Barbells or pull-up bars? Both have benefits, both have their advocates, but where should your focus be? Turns out, the answer changes depending on your experience and your goals.
Eddie Hall bench presses 600 pounds, deadlifts well over a thousand, and can pull a passenger plane. Chris ‘Tatted Strength’ Luera can’t do any of those things, but he can do a full planche – supporting his entire bodyweight in a horizontal position using nothing but his arms and abs – over a dozen strict muscle-ups in a row and pull-ups from the ferociously difficult back lever position. Who’s stronger? It’s a matter of opinion. Who’s training smarter? That answer depends on who’s asking, but we’re here to give it a red hot go.
Calisthenics, though it’s experiencing an Instagram-inspired revival right now, has a training pedigree that goes back thousands of years. The term comes from the combination of the Greek words “kallos” (beauty) and “sthenos” (strength), and one of the earliest mentions of the discipline can be found in the chronicles of Herodotus, discussing the Spartans’ strength regime prior to the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. Lifting objects is equally old – one stone from the sixth century BC, weighing over 140kg, bears the inscription ‘Bybon lifted me over his head with one hand,’ – but barbells and dumbbells, at least, are more recent inventions. And yes, it’s possible to do both: but increasingly, gymgoers tend to gravitate to one or the other, either devoting all their efforts to mastering the front lever and the planche, or to putting extra plates on their bench press or deadlift.
So: if you’re only going to focus on one, which should it be? And does it depend on your goals? Whatever direction you’re ultimately planning to take in your training, most trainers agree that, at least in the early stages, some bodyweight movement will make you a better, more efficient athlete. “Manipulating the body requires excellent proprioception and kinesthetic control,” explains trainer James Adamson. “You’ll build coordination, balance, and awareness of how your body works that will benefit you if all you typically do is sit on the couch.” You’ll also, assuming you tackle movements properly, learn how to generate the maximal tension that’s a core part of developing strength. “When you’re performing exercises like ring dips, press-ups, L-sits or even a basic plank your body has to work as a unit to keep form and maintain stability,” says Adamson. “Assuming you aren’t letting your midsection flop or your hips sag – which ‘leak’ power, leaving you unable to hold positions for very long – you’ll work your core at the same time as doing other movements, while building body awareness that carries over to movements like the deadlift and overhead press.” You’ll also build the neural drive that, increasingly, seems to be the key to true strength. “Strength is not built, strength is granted to you by your nervous system,” says Strength Matters trainer Phil McDougall. “It’s about training your nervous system to become stronger, and training your body to create tension.”
As you learn to create a more stable midsection, you’ll ‘teach’ your body that it can handle a heavier barbell without risking injury – unlocking your ability to go heavier.
All of this means that, for most people, it makes sense to build a base of strength with simple, bodyweight movements before touching a weight. The next thing to consider about calisthenics, though, is possibly the most obvious: what happens when you need to add more resistance? With a barbell, after all, you can always keep piling on weight, but with your own bodyweight there’s a limit. Cranking up the reps will help, but at some point you’re going to hit the point of diminishing returns: recent research suggests that to hit the full range of fibers necessary for building either maximal strength or muscle, you’ll need to work across both high and low rep-ranges, using high levels of resistance for the latter. Slowing the tempo might work for muscle, and increasing the difficulty – for instance, by putting your feet on a step to do your push-ups on a decline – will work, but only up to a point. For some movement patterns, including ‘straight arm’ moves like the planche or lever, you’ll be able to spend years getting stronger without ever needing to worry about hitting your body’s limits. For other movements, you’ll have to progress to tougher exercises – one-armed press-ups and bar dips, say – or add weight. It’ll probably take longer than you think. “When you can do 35 pull-ups, strict form, dead stop at the bottom, that’s when it’s time to add weight,” says Theo Caldwell, co-owner of Push N Pull Fitness. “If you can do 10 muscle-ups with very strict form, sure, wear a vest. Just don’t go too heavy, too early. Try to make the moves as hard as possible and master them like that. It’s not about adding a crazy amount of weight, but mastering the form, trying to make it beautiful.”
OPEN OR CLOSED?
On the one hand, adding weight might seem to work against the idea of ‘pure’ calisthenics, but here a more important distinction comes in: the idea of ‘open’ vs ‘closed chain’ exercises. A biceps curl, for instance, is an open chain movement – you’re moving a weight around your body, applying force to an object while you stay still. In a closed chain exercise, you apply force to a fixed object – like a pull-up bar or the ground – moving your own body plus any plates you’ve piled on your back or dip belts you’ve decided to wear. The latter, studies suggest, are better for building genuinely functional strength, because you’re generating force not just in your prime mover muscles but in all the stabilizers you need for real-world movement. Closed- chain exercises, evidence suggests, allow your body’s structure to determine which joints move and how much, which takes stress off joints and lets your muscles do the work instead. Done correctly, then, you’re theoretically safer doing handstand press-ups than overhead presses, or press-ups rather than bench presses. Squats are more complicated – according to the strict definition, they’re closed-chain, since you’re driving against the ground, but you can still load up as you do them. If you’re determined to train au naturel, of course, single-leg movements are one of the best ways to hit your legs hard without adding weight – pistols, step-ups and Bulgarian split squats all demand coordination, stability and strength. They’re also, according to a study published in the Journal Of Athletic Training, a safe and stable way to train your legs if you’re recovering from injury – in the study, one-legged squats and step-ups provided enough quadriceps activation for strength and rehab, while proving protective of the ACL.
