Weighted Calisthenics for strength and muscle gains?
So your gains may have plateaued form your body weight exercise routine you are wondering where to go from here? Is adding weight the solution? And what is the best way to start?
Two advantages that traditional weightlifting has over body weight exercise are:
Clear numerical progressions
A beginner’s weight lifting goal may be to bench press 100 kilos (225lbs) for example. This is a clearly defined target to aim for and something they can work towards.
Setting goals helps keeps you focused on the task at hand. This keeps you motivated and then you can start develop a plan and organise a routine for how you are going to achieve that goal.
And with a clear numerical value you can assess where you are and determine how far you have to go. For example if you currently bench press 60 KG and you’re aiming for 100 KG you can set a goal to increase your bench press one rep max by 10 kilos per month.
This whole feedback and reward system is helps to stay disciplined and achieving the specific goal is becomes incredibly gratifying, which is why so many people get addicted to resistance training.
With calisthenics, the level of resistance is ultimately restricted by your body weight. However you can progress form the basic movements (pull ups, dips) to more advanced exercises (muscle ups and dips).
And of course you can measure your progress by how many reps of these exercises you can perform. But once you can perform 15 or more pull ups then your strength training can hit a wall.
This pertains particularly to maximal strength training. If you are at level where you can do a body weight exercise for more then 15 reps then the level of resistance that your body weight provides is no longer of a sufficient intensity to overload your muscles and illicit significant gains in maximal strength or muscle growth.
The emphasis of the training is then shifted away from maximal strength to endurance strength (i.e. from lifting as greater load as possible to lifting a load of lower intensity for a higher number of reps)
Rather then a tribalism approach to a working out, why not combine the best of both worlds and train weighted calisthenics. This way you can reap the benefits of weight training and the functional strength training of calisthenics.
A synergistic approach can take your calisthenics training to the next level.
Weighted calisthenics: muscle growth (hypertrophy)
Can weighted calisthenics be a viable strategy for muscle growth? The answer is a definite yes. Weighted calisthenics can be one of the most effective ways to grow muscle.
This is because nearly all body weight exercises are compound movements. A compound movement is an exercise that engages multiple muscle groups in one movement. The more muscles that are effectively engaged in a movement the more overall muscle can grow.
Breaking down more individual muscle fibres elicits a higher hormonal response. The impact of all this muscle fibre damage is that body tries to repair itself by increase your body's natural levels testosterone and growth hormone. This leads to higher muscle growth and makes for a more time effective workout.
In addition to this if you add weights to your body weight (either through a weight belt or weighted vest) then you can adopt the progressive overload principle used by weight lifters and apply it to calisthenics.
The progressive overload principle is essentially placing a higher demand on an individual muscle or muscle group then has previously been demanded.
Muscular and strength adaptation occurs when a form of resistance is at a high enough of an intensity to invoke muscle overload, and your muscles grow bigger and stronger to adapt to the higher workload.
To target muscle growth (hypertrophy) you have to follow the progressive overload principle and adopt the optimal rep range for hypertrophy.
The optimal rep range for hypertrophy is a contested subject but the general consensus is that a moderate weight lifted 8-15 reps for 3-5 sets is best.
If the reps are significantly higher then this it is likely the weight will not be enough of a challenge to stimulate growth and the emphasis shifts to developing endurance strength.
This is not to say a high rep routine cannot develop muscle, particularly if your a beginner but if you are an experienced lifter then a high rep routine is unlikely to be sufficiently challenging to stimulate muscle growth.
Weighted Calisthenics: Strength training
Weighted calisthenics can also be a very effective strategy for gaining strength. Body weight exercises are almost exclusively compound exercises (pull ups, dips etc.) which as I have said is good for muscle growth however if you can gain strength using these movements then there are many benefits.
For example attaining strength in a movement such as a pull up teaches multiple muscle groups to work in unison with each other.
If you are gaining strength for athletic endeavours or just personal satisfaction, it is far better to pursue strength in the exercises that will have a functional benefit and consider the body's movement in its entirety.
This is in contrast to a traditional body builders approach of isolating specific muscles to make them grow by for example using gym machines or exercises that are overly specific such as a preach curler.
The isolation strategy is more likely to lead to muscle imbalances and developing movement patterns of muscles working separately doesn't lend itself well to functional movement and therefore athletic endeavours.
To get stronger using weighted calisthenics is simple. Choose exercises that can add weight to safely and adopt a power lifting progression framework. I have always had success with the generically prescribed heavy weights for low reps and perhaps 3-5 sets.
Here is a video of myself doing chin ups lifting 50 KG (110 lbs) for 4 reps. I have a one rep max of 70 KG (154 lbs). I achieved these lifts by training weighted chin ups, perhaps once a week. Any higher training frequency and realistically if you are a natural lifter you may stray into the over training territory.
Once I got into the groove of training weighted chin ups training I found my recovery time became shorter and any delayed onset muscle soreness (doms) alleviated more quickly then when I first trained, so if you're a beginner and you're still sore after a week don't worry you will adjust.
