“Bodyweight exercise can’t build muscle.”
Now how many times did you hear that sentence (or one of its many variations) by now? Probably enough to start taking it as gospel. But is there any truth to it?
The most accurate answer is, “there could be, but not necessarily.” To be more exact, