A frequently asked question among those who want to start calisthenics is if it is possible to build muscle mass and strength only by doing bodyweight exercises.
The answer is: Of course!!
Well, you are maybe skeptic now, like most of the people. That is perhaps because of the picture we have about huge bodybuilders lifting tons of weights in the gym.
But, bodyweight training can do the same for you. OK, you may never look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you are going to have such a body that makes you proud.
How should you create a perfect bodyweight workout for mass and strength?
Just follow the tips below.
Tips for building muscle with bodyweight only
Resistance & progressive overload
Firstly, we have to understand how and why the muscles gain in size and strength.
When you lift weights, let's say you do flat bench press, the resistance is the weight you use. Your chest muscles work, and they have to adapt to the new stress, so they grow in size and strength.
On the other hand, your muscles do not care about if the resistance comes from a barbell, dumbbell, rubber bands or your own body weight, they will develop if you work them.
In this case, your chest muscles will grow no matter if you do bench press or push-ups.
The key is always to give your muscle fibers a new impact so that they have to adapt so that they will grow.
That is progressive overload!
How to force your muscles to grow
How can you get progressive overload?
By increasing the resistance! That you can do in various ways like:
- increasing the number of reps and sets
- increasing the resistance level with the help of exercise variations, weights, etc.
- altering the intensity
The first and the third points are obvious.
But, how can you achieve higher resistance with bodyweight exercises?
The beauty of calisthenics is that for each exercise have numerous variations for any level of fitness. This way you can keep the progressive overload which is required for mass and strength development.
Let me give you an example.
The push up is among the most beneficial upper body exercises. It is especially great for the chest.
Let's say you are a total beginner who cannot do a single push up at all.
What can you do?
You start with incline push-ups, then when you can do about 15-20, you start doing the regular ones since you have the power. Then, you switch to decline ones, then to diamond push-ups, and other harder versions. In the end, you will reach the level when you can do one arm push ups.
When you switch to another movement, you will not be able to do as many reps, but you give the fibers what they need to develop.
The same is true for any of the most crucial bodyweight exercises that I'm going to talk about later.
Yes, it takes time, but this way you will fulfill the progressive overload that is required for development.
Perform single limb exercises
The top gaining bodyweight exercises are those when you use one of your limbs instead of both. These movements require incredible strength since you have to lift almost your entire body weight while keeping your balance and the correct form. These are real compound exercises boosting the power and endurance of your body to the sky.
What are these: one arm pull up, chin up, push-ups and (single leg) pistol squats and maybe the hardest is the single arm handstand push up.
What is the best number of reps?
In bodybuilding, the muscle building zone is about 8-12, but for bodyweight training 10-15 is better, I think. So, get exercises that make you fatigue by doing such number of reps, and 3-4 sets will do.
That is a good sign when you feel that the last 1-2 repetition is almost impossible to complete. But, do not give up, that is the development zone.
The "problem" with bodyweight training
From the example above, you understand that reaching such an advanced level takes months or for most of us years. So, you must be patient, but if you stick to your routine, the results in size and functional strength will come.
Compared to weightlifting, calisthenics requires more dedication without a doubt.
If you lift weights, you can increase the resistance by adding a little bit additional weight to your training, even if it is just a pound. It is not too much but will support your development.
But you cannot do that if you the calisthenics since your body weight is the same. It needs time to switch from standard pull-ups to one arm pull-ups, right?
So, what can you do?
You increase the number of reps until you reach a level when an exercise is so easy to perform that your body "cries" for a bit more difficult variations.
That volume is about 15-20 depending on the exercise and your level.
For example, if you can do 20 correct push-ups, it is time to switch to decline push-ups where your chest gets a higher load. Obviously, you will not be able to perform as many reps, in most of the cases about the half, but you step into the overload zone again.
Weighted calisthenics of mass
Bodyweight training does not mean you should not use any weights at all. There is a level when it is a good idea to pack on loads to keep us growing.
For example, you can attach a dumbbell or weight plates to your belt for pull-ups, chin-ups or dips.
However, a weighted vest is a far more comfortable option, and it is compatible with any exercise.
When to start using weight?
