Can you Build Muscle with Calisthenics?
Can you add muscle mass with just body weight exercises?
The simple answer is yes, you can. In terms of eliciting hypertrophy of muscle tissue, the body does not distinguish between different types of resistance training. If you are overloading the muscle and exercising in the optimal rep range for muscle growth with the correct amount of time under tension, you can add mass using just your body weight.
Why are calisthenics exercises good for muscle growth?
The two main reasons why calisthenics is good for muscle growth are:
Almost all the exercises are compound movements
There tends to be a greater time under tension emphasised when training with body weight movements.
If you consider the staple moves of calisthenics exercise; push ups, squats, pull ups etc. These are all exercises that recruit several large muscle groups at once. This is a far more effective way to train the isolation exercises such as bicep curls and tricep extensions both in terms of time and muscle building
Instead of systematically working individual muscles with weights you can efficiently work large muscle groups with one movement.
This also has the added benefit of working your body as one unit which has advantages for coordination and more potential for developing functional strength.
The more muscle stimulated in one compound movement the more potential there is for muscle growth.
Time under tension
Time under tension is another factor that is responsible for muscle growth. This there is a specific tempo to your lifting that is optimal for muscle growth. The optimal rep range for muscle growth is 8-12 reps and the optimal time under tension is 45-60 seconds. If you complete your 12 reps within 30 seconds then you will be short changing yourself in terms of effectively gaining muscle.
There are certain exercises with in the calisthenics repertoire that stress time under tension more then any other exercise. You can apply a lot of the staple calisthenics exercises to gymnastic rings training; for example, pull ups, push ups, dips and rows.
Rings have the added advantage of instability. Instability may seem like a dubious attribute for a piece of exercise equipment, but what this does is force the body to stabilise itself.
The rings can move freely and rotate in any direction, in contrast to a fixed bar or dip station that remains static. Therefore the exercises carried out on gymnastic rings requires a high level of muscular coordination and control.
The need for stabilisation recruits more muscle fibres and the instability requires a slower eccentric phase of the lift as well as control at the top and the bottom of these movements.
Therefore the equipment makes you more naturally inclined to work within the 45-60 per set time frame that is favourable for muscle gain.
I personally feel the difference with gymnastic rings as I takes me 45 seconds on average to complete 8 clean dips with a full range of motion, whereas when the instability element is taken out, on static dip bars, my natural inclined to complete the reps a lot quicker with a tempo of 12 reps completed in 30 seconds.
The gymnastic rings also have the added benefit of significantly more tension rep for rep, making them a very effective for hypertrophy and strength gains.
How do you build muscle with calisthenics?
As mentioned, the body muscle building potential isn't determined by the equipment used, so you can build muscle with body weight or a barbell.
The principle of progressive overload is essential for muscle building whether its with traditional weights or calisthenics. In order to build muscle you need to progressively overload muscle groups in such a way that it triggers the body's natural, adaptive response.
This means the intensity of your work outs has to increase in order to keep gaining muscle.
Intensity is usually increased in three ways:
The volume of reps
More challenging variations of the exercise
Intensity of each individual rep
The volume of reps is easy to increase, you just do more pull ups or push ups per set to fatigue.
However this approach has its limitations when it comes to muscle building.
The ideal rep range for muscle building is 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets with a resistance of moderate intensity.
If the volume of reps you are doing falls significantly out of this rep range then it is the muscle is not being challenged with sufficient intensity for it to grow.
A higher number of reps does however increase your strength endurance which can be very useful for athletic performance but it is more then likely that your muscle mass gains will plateau.
Therefore you have to challenge your muscles another way. This can be achieve through more challenging variations of the same exercise. If you have become accustomed to performing 15+ chin ups, then to make the exercise more challenging you can try wide grip pull ups. The wider the grip the more emphasis is put on the latismus dorsi and the more difficult the exercise will be.
Another example of this is if you have exceeded the challenge of push ups and want to continue adding size to your chest or triceps then you can try adjusting the width of your hand placement with a wider hand spacing emphasising chest development or a narrower hand placement stressing the triceps. Or you can try push ups with rings for the added stimulus of instability etc.
Increasing the intensity of each rep
The third way to maintain a progressive overload and continue muscle hypertrophy with calisthenics is to add weight to increase the intensity of each individual rep.
The phrase 'weighted calisthenics' may seem like an oxymoron. Adding weight to a body weight exercise may seem like defeating the point.
But this is the most scalable way to make your body weight workouts more challenging.
If you are hitting a high number of reps of pull ups set after set it is unlikely the muscle groups that under tension will significantly increase in size.
However if you add additional weight to the exercise using either a weighted vest or a weight belt then you can increase the intensity of the exercise and as long as the right amount of weight is added, it can put you back into the optimal rep range for hypertrophy (8-12 reps).
Adding weight is a versatile way to increase the difficulty of your calisthenics muscle building programme as you can add weight to many different exercises.
Personally I prefer a dipping belt and weight plates for
And I favour a weighted vest for
You can also use ankle weights to increase the intensity of hanging leg/knee raises, l-sit isometric holds etc.
Maintaining a progressive overload
I personally find myself mixing all three of these training variables to continue building muscle.
For example I can comfortably rep out over 20 body weight pull ups but with the addition of 30 KG (66 lbs) I hit about 8-10 reps which puts me squarely in the range for hypertrophy and I can continue building muscle at a consistent rate.
However with push ups I tend to find more difficult variations. My personal favourite are hand stand push ups with heels against a wall. The wall provides stability and takes balance out of the equation and I can concentrate on the quality of my reps.
