Bodybuilding vs Calisthenics: Fitness Modalities Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 28, 2022

It’s an age old debate; calisthenics and bodybuilding, which is the better training discipline?

In truth, both bodybuilding and calisthenics are highly effective when used in the right context - and it is not as simple an answer as one discipline being unanimously better than the other.

The main point of distinction between bodybuilding and calisthenics is in the source of resistance utilized by either discipline, which will in turn affect the end results and intensity of their workouts. Bodybuilding makes use of various weights and exercise machines, while calisthenics uses only the exerciser’s own bodyweight instead.

What is Bodybuilding Training?

Bodybuilding training is a form of resistance training meant to induce muscular hypertrophy through the use of external resistance, usually with a particular focus on increasing the mass of the lifter’s muscle groups.

bodybuilder

Bodybuilding training will often make use of a variety of different exercise equipment and types of movements, mixing heavy compound work with high volume isolation exercises so as to maximize training stimulus of the muscles.

In most bodybuilding workouts, exercisers will target their most visible muscle groups, improving their physical appearance. These muscles are usually the deltoids, pectorals, those of the arms and the abdominal muscles.

Pros and Cons of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding presents several advantages to those that subscribe to its performance, with the greatest being its unparalleled speed at inducing muscular hypertrophy.

There are few types of training disciplines as effective at building mass as bodybuilding, and if such development is a major goal for you - then bodybuilding is likely the best choice.

On top of being great for developing muscle mass, bodybuilding is also quite compatible with the goals of those seeking weight loss, as its high volume sets are capable of burning quite a few calories.

Unfortunately, due to the structure of most bodybuilding training programs, exercisers will find that they are spending a lot of time in the gym, and that they will generally need quite a bit of equipment in order to maximize their results.

Furthermore, other disadvantages of bodybuilding workouts include excessive isolation exercise volume, incompatibility with a history of injuries and a lack of carry-over to other athletic activities.

Average Bodybuilding Workout

The majority of bodybuilding workouts will split each workout session by the muscle groups it is targeting, such as in the famous upper/lower bodybuilding program that trains the upper body separate from the lower body.

These workout sessions will usually begin with one or two heavy free weight compound movements, followed by accessory work and isolation exercises of lesser resistance, but higher volume.

Among the most common bodybuilding exercises are the barbell back squat, the barbell bench press, the bicep curl and the dumbbell chest fly.

What is Calisthenics?

Calisthenics are a form of resistance training that solely utilize the exerciser’s own bodyweight as a source of resistance. This usually means that no additional equipment is required, and that calisthenics can be performed practically anywhere and by anyone with sufficient enough mobility.

calisthenics small chest muscles

Unlike in bodybuilding where linear progression is derived from increasing the weight or repetition volume of an exercise, calisthenics instead has progression exercises meant to up the intensity of the movement by altering the leverages placed on the exerciser’s body.

This equates to calisthenics athletes requiring not only impressive physical strength, but also muscular endurance, good mobility and excellent bodily coordination.

Pros and Cons of Calisthenics

The main benefit of calisthenics is in its accessibility, with practically anyone being able to perform calisthenics exercises anywhere they wish. Basic calisthenics exercises like push ups, pull-ups or dips are all readily available and relatively easy enough to learn.

Unfortunately, this accessibility and simplicity also means it is somewhat harder to form a calisthenics program with any semblance of progression - especially at the earlier stages, where an individual may not be capable of performing a push up or a pull-up.

In addition to this, calisthenics are generally known for producing slower muscular developments than bodybuilding or other resistance training methods. 

This is simply a consequence of the type of training stimulus produced by bodyweight exercises, and is considered to be the greatest drawback of calisthenics exercises.

Furthermore, calisthenics also disallows isolation of certain muscle groups due to the compound nature of most bodyweight exercises, thereby making it quite difficult to focus on a specific part of the body during training.

Average Calisthenics Workout

Due to the lack of isolation exercises in calisthenics, the structure of the average calisthenic workout is somewhat different from bodybuilding. Usually, it is the most intense exercises that are performed first, allowing the exerciser to face each repetition with fresh muscles.

