For those that are not familiar with the term, calisthenics is the fancy word for body weight training. And the web has no shortage of people proclaiming the superiority of calisthenics versus what is simply grouped together as “weight training”. Enough brain cycles has been devoted to the purpose of comparing these methods from the perspective of aesthetics. And unfortunately the calisthenics groups uses the big isolated muscle training machines people see at the gym as the short cut they see as all that is wrong with non-body weight training. On this article, I would like to bring your attention instead to view instead from the perspective performance enhancement. After all, not everybody trains just to look good in the mirror. Some people train to be healthy, increase their raw strength, or improve their athletic performance.
Isolated Machine Training
Leg extension machine: gym staple that is a bane to lots of knee patellas.
For the past few decades, most Western European and North American training methods seem to focus mostly on training muscle in isolation (just like bodybuilders) and cardio. This is due in part to the thought that specific muscles have specific function to create movements, size equals strength, the popularity of bodybuilding in the west and the thought that these bodybuilders are the epitome of fitness and strength. Interesting how its proven that bodybuilders are not the strongest people around. This is why every time you go to a big commercial gym, most of the floor space is dedicated to isolated muscle training machines or rows of assorted cardio machines. Interesting how the best NFL defensive linemen usually are not the one that is crushing it on the bench press during NFL combine.
The blog writer doing calisthenics, not much carry over to athletic performance
Born in the kiddie jungle gym and prison yard as a counter to the big commercial gyms with big isolated machines, some people believe that your body is the best machine. They would compare themselves with bodybuilders and claims that body weight training would not only make you look better, but would also increase your balance, speed, mobility, etc. Again, also interesting to see that world class athletes still uses a variety of weights, cables and stretch bands for their strength and conditioning in combination with some form of calisthenics.
Having said that, if you are interested in upping your calisthenics game, you could try your luck with tailor made programs to improve your gains such as here.
A Better Way to Train
First of all, I would like to emphasize here that free weight and cable machines are NOT equal to the big isolated machines (which I will here on refer to simply as “weight machines”). Main difference being that you can still plant your feet on the ground and train athletic movement patterns in all three dimensions with free weights and cable machines.
If your goal is muscle hypertrophy (big muscular look) , then by all means, I agree that the big machines offers the easiest progression (just add more weight) and safest training method for a newbie. If you want to save $$$ on gym fees, or you want to be “different”, then by all means, calisthenics are for you. However, if you are a rehab patient or training for performance (stronger or faster), you definitely need to train with a better method.
If a client walks in on my front door complaining about knee or low back pain, after finishing some movement assessments, the first few sessions would most probably involve body weight exercises with proper cues to ensure proper movement patterns. You can check on some of the training I typically recommend on back mechanics. As a client progress, there will be time where some weight training will be beneficial. Training proper deadlift and single leg romanian deadlift mechanics for example, is highly transferable to everyday life as it trains clients how to bend down and pick up objects in the most spine and knee sparing way. And this simply cannot be imitated by either body weight exercise or isolated weight machines.
And although the pushup and its variations are excellent pushing exercise that combines the abdominal wall, a competitive athlete will need the challenge only squats and single leg lunges with a loaded bar can provide. This kind of challenge to the lower body simply cannot be replicated with sufficient difficulty with pistol and skater squats (unless the athlete is holding a free weight in the process, hence no longer qualifies as calisthenics in the strictest term).
Last but not least, although the use of some weight machines carries over the long run increase the risks of joints damage (knee extension, and ab crunch machine to name a few), calisthenics also have its risks. There’s a reason why the number of gymnasts suffering spondylolisthesis (a specific back injury) and shoulder pain are much higher than the average population. Hence, some forms of calisthenics are applicable to rehab patients and others for athletes, some forms of calisthenics are simply useless unless you are either a gymnasts or trying to show off.
Every form of strength training have its time and place. Some more justified than others. If you are already experiencing some sort of joint or low back pain, I would highly recommend you find a competent, above average trainer to ensure that you would be on your way towards being pain free. If you train to be stronger, faster or more explosive, then you must train the movement pattern you actually use and load it properly. In short, you should train with a purpose, not train for the sake of training. Proper training progressions and programming can be seen in more detail on Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Weight machines will not give you this and neither would static calisthenic poses. For the rest of you, getting of the couch and doing some exercise will bring more benefit than risk.