When it comes to the most fashionable styles of exercising, calisthenics and CrossFit have been among the most popular options for quite some time. Both have been proven to be effective, both train the entire body, and both have been shown to be fun, interactive ways of working out.
This means it should come as no surprise that the popularity of the two styles continues to soar. However, it also means that the two being constantly compared to each other should be equally unsurprising as well.
The thing is, while they both have a similar premise of being able to train the entire body in an enjoyable way and they even include some overlaps in exercises, calisthenics and CrossFit are entirely different to each other in a whole host of ways.
This makes comparing them to each other or trying to determine which is better extremely difficult.
With that in mind, in today’s article, we are going to break down all of the methods, benefits, and drawbacks of the two. This will ensure you have everything you need to know about calisthenics vs CrossFit, to decide which one is right for you.
What Is Calisthenics?
Calisthenics is a type of strength training that prioritises working the body’s major muscle groups by using your own bodyweight as the resistance against which you train. Known as a general purpose exercise routine, it uses a wide range of different exercises.
Originally created as a street workout, the lack of a need for any equipment has made it extremely popular, as it can be performed anywhere and at any time. There are number of different types of calisthenic training, but most will be based around a similar range of movements and exercises.
Many of the most common calisthenic exercises are well-known and simple to execute movements, like chin ups, dips, push ups, pull ups, sit ups, squats, and planks. This makes it a perfect option for those who have little access to professional training, as many moves are easy and can be self-taught.
There are also many more advanced options too, which includes things like levers, muscle ups, squat jumps, hyperextensions, l-sits, planches, and handstands. You even have calisthenic exercises which include aerobic conditioning as well, such as burpees, mountain climbers, and shuttle runs.
The high level of versatility makes calisthenics an option that is beneficial for, and available to all, no matter your ability, experience, budget, goals, or anything else that may be putting you off of exercising in a more traditional fashion.
What Is CrossFit?
CrossFit in its truest form refers to a branded workout routine that was created in the early 2000s. Developed by Greg Glassman, it is meant to be completed in special, branded gyms, full of dedicated equipment, of which there are now more than 12,000 in at least 150 countries around the world.
In CrossFit sessions you will complete workouts that use a wide range of different training principles. It includes high intensity interval training (HIIT), gymnastics, kettlebell lifting, Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, powerlifting, strongman, and even calisthenics itself, as well as a host of other things.
The idea behind CrossFit is to focus less on how you move a weight than you would in other training methods, instead focusing on how fast you can move it. This has allowed it to develop from a style of training into a competitive sport, as people strive to better each other’s times in set routines.
Its unique style has helped it to become popular with many different groups of people. From fitness enthusiasts and competitive athletes to those who enjoy a similar trend known as WODs (workouts of the day), the competitive edge is more motivating than traditional training methods for many.
Since 2007 they’ve held the CrossFit Games each summer, so top CrossFitters can compete against each other in person. It’s also led to the development of things like dedicated CrossFit clothing and equipment, as well as even spawning many CrossFit terms that are unique to the style of training.
Its lack of focus on form has, however, led to a number of detractors. Its more reckless style has led to a greater frequency of injuries than similar styles, as well as long term, potentially life threatening issues, such as exertional rhabdomyolysis, causing many to brand it as unsafe or dangerous.
Differences And Similarities
There are a number of similarities between calisthenics and CrossFit. Both methods of training use a number of the same or very similar exercises, and both require high levels of intensity and focus. They are both also extremely difficult disciplines to master and perform competitively in.
The core difference between the two lies in the fact that CrossFit was designed as a specific routine, while calisthenics is a much more versatile way to train, that can be done anywhere by anyone. The other big differences between them are the speed and form with which you do the exercises.
Speed is the main aim in CrossFit. You need to do the exercises and your whole workout routine as fast as you can, with competitive CrossFitters striving to knock fractions of a second off of their time. This means form is often an afterthought, provided the exercises are done in roughly the right way.
With calisthenics, there is not such a big emphasis placed on time. Instead, you have to focus heavily on your form, ensuring all of the required muscles are fully engaged and contracted, giving you total control over your body and allowing you to complete the exercises in a slow, deliberate manner.
Which One Is Better?
CrossFit and calisthenics have been continually compared since the creation of CrossFit, as both are ways to train the entire body that have become popular and attained their own dedicated fanbases. However, in terms of which one is actually better, neither one is necessarily superior to the other.
Instead, when it comes to calisthenics vs CrossFit, it will largely be your own personal needs, wants, and expectations that come into play and determine which one you should use. This means you will need to fully understand your own goals before looking at which exercise option is best for you.
