Weighted Calisthenics: Better than Conventional?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 2, 2022

Among the various modalities of athletic and muscular training, few are as commonplace or effective as calisthenics; a branch of functional strength training that makes as minimal use of equipment as possible, solely relying on the exerciser’s own bodyweight as a source of resistance.

With this definition, the very term weighted calisthenics can seem self-contradictory - if calisthenics are a manner of training solely with the use of the exerciser’s bodyweight, why is further weight added?

In truth, weighted calisthenics exercises are in fact just calisthenic exercises with the addition of further resistance - usually added once the exerciser’s body has advanced beyond the point of receiving any benefit from simple bodyweight resistance.

Though many exercisers see weighted calisthenics as an off-shoot or separate training modality to conventional calisthenics, it is actually far more accurate to depict it as a progression from simple bodyweight calisthenics exercises, as the addition of weight to these movements is meant to act as a method of progressive overload rather than as a new exercise altogether.

What is Weighted Calisthenics?

Weighted calisthenics is a progression of bodyweight calisthenics wherein the exerciser performs basic bodyweight resistance training exercises with the addition of small amounts of weight meant to induce or retain progressive muscular overload.

dumbbell lunges

This, in turn, allows calisthenic athletes or similar exercisers to continue their rate and intensity of training progression without the need to resort to more advanced methods of increasing exercise difficulty, such as performing more complex exercise progressions or switching to time-consumingly slow repetitions for each set.

Not every calisthenic exercise is capable of becoming a weighted calisthenic exercise, however, and there are several disadvantages with the performance of weighted calisthenics that other approaches to continued bodyweight training do not share.

How do Weighted Calisthenic Exercises Differ from Conventional Calisthenics?

For the most part, the sole difference between weighted calisthenic exercises and conventional calisthenic exercises is the obvious fact that weighted calisthenic exercises feature additional weight being added to the total resistance of the movement - weight meant to build upon the resistance already presented by the exerciser’s own bodyweight.

Several smaller differences may be found when examining the technicalities of weighted calisthenic exercises, such as the fact that conventional calisthenic isolation exercises are rarely compatible with the exercise equipment used in weighted calisthenics, or that weighted calisthenic exercises are not generally programmed at the volume ranges that their body weight counterparts are.

Is Weighted Calisthenics Better than Weightlifting?

In terms of raw training stimulus and muscular activation potential, weighted calisthenics may be seen as somewhat of a bridge between weightlifting and standard body weight calisthenics - though this does not answer the question of whether weighted calisthenics is better than weightlifting itself.

In truth, the two are somewhat incomparable except in the larger scheme of training modalities, with weighted calisthenics being seen as a more functional and transferable method of developing strength or sports-specific ability than weightlifting.

Conversely, weightlifting is also capable of developing raw strength and achieving greater specificity of muscular activation better than what weighted calisthenics can achieve - making it more appropriate for certain types of athletes or training goals.

Nevertheless, for former bodyweight calisthenic exercisers deciding on whether to switch to weightlifting or continue on to weighted calisthenics training, it is weighted calisthenics that will serve them better, for the sole reason that they are more familiar and thus will perform better with such movements, both psychologically and physiologically.

Can All Calisthenic Exercises be Weighted?

As was mentioned earlier in this article, not all conventional calisthenic exercises can be converted to a weighted calisthenics exercise, either because additional resistance is not feasibly needed or that the exercise is incompatible with the sort of equipment weighted calisthenics use to induce further resistance.

These are primarily isolation exercises that would cause supra-maximal muscle loading if even small increases in resistance are added, or movements that place the exerciser at risk of injury if weighted calisthenic equipment are brought into play.

For the most part, it is large and dynamic calisthenic compound exercises that see the biggest benefit from the addition of weights, such as pull ups, dips or bodyweight squats - all exercises that recruit numerous large muscle groups and have strictly outlined form cues, improving safety and allowing the exerciser to take greater benefit from the addition of more resistance.

What Weights or Equipment are Used for Weighted Calisthenics?

Weighted calisthenics do not in fact make use of the same sort of exercise equipment that other types of resistance training do, with such implements like barbells, resistance machines or even dumbbells (in most situations) being replaced with other forms of equipment instead.

These are wearable equipment that may have their total weight load changed by subtracting or adding weight plates and weight blocks from it, leaving the exerciser’s hands free to grip a pull up bar or set of dip bars as needed.

Weighted Vests

Weighted vests, as their name suggests, are one form of wearable resistance equipment that allow a calisthenics athlete to add further resistance to their exercise with the main source of said resistance being centered around the exerciser’s torso.

weighted push up

The total weight of these vests are usually altered by adding and removing weight blocks from the various secured pockets around the vest, though certain brands employ more technologically advanced methods that make doing so more convenient and safer.