My routine for string chin ups (or pull ups) is fairly typical of power lifting. I drop down to 40- 45 KG (95 lbs) for a training set. I'll aim for 4-5 reps per set and aim for at least three sets. I do not train to failure when training strength. Training to failure is more important to muscle building.
For strength training, the train to failure philosophy will just burn you out unnecessarily and won't do much if anything to increase maximal strength.
Even if you feel you can do more reps my advice for strength is to always leave something in the tank, therefore you refrain from burn out, recover quicker, are less likely to injure yourself, and potentially train more frequently resulting in better gains.
I approach all my calisthenics strength training in the same way and have seen great results.
Developing this level of pulling strength undoubtedly help me achieve a muscle up and to go on and do weighted muscle ups of (20+ KG). You can see my full rings muscle up tutorial here. Developing strength in calisthenics transfers to strength in many different lifts and has various athletic applications.
So if you have some experience of training a power lifting routine then I would thoroughly recommend extending your routine to include weighted calisthenics.
Power lifting with just weights can be fairly limited to only a few lifts (e.g. bench press, squat and dead-lift), but you can diversify your routine and broaden your range of techniques with weighted pull ups, dips etc.
How to add weight to your exercises (weight belt vs weighted vest)
They're a few credible ways to add weight to calisthenics safely but if I had to stick with one method it would be adding a weight belt (also known as a dip belt) every time.
Choosing the right dipping belt is important as cheaper versions have inadequate carabinas to handle large amounts of weight, which can be a risk mid workout. This dipping belt on amazon is the one I use and has a super solid carabina and chain and comfortable fit over the hips, even with heavy weights/
First of all is how adjustable weight belts are and how they lend themselves well to progression as you can add plates to suit your ability.
With weight belts one size fits all so there is no need to worry about having the right size for your body shape (unlike a weighted vest).
Another option for adding weight is a weighted vest. While they can be a useful tool weighted vests are not as versatile or cost effective as a weight belt. For example I have used the same weight belt for years and it is the top rated weight belt on amazon. Best of all it costs a third of the price of a decent weighted vest.
Also weighted vests are limited in the amount of weight you can add (Most only go up to about 30 KG or 66 lbs) which can be a limit to your strength training. By comparison I have personally used a weight belt with +70 KG with out a problem.
Another disadvantage of the vest is that most are only able to increase the weight in increments of 5 KG (11 lbs) which is quite a large jump and prevents you from increasing weight more gradually.
A very important and underrated factor is comfort. A padded belt sits comfortably on your hips with the weight hanging between your legs not in contact with your body. With a vest you are having to wear an article of clothing that can weigh up to 30 KG.
The weight sits on your shoulders and torso which considering you will be doing upper body movements such as pull ups and dips means that there is inevitably hard friction between the vest on your skin.
This can become really uncomfortable especially if you are having to wear it for an amount of time whilst completing your reps and sets.
The redeeming feature of weighted vest is that they can be used to train plyometric box jumps unlike a weight belt. The added weight stays tight to your body and it is definitely a worthy technique for progression if you are looking to develop explosiveness in your legs.
However a slight note of caution is that I would limit explosive training with added weight, particularly in the context of box jumps as this can have a high impact on your knees. Personally I would advise sticking to body weight when jump training for the longevity of your joints.
Weighted belts are considerably cheaper then vests (about a third of the price)
Belts are considerably more comfortable then vest for doing upper body exercises.
Belts are easier to adjust and can be adjusted in smaller increments.
You are far less limited in terms of the maximum weight you can add to a belt compared with the vest.
Weighted vest are a great way to add resistance when training box jumps. (something you can't do with a weight belt).
For these reasons, on balance I would wholeheartedly recommend that you invest in a good quality weight belt instead of a vest.
Which lifts are best for weighted calisthenics?
This is a great question as some calisthenics movements lend themselves to adding weight better then others. The primary calisthenics exercises I recommend for adding weight are:
Pull ups and chin ups
CrossFit and kipping techniques
It is important to emphasis I recommend the strict form of these exercises and not the CrossFit kipping versions.
This is primarily to do with the impact it would have on your joints. With kipping pull ups for example momentum and plyometric (explosive) movement is privileged over form and technique.
When the goal is competition and achieving as many reps as possible then adding weight will not help you with this goal and could lead to injury. With kipping pull ups there is a high impact on joints, ligaments and tendons as you hit the bottom of the movement.
With pull ups the swinging or kipping phase allows you to launch your body up so that you chin is over the bar without utilising proper technique. At the bottom of the movement you bounce off all the connective tissue and use the momentum to launch yourself back up again.
If you haven't spent a significant amount of time training in this way and progressively strengthening your tendons and ligaments then attempted maximum repetitions of this movement is likely to lead in injury.
Of course a reputable CrossFit trainer would know the right progressions and guide you to work towards difficult movements like this in a safe and responsible way. But if you are training outside of guidance of an instructor then my advice is to never attempt adding weight to a kipping movement as the muscle and connective tissue is already under enough stress with just your body weight.