With that in mind, we will now look at some of the most important factors you must consider before you start either calisthenics or CrossFit. This should ensure you have a clear understanding of what each offers, what drawbacks there are, and which will be best suited to help you achieve your goals.
While both calisthenics and CrossFit are able to help you build muscle, most people who aren’t CrossFitters would agree that calisthenics is the superior choice in this regard. Much like with bodybuilding, calisthenics requires you to really focus and gain extreme control of each muscle.
This allows you to work and develop each of the individual fibres throughout the muscles, while the slow, methodical movements help to boost both your static and dynamic strength. With calisthenics, you can also easily create a unique workout plan and schedule to focus solely on muscle growth.
Some of the most popular and easy to execute examples of calisthenic exercises that you can do to develop your entire body and increase your overall lean mass include chin ups, dips, hanging leg raises, pull ups, push ups, face pulls, handstand push ups, and human pullovers.
Due to the fixed workout routine of CrossFit, it makes it much more difficult to utilise the training style for muscle building. There is also much less focus on form, as your goal is simply to move the weight, so the individual fibres won’t be developed as comprehensively.
You can definitely gain some lean muscle mass when using a CrossFit workout. That said, the results in this area are likely to be much less dramatic, and your potential peak will usually be much lower.
Due to the many similarities we mentioned at the start, there are some areas where calisthenics and CrossFit match up quite closely with each other and the ability to produce gains in muscular strength is one of them.
Both calisthenics and CrossFit push your body to its limits, use a huge amount of energy and all the muscles throughout your body, and require you to really focus to be successful. While they can offer similar benefits to your general strength, each has its own unique selling point in this area as well.
Calisthenics requires the use of controlled movements that focus on contracting each of the fibres in a muscle. This makes it a better option for those looking to improve the strength of each muscle on its own and is perfect for people who want to develop their static strength.
CrossFit, on the other hand, relies heavily on big movements performed at speed. This will not only strengthen the muscles being used, but the stabiliser muscles and connective tissues as well. This makes CrossFit the better choice for explosive strength and activities requiring full body movements.
As with any type of exercise or strenuous physical activities in general, both calisthenics and CrossFit comes with the risk of injuring yourself, either minorly or severely. That said, if the injury risk linked to the activity is a major concern for you, then calisthenics is undoubtedly the better option.
This is because calisthenics allows you to have much more control over the exercises you perform, how you perform them, and the overall progression of your routine. You can start out with only a few simple exercises and then work your way up to some of the more demanding moves.
The slow and controlled style of calisthenics is also beneficial, as there is very little jerking or twisting of muscles or joints, or anything else that could shock them into injury. The lack of using any external weights also eliminates the risks of you overexerting yourself or dropping anything on your body too.
Conversely, thanks to the fast movements that you have to perform when training with CrossFit, it opens you up to a much greater risk of injury from all the issues that calisthenics protects you from.
You will move large weights at high speeds, increasing the chance of dropping weights on yourself. The explosive movements put the joints under a huge strain, even when extending, opening you up to things like fractures or dislocations.
Even the speed of the workout itself means you are likely to focus less, so are more likely to do something wrong and hurt yourself. You may also experience more soreness with CrossFit, due to the effects of the routine and how your muscles and joints are prepared to recover.
Make no mistake, CrossFit can be very beneficial and, while this section may sound like all doom and gloom and make it seem otherwise, the majority of people involved in CrossFit will likely never have an issue. That said, if injury risk is a deciding factor, calisthenics is easily superior in that regard.
Weight Loss & Fat Burning
Both calisthenics and CrossFit can again be beneficial when it comes to weight loss and fat burning, as they will help you to burn calories and build muscle that increases your metabolism. However, this time around, it is CrossFit that is clearly the better choice if you want to slim down.
One of the main reasons for this is that you will burn a much greater number of calories with CrossFit than you will with calisthenics.
This is due to a mix of the exercises themselves being more explosive, as well as the restriction in time that comes with these workout routines requiring you to move quickly from station to station or exercise to exercise. Both of these factors mean you will burn a much greater number of calories.
The style of a CrossFit workout also means it uses many of the same principles seen in high intensity interval training (HIIT), which is known to keep your metabolic rate high for hours or even days after a workout is over. The same can also be said for the short rest times in CrossFit workouts as well.
With this said, you are still able to use calisthenics as an effective weight loss strategy. It offers many of the same benefits and you can even design calisthenic HIIT workouts to create a very similar end result, it is just generally much less effective for fat burning that CrossFit for the majority of people.
Cost & Convenience
When it comes to the cost and convenience of following calisthenics and CrossFit routines, it is a bit of a grey area as to which is the better option. This is because there are just so many variables that can affect how much money and effort you need to have to train in your preferred style.