The fact that weighted vests place the additional resistance in direct contact with the exerciser’s torso reduces the need for stabilizer muscle group co-activation and allows the exerciser to perform certain movements that would be otherwise hampered if the source of resistance were at their hands or feet.

Ankle and Wrist Weights

Much like weighted vests, ankle and wrist weights are a form of wearable resistance equipment that add additional resistance to a calisthenic exercise through the use of removable weight blocks or plates.

The difference between these weighted calisthenic items and weighted vests are in the total weight capacity of each, as well as the fact that the training stimulus and manner of weight loading is different as the weights are attached at the distal points of the exerciser’s limbs instead.

ankle and wrist weights

This will create not only more difficulty in performing large or unstable movements, but also place greater strain on different muscle groups than if the source of resistance were attached to the torso of the exerciser instead.

However, due to the size and location of attachment of wrist or ankle weights, the total amount of weight they can hold - and, by extension, the total weight that the exerciser will add to their movement - is severely limited, making the usage of a weight belt or a weighted vest better for compound exercises that require large amounts of additional weight.

Chains and Belts

Weight belts and the subsequent chains that are attached to them are another form of weighted calisthenic equipment that hang off the exerciser’s body as a way to affix weighted objects to it - most often in the form of a weight plate or cable machine pulley carabine.

Usually, weight belts are wrapped around the waist or hips with the chain of the belt looped through the hole of a weight plate so as to provide a source of additional resistance, albeit an unstable one.

chain sumo squat

This presents several advantages, such as shifting the source of resistance away from the exerciser’s body and thereby increasing stabilizer muscle recruitment, reducing the bulkiness of the equipment and allowing a downward angle of resistance to be achieved.

In particular, weight belts see the most usage during pull ups and dips exercises, as both of these exercises feature enough space and the need for a gravity-assisted object of resistance in order to increase the intensity of the movement.

As a benefit of the loading method used in weight belts, the exerciser is capable of loading the equipment with far more weight than what would be possible with weighted vests or ankle and hand weights - allowing it to carry as many weight plates as can be strung through with the belt’s chain.

What are the Advantages of Weighted Calisthenics?

Quite a number of advantages are presented by the performance of weighted calisthenics, though the majority of such advantages are also applicable in the case of conventional calisthenics and as such do not require coverage within the context of this article.

Instead, it is better to focus on the advantages of performing weighted calisthenics as a progressive training modality from unweighted calisthenic exercises; of which primarily revolve around the greater intensity of the exercises performed.

Weighted calisthenics will often result in greater muscular hypertrophy, neurological strength adaptations and cardiovascular adaptations than its unweighted counterpart exercises - not only due to the higher intensity of weighted calisthenics, but also because of alterations made in the mechanics of such exercises as the exerciser must compensate for an object of resistance that is not their own bodyweight.

This is furthered by the additional benefit of weighted calisthenics directly carrying over to improved performance of conventional calisthenic exercises, such as in the case of an exerciser being able to perform far more pull up repetitions unweighted after they have spent some time training with weighted pull ups instead.

Though much of this can be explained by simple muscular hypertrophy, movement-specific performance improvements are well-established in academic fitness literature, and evidence supports the theory that performing an exercise at a greater intensity can improve performance of the same exercise at lower intensity, even without significant muscular development taking place.

In Conclusion

This article only touches the surface of what weighted calisthenics is and how it can help an exerciser in achieving their goals, as - like any other training modality - there are aspects and factors involved in weighted calisthenics that make it difficult to fully grasp without diving deeply into the academics of exercise and physiology.

Despite this, the reader should come away with the understanding that though weighted calisthenics is doubtless an excellent method of resistance training; it is not a catch-all modality, and will not always be the correct fit for every circumstance or training program.

If you are a calisthenics athlete finding that conventional unweighted exercises develop your musculature too slowly, or wish to significantly increase the intensity of said exercises, weighted calisthenics are the ideal solution.

References

1. TSOURLOU, THOMAI; GERODIMOS, VASILIS; KELLIS, ELEFTHERIOS; STAVROPOULOS, NIKOS; KELLIS, SPIROS The Effects of a Calisthenics and or a Light Strength Training Program on Lower Limb Muscle Group Strength and Body Tissue Composition in Mature Women, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2003 - Volume 1 7 - Issue 3 - p 590 - 598

2. McCaw, Steven T., and Jeffrey J. Friday. "A comparison of muscle activity between a free weight and a machine weight bench press." Journal of  Strength and Cond Res Volume 8, no. 4 (1994): 259-264.

3. Gist, Nicholas & Freese, Eric & Ryan, Terence & Cureton, Kirk. (2015). Effects of Low Volume and High Intensity Whole Body Calisthenics on Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps Cadets. Military medicine. 180. 492-498. 10.7205/MILMED-D-14-00277.

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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