Weights vs Calisthenics? A New Perspective

“Do not give them fish. Teach them how to fish”. Old Proverb.

I want to explain to you below. Some basic principles or mechanical laws on resistance exercise.

Whether that concerns calisthenics or weighted load bearing resistance exercise.

If you take a little time to understand the fundamentals of resistance exercise.

You will not only learn something new. But you will also be able to differentiate between exercises.

You will be able to make your own exercises and increase your efficiency and thus your gains.

Understanding the Mechanics Behind Muscle

Weights vs calisthenics, which is better?

Allow me to save you some suspense.

For the reasons below.

Weights are far superior to calisthenics alone. Click To Tweet

This is not a biased judgment from a person who primarily uses loaded resistance.

But rather an objective analysis of the mechanics involved.

Calisthenics is still a perfectly efficient modality of exercise.

Indeed, it may represent a better option for you and your own circumstances.

There are inherent benefits to calisthenics. That are not present with conventional loaded exercises.

The point is you must understand all the factual pros and cons and choose for yourself.

To understand resistance exercise fully.

You first need to understand some of the basic mechanics involved.

Some of these concepts and their names may seem confusing.

But believe me when I say they are very simple to grasp and essential to understanding whether you choose either modality or both.

There are however very subtle but powerful benefits to calisthenics.

These benefits are often overlooked by some, so-called, ‘experts’.

The Laws of Resistance Exercise

These are some of the most basic laws of resistance that if abided by increase the efficiency of any exercise.

This is not an exhaustive list of the mechanical principles within exercise.

Just a few of my favorite.

My aim is to introduce you to some new concepts, spark your curiosity and get you asking more questions.

 

1. Rotary Resistance

Image displaying vintage nautilus mahcine and cam profile next to one another. Message on image says: "a true apradox. The future of exercise in black & white".

Rotary resistance is the ideal form of resistance for a muscle because limbs rotate around a central axis, a joint.

Even mono articulated (muscles that only cross one joint) muscles of the torso for example.

Contract over a short range with no limbs involvement.

The muscles still contract in a non-linear (not straight) rotary path.

The below images show how the angle of rotation changes as a muscle contracts.

The most beneficial form of resistance would be a rotational form of resistance.

This rotary resistance can only come in the form of a machine or manual resistance from a partner.

The only downside of rotary resistance is that you only train one joint at a time which means it eliminates compound exercises by default.

 

2. Direct Resistance

Direct resistance is a resistance that we can impose directly to the muscle we wish to work.

For example, a leg extension machine is a direct form of resistance.

It allows the thigh muscles to work in isolation.

By placing the pad against the lower leg you eliminate the need for other muscles to partake in the exercise.

For example, a squat would require the lower back, glutes, calves, and hamstring to partake.

You would be introducing a lot more muscle mass at the expense of introducing more weak links into the chain.

A pull-down or chin up is also a non-direct exercise.

You must work through your forearm muscles to reach the larger latissimus muscles. (The strongest link in the chain).

There are multiple weak links involved in the chain.

These will vary depending on the individual’s strength profile.

For example, in one person grip may be the weak link.

In another, it may be the rotator cuff muscles.

In another, it may be the biceps.

As you will note direct resistance also concerns ‘isolation exercises’ or single joint exercises.

It does not necessarily mean that these exercises work a smaller amount of muscle mass.

Actually, the ingenious design of some machines have really changed the game. For example:

3. Automatically Variable Resistance

This is my favorite and an especially powerful mechanical law.

Automatic variable resistance or “cam effect” as Arthur Jones named it.

Is the process of matching a muscles natural strength curve to that of the exercise.

In any free weight exercise, standard pulley and cheap exercise machines. The resistance is non-variable.

That means that a 10kg dumbbell remains a 10 kg dumbell throughout the entire exercise.

But your muscles natural strength curve (due to levers and angle of maximal contraction) changes from point to point.

You have all experienced this if you are doing a press up touching your chest to the floor is far harder than finishing at the top.