Then, once the body has been sufficiently fatigued enough, calisthenics exercisers will usually switch to less intense movements meant to maximize any training stimulus that may still be accrued from the workout session.

These sessions are usually quite quick and simplistic in their nature, with a key characteristic of calisthenics workouts being that they may even be performed in an ordinary outdoor park or a bedroom.

The most common calisthenics exercises are the bodyweight dip, the pull-up, the push up and the bodyweight squat - all moderately intense compound movements.

Bodybuilding or Calisthenics for Muscle Mass?

In terms of raw muscle mass development, bodybuilding is superior to calisthenics across the board. 

Not only does bodybuilding training produce faster results, but it does so in a manner that is more easily controlled, allowing exercisers to target lagging body parts or to accentuate certain muscle groups.

These benefits are not otherwise present in calisthenics, of which is also considerably slower in terms of inducing muscle protein synthesis.

Of course, the impressive rate of muscular development offered by bodybuilding does come with its own set of trade-offs, and it is likely that individuals will not benefit from the same advantages as calisthenics could give, despite the greater muscular hypertrophy of bodybuilding.

As such, one possible workaround to this issue is to combine both bodybuilding and calisthenics together, forming a more cohesive athletic training program.

Bodybuilding or Calisthenics for Athletes and Sports?

As was previously mentioned, calisthenics easily beats out bodybuilding in terms of general athleticism and sports-specific skill carryover. 

Despite the fact that bodybuilding creates a strong and large body with which to use, it is unlikely that the same exerciser will have developed such skills like proprioception, motor skill specificity or isometric muscular endurance. Skills that, fortunately, are easily developed through proper calisthenics training.

As such, unless you are an athlete of a specific sport that uses free weight exercises (like powerlifting), it is better to utilize calisthenics training to improve your athletic skills.

Bodybuilding or Calisthenics for Weight Loss?

For those seeking to burn fat and lose weight, it can be said that both bodybuilding and calisthenics are of equal effectiveness.

While bodybuilding is doubtless the better tool for bodily recomposition, the higher amount of volume required by calisthenics workouts can easily replicate the amount of calories burned in a good bodybuilding workout session. 

As such, for individuals seeking an anaerobic method of losing weight, calisthenics is the better choice - simply due to the fact that it does not require a gym membership, or expensive workout equipment. 

However, if you do indeed have access to these things, then performing bodybuilding workouts for weight loss is also perfectly acceptable.

Combining Bodybuilding and Calisthenics

Due to the fact that bodybuilding and calisthenics complement each other when performed within the same training program, recent years have seen such a meshing of training disciplines in practically any effective workout program.

It’s likely you’ve seen workouts pairing pull-ups with barbell rows, or dips with the bench press - two of the most frequently encountered examples of bodybuilding and calisthenics being combined to produce a more well-rounded athlete.

Though you’ve likely come to this article wishing on bodybuilding or calisthenics, it is our advice that you instead choose both, and learn how to mix the two different training styles so as to maximize your fitness, muscle mass and performance.

In Summary

And there you have it, the main distinctions between bodybuilding and calisthenics. Though, as we’ve said, it is far better to combine the two instead of picking one or the other.

If you still wish to choose one discipline alone, we advise that you pick the one that is most inline with your current lifestyle and fitness goals. 

For developing muscle mass, bodybuilding. For athletic skills and impressive bodyweight feats, calisthenics.

So long as linear progression is being achieved and you are adhering to correct rest and diet methods, results will undoubtedly come from either training discipline.

References
1. TSOURLOU, THOMAI1; GERODIMOS, VASILIS1; KELLIS, ELEFTHERIOS2; STAVROPOULOS, NIKOS1; KELLIS, SPIROS1. The Effects of a Calisthenics and a Light Strength Training Program on Lower Limb Muscle Strength and Body Composition in Mature Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2003 - Volume 17 - Issue 3 - p 590-598

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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