What about the muscles you can work? In theory, weights should have the advantage here: after all, you can contort a dumbbell in almost any configuration to focus on a specific muscle, angling your wrist – for instance – to better target whatever you’re working on. If you’re a subscriber to the idea that it’s necessary to train the six ‘big’ human movement patterns, there’s worse news for calisthenics: pushing, pulling, squatting and twisting (to some extent) are all possible without weights, but hip- hinging (as in a deadlift or power clean) and loaded carries aren’t. But, on the flipside, there’s a key facet of strength, often neglected by weightlifters, that’s all-important to calisthenics athletes: straight arm strength. This is the kind of strength required for any upper-body movement where the arms are kept straight at the elbows for the duration of the move: this means everything from the (fairly simple) back lever to the front lever, planche and iron cross. ‘Bent arm’ strength mainly engages the biceps and triceps, but straight arm strength demands huge stabilization from the scapulae – the shoulder blades – which attach to a number of muscles, including the trapezius, the rhomboids and the serratus anterior. Scapular stabilization, calisthenics experts argue, is the truest form of upper-body strength, as it allows you to generate power from awkward positions. Can’t stabilize your upper-body as you press? You’ll always be weaker – and more in danger of injury – than you would if you trained straight-arm strength specifically, argue calisthenics proponents. And by adding in movements that include a degree of shoulder rotation, like the German hang – where you hang from a bar and kick your legs through your arms to hang in an inverted position – you’ll build a combination of flexibility and strength that makes you stronger in every position.
What are the key advantages of weights? Well, crucially, progress is simpler. Using barbells and dumbbells, it’s easy enough to improve on any exercise with small, incremental increases in weight, making it easy to stay in your preferred rep-range as you get stronger and avoid stalling or hitting failure unnecessarily. In theory, you can still do this with bodyweight exercises by adjusting the biomechanics of each movement: doing a front lever with your legs tucked, for example, then gradually extending them, first out to the sides and then completely straight.
“In reality, it’s far from a perfect system,’ says trainer James Adamson. “Progress tends to be non-linear – the jump from one exercise variation to the next can be bigger than your current strength levels allow.” It’s difficult to progress in fractions of a leg-extension, and impossible to precisely replicate the biomechanics of a move from week to week. There’s just no bodyweight version of adding a 1kg plate to a barbell.
This also means that stalling – or, at least, going weeks and months with no clear signs of progress – is less likely, certainly if you’ve picked a sensible weights plan. “Progress is clearly defined, and it’s easy to see in your lifting notebook – assuming you’ve got one – which is a key component of motivation,” explains Adamson. “This can make it easier to build a workout habit, at least at first.” On the other hand, being able to train anywhere, with minimal kit, can make calisthenics easier – if you’ve got the space to do a front lever on your home pull-up bar.
So what’s the winner? Realistically, there’s no reason not to train in both disciplines, either alternating them in, say, six-month phases, including both calisthenics and bodyweight work during your training week, or even mixing them up during a single session. But the best way to reap the dividends of doing that is to focus on what makes each approach most effective. Use straight-arm movements like the handstand and human flag to build shoulder stability, for instance, while using isolation movements with dumbbells to work on your weaknesses. Load up on heavy squats and deadlifts for leg strength, but include single-leg bodyweight work to keep your knees injury-proof and healthy. And by all means, heft a few Atlas stones around, but don’t get so big that you can’t do a decent number of pull-ups. Oh, and as for who’s strongest out of Eddie and Chris? We’re calling that a draw.
MOVE YOUR BODY
What can hardcore weightlifters still learn from calisthenics crews? Here’s how it breaks down
Greasing the groove
- Common among bodyweight athletes – because of the ease of training – is this training strategy, which involves knocking out several sub-maximal sets of your chosen exercise over the course of a day. Pick a movement – pull-ups work well – and do 50% as many reps as you can do in an all-out set, then rest at least 15 minutes before you go again. Repeat often, and improve almost effortlessly.
Use your levers
- The best way to appreciate the value of leverage? A leg-raise drop set. Start by hanging from a bar, raising your legs until they’re parallel to the ground – then, when you hit failure, or get a couple of reps from it, bend your knees and continue until you’re totally spent. Repeat two more times, and feel your abs catch re.
Work your scapulae
- Learning to elevate and depress your scapulae – your shoulder- blades, basically – is the start of being able to control them in any position. Start with the pull-up – hang from a bar, then pull your shoulder blades ‘down’ and away from your ears without bending your elbows. Next, try the same movement from a handstand press-up.