How To Build Muscle With Calisthenics
Learning how to build muscle with calisthenics is a long lost primal art.
With the advent of machines and cables, people have forgotten how to use their own bodyweight to build strength and size.
In fact, gaining mastery of moving your body through space is an absolute necessity for day-to-day life.
But, when it comes to building muscle, some methods are more efficient than others.
This article answers the most frequently asked questions about building muscle with calisthenics.
Building Muscle With Calisthenics F.A.Q's
These are the 5 most frequently asked questions for building muscle with calisthenics:
- Is it possible to build muscle with calisthenics?
- Is it easy to build muscle with calisthenics?
- Is it optimal to build muscle with bodyweight exercises only?
- What is the most optimal way of building muscle with calisthenics?
- How to build muscle with bodyweight calisthenics?
Is it possible to build muscle with calisthenics?
This is by far the biggest question on everyone’s mind.
I started my fitness journey with pure bodyweight calisthenics. I watched as the athletes on YouTube flew through the air spinning and grabbing the pull up bar on the way down.
I thought, if building muscle was this much fun, then I want in!
I put a lot of effort into my bodyweight training and built a lot of muscle in the process (or so I thought).
I could do more pull ups than anyone I knew and that was pretty damn cool!
My routine consisted of the following bodyweight only exercises:
100 push ups, 100 sit ups, 100 bodyweight squats along with 100 pull ups every single day!
I did put on some muscle, and even my friends started to notice!
So to answer the question, yes, you can build muscle using bodyweight exercises alone. But that’s not the right question!
In fact, it’s definitely not the best way to workout.
With proper programming, I could have gained way more muscle in a shorter period of time!
But, if programming was the variable, was it easy to put on muscle with calisthenics? This leads me to the next question.
Is it easy to build muscle using only bodyweight calisthenics?
My success was short lived.
In fact, the gains I was making slowed down and came to a grinding halt!
As a bodyweight beginner all I could do was add more reps to my routine. So that’s what I did!
In fact, no amount of programming can overcome this issue with bodyweight calisthenics.
My workouts were already taking more than 2 hours to complete. And adding more reps only made them longer!
Things weren’t making sense anymore. I was starting to burn out and get bored as there was no more progress to be had.
I did everything in my power to build the physique of my dreams! But something was not right.
I changed to a better program. One where I worked out for 3 days a week and rested on the others.
I was eating enough and getting a whole lot of sleep.
Yet, the results came painfully slow.
When you start bodyweight calisthenics, you will find that you hit a wall too soon.
Because as a beginner, the strength and skill required to progress was gigantic! In fact, it gets even harder as you move on to the intermediate and advanced stages of an exercise.
This is what a lot of bodyweight calisthenics beginners face. And it’s something calisthenics experts don’t talk about.
Progressing with bodyweight calisthenics isn’t easy.
This is because the amount of strength required to progress is not linear.
This will have you stalling several times along your calisthenics journey.
Take the push up for example. Let’s say you didn’t have the strength to master the complete push up, so you started off your knees.
Over time, moving the knees further away from the hands, gets you closer to a full push up.
Unfortunately, the strength required for you to move from your knees to your toes is way too large.
Thus forcing you to continue training at a level of strength you have already mastered.
This leads to boredom, burnout and in some cases, a loss in strength.
And this what makes building muscle using your bodyweight alone, hard.
But, there is a far superior way to make faster gains with calisthenics.
Which leads us to the next question
What is the most optimal way of building muscle with bodyweight calisthenics?
The answer is simple and might be off-putting at first.
The most optimal way to build size and strength with calisthenics is by using weights.
If you’re dogmatic about your training, you’re currently saying – I’ll never use weights. But bear with me and think about it.
Weight is weight. Whether it is your own bodyweight or an external one. You are are still placing a load on your muscles to make them bigger and stronger.
Given enough time, rest and recovery, the more stress you place on the muscle, the more the muscle will grow.
This is the concept of progressive overload. Progressive overload is a method of increasing the stress on the muscle over time. This increased stress, forces a response, thus making the muscle bigger and stronger.
The principle of building muscle has been known for centuries. Consider the story of Milo of Croton.
Unfortunately, bodyweight exercises cannot be progressively overloaded in a linear, uniform and sustainable manner.
