Bodyweight strength training was a revelation for me. I was quite ignorant for some time and thought that weight training is a must if your goal is to gain strength and build muscle. When I was introduced to progressive calisthenics, my world turned upside down. It was a golden gem. Now I have solid experience with this kind of training and here’s the question I want to discuss today: is bodyweight strength training optimal for building muscle?
Why Even Bother?
Well, the benefits of calisthenics are huge:
- No gym memberships
- Almost no equipment
- You can train anytime anywhere
- No restrictions and limits
- Calisthenics provide opportunity for creativity
- You can make almost any movement pattern extremely hard and intense
- It’s fun
- They give you the opportunity to learn control over your body etc.
And these just the first things that come to my mind. For me, bodyweight strength training provides one HUGE benefit that blows away any other training implement with ease. It’s sustainability. Just imagine (well, super hypothetically), apocalypse came and there are no gyms or weights left on Earth for some reason. How would you train? Seriously, progressive calisthenics give you a lifetime opportunity to train and get stronger. You’ll depend on nothing but your bodyweight and your determination. That is awesome. I like minimalism and it’s minimalism at its finest. It doesn’t matter whether you move to another city or another country, whether you have money for gym membership or weights. Nothing matters except your determination and discipline.
It’s All Cool But Back to the Theme, Please
Ok. Are calisthenics optimal for building muscle? Notice how I emphasize on “optimal” aspect. Some may disagree, but pure calisthenics are not optimal for building muscle. By “pure” I mean using strictly bodyweight, no weighted vests or chains etc. I’ll explain my point of view.
The thing is that when you use just your bodyweight you depend on progressions. Progressions divide your path in learning given exercise from the easiest step to the hardest. The best of them are the ones that have more steps, so the exercise is learned in more gradual manner. Now, for example, compare Barbell Bench Press (BBP) to Planche Push-Up (PPU). In BBP you can start with an empty bar (which is 20 kg), hardly difficult task for anyone except maybe some weak girls. In PPU you start with Pseudo-Planche Push-Ups, these require decent regular push-ups and are pretty hard if executed properly. Then in BBP you can add 2.5 kg to bar, an increment so small that at certain stages you won’t even notice it. In PPU you progress from one position to another and there are great chances that, while you became pretty proficient with current position, you can’t even hold the next one. In BBP you learn proper exercise form right away and then just polish your technique, while adding weight to the bar. In PPU you learn new exercise every time you move to harder progression step. I think you got the idea.
Barbell with its small increments is the king for building muscle. I guess, it will remain undefeated forever. However, does that mean that calisthenics are waste of time? No. Here’s why.
I’ve used word ‘optimal’ for a reason. Is bodyweight strength training optimal for building muscle? No. Is it possible to build muscle with it? Hell yes. If your goal is only to build muscle and as fast as possible, then calisthenics are probably not for you. Use barbell or any other training implement that allows you to add resistance gradually. For example, sandbag. But those of you, my friends, who think outside of the box, who are not obsessed with their appearance and want to become superstrong with their own body, are welcome to try bodyweight strength training and get awesome body like a byproduct of proper training and nutrition. But it will require dedication.
For Those Who Dare
Firstly, don’t forget about progressive resistance and volume. Make your exercise progressively harder over time. Get stronger. If you feel that basic strength training is not enough for growth, add assistance exercises to increase training volume. For example, your upper-body training day can look like this:
1) Strict One-Arm Push-Up 5 x 3
A1) Bulgarian Ring Dips 4 x 6-8
A2) Back Lever Pull-Outs 4 x 4-6
B1) Ring Dips 3 x 8-12
B2) Inverted Ring Pull-Ups 3 x 8-12
That’s an example for pretty strong dudes but you got the thought.
Secondly, building muscle is not only about training but also about nutrition. Get a good diet with decent amount of calories and protein. Remember, if you want to build muscle, you need to be in calorie surplus. If you don’t execute this requirement, it doesn’t matter whether you train with barbell or with bodyweight you won’t build muscle. Also remember that muscle is built slowly, so don’t rush the process or you’ll get fat.
Yes, bodyweight strength training is not the fastest way to build muscle. But remember sustainability? If you got all your muscle with barbell training, that’s great, but you’ll need to train like that forever to sustain it. This means that you’ll need either your own weights or gym memberships. Calisthenics set you free from this. Body built with calisthenics will be sustainable to your grey hairs. However, if you’re cheap bastard that wants just look and fast, then you probably shouldn’t dedicate yourself to calisthenics.
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