Calisthenics Vs Weights: Which Builds More Muscle?

Both calisthenics and weight training can stimulate muscle growth. That’s not answering your question, though. Resistance bands, bodybuilding, and powerlifting all stimulate muscle growth. So can cardio. So can flexing your muscles (study).

We’ve helped thousands of people bulk up over the past decade, some using weights, others with pure calisthenics. We’ve seen how their results compare. There’s also research comparing the results people get with calisthenics vs weight training. We can take that into consideration, too.

We don’t have a bias. We don’t sell weights or gymnastic rings. Our brand isn’t built on one approach or the other. We’ve trained both ways. We’re happy to use and recommend whatever gives the best results.

A skinny guy bulking up and becoming muscular, illustrated by Shane Duquette.

The Basics of Calisthenics

Calisthenics uses bodyweight exercises to gain muscle and strength. The idea is to master your body weight using whatever equipment you have. It’s a scrappy approach to building muscle. It works quite well.

The best calisthenics exercises for building muscle are:

  • Push-ups and dips for your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core.
  • Chin-ups and pull-ups for your upper back, lats, biceps, and core.
  • Crunches, V-sits, L-sits, and leg raises for your abs.
  • Split squats, lunges, and pistol squats for your lower body.

Some of the exercises can be done with just your body weight. Others require equipment, such as a pull-up bar, dip bar, gymnastic rings, and parallettes.

You start with easy variations of the exercises, focusing on adding reps every time you repeat a workout. When you get strong enough, you progress to harder variations.

For example, you could start by doing push-ups with your hands raised on a bench. When you can do 20 reps in a row with good technique, switch to doing push-ups from the floor. When you can do 20 of those, raise your feet up on a bench.

Illustration of a man doing push-ups to build muscle.

The Basics of Weight Training

Weight training uses barbells, dumbbells, exercise machines, and cables to stimulate muscle growth. As you grow gradually stronger, you add weight to the exercises. It’s a simple and methodical way of building muscle.

The best weight training exercises for building muscle are:

  • Deadlifts for your hamstrings, hips, and entire back.
  • Squats for your quads, hips, and spinal erectors.
  • Presses for your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
  • Rows for your upper back, lats, and spinal erectors.
  • Biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises for your arms.

You can do all of these exercises with dumbbells or a barbell. Many people use exercise machines and cables, too. Sometimes those machines offer small advantages over the dumbbell or barbell variations.

Because you have control over how much weight you’re lifting, you have more control over the exercise variations you choose and the repetition range you lift in. This makes weight training simpler, less painful, more customizable, and more flexible. However, that doesn’t tell us whether it’s better at stimulating muscle growth.

Illustration of a person lifting weights to build muscle.

Which Produces Better Results?

Both weight training and calisthenics have their own style and methods. Calisthenics is a quest for bodyweight mastery, whereas weight training is a methodical way of progressively overloading your muscles. Which builds more muscle?

The most recent study is by Ogawa and colleagues (study). One group of participants followed a weight training workout program, and the other followed a bodyweight workout program. Both groups gained a similar amount of muscle size, with no statistically significant differences between the two:

Study graph showing that bodyweight training and weight training result in similar amounts of muscle growth in untrained people.

It’s tempting to say the weight training group built more muscle. That probably isn’t the right interpretation. First, the results didn’t reach statistical significance. Second, the bodyweight group lost some fat in their muscles, making their muscles a little smaller. Overall, I think these results are comparable, especially when we consider earlier research.

In an earlier study by Kikuchi and colleagues, the researchers had one group do push-ups and the other do bench presses (study). After 8 weeks, both groups gained a large amount of muscle in their chests and a moderate amount of muscle in the triceps. There were no significant differences in results between the calisthenics workouts and the weight training workouts.

Study comparing the muscle-building results from calisthenics vs weight training.

In fact, you could make a strong argument for the push-up being the better exercise. After all, they do a better job of training your abs and serratus muscles.

  • Your serratus muscles are the big muscles underneath your armpits. During the bench press, your shoulder blades are locked in place. With push-ups, your shoulder blades are free to move. This is great for your shoulders, great for your posture, and great for building muscle.
  • Your abs are trained by push-ups when you hold your torso in a sturdy “plank” position. Again, this is great for your posture, and it’s great for building muscle.
Diagram showing the muscles worked by push-ups.

The same is true when comparing chin-ups against lat pulldowns. They both train our back muscles similarly hard, but chin-ups do a much better job of engaging our abs, resulting in more muscle growth overall.

On that note, crunches, knee raises, and leg raises are fantastic for building bigger abs. Then, as you get stronger, you can progress to more advanced variations, such as L-sit pull-ups. You don’t need weights to build a fearsome 6-pack.

With other exercises, the advantage goes the other way. There aren’t any calisthenics exercises that stimulate as much muscle growth in your lower body as squats. No bodyweight exercise comes close to rivalling the muscle growth you can stimulate with deadlifts.

