If you’re like us, there are times when fitness terms can be a bit confusing.
With so many new programs available, all with different names, different brands, and different goals, it seems getting tongue-tied is a more common occurrence when engaging in a chat about fitness products.
One such confusion that warrants clarification is the topic of calisthenics vs. gymnastics.
What sets these two activities apart, and which one is better?
Calisthenics, gymnastics, or a street workout- what is the difference?
This article covers some common questions regarding this distinction and deep dives into what sets these two activities apart.
We hope that this short read will leave the curious mind satiated, putting to bed the questions of calisthenics vs. gymnastics.
Let’s get into it.
Let’s Define Calisthenics
It’s best to start with some undisputed facts, or better yet, accepted definitions.
According to our trusted and credible source, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Calisthenics is a “free body exercises performed with varying degrees of intensity and rhythm, which may or may not be done with light handheld apparatuses such as rings and wands.
The exercises employ such motions as bending, stretching, twisting, swinging, kicking, and jumping, as well as such specialized movements as push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups.”
Let’s keep a few things in mind early on in this discussion. First and foremost, calisthenics is considered a newer sport and a variation from the traditional gymnastic moves.
While it is widely considered to have been invented in the early 19th century as part of an exercise movement developed for women, the specific details about what “calisthenics” used to entail are blurry at best.
Many argue that it wasn’t until the first full calisthenics programs came out that the sport became defined correctly and distinguished from its gymnastic counterpart.
While there is plenty of mention of calisthenics and gymnastics in the same topics and forums, street workouts have become loosely and erroneously related through what seems like a misunderstanding of the intent.
While urban and street workouts can use everyday accessible equipment to do bodyweight workouts, the idea of being “on the street” or “in the park” does not define calisthenics. It merely makes it more accessible.
So, What is Gymnastics?
Now that we have defined Calisthenics let’s do the same courtesy to gymnastics.
The Brittanica definition of this sport makes a few things very clear, stating that gymnastics is “the performance of systematic exercises—often with the use of rings, bars, and other apparatus—either as a competitive sport or to improve strength, agility, coordination, and physical conditioning.”
Observe a key difference, mention of the use of rings, bars, and other apparatus.
While there are plenty of fitness programs (Movement Athlete, Body by Rings) that use these pieces of equipment and define themselves as Calisthenic programs, Calisthenics does not usually require additional equipment.
Gymnastics also has a much more studied history, dating back as far as 2,000 years when it was said to be used by the Greeks to prepare for battle.
While the term’s official origin is argued to have been developed by German Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in the early 1800s, the core exercises have a much longer history.
Benefits of Calisthenics and Gymnastics
If we take a break from focusing on the differences between the two, we can find some valuable insight into what makes both calisthenics and gymnastics equally beneficial.
Anyone looking to build mobility, gain strength, improve functional fitness, or achieve specific body goals, practicing calisthenics, gymnastics, or a mixture of both will be sure to yield some fantastic results.
Let’s look at some of the benefits.
Bodyweight Training is No Joke
If you’re asking yourself whether or not calisthenics or gymnastics will be hard enough for you, we dare you to give it a try.
Body weight training has been proven to be highly effective at building muscle and toning down without heavy gym equipment.
In a 2018 study observing progressive calisthenic training effects on muscle strength, it was found that calisthenic training did have a significant increase on upper body muscle strength.
Are you looking to lose weight, tone down, and prevent injury?
We may be stating the obvious here, but the more you weigh, the harder you will work with your own bodyweight.
There is no need to start hard in the gym when you have simple exercises to build strength and shed pounds fast.
Here we go again, one of our favorite terms. Functional fitness emphasizes everyday movements (lifting the groceries, weeding the garden) and employs exercises that promote flexibility and overall mobility.
In other words, functional fitness is useful for everybody.
Bodyweight training programs such as calisthenics workouts and gymnastic exercises employ a wide variety of muscle groups and the stability muscles that keep the body moving smoothly.
Functional fitness also helps with balance, coordination, and, most importantly, injury prevention.
One of the most common problems when using heavy gym equipment is the lack of proper form and technique, often resulting in injury or burn out.
Having proper form is important to ensuring your fitness progress stays smooth, with as few injuries and obstacles along the way.
Calisthenics exercises and gymnastics moves have been shown to improve posture through safe, effective movements where proper form can be practiced and mastered.
In addition to preventing injury through improper form, gymnastics and calisthenics also help nourish and develop the joints and stabilizers that keep the body balanced and healthy.
For those with a goal of serious muscle gain, employing calisthenics in your gym workout can relieve joint stress and get the body properly warmed up for weight training.
This not only prevents injury but sets the body up to be efficient during the workout and more effective in recovery.
While we have mentioned this point a few times already throughout this article, we feel it’s important to highlight it again.
We have a tendency to go too hard and too fast when we set our minds to something.
With a new year coming up, we would hate to see those resolutions hindered by an injury that could easily have been avoided with proper progression.
Calisthenics and gymnastics programs are tailored to individual needs, and bodyweight training by definition is determined by each athlete.
Progressing through bodyweight training ensures that there is a minimal amount of strain on the muscles and joints, allowing for quick recovery and rapid progression.
Weight lifting has its advantages to those who want to increase muscle mass quickly, but it brings with it a higher risk of pushing the body too hard and too fast.
Weight training can promote fast progression vs calisthenics, which supports smart advancement.
Focused Goals and Powerful Moves
One of our favorite parts of Calisthenics and playing an important role in gymnastics is the idea that we track our progression through actual moves.
For beginners just learning the basics, for example, it could be a useful training tool to make the front lever a two-week goal.
Setting a physical movement as a goal allows for focused determination and an incredible boost in confidence when it is achieved.
Many of our favorite calisthenic programs use these movements as a metric to track progress.
Front levers, muscle-ups, and the human flag are just a few calisthenic moves to work towards and are often celebrated as calisthenic and gymnastic training milestones.
Which is better- Calisthenics or Gymnastics?
Luckily, we rarely have to choose between the two.
There is so much overlap with modern calisthenic training that athletes taking part in designated calisthenic programs often learn basic gymnastics moves to help with their progression.
For anyone who has a goal to improve flexibility, increase mobility and functional fitness, and do so with the lowest risk of getting injured, researching a calisthenic program that incorporates aspects of gymnastics will ultimately improve your results.
If your goal is to be a professional gymnast, you will use plenty of calisthenic training to improve form and build strength.
Still, ultimately you will focus on the main pieces of equipment used in competition, such as ring, bars, or pommel horse.
Getting Started with the Perfect Program
If you’re looking for an alternative to grueling gym workouts that seem to get you nowhere, a calisthenic program might be the perfect balance of convenience and accountability.
There is certainly no shortage of calisthenic programs out there, and it is also getting easier to find a program that incorporates aspects of gymnastics as well.
Here is a short list of products that combine calisthenics and gymnastics into one program meant to streamline results.
Calisthenics and gymnastics may have a slightly different definition, but they focus on many similar core components.
Gymnasts practice calisthenics, and calisthenic athletes certainly master specific gymnastic moves.
Combined, these two disciplines carry incredible benefits that help to improve overall fitness, prevent injury, and increase flexibility.
Chris is an experienced Calisthenics practitioner focused on isometric exercises and street workout. He founded thehybridathlete.com in 2017, which was subsequently acquired by theyhybridathlete.com
He is based in Portland and has been working out using solely his own body weight and bars for the past 6 years.