Consider the most effective ways to overload the muscle with bodyweight exercises.
To build muscle, progressive overload must exist. This means that the stress on the muscle must increase over time.
An optimal training protocol will have progressive overload principles that are:
Easy to track and apply
Uniform and linear in progression
Sustainable over a long period of time
Unfortunately, bodyweight training does not have these principles. Thus making it inefficient at building strength and size over time.
Read on to know why!
The Most Optimal Way To Build Muscle With Bodyweight Calisthenics – Progressive Overload
The most optimal ways to progressively overload the muscles with bodyweight exercises are:
1. Increasing Volume
You can increase the stress on a muscle by increasing the number of sets and reps performed in an exercise. This is the most used form of progressive overload in the bodyweight community. Increasing volume is linear, uniform and easy to apply. It can also be tracked with total accuracy. In fact, this is the most effective way of building muscle with bodyweight calisthenics. It can be used by both beginners and advanced athletes alike. The only problem being that beyond a certain rep range, the stimulus becomes too light. Meaning the muscle gets used to the load and don’t get any stronger or bigger. Instead they become more efficient at performing more repetitions of the same exercise. Thus become better at endurance not absolute strength. The other problem with this type of progressive overload is that it makes the workouts a lot longer. Constantly adding volume to your workouts is not sustainable. I’ve tried and trust me it’s not fun. It is an efficient method of adding strength and size, but it is not sustainable. Hence use this method of progressive overload wisely.
2. Increasing time under tension
Increasing time under tension is another method of progressive overload. It is widely used in the bodyweight community. It involves placing the muscle under load for a longer duration of time. Increasing time under tension should be used only as a last resort. This is because the slower you train, the less explosive you become! It is also hard to track the amount of time you’re spending under each rep. Increasing time under tension should be employed during the negative or the eccentric part of the movement. Pausing at the eccentric phase is the best way to do this. Doing so requires explosiveness to move your body through space. This ends up recruiting more muscle fibers by eliminating momentum.
3. Increasing the load on a muscle via Unilateral training
This is the second most effective way of progressively overloading bodyweight exercises. Unilateral movements are movements performed by a single limb. Single arm push ups, pull ups, rows and pistol squats are all unilateral movements. Of course the jump from doing the bilateral version to unilateral one can be large. And at times does require an element of skill. Unilateral bodyweight training can produce effective results. It can produce impressive gains in size, strength, balance and stability. The problem with unilateral bodyweight training is that it is not sustainable. Once you have mastered the unilateral version of the exercise, progress stops. You will then have to employ other forms of overload instead to progress further.
4. Increasing Your Bodyweight (Caloric Surplus)
Diet is an often overlooked aspect of bodyweight training. Calisthenics can be used for fat loss as well as muscle gain. Fat loss or muscle gain, depends on whether you’re in a caloric deficit or caloric surplus. I’m going to discuss how gaining weight can benefit your bodyweight training. In fact this tip on building muscle with calisthenics is rarely talked about. If your aim is to gain muscle with bodyweight calisthenics, then eating in a caloric surplus is a must! Gaining weight will increase the load on your bodyweight exercises. This will make them harder to perform. This is the most natural way to use progressive overload with your calisthenics. Adding 1 to 2 kilograms of weight to your frame while training is an optimal way to build muscle. Granted, all of this weight will not be pur muscle. But, for a beginner, this means adding 12 to 24 kilograms of weight to his frame over the period of 1 year. That is a significant amount of weight being added to your lifts! Over the course of a year, adding 12 to 20 kilograms to your 12-15 rep max will make you a lot bigger and stronger. This is gold, in the bodyweight community. But, it comes with a lot of constraints. The first being that you cannot add weight to your body forever because you’ll get fat. Also, let’s say you successfully bulked for a year. What happens when you want to cut? You will lose that extra loadon the exercises, thus making them easier! This is not a good thing when trying to build muscle. And what if your goal is to lose weight with calisthenics? As you can see, even this method of progressive overload is not sustainable over time.
