Are Calisthenics Optimal for Building Muscle?

Arnold Using Calisthenics to Build MuscleBodyweight 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:

Main lift:

1) Strict One-Arm Push-Up 5 x 3

Assistance Work:

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Thanks for reading, like, subscribe, comment, share, enjoy.

Alex Zinchenko

My RSS Feed and e-mail newsletter are waiting for you.


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32 thoughts on “Are Calisthenics Optimal for Building Muscle?

  1. Pingback: Progressive Resistance. Protein. Patience | RoughStrength.com - Gain Strength, Build Muscle, Lose Fat, Get Awesome!

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  5. Bill

    Hey Alex I found your website while researching about calisthenics routine. I used to train mainly with weight until several months ago when i switched to pure bodyweight training. So far my results are great and I can do movements that I didn’t even know of previously. I was wondering whats your thoughts on lowerbody bodyweight exercises.

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey, Bill. Thanks for stopping by. Calisthenics are really limited in lower body development no matter what others say. When you master pistol there’s nothing really you can come up with except adding weighted vest or some kettlebells etc. That is why if you have access to barbell you should at least squat and deadlift. If no then invest in pair of kettlebells or make a sandbag. This way you’ll be progressing in your lower body training.

      – Alex

      Reply
  6. liam

    Hi Alex. Thanks for your blog. I’m an old skool weight lifter thats drifting towards the wonderful sport of calisthenics. I have had great success with the classic isotonic lifting in gyms for many years, and have experienced great gains in hypertrophy. However, i have a l4/l5 disc bulge that i acquired through weight lifting and ice hockey 5 years ago. Due to this my weight training and hockey has suffered tremendously, i continued doing weights, but with a technique that allowed some range of motion to ease pressure from my lower back. This made weight training very limited and my goals were much harder to achieve. so partly due to this, and due to my back progressively getting worse through the unnatural movements of weighted resistance workouts, i decided to 1 strengthen my back through physiotherapy and i.d.d decompression. With a bit of research I came across a website that that provided info and training techniques to rehabilitate l4/l5 disc trauma. The exercise was based on calisthenics! So i did the basic stuff first, for 1.5 months, then moved onto isometric bar exercise’s, i.e front and back levers, side planks, reverse hyper extensions and dragon flags. Im still currently doing those 5 routines and have been doing so for 3.5 weeks! Ive thoroughly enjoyed doing them, in fact ive enjoyed them so much that ive decided never to punish my back again through weights and to take up calisthenics instead. Ive done alot of youtubing on tutorials etc and have ordered Al kalvaldo’s dvd (raising the bar) im still waiting for it to be delivered :( My only concern is that, naturally im a skinny guy. I experience atrophy pretty quick and putting size on takes me alot of effort and time. Also ive only ever been able to gain mass by going HEAVY in the past ( ive tried press ups before, but i didn’t achieve good mass gains) I understand that calisthenics is great for building strength for core stability (which is the main reason why ive taken up the sport, and to aid in rehabilitating my back) I also would love to gain the mass i used to have via weights. I understand the concept of low intensity and higher reps/sets = leaner/slimmer gains and high intensity low reps/sets = mass/strength gains. Due to calisthenics being low intensity high reps type of exercise, ive thought about adding a weighted vest to some of the exercises. Do you think that i could achieve similar gains to using weights by adding a weight vest to decrease reps/ sets and higher the intensity? Sorry if ive rambled on, just thought i’d share my story lol. once again thanks for the blog, its nice to come by people that are interested in this sport

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Liam. As I wrote in the article, you can gain muscle mass with calisthenics. It’s possible. It’s just not optimal way to do it. The rules are the same. Develop strength, don’t forget about volume, eat big, eat enough protein, sleep well. That’s it. Read my articles to get more information.

      – Alex

      Reply
  7. Chris

    Hey Alex, great article. I’m wondering about training frequency. How often would you recommend working out if someone is doing a difficult, high volume workout such as the sample one you included in this article?
    thanks, chris

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Chris, all depends on individual. You should find the frequency that is suitable for you. I guess, no more than 3-4 strength sessions per week with different exercises or at least different set/rep schemes. For some individuals it may be training session every 3 days. But again everything may vary.

