Published: Feb 18th 2020
So you want a solid, all-around workout program, and have (for one reason or another) ruled out weightlifting? Among the more popular options, two tend to stand out: calisthenics (or bodyweight workouts), and Crossfit. At first glance, they may look similar. But actually, they are marked by significant differences in approach, philosophy, and results.
In one corner we have a millennia-old, tried and true school of fitness, tinkered with and perfected over time (and still evolving). In the other, a newer method of training that has gained immense popularity in recent years, mostly due to its ability to burn away fat at a rapid pace, as well as the overall great bang for your buck, timewise.
Today we are going to compare the two, first by diving into the nuts and bolts of both approaches, then by analyzing their respective strengths and weaknesses. Of course, since different people have different fitness goals, we will not be declaring an overall winner, but will judge an approach based on its viability for attaining a particular result. But first, a little bit about both training methods.
One of the oldest definitions of calisthenics describes it as the art of using one’s bodyweight as resistance in order to develop physique. The name is a combination of the ancient Greek words kallos (meaning “beauty” or “beautiful”) and stenos (meaning “strength”). Thus, it is Man’s oldest method of attaining a beautiful and strong body. Being such an old discipline, calisthenics offers a wide range of diverse exercises fit for more or less any goal. Not all of them are the best (and some are barely even viable), but chances are, if you want something done, calisthenics can at the very least help you get closer.
As an additional upside to the tried-and-true nature of the approach, when performed correctly, these exercises have a very low chance of you injuring yourself. Following a decent warm-up, you can really push it to the limit. Calisthenics moves are performed rhythmically, often slowly, and with minimal to no equipment. They are well-defined, precise, and often employ a wide range of muscles, making them compound moves. This is both an upside and a downside but considering that Crossfit uses a lot of compound moves as well, it will not be relevant for this comparison.
The point is, calisthenics is great at simultaneously improving strength, overall fitness, and flexibility, and is at the very least decent at everything else. But it does have its share of problems, the first one being how difficult it becomes to increase resistance after hitting a certain plateau. Given that you only weigh so much, things can get weird once you start mixing it up with angles and levers in order to get more mileage out of a move you’ve fully mastered. Also, while nothing prevents you from mixing in various aerobic exercises with your calisthenics workout regime, calisthenics itself will do barely hold a candle to said aerobics when it comes to increasing stamina and cardiovascular health.
Crossfit is a piecemeal workout program that incorporates elements from weightlifting, plyometrics, powerlifting, gymnastics, calisthenics and a lot of others. Constant variety is the name of the game. What binds all these elements together is an almost permanent state of high intensity; a trait it shares with the more weight loss oriented HIIT programs.
It is not as much of a collection of exercises as a specific workout routine. Unlike calisthenics (which lets you develop your own exercise program, or use someone else’s), Crossfit is a specific, pre-determined workout program that you need to follow. If you modify it, then you’re not exactly doing Crossfit, but rather your own customized workout regime that you’ve based on Crossfit.
The theory (and practice) goes like this: you have a daily workout, which you are to complete as quickly as possible. Weights and other aids are sometimes used, at other times not. A typical session includes a warm-up, the meat of the training session (typically the part where you work on a particular skill), and the high-intensity workout of the day, which is when most of the fat-burning comes in. This can lead to a very high and very quick improvement in overall physical fitness, which is one of the main reasons behind the popularity of the approach. Unfortunately, this focus on speed tends to neglect proper form, which can result in injury.
In fact, the ease at which you can injure yourself when starting out with Crossfit is often considered one of its greatest downsides. Additionally, this lack of focus on technique makes it easy to “cheat” with more difficult moves, making Crossfit a somewhat sub-optimal choice when it comes to building muscle and gaining strength.
Now that that’s over and done with, let’s start comparing the two!
Neither calisthenics nor Crossfit has a particularly high entry barrier. However, since calisthenics is more of a general idea, all it really requires of you is your body. You can exercise anywhere, at any time, and at any starting intensity.
Crossfit in comparison, at least to start with, demands you to invest in either a local course (which can be pricy) or follow a bunch of premade workout videos (not recommended until you know what you are doing).
So in terms of accessibility, calisthenics is the clear winner.
Bonus tip: A good compromise between calisthenics and CrossFit is suspension training, or training using a TRX go. You can do HIIT and calisthenics exercises- wherever you want.
Possibly the toughest question to answer here. Crossfit’s focus on speed instead of form deprives it of what may, in fact, be the most important variable for strength and muscle gain: slow reps. However, the fact that it incorporates weights along with cardio does give it an edge in terms of quick gains. In contrast, calisthenics is a slow and deliberate process with a higher plateau. It won’t take you there as quickly, but it will help you go farther.
Therefore, we give this one to calisthenics due to its overall higher plateau.
There’s no real comparison here. While calisthenics does somewhat increase your resting metabolic rate, there’s no doubt that Crossfit, with its built-in cardio, will shred you like no one’s business. Take into account that you will more than likely be working within a group (so there will be no slacking), and you will be pushed into levels of exhaustion you never would have considered otherwise.
As far as weight loss is concerned, Crossfit easily takes the medal.
While calisthenics can be great for endurance, that kind of training tends to come down to a bunch of VERY long workout sessions where you would do dozens of reps. It is an exhausting and time-consuming way of exercising, but it is tried and true.
Crossfit on the other hand, comes with pre-packaged sets of workouts specifically aimed at increasing endurance and working your cardiovascular system. The HIIT elements really show their effect here, and you will quickly notice an increase in stamina and an overall “feel good” effect. Thus, another win for Crossfit.
Calisthenics is the oldest and most reliable means of working out. If it was dangerous or had a high chance of injury, at some point it would likely have been abandoned in favor of something safer. As things stand, you have a lower chance of hurting yourself with calisthenics than with any other training method.
Crossfit however, has come under fire for its shortcomings in this regard. Due to frequent neglect of proper form, injury is actually common when you are starting out. The speed at which its workouts are performed also doesn’t help in this regard.
Calisthenics wins here.
If you’ve been reading up until this point, it should be clear that Crossfit is able to deliver results far quicker than calisthenics, especially if you are new (and manage not to hurt yourself along the way). It is an all-in-one package, and the increase in overall fitness will be something that you will start feeling quite early on.
Both of these training methods are popular for a reason: they work. Which one you choose to commit to will depend on what you want out of your training session. And at the end of the day, nothing is stopping you from changing your mind at some point.