If you are new to weighted calisthenics and have limited space or resources one of the simplest and cost effective ways to add weight to your body weight routine is a backpack loaded with free weights or weight plates. This works particularly well with push ups as you can load a back pack adjust the straps so it is comfortable and get to work. Push ups are also an exercise that everyone is familiar with and carries a low risk of injury.
Weighted pull ups or chin ups
This is actually my personal favourite exercise for weighted calisthenics. In terms of both strength and muscle development this exercise should be a staple of your routine.
It is effective with both muscle and strength gain and is also one of the safest techniques to add weight too.
If you are a beginner in the gym you wouldn't load the bar on a bench press with 200 KG (440 lbs). The same is true with adding weight to your pull up.
If you can successfully execute 10 pull ups with good form then start by adding 5-10 KG and go slowly. As I already mentioned you should find the appropriate weight and exercise in the most appropriate rep range to achieve your goals.
I personally have trained extensively with weighted chin ups and have lifted and additional +70 KG (154 lbs) (the world record stands currently at +100 KG 220lbs set by Marcus Bondi seen here)
Weighted dips is another personal favourite of mine. This is another calisthenics exercise that is simple to add weight to and can offer great scope for progression.
The dip is often described as the 'upper body squat' in the weight lifting community and this is testament to how effective this exercise is for adding mass and gaining strength.
Again I would recommend you get to a level of strength where you can perform 10 clean reps on parallel bars before attempting to add weight.
I would advise that you only add weight in 5 KG increments or less to your dip at the start. If you are training for strength find a weight where you can safely complete 5 reps for 3-5 sets and follow the progressive overload principle.
You can perform dips with a weighted vest, however a weight belt or dip belt (clues in the name) is always the best option to add weight to dips. You are already pushing your entire body weight through a significant range of motion so add weight to this exercise slowly.
Don't go too heavy too early as you will just risk injury and it will not help you achieve your goal.
Should I train with weights on gymnastic rings or bars?
The short answer here is to start on bars. Although many of the recommend exercises for weighted calisthenics can be performed on both pieces of equipment, gymnastic ring training is a different and more difficult beast altogether.
I myself, hold ring training in very high regard, however the challenge with rings lies in the instability and If you are just beginning training weighted calisthenics then It would be wise to avoid ring training for the time being. (For my favourite gymnastic rings check out my guide).
A fixed pull up bar or dip station offers the best starting point for weighted calisthenics. The best approach is to you start slow and avoid injury by adding a small amount of weight in increments so your body can adjust to lifting a higher load then it is used to.
Adding weight is already a new stimulus so to add weight when on gymnastic rings would be an overload and potentially lead to injury. If you are new to gymnastic rings, mastering even the basic body weight movements requires extensive training. I wrote an article on how to master the muscle up on gymnastic rings which details the benefits and challenges of ring training.
This is not to say that you can't add weights to a rings programme (I have done myself) but you need to put in the ground work, by adjusting to the rings instability with just your body weight first and then become proficient to a point where you can execute techniques such as pull ups dips and rows for 10+ reps each before attempting to add weight.
However ring training has been one of my go to methods of training for overcoming plateaus on the bar. For example my maximum chin up on the bar was stuck at 50 KG for months without any progress.
My usually process for increasing a one rep max was to drop the weight (to around 30 KG) and do as many reps of possible but in this case that was to no avail. I then tried the same routine one the rings and immediately found progress.
My muscle had a new stimulus to adapt to and the stabilising muscles around my shoulder joint became considerably stronger which was the adjustment I needed to attain a higher one rep max on the bar. Within weeks I had added another 10 KG to my lifts which highlights the transferable strength from rings to bars and illustrates how ring exercises can be useful as supplementary training to bar exercises.
The conclusion is that you can train extensively and more safely on the bars without even considering the rings. Save ring training for a separate project and concentrate you weighted calisthenics efforts on the bars.
However if you put in the ground work on the rings and adjust to the rings unique instability then you can begin to add weight to ring techniques if you want as it does have its merits. But for most people for the purposes of strength training and hypertrophy stick with the bars.
The value of weighted calisthenics- Conclusion
Weighted calisthenics is a perfect synergy combining the benefits of weight training with the the functional fitness of calisthenics.
They can be used in the same way as weights to build muscle and strength using the progressive overload principle.
Calisthenics exercises are compound movements, utilising multiple muscle groups so your body learns how to move in unison as opposed to muscles working in isolation.
Weighted calisthenics therefore translates to athletic competition your body has to perform as one unit.
The rep range can be adjusted for specific strength training and muscle gains (hypertrophy).
The exercises can applied to weightlifting, body building, sport and competition.
Appropriate for both men and women gym goers who are looking for progression or a new stimulus to add to their routine.
Scope for progression and limitless scalability for season gym goers and advanced athletes for unrivalled strength.
Relatively inexpensive with minimal equipment: Only apparatus required, pull up bars, dip bars, weight belt with plates or weighted vest.
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