In an ideal world, you’d have access to both your body and weights, allowing you to do push-ups, chin-ups, squats, and deadlifts, along with a slew of other exercises.

Which Approach is Easier?

One potential issue with calisthenics is that it can be difficult to make bodyweight exercises heavier. If you were lifting weights, you could add a few pounds to your exercises every week, ensuring gradual progressive overload. It’s simple and easy.

With calisthenics, progressive overload gets harder. You can add more reps to your sets, which can be painful. Or you could switch to more advanced variations, which can be complicated. For example, when you switch from raised push-ups to regular push-ups, you’re training your chest at a different angle, stimulating different muscle fibres.

For another example, in a study by Schoenfeld and colleagues, the participants doing high-rep sets (30–40 reps per set) complained of intense pain and would often throw up during the workouts (study). It’s a brutal way to train. If you can only do 10 push-ups and 3 chin-ups, this won’t be an issue for you yet, but it might cause problems one day.

You can solve this issue quite easily by buying a weighted vest, but at that point, it might make more sense to buy a pair of adjustable dumbbells instead.

Illustration of a skinny guy doing bodyweight chin-ups to build muscle.

Calisthenics Athletes Vs Bodybuilders

The best calisthenics athletes build their training routines around bodyweight exercises. That’s the foundation. From there, they add in whatever exercises help them get bigger, stronger, and better at their passion. Almost always, that means adding weights to their workout programs.

The best bodybuilders build their workout programs around big compound exercises. That includes squats and deadlifts. It also includes bodyweight exercises like push-ups, chin-ups, and dips. They want the best results, so they combine both methods together.

Should You Get Weights?

You can start working out right now with whatever you have. If all you have is your body, you can do 3–4 sets of push-ups one day, then go on a 30-minute walk the next. Keep alternating between those two simple workouts, always trying to get more push-ups and more steps than last time. If you wait until your circumstances are perfect, you’ll miss out on the benefits you can get today, and you may find yourself waiting forever.

When you’re ready to take things to the next level, you can buy some wooden gymnastic rings to improve your calisthenics training. You can also buy some adjustable dumbbells so that you can begin weight training. That way, you can do goblet squats, dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, overhead presses, biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises. That will round out your routine, allowing you to build more muscle more easily.

IronMaster and BowFlex are the Ferraris of adjustable dumbbells, but cheaper ones work nearly as well. The main difference is in convenience, not results. Or you could join a gym. Or build a barbell home gym.

The Results of A Combined Approach

We’ve been helping people bulk up for over a decade now. The people using a mix of both calisthenics and weights get the best results. Sometimes, that means training with a pull-up bar and adjustable dumbbells at home. Other times, that means training at a full gym. That’s entirely up to you.

Here are the results one of our members got by combining calisthenics and weight training:

Before and after photo of a Bony to Beastly client using calisthenics and weight training to build muscle.

Personally, I have a barbell home gym with a dip bar, a pull-up bar, and some gymnastic rings, allowing me to do all the best weight training and calisthenics exercises. Mind you, it took me ten years of training to accumulate all of this equipment. You can start with whatever you have.

Here are my personal bulking results, going from 130 to 200 pounds at 6’2:

A before and after showing Shane Duquette's muscle-building results from combining calisthenics and weight training.


Calisthenics are great for building muscle. Push-ups and chin-ups, in particular. They’re two of the best muscle-building exercises, easily outperforming bench presses and lat pulldowns.

For your other muscle groups, weight training is better. Squats and deadlifts are the two best exercises for stimulating overall muscle growth. Biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises are the best exercises for bulking up your arms.

In an ideal world, combine both calisthenics and weight training, getting the best of both. In this world, use whatever you have. Add to it when you can.

Photo showing the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program for Skinny and Skinny-Fat Guys

Alright, that’s it for now. If you want to know the ins and outs of building muscle, we have a free newsletterIf you want a full muscle-building program, including a 5-month workout routine, a bulking diet guide, a gain-easy recipe book, and online coaching, check out our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. It combines both weight training and calisthenics, but we’ll help you build muscle with whatever you have.

Shane Duquette is the founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, each with millions of readers. He's a Certified Conditioning Coach (CCC), has gained seventy pounds, and has over a decade of experience helping more than ten thousand naturally thin people build muscle. He also has a degree in fine arts, but those are inversely correlated with muscle growth.

Marco Walker-Ng is the founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified trainer (PTS) and nutrition coach (PN) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. He has over 15 years of experience helping people gain muscle and strength, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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  1. Al on August 17, 2020 at 2:29 am

    Thanks, Shane. I think this is the most comprehensive stuff I’ve seen on weight training vs bodyweight training. Can you explain this part, though, about chin ups you’ve written:
    He can jump up to the bar (or use a stool) and then lower himself back down, that’s going to put a tremendous amount of mechanical tension on his biceps and upper back through a massive range of motion. Much more than a barbell row would (which has a small range of motion and a bad strength curve).