Doing a barbell curl or underhand pull-up.

What’s the strongest part of the movement? Think about it.

The halfway point when your elbows are at 90 degrees is the strongest portion and thus the easiest.

People have clocked onto this and have incorporated bands and chains which are a form of variable resistance.

They allow the exercise to get progressively harder as the band stretches.

This is a great add on to certain exercises and introduces an element of variability into the resistance.

But nothing can introduce and automate resistance like a machine with a ‘cam’.

image showing the mechanics of a cam profile

A cam profile is shaped to match the natural and diverse strength curve of an individual muscle. It is not perfect but represents the greatest advancement in exercise of our time.*

If you ever have the chance to use a Medx machines, the bicep machine for example. I truly recommend you try it out.

It not only feels completely different to a free weight, the pump you get in 1 set. I doubt you could get in 6 sets with a free weight.

* Actually there now is a machine by ARx fit which is computerized and thus offers a step forward into the future of exercise.

 

4. Full EROM (effective range of motion) Resistance

A full and effective range of motion. Means that the muscle can encounter resistance throughout the entire effective range of motion.

A dumbbell lateral (side) raise for the shoulder.

Only provides resistance from about the midway point to shoulder height.

Meaning the resistance is active and the muscle is under tension. But for only roughly 55 degrees out of a possible 100 degrees. Approximately.

Tension is not only good for creating muscle and strength. But it also allows all the benefits of flexibility in a muscle.

Unless a muscle is actively stretching and contracting through an entire range of motion. These flexibility benefits will not become realized.

Let’s use a calisthenics example.

Think about this one.

If you perform a press up when you touch your chest to the floor you are not really stretching the chest to any meaningful degree.

But if you introduce some parallel bars and pressed on these you could get an extra 1-2 inch stretch. This would make a great difference.

 

5. Eccentric (Negative) Work Potential

Negative work or the lowering portion of an exercise is exceptionally important. Studies have looked at the eccentric potion in depth.

The negative phase is present in the majority of exercises. Regardless of body weight (calisthenics) or loaded resistance exercise.

However, it is worth noting. That in the eccentric portion of an exercise we are much stronger than the lifting.

It is worth understanding this.

You may want to emphasize this position by adding weight to the lowering phase and/or training negative only with more load.

If you are not utilizing weights then you will be missing out on accentuated negative only work.

 

6. Concentric (Positive) Work Potential

Concentric work is available in every exercise I can think of.

It’s important.

That’s all I can say on this one.

 

7. Resistance in the Fully Contracted Position

Allow me to quote Arthur Jones:

“Thus, in order to involve 100% of the fibers in a particular movement, two conditions are prerequisites; the muscle (and its related body part) must be in a position of full contraction – and a load must be imposed in that position that is heavy enough to require the work of all of the individual fibers”.

If you can get resistance in the fully contracted position you will notice it straight away.

You will also be halfway to maximally stimulating a muscle.

When I select exercises specifically for resistance in the fully contracted position.

I can engage the muscle far more effectively and the pump is far more aggressive.

Some studies have shown the benefits of greater mind-muscle connection.

 

Advantages of Calisthenics Training.

So now let’s look at the pros and cons of each modality.

If I have missed anything either objective or subjective let me know in the comments.

I’m interested in your opinion and value any personal benefits that you have experienced.

1. Low Cost

It’s basically free or dirt cheap.

If you do decide to add some resistance based methods into the mix. Like weight belts, bands etc. They’re also cheap.

 

2. Form Must be Mastered in Order to Progress Exercises

This is my favorite one.

You do not have the luxury of racks of dumbbells, plates, and machines.

If you wish to progress you must learn how to make the exercises harder.

We do this by perfecting the form. Studying the mechanics of the exercise.

Understanding where the path of most resistance is.

Off-course there are people out there who will still just count reps.

Good luck to them.

bodybuilder pushing huge rock up a mountains

 

3. Excellent for Stimulating Smaller Ancillary Muscles

No question, calisthenic exercises especially some of the more different and crazy ones.