Anyone who has every tried this will know handstand push ups are considerable harder then standard push ups as you are supporting and pushing 100% your body weight whereas with conventional push ups the figure is anywhere from 60% to 80% (depending on your height) as you feet act as fulcrum point on the ground.
There is no shortage of challenging variations to calisthenics exercises, for example this article lists 82 different push up variations all of which incrementally increase the intensity of each rep.
Stressing the eccentric phase of the exercise
One key factor that tends to get overlooked when it comes to muscle building is the importance decline phase of a movement.
Styles such as cross fit tend to emphasis speed of repetitions under a time limit in a competition context. This approach is counterproductive if your goal is building muscle and avoiding injury.
It also negates the significance of the eccentric part of the exercise.
An 'eccentric movement' is simply the lowering portion of the movement. So for example, when you do a pull up, the pulling up to the bar movement is the concentric phase (muscles contracting under tension) of the exercise and the when you lower yourself from the point your chin is over the bar back down to a dead hang is the eccentric phase (muscle lengthening under tension).
If you simply drop down from the top of the pull up you are neglecting 50% of the exercise and lowering the amount of time your are under tension- a significant factor in muscle building.
So take time over your reps and try to got at an event tempo between the lifting and lowering of an exercise to accrue the muscle building benefits of both stages of the lift.
How much time should I take between sets?
When it comes to muscle building the optimal amount of rest between sets is around 1-2 minutes.
When it comes to big compound movements such as dips and pull ups then I personally typically take two minutes rest between sets. This is the right balance between having enough rest to recovery but also you are working at a rate that is going to put the muscle under enough metabolic stress for hypertrophy.
If you take too short a time between sets then this will gear your training more towards developing muscular endurance. This will make your muscles more resistant to fatigue, which has athletic performance benefits but this isn't the best approach for stimulating muscle growth.
However the amount of time under tension, the optimal rep range and intensity are more important factors then the rest taken between sets. My advice is always to err on the side of caution and if in doubt take more rest.
If you cannot reach 8-12 reps with good form by the third set then take a longer break and perhaps consider lowering the intensity of the exercise by either using a lighter weight, if you are doing weighted calisthenics or switch to an easier variation, i.e. instead of wide grip pull ups switch to narrow grip chin ups.
Should I train to failure?
If you are hitting the point of 'failure' to complete a repetition with good form within the 8-12 rep range then you are training with the correct level of intensity to trigger muscle growth.
It is important to note that hitting failure within a specific rep range is different to an accumulation of muscle fatigue that you experience during high repetition workouts.
It is really important not compromise your form in order to get your quota of reps.
What a lot of people do when the feel fatigue setting in is start to do partial reps of movements or speed up the tempo of the exercise. This is counter productive to your muscle building goals.
If you feel yourself flagging in the lower reps then you may need to adjust the intensity of the exercise or switch to an easier variation.
For example if you can't hit enough dips or pull ups consider using some assistance for a resistance band or switch your variation of push up.
Leg training for calisthenics
Leg training in the context of muscle growth is one of the main limitations of calisthenics. There are challenging body weight leg exercises such as the box jump, pistol squat, calf raises and lunges. But all these exercises have limited potential in terms of hypertrophy.
The problem is the major muscles in your legs (hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, calves) are all big muscles that carry your entire body weight around. This means they are naturally strong and well conditioned for endurance.
Leg exercises where the only resistance is your body weight typically are not going to challenge them enough for consistent hypertrophy. Body weight will not place the muscles under enough tension for them to grow.
Also there are less variations of these exercises compared with upper body movements so its difficult to increase the intensity in the same way.
This is where you need to supplement your approach with weights. Barbell squats in particular are one the best way to ensure consistent hypertrophy form your workouts by maintaining a progressive overload of weight. There are a lot of leg exercises that can be scaled up to suit different abilities.
This is not to disregard the value of calisthenics leg exercises. Pistol squats are very challenging movements that requires great strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and ankle mobility.
Box jumps along with sprints are some of the best ways to develop lower body explosive strength.
However these exercise do not typically have an emphasis on muscle building and whilst there is some scope to make them more challenging (weighted vest) the best approach for muscle growth are still the weighted variations of squats, lunges calf raises etc.
So don't limit your muscle building potential when it comes to leg training and embrace the weights to keep up a progressive overload so you can achieve hypertrophy.
It is important to remember that there are many variables at play when It comes to building muscle. We've discussed the concepts in this article of progressive overload and time under tension optimal rep range.
These sort of variables are true for all types of muscle building training universally, and its this framework that you need to apply to calisthenics workouts in order to build muscle.
Of course its important to acknowledge that we have to adapt calisthenics to fit the formula for muscle building. Endless reps and sets of push ups or chin ups will stress other athletic attributes such as endurance strength and stamina but ultimately you need to increase the difficulty of each rep in order to consistently add mass.
I must stress that exercise is only one piece to the puzzle when it comes to building muscle. There are other factors such as your unique physiology , quality of sleep, life style, diet protein intake and capacity for recovery that will all play a role in your success.
But remember resistance is resistance where it comes in the form of your body weight or weight plates. Your body's physiological adaptive response does not discriminate between the two.
As long as your resourceful with increasing the intensity of each rep over time with either a dip belt/weight vest or more challenging variations (handstand push ups as opposed to regular pull ups) in the right rep range (8-12) with the optimal time under tension (45-60 seconds) whilst stressing the eccentric portion of the rep then you CAN and WILL build muscle with calisthenics.
Any questions post below and if this article helped you please share on your preferred social media channels using the icons below ↓↓↓