    Are u saying even a negative chin up builds more strength/muscle than a regular barbell row?

    • Al on August 17, 2020 at 2:51 am

      Sorry for posting again, but there’s another important point. In chin up or dips, we’re basically moving our whole bodyweight. But in negative portion of chin up, it becomes easier to move our bodyweight, so obviously we’re moving less bodyweight, right? Is there a percentage for this? Are we moving only 50% of our bodyweight in negative chin up?

      • Shane Duquette on August 19, 2020 at 5:21 pm

        We’re still lifting the same body weight, it’s just easier to lower a weight than it is to lift it up.

    • Shane Duquette on August 19, 2020 at 5:19 pm

      Hey Al, it’s not really an either or. You can (and should) do both chin-ups and rows. But yes, chin-ups use a much larger range of motion, allowing for a much deeper stretch on most of our upper-back muscles, and thus it’s quite a bit better for building muscle. Comparing better eccentric lifts against worse lifts that have both an eccentric and concentric is a bit trickier, and I’m not sure how that would pan out, but thinking a bit longer term, probably better to build towards chin-ups.

      But again, best to do both 🙂

      For more, we have an article comparing chin-ups versus rows.

      • Al on August 20, 2020 at 10:33 pm

        Thanks so much, Shane. Really appreciate it. Reason I am asking is, currently only able to do 4 chin ups. So wondering if I could conserve energy by eliminating rows and focusing on getting my chin up numbers up. Any tips on improving chin up strength? It’s said negatives help but whenever I do them I find it hard to recover.

        • Shane Duquette on August 21, 2020 at 8:03 am

          I think it’s usually a good idea to use chin-ups as a primary exercise, along with the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and then use rows as a lighter secondary exercise afterwards, along with lifts like the leg press, Romanian deadlifts, biceps curls, triceps extensions, and so on. That way you’re investing your best energy into the bigger lifts, but you’ve still got plenty of exercise variety.

          If you had to pick between doing four 4-rep sets of chin-ups or four sets of rows, I’d pick the chin-ups, but probably better to do two sets of each, in that case. Or four sets of chin-ups on Monday and four sets of rows on Friday.

          But if you want to spend a few months focusing on just the chin-up to get your reps up, yeah, no problem, that’s a great idea 🙂

  2. Al on August 23, 2020 at 12:58 am

    Hey Shane, thanks again, mate. One parallel I noticed, correct me if I am wrong. Suppose a guy can only row or press a certain weight 4 times, that’s most likely heavy and 90% of their one rep max. Now suppose a guy can do chin up only 4 times, that means it’s heavy and 90% of their one rep max. Both cases are identical.

    In weight training, they won’t ask you to do super high volume if you’re lifting heavy, like 90% of one rep max. Wouldn’t the same logic apply in bodyweight training too (in this case, we should do few chin ups because we’re lifting 90% of one rep max)? But the advice is always, do more pull-ups, do more push-ups etc. Isn’t this contradictory, and also wouldn’t this lead to injury sooner or later?

    I am not sure if I am making myself clear, lol.

    • Shane Duquette on September 8, 2020 at 9:11 am

      Hey Al, your point is totally valid, but there are some nuances to it, too.

      If we’re talking about, say, the bench press, then yes, doing a ton of heavy, 4-rep sets, especially if grinding them out to failure, can lead to quite a lot of wear and tear on the joints, and the injury risk could be, likely, higher. That depends on the person, but the logic holds, and that’s true for many different lifts—but not all.

      If we look at lifts like biceps curls, lateral raises, skullcrushers, and face pulls, going heavy like that is generally a bad idea. The lifts are smaller, they involve fewer muscles, they share the stress over fewer joints, and so it usually works much better to lift in higher rep ranges, with 8+ or even 12+ reps per set.

      On the other hand, if we look at front squats, deadlifts, and chin-ups, eh, they seem to be able to handle lower rep ranges fairly well. It’s not that lower rep ranges are better, just that the lifts seem to be well-suited for them. You won’t often hear of people getting injured from doing chin-ups, even if they’re only strong enough to do a single one. In fact, beginners will often jump up to the bar and then lower themselves down as a way to develop the strength to do a full chin-up. That means they’re lifting HEAVIER than their 1-rep max. And even then, problems are very rare.

      A bigger problem with chin-ups is that some people run into wrist and elbow issues from holding a straight chin-up bar. Not everyone’s bone structure suits holding a straight bar. In that case, using gymnastics rings or angled bars can help. But that’s not because of lower rep ranges.

      So, different issues for different lifts. I wouldn’t worry about only being able to do 4 chin-ups 🙂

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