CrossFit in its truest form is a branded exercise routine that is rigid in many ways. In order to train in this way, the first thing you will need to do is find a CrossFit branch that is close to you. You will also have to pay a subscription fee, which can be high, and need to drive to the center for each routine.
Many people who want to take their training as far as they can, will also want to purchase dedicated CrossFit gear, such as clothing, to maximise their performance, which can often be expensive.
CrossFit can be made both cheaper and more convenient if you just follow the simple basis of the training style. Versions of CrossFit can be performed in both home and normal commercial gyms, but they often won’t be as effective, due to the equipment available, or officially classed as CrossFit.
Calisthenics, on the other hand, does not require any special subscriptions, a dedicated gym, or even an actual gym of any kind. This makes it both the more affordable and convenient option, as it is essentially a free exercise option that can be completed anywhere from your home to a local park.
This does, however, again largely refer to the more basic versions of the training style. While you can perform the majority of calisthenic moves in any suitable location you can find, some of the more specific or complex moves will require dedicated equipment to complete.
So, in their most basic forms, calisthenics is more cost effective and convenient than CrossFit. However, for those looking to take both to their extremes, calisthenics becomes a significantly cheaper and easy to take part in exercise style.
Somewhat of a continuation of the point we just looked at above, the idea of doing either CrossFit or calisthenics in a home gym is another point that favours the latter much more than the former. This is one of the most clear cut winners as, at its core, calisthenics was designed as a street workout.
With no equipment required, you can use calisthenics almost anywhere you feel is suitable. You also now have home gym systems that merge the idea of calisthenics into more traditional pieces of fitness equipment, giving you the ability to complete virtually any calisthenic movement at home.
There are even numerous dedicated calisthenics apps available to download to help you learn calisthenic movements and plan routines, without the need for trainers or assistance. This makes training from home even more convenient.
Conversely, proper CrossFit requires you to attend a dedicated CrossFit gym, while even those using a basic version of the style will be required to purchase a significant range of equipment. This makes calisthenics the far more suitable option for using in home workouts.
When it comes to how easy calisthenics and CrossFit are to pick up for beginners, it is a fairly neck and neck thing. Both options function by using a range of fairly basic moves and optimising their usage to help you achieve results. However, this only relates to how easy it is to get started.
Both calisthenics and CrossFit are also extremely challenging in their advanced forms, and require high levels of strength, fitness, and dedication to complete in their entirety. This means while beginners can easily get started, there is a sharp learning curve in both for them to progress quickly.
Beginners may be put off CrossFit as they will be required to go to dedicated gyms, which can make many people feel self-conscious, as they will be surrounded by long time CrossFitters. On the other hand, beginners can also be put off of calisthenics when they find out how long it takes to progress.
This makes choosing between calisthenics and CrossFit roughly a tie for beginners. If you know you don’t struggle with confidence, CrossFit may be the safer bet. That said, if you aren’t worried about how long it takes to progress, calisthenics could be the choice for you.
Cardiovascular conditioning is another area like weight loss and fat burning where CrossFit is clearly superior to calisthenics and for very similar reasons. The explosive movements used in CrossFit are much more likely to push your heartrate up and have it fluctuate throughout the session.
Like any other muscle in the body, this will force the heart to become stronger, improving your cardiovascular conditioning and enabling you to perform for longer and at a higher level. This isn’t to say that calisthenics won’t improve your cardiovascular conditioning as well though.
As an extremely strenuous style of training that uses almost the whole weight of your body in every move, calisthenics will also elevate your heart rate to a great extent, with harder training sessions really testing its limits.
This means it is still one of the best ways to improve cardiovascular conditioning with resistance training, it just isn’t quite as effective at doing this as CrossFit is.
When it comes to crowning a winner out of calisthenics and CrossFit, it is not a cut and dried decision. Each style of training is popular because it is effective, and both have their own unique selling points, so one isn’t obviously superior to the other.
CrossFit is the superior choice if you want to develop cardiovascular conditioning and explosive power or burn fat or lose weight. The two training styles are also roughly equal when it comes to which is better for beginners, with the decision purely coming down to personal preference.
Calisthenics is better for those wanting to build muscle, develop the strength of individual muscles, train at home, save time or money, or minimise the risk of getting injured. If I were forced to choose though, I would say this greater list of benefits makes calisthenics a slightly better choice overall too.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed holds a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Alexandria university and is a practicing plastic surgeon. He’s our expert on all things nutrition, medicine, rehabilitation, and flexibility. Dr.Ahmed has been a medical content writer for more than 11 years and his work reached top publications such as the HuffingtonPost