What’s better, weights or calisthenics?
The quest to win the battle of weights vs calisthenics is an on going argument in some people’s mind. I’m not here to try and persuade you either way because some of it will come down to personal preference.
However what I’m going to do is help explain to you why both might be the same!
The video below is the perfect starting point…
So you wouldn’t have an argument over what dumbbells are better, rubber or metal ones. They are both the same right?
So long as they are both 10kg dumbbells they could be made out of feathers and they’ll be 10kg.
But where does bodyweight training come into this?
Well, if we’ve established and understood that a weight is a weight and it doesn’t matter what material it is made out of, then the same can be applied to our bodyweight.
Take the press up for example. The press up is a ‘bench press’ style pressing movement working primarily the chest and triceps and the resistance is your own bodyweight.
The exact resistance is not your whole bodyweight as you are supported by your legs. But you could work it out with some maths or roughly by placing your hands on some scales whilst in a press up position.
A handstand press up is a simpler explanation. If you are not supported by the wall in a handstand press up and able to do them freely, then you’re effectively doing an overhead press of your whole bodyweight.
So hopefully we’ve established that your bodyweight is a form of weight that your body can use as resistance, just like any other weight such as a dumbbell.
However, you might say, “yeah but my weight is 70kg and I can do a 75kg overhead barbell press, but I can’t do a handstand press up to save my life, not even when my feet are supported against the wall!”
Don’t worry, we’ll get to why the bodyweight variation of a movement like an overhead press is more difficult and why then calisthenics may have more benefits for your training later. But for now I want to focus on the fact that resistance is resistance.
I want to focus first on this because it’s a key point.
It’s easy (hopefully you’re not stuck on the first video) to get our heads around a weight is a weight. 10kg is 10kg regardless of the material. Dumbbell or bodyweight, it’s just a weight.
The body interprets moving a weight as resistance. Just like a weight is a weight. Resistance is resistance.
If enough resistance is needed and used to overcome a weight or movement by the body then the muscles producing the force to overcome that resistance will, in time and under the right conditions, recover and adapt to the demand that’s place on it.
Your body, your brain, your muscles don’t care and they don’t even know what is causing the resistance. All they know is how to produce force to try and overcome it.
So it doesn’t matter if you do bodyweight exercises, use metal weights or even make some dumbbells out of feathers! It’s a weight and it’s all resistance.
What’s most important is how you train, what exercises you choose to do and how many reps, sets and rest intervals you have and how hard you work.
So in summary, reps, sets, rest intervals and how much you put in will determine the amount and type of adaptation you will produce.
Now we’ve establish that, lets go back to our example of the handstand press up vs the overhead press.
Why, when you can overhead press more than your bodyweight do you find the bodyweight equivalent so much harder or even ‘impossible’?
The truth is, it’s going to be a number of reason but one of the main ones will be the balance demand and the fact that you may be disorientated upside down and even potentially scared of falling and banging your head.
But, there are more reasons and they are the main additional benefits you get from calisthenics.
One of the reasons it’s harder is that when you’re gripping the floor and trying to balance it means the sensory feedback to your brain is different to holding the solid and stable bar.
Balancing on your hands requires fine motor skills of the hand and wrist. Even if you take out the balance factor and have your feet supporting on the wall.
It’s still a much less stable position for your shoulders and therefore the muscles that stabilise your shoulders (scapular stabilisers and surrounding muscles) have to work much harder.
Until they can stabilise the shoulder blade and make the brain believe the shoulder is safe and not going to get injured the brain won’t allow you to use all the strength in the deltoids and triceps.
So you might be ‘strong’ enough from a primer move (pectoralis major and triceps) point of view but you don’t have the shoulder stability.
If you’re interested in shoulders, take a look at our blog about calisthenics and high performing shoulders.
Secondly, the chances are when you’re maxing out on your overhead press you’ll be arching your back and making it into more of an incline chest press than a strict overhead press.
It’s not even your fault, you’re probably not even trying to! But, your body will find the easiest way to do anything, the path of least resistance. In an overhead press this means leaning back and getting the chest involved as much as possible.
You might be able to lift more weight but you’re taking the focus off the shoulders (which is the thing you want to be training in the first place with an overhead press) and it’s no good for your back. It’s potentially a sign also that your core is weak and you can’t maintain trunk alignment under load.
Which brings me nicely on to the fact that you have to engage your core and maintain trunk alignment in all calisthenics movements and you can’t cheat with poor technique in a handstand press up or you’ll simply crumple to the ground!
So it forces you to have good technique and a strong core or you simply won’t be successful. You’ll fail!
You can see the effect of all of this easily if you asked someone who was comfortable doing handstand press ups freestanding.
They’d have absolutely no problem repping out some overhead barbell presses at their bodyweight despite the fact they never do any barbell work.
And I promise you they have an awesome core as well! The skills and strength are transferable, but only one way.
So I know which way I’d personally prefer to train… what about you?
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