments dedicated to just showcasing all the pull-up styles out there. Then we have the bench press, this offers very limited variations to work with, from dumbbell chest press to barbell bench press, wide or narrow grip or playing with angle of bench you are on. As for push-up variations, there almost never-ending variations with foot and hand placements. By elevating your hands or feet you change weight load on your arms. You can go wide or narrow with hands and feet or get creative and do push-ups on your knuckles, fingertips or the back of your hand or wrist. You can also focus on one side at a time by doing push-ups on one arm at a time. This will make sure each side of your chest is trained evenly. This will keep you physically and mentally stimulated for years to come.
In conclusion, calisthenics or bodyweight training is the clear winner. Calisthenics has been time tested, as it has been around since the dawn of man, and it still remains in the fitness industry. You can easily gain strength, as you would in weight lifting, while reducing the chance of injury. If that is not enough, you also get the option to leave the gym and take your workout with you everywhere you go, such as the park, living room or even at the bus stop. The options of exercises are next to limitless as well, there are countless push-up, pull-up and squat variations you can do, using the best equipment of all, the human body. All movements can be progressed and regressed by just changing angles or hand and foot position to increase or decrease difficulty and constantly keep you challenged with minimal risk. In the end the most important thing is, you continue to be active, fit, and healthy. Train smart and work within your limits to prevent those possible injuries. Even though there is minimal risk of injury in the world of calisthenics, it is never a bad idea to work with a fitness professional to get new ideas to push you to new levels of fitness. Working with a personal trainer is also a great way to make sure your form is where it needs to be to get the best possible results.
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When it comes to improving your fitness, you have to constantly keep yourself challenged. In weight training, this is done by increasing weight to increase difficulty. With calisthenics, however, it works little differently. Challenging yourself and calisthenics can mean changing the angle, changing the depth of the movement, or looking at different variations of exercises for the same muscle group. Whether you’re lifting weights or doing calisthenics most of us are familiar with dips. When I was starting to increase the difficulty of my dips, I add weights. But taking a step back and taking a better look at the exercise I found that the weights are not necessary. As I progressed I moved from bench dips, to elevated bench dips, to parallel bar dips, the straight bar dips, and eventually Korean dips. Before I would progress from one to the other I made sure I was reaching the maximum depth with proper form to make sure I was maximizing my range of motion. One of the things I love most about calisthenics is the near limitless amount of exercises you can do if you get creative. You can find a video of all these dips here.
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I get a lot of comments on photos and articles that I post claiming that, of course I can do the things that I do because I’ve been fit my entire life. But, I can tell you that is not true. In high school, and my much younger years, I was very active and outdoorsy and constantly exercising, but there was a point in which I fell out of it, and through a good portion of my 20’s I was completely off the fitness bandwagon and started putting on a bit of weight and body fat. I came back onto the fitness scene with studying Taijiquan, and not long after I got into weight training. My primary goal, at first, was to start losing that weight that I had put on. And it was a struggle a lot of ups and downs in my diet anger over not seeing results right away and wanting to give up on more than one occasion. But with a lot of hard work, and a few years of busting my butt, I lost about 20 pounds. At this time I was doing a combination of weight training as well as calisthenics. And when I was doing this calisthenic training I will tell you firsthand that I could not do one single pull-up. After continuing to work for a few more years those pull-ups started coming along as well as hitting those crazy numbers on push-ups. It is honestly been within the last four years that I’ve become more calisthenic focused and it’s not because I dislike lifting weights. It was because I found calisthenics just work better for me. Now looking at some of the crazier calisthenic moves that I’ve been doing I want you to keep in mind that for a lot of those I train for well over six months just to do it for the first time and in some cases it took close to a year just to get it for the first time. So what I’m really trying to say is that this was all achieved through hard work not something that I have always been able to do I’m still striving for new goals just like everyone else, I even continue to watch my eating habits. If you have a goal you need to push for it and there will be ups and downs, but there are people out there that are more than willing to support you towards your goal.
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So after a lot of uncertainty, I decided to bite the bullet and attend the first Boston PCC (Progressive Calisthenics Certification). I will admit I had no idea what to expect out of this 3 day, 8 hour a day workshop. First day in Boston I, of course, had to see the sites, because, hell! There is a ton of history here!
Day One of the PCC was a lot of push-ups and pull-up progressions showing how to advance from a beginner to advanced. I even managed to get my first one arm pull-up! After lunch we moved on to human flag progressions. Yup, you read that correctly. So, it was amazing to see how strong everyone was through all those progressions. We finished the day working on the mighty muscle-up. Yeah, I have been doing them for a while, but they showed me how to make them even more challenging by only using my wrists and going slow.
Even better was seeing all the other people getting their first one! That night I got to go out with some friends from high school that I have not seen in almost 19 years. We had a blast! It was like nothing had changed.
Day Two was all legs and core work. There were a ton of first time moves for everyone! Some getting their first pistol or shrimp squats some getting their first front or back levers, for me, I got my first Meathook and Reverse Grip Back Lever! Even finished the day with a bad ass photo with Al and Danny Kavadlo.
Day Three I got to have breakfast with Danny and Al and just shoot the breeze. In class we went a bit lighter focusing on skills like hand balancing. I was impressed to see everyone’s skill level. They were some truly impressive people! After lunch the pressure was on… we had to test for our certification. When my name came up, my heart jumped up into my throat despite practicing this test over and over for the last few months. But I nailed it! After all was said and done, there were hugs all around. We were all like family in the end. I truly hope to stay in touch with my new calisthenics family.
Now, as the only Dragon Door certified calisthenics trainer in Michigan, I can’t wait to pass on all I have learned this long vacation!
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