      To learn more you can read my article here: http://roughstrength.com/training-techniques/volume-intensity-frequency-relationship-strength-training/

      – Alex

      Reply
  8. Curtis Miller

    The rules don’t change. If your body weight excercises take you to failure or near it doesn’t matter if it is a bench press or push-ups. Your body does’t care or even know!

    Reply
  9. joker

    wow ! “Body built with calisthenics will be sustainable to your grey hairs”

    I can see myself in 50 years with my incredible strenght and grey hairs

    thx man !

    Reply
  10. jid

    is doing static hold in each reps can put stress to your muscle? Some people say it’s efficient to build muscle without adding weight (such as vase or sandbag). i think the longer you hold the position the harder the exercise (such as pull ups or push ups). Can you explain whether this is really true Alex?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey, Jid. If I got your question right then it’s about time under tension. Holding positions and performing slow reps can definitely help you in building muscle. But you shouldn’t go overboard with these. I think tempo of the negative and positive phases of exercise are much more beneficial to hypertrophy than beginning and end postions. Thus, for example, while performing Pull-Ups bottom position hold will increase demand on the performance but in way of tiring the grip and the whole chain, not tiring target muscles.

      If you want to add intensity while not adding weight your number one option should be movement further through proper progression. But if you don’t want to do it then you can try slowing down the negative part. That’s cool and easy way to use tempo training without overthinking it. For example, Pull-Ups. You jump on the bar, pull yourself up as always but lower down for 5 seconds. This will add more intensity and time under tension thus potentially more muscle gains.

      Check out this awesome and in-depth article by Charles Poliquin for more details: http://www.charlespoliquin.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/898/Ten_Things_You_Should_Know_About_Tempo_Training.aspx

      – Alex

      Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey, Jaime. It all depends on your current levels of strength. If you are just starting then go with Push-Ups, Pull-Ups, Dips and Squats. If you are more intermediate trainee then you can read this article.

      – Alex

      Reply
      1. jaime

        Its jaime again, how long should I do those basics before I can start doing the extreme calisthenics workouts ?

        Reply
        1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

          Hey, Jaime. My answer would be: as long as it takes. Progress gradually, adding just a little bit of resistance at a time. Otherwise, you’ll fail.

          – Alex

          Reply
          1. raq

            Hi Alex, dont mind. Make me a workout routine for beginners. The exercises and set&reps altogether. Thanks.

            -fan from SG ;)

          2. raq

            Hey Alex,

            What i wanted was a beginner routine for calistehnics workout brah, set by u maybe .. But thanks for ur initial help thou. ;)

            -fan from SG

          3. Alex Zinchenko Post author

            Hey, Raq,

            I’d love to help but you should understand one thing. Everybody is different. Everybody needs personalized program to make gains. Read this article for more info: http://roughstrength.com/importance-individual-approach-training-nutrition/

            If you want to train just for fun go to the park and do some pull-ups, dips, push-ups and bodyweight squats. That would be enough for any beginner (even plenty for some). But if your goal is to get stronger and learn some advanced calisthenics skills then you need precise programming.

            – Alex

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  13. Frank

    I had a question about the body-weight exercises for legs. I’m obsessed with training the legs, and I know about the pistol squat, but I really dig the barbell. My only hitch with body-weight exercises is for the squat. It seems the reason barbell back squats can’t be matched is the combination of spinal loading as well as loading on the knee joint and hip. Is there something to this? Am I wrong? Is there a way for body-weight training to do this? Thanks for your time.

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey, Frank,

      Pistol and classic Barbell Squat are similar and different exercises at the same time. They both work leg muscles fully and develop leg strength. The difference is that Pistol requires much more balance and control comparing to the Squat. This means that the Squat is much better for developing leg size. As for leg strength, assuming that you will use additional weight once you’ve mastered the regular Pistol they are pretty close.

      – Alex

      Reply
  14. Pingback: Progressive Resistance. Protein. Patience

  15. Matus

    Hi Alex,

    it is possible to build big chest without barbell and dumbells ? I use only these equipments: weight belt for w. calisthenics, 32kg Kettlebell, sandbag (70kg) , rings, pull up and dip bar…

    What should i definitely add to my Training Arsenal? I wanna know your opinion :).

    thx alex.

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Matus,

      Yes, it is possible. Put time and effort into Weighted Dips, Bulgarian Ring Dips, and Ring Flies, and soon you’ll need a bra.

      – Alex

      Reply

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