Stimulate a lot of muscle mass and if you can do them. You will be conditioning the whole body for sure.

 

4. Excellent Rep Ranges for Both Tensile Strength and Metabolic Conditioning.

A subtle but important point. Depending off-course on your starting strength.

Once you are performing double digits on exercises you will be training in what is the ideal rep range.

A rep range that not only increases the tensile strength of the muscle.

But also stimulates hypertrophy and metabolic adaptation.

This combination and rep range is ideal for the average (not competitive lifter).

 

Disadvantages of Calisthenics Training

  • Limitations in exercise selection

The list of possible and essential exercises is much much smaller due to lack of equipment.
To exercise the back you will need some kind of bar set up and/or bands.

 

2. Injuries?

If you have injuries you are kind of screwed due to the above point.

3. Excellent for stimulating smaller ancillary muscles

Huh!? You just said this was a positive?

It can be.

But it can also be a negative.

If I want to grow my Latissimus muscles, the largest muscles of the back.

I do not want to be fatiguing because my weaker rotator cuff muscles or my grip is giving out.

A chain of muscles otherwise called a kinetic chain has a primary, secondary and ancillary muscles.

Generally speaking, the weaker ancillary muscles will fail 1st.

Meaning that a lower level of total intensity is transferred to the primary movers.

Which is backward if you value the concept of “intensity to muscle ratio” (this ratio simply means that the largest muscles should receive proportionately more muscle mass.

So you see it can be viewed as both a pro or a con.

What do you think? Comment at the end.

 

4. Body Fat- Calisthenics Favors those with a Lower Body Fat %

Due to all the exercises in calisthenics requiring using one’s own weight as resistance.

Those with higher levels of body fat percentage will find calisthenics impractical.

Calisthenics favors the individual with low body fat percentage.

Individuals with a body fat off around 10% and below will usually excel at the exercises and find the training enjoyable and rewarding.

Those with a body fat percentage above 10% will find the extra weight hinders measurable progress.

 

5. Accurate Progression Hard to Measure.

Without extra weight to add.

You have to progress calisthenics either by manipulating your body position or extending the time under load (TUL).

If you change the moment arm by changing body position.

You inevitably change the angle of resistance.

You start incorporating different muscle and things start to get messy and hard to measure accurately.

This is fine if you a genetic thoroughbred and the site of bars make your muscles grow.

But for the rest of us mere mortals.

We need to geek out and be in control of all the variables so we can accurately split test variables and fine-tune the results.

 

Pro’s and Con’s Machines & Free Weights

I have explained everything above so you can understand the pros & Cons from a new perspective.

Check out the below comparison tables to see the pros and cons of free weights, machines, and calisthenics.

Exercise Resistance Type Rotary Resistance Direct Resistance Automatically Variable Full EROM Negative Only Resistance in Fully Contracted Position
Calisthenics
Exercise Machines (good ones)
Free-Weights

Advantages: Exercise Machines vs Calisthenics

NOTE: Note exercise machines started off in the ’70s when they were manufactured by Arthur Jones under the brand Nautilus as a genuine replacement to free-weights. Nowadays you will struggle to find a machine anywhere close to the quality of the originals. Unfortunately, we have gone backward. I will write a separate article on how to differentiate between machines so you can decide whether or not they are worth using. For now, I recommend testing the machine exercise against the free-weight version and seeing which one you feel stimulates the muscle more. Keep all the variables the same in each test.

Comparison table:

 

The Takeaway

It’s not a good idea to be too dogmatic when choosing a modality of exercise.

You can try them all out and feel the pros and cons for yourself.

Don’t try them all in the same week or even month.

When you start a training programme don’t keep mixing things up.
You need to keep all the variables the same for at least a month to be able to accurately split the results.

 

Homework

Whatever programme you are doing.

Don’t change anything except the resistance, when needed. Or the total time under tension, when needed.

Take a few tape measurements and a body fat reading.

Then check the results after a month.

Drop a comment below. What type of programme are you currently on or starting?