5. Increasing range of motion in an exercise
Restricting your range of motion in an exercise is limiting you size and strength gains. While, increasing range of motion is an excellent method of progressive overload. The beauty of this approach lies in it’s simplicity. Using equipment such as gymnastic rings can help improve your range of motion. The limitation of this type of progressive overload is the range of motion itself. Going beyond a “safe” ROM can lead to injury. Thus, once you’ve reached the maximum safe range of motion, progressive overload halts.
You should be seeing a pattern already. Progressive overload with bodyweight training, is either not sustainable, non-linear or inconsistent.
This means that they either come to a grinding halt, like in the case of increasing range of motion. Or, they are not sustainable, as in adding volume. Or they are inconsistent or hard to track, like in the case of time under tension.
This is why building muscle with bodyweight calisthenics isn’t optimal. Don’t get me wrong. You can use all these variations of progressive overload in different combinations to build muscle over time. But there is a much more optimal way of building size and strength with calisthenics.
Which leads me to the last and final question.
What is the most optimal way of building muscle with calisthenics?
The most optimal way to build muscle with calisthenics is weighted calisthenics.
Adding weight to calisthenics exercises is the quickest way to build size and strength. This is because increasing weights is easy, simple and effective.
It follows all the requirements for proper progressive overload. Weights can also be used in conjunction the other overloading principles discussed above.
In fact it makes all of the above progressive overloading principles better.
You can add weight and continue to add volume. For example you can do pull ups with a certain weight for 5 reps, then increase the volume to 15 reps.
Once you reach 15 reps weight you can add weight to the exercise again!
You can also add weight to unilateral movements. And then continue to add weight or volume to for progressive overload.
You can also add weight and increase time under tension. Although this is not something that I advise. Purposely making your reps slower will reduce your potential to generate power.
Other Points To Keep In Mind When Building Muscle With Calisthenics
Maximizing Rest and Recovery by improving the quality of your sleep. Sleep is a drug! A natural muscle building drug that is underused in today’s fast paced world. With everyone needing to be an overachiever we have been reducing the number of hours we sleep. And our sleep quality is further diminished with the bright lights that surround us. The benefits of sleep for muscle building and recovery cannot be overstated. Sleep is one of the fundamental requirements of building muscle. Sleep optimizes natural testosterone and growth hormone levels. These are are exogenous drugs modern day bodybuilders use to gain size. Sleep also repairs your muscles and allows them to grow back bigger and stronger. It also improves mood and motivation, providing improved focus throughout your workouts. Don’t miss out on sleep if you are serious about building muscle with calisthenics.
Increasing number of isolation exercises to create an illusion – Calisthenics exercises are usually compound exercises. This means that they involve the use of several muscle groups at the same time. This is an effective use of your time when trying to build muscle as it saves time. But, when creating the bodybuilding illusion, compound movements fall short. This is because certain muscles that do not require heavy stimulus, do not get trained. Thus training muscles that don’t get stimulated enough creates the illusion of size. These muscles include, the neck, the upper traps, the side and rear deltoids and the triceps. The lats provide the V-taper look, but they get worked enough during pull ups.
Lower Body Training – This should go without saying, but a lot of calisthenics practitioners skip leg day. The lower body can bear loads far greater than that of the upper body. In fact one of the biggest muscles in the entire human body is the gluteus maximus. Neglecting to build significant leg strength will hamper your ability to run, jump kick and punch. It will also your ability to generate power from the ground. This is one of the biggest problems with bodyweight training. The legs carry the load of the entire body on a daily basis. When we walk, sit down, run, jump etc. Hence, they adapt quickly to bodyweight squats. Building significant muscle in the lower body using only bodyweight movements is difficult. To do so, the bodyweight athlete must prioritize leg training. This in turn will add weight to your frame, thus increasing the difficulty of your exercises. Also, don’t neglect your calves! Perform high repetition calf raises with full range of motion. Then move onto unilateral calf raises!
Stay Consistent – To progressively overload the muscle, you must stay consistent. Do not try to “shock the muscle” into growth. Constantly changing exercises does not allow for maximum progressive overload. This means that you will spin your wheels instead of moving forward.
To conclude, building muscle with calisthenics is possible. Whether with your bodyweight only or not. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Of course there are ore optimal ways of building muscle, but building muscle is a long term game. And if you don’t like what you do, you will quit the race.
Thus, whether using bodyweight calisthenics or weighted calisthenics, use progressive overload.