For two types of training methods which share a lot of similar exercises, there’s a surprising amount of tension between the Calisthenics movement and CrossFit.
Many people often ask “Which is the right one for me?” or “Which is the best for building muscle?”
In this post, I’m going to try and answer those questions and find out which IS the right one for you, and why the answer is rarely both.
I’ll also compare Calisthenics and CrossFit in various different areas to try and give a clear comparative answer.
After all, this is Calisthenics 101, so we can’t be too biased!
Further recommended reading: Calisthenics vs Weightlifting
Table of Contents
Calisthenics vs CrossFit – What’s the difference?
Calisthenics workouts consist of exercises which solely rely on the user’s body weight as resistance. Because it doesn’t rely on the use of gym equipment or apparatus, calisthenics exercises are widely accessible and can be done at home or in a park, for example. In its most basic form, calisthenics workouts contain very common and compound exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, dips etc., but can advance to much more complex exercises such as handstands, levers, planches and human flags.
CrossFit is a branded fitness programme incorporating elements from several sports and types of exercise, such as weightlifting, cardio and gymnastics. Each session participants are given a ‘WOD’ (Workout of the Day) to complete, with the goal usually being to complete the allocated WOD as fast as possible, but on other occasions to achieve as many sets as possible within the allotted time. Because of this, the programme is measurable and can be highly competitive.
Barrier to entry
I believe the barrier to entry for both Calisthenics and CrossFit is very low, and both can be partaken by people of all difficulties, but there are some key differences between the two here.
Because Calisthenics only relies on body weight, a Calisthenics workout can be completed easily from the comfort of your home or a local park, and if you want to venture out then local classes are often relatively cheap to attend.
For those without access to classes or other local enthusiasts, we recommend the Bar Brothers System – an online training program with hours of video training material which is excellent for those who wish to learn at their own pace.
You may wish to purchase some equipment for use at home though, especially once you progress on to harder exercises and techniques.
The following guides will help advise you on the best equipment to buy in the following four categories:
- Pull Up Bars Guide – A pull up bar is the fundamental piece of equipment recommended for calisthenics workouts
- Resistance Bands Guide – Resistance bands can be used to counteract your body weight, which enables you to try harder exercises which would otherwise not be possible
- Parallettes Guide – Parallettes are a great tool to use for dips, handstands, planche training and L-sits
- Weighted Vests Guide – For advanced users, a weighted vest is used to make standard exercises more challenging by adding additional resistance to your bodyweight
CrossFit, on the other hand, can be much more expensive since you need to sign up to your local CrossFit gym (up to £80 at my nearest gym), however having actual classes to attend can be extremely valuable for beginners, as often this is the only way newcomers will learn the exercises and develop a knowledge base of different workouts.
Strength training and muscle building
Surprise, surprise, most newcomers simply want to know which is the best workout type to build muscle fast.
It’s a tough question, and I think many people won’t agree with each other on this.
I think the only thing we can agree on is that if we use the key ambassadors as an example, such as Frank Medrano or Rich Froning, then it’s sure as shit possible to look like an Adonis with either training type. It’s also common knowledge that nutrition is key to bodies like theirs, so there are many factors in mind here.
Let’s get back to the question!
On the one hand, CrossFit mixes cardio and weight training so you’ll find that the workouts not only aid in building muscle but are much more efficient at burning calories than a Calisthenics workout as the variety and cardio should keep fat burning at a high.
Calisthenics, on the other hand, focuses on compound exercises and complex movements, so there is a greater focus on pure strength and muscle.
I don’t think either is better than the other here, but to me, it’s the quality of your training which is esssential. If you finish your CrossFit workout feeling like you couldn’t physically push yourself any further, yet your Calisthenics workout is just an easy 20-minute workout at home, then, of course, CrossFit would be the best for you in this example.
Worldwide presence, development and competition
I think one of the most fundamental differences between Calisthenics and CrossFit is the global presence and available competition.
Don’t get me wrong; Calisthenics has some great competitions; look at King of the Bar, Street Workout World Championship, and Battle of the Bars to name a few, but CrossFit is a global brand, and their events are enormous in comparison.,
Just take a look at the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games and tell me that the Calisthenics competition is anywhere near competing with that kind of magnitude?
Does that make CrossFit better?
Of course not.
But it does show you the popularity, and more importantly, the scale of the competition. In fact, the progression of competing locally, regionally, (and if you’re lucky enough) at the Reebok CrossFit Games, also shows how organised and structured the competition levels are.
Most likely to “look like a fish” whilst working out
I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself with this one!
I just can’t get over how ridiculous a kipping Muscle-up looks.
Chances of injury
Let me start out by stating that injuries are possible in both Calisthenics and CrossFit. With that in mind, I do think there are a couple of specific points to address here.
With CrossFit, success is measured by speed, and therefore repetitions can quite often be done quickly and with poor form.
With Calisthenics, repetitions are commonly performed slowly to demonstrate the skill and strength required for an exercise, and therefore the chance of injury can be much lower. That’s not to say that all exercise follows the same rules. At an advanced level, Calisthenics can have a lot of transitions over and above the bar, which is often where accidents can happen. Sergio’s round being cut short at BotB19 is an excellent example of this!
On the other hand, Calisthenics has a reputation of being a workout which you can do in your own home, or at the local park, whereas CrossFit is often done in class under the supervision of qualified professionals. My advice here would be that if you are new to Calisthenics, concentrate on form and seek a local class or group to help you progress safely with the harder exercises.
If you’d like to know more about either Calisthenics or CrossFit, looking for resources to work out at home, or would simply like some good reading, then you can find a bunch of recommended reads below, all available on Amazon.
I’m also assuming most people reading this page are newcomers, so there’s no better way to find out more than grabbing a book or two to read further into Calisthenics and CrossFit!
Recommended Calisthenics Books
Most Calisthenics books are written as guides, with a lot of them following a ‘textbook’ type format. My top recommendation below is “Overcoming Gravity”, but if you’re looking for something a bit cheaper then my 2nd recommendation would be “Convict Conditioning”.
- Overcoming Gravity
- Convict Conditioning
- Complete Calisthenics: The Ultimate Guide To Bodyweight Exercise
- Calisthenics: The SUPERHUMAN Stack: 150 Bodyweight Exercises | The #1 Complete Bodyweight Training Guide
Recommended CrossFit Books
As you can see from some of the titles below, CrossFit books are often an autobiography of a competitor or focus on the background and intense growth of CrossFit itself. CrossFit books are much more inspiring and are therefore great motivational tools!
My top recommendation would be Rich Froning’s book; “First: What It Takes to Win”.
- First: What It Takes to Win by Rich Froning
- Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of Crossfit and the Primal Future of Fitness
- Inside the Box: How CrossFit ® Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body
I want to finish by saying there’s no right or wrong choice here, and I’d love to do both myself if I thought they complimented my training goals better.
What’s important is that you’re doing something you love, and where you can happily train 3 – 5 times a week without beginning to loathe your training routine. Satisfaction and variety are vital to long-term training and therefore successful strength and muscle building!
Founder of calisthenics-101.co.uk. Training calisthenics since 2012.
Currently working on: 30 second one-arm handstand, muscle-up 360, straddle planche.