This method not for beginners at all. Only get weights when you can make high reps of the major moves like push-ups, dip, pull up, chin up and squat.
Also, it is vital that weight using should not go the expense of the proper form of the exercises. For example, you pull-ups should be the same as if you were doing them without extra load.
Finally, start slowly, increase the load gradually. Even if you just add extra 5 pounds to the bodyweight moves, you will feel the difference for sure. Using two heavy weights quickly lead to severe injuries.
Top calisthenics exercises for strength and mass
To get strong and big, you should do compound exercises, as in bodybuilding.
In calisthenics push ups, pull ups, dip, and squat variations are the key moves. However, I like adding the handstand push up as well since it is excellent for the shoulders. With the help of these moves, you can have a full bodyweight workout routine.
Each has a numerous beginner and advanced level variations.
I think the best is if you get the idea about on how to progress in each exercise. How to go from the easiest to most advanced moves so that you can find out where you should begin.
1. One arm push up progression
The most advanced moves are the one arm, polymeric and decline push-ups. However, there hundreds of variations out there. Let's focus on the single arm progression here.
2. Dip progression
The dip is a useful exercise to strengthen your triceps, chest, and shoulders, and there are a few variations. For example, by leaning forward more, you can target your chest better.
3. One arm pull up progression
The standard pull-up itself is such a powerful exercise that can change the size of your upper body drastically. But, the single arm version is the ultimate upper body builder.
4. Pistol squad progression
Many people find the bodyweight squat easy to perform for them there is the single leg variation. This move will make your lower body really strong, and other muscles as well, like your core, since it is hard to keep the balance.
5. Handstand push-ups
The previous four exercises are enough, but I like to give an extra boost to my shoulders, so I recommend this move as well. It is not easy and requires practice, but it makes your shoulder broad and extremely strong.
Creating your bodyweight workout for mass and strength
Well, I do not like offering a program because it is impossible to create one which suits everyone. Who knows what level you are on? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
So, it is much better if you create your own program by using the given tips above and by testing your limits. Anyway, here are a few tips.
- Never neglect a body part. Train your entire body, the given five fundamental exercises will do for that. Total bodyweight training is vital.
- Test how good you are at the mentioned essential movements and make your routine based on the results. (I will give an example below.)
- Always perform the moves correctly. No shortcuts, tricks. You just lie to yourself and ruin your future development.
- Be patient and dedicated to your bodyweight bodybuilding routine. Do not jump from one muscle building bodyweight workout program to another.
- Develop your weaknesses. We like focusing on exercises that we are already good at instead of paying attention to our weaknesses. Bad at pull-ups, do more or step back at the progression.
An imaginary situation
Joe tested himself, and he can do 20 push-ups, 5 pull ups, 10 dips, no handstand push-ups and 30 bodyweight squats.
Here is how he may make his calisthenics workout plan for mass.
For push-ups, he can switch to decline push-ups with 10-12 reps.
The pull-ups and dips are Ok, but more reps are required for progression. So, he sticks to them until he can almost double the number of repetitions.
Handstand push-up is his weakest point, so he has to prepare his body. Pike push up with 10-12 reps is a good exercise for that.
His squats are pretty good so he can switch to more difficult lower body exercise like Bulgarian split squat with 10-15 reps.
He has 3-4 reps for each exercise 3 times a week.
Can you see how he leverages the overload?
That is what you need to do when you plan your bodyweight workout routine for mass and strength.
Nutrition and rest
It is funny that I have been talking about the exercises for long here and left the most critical factor, the nutrition.
No matter how hard you work out if you do not give your body the right type and amount of nutrients, it is going to be very hard to build mass and strength with bodyweight training. You have to do the same as if you were a bodybuilder.
It requires an entire post about proper muscle building diet, so I do not do it here. There are hundreds of guides online to learn what you should eat and about protein supplements.
And finally about resting. Your muscles grow when you rest (sleep) and not when you work out. So, sleep enough. On the other hand, how could you perform well during your training if your body is tired?
I hope you found this guide useful and learned how to make your bodyweight workout for strength and mass. Do not be skeptical! This type of training can give you incredible results!
If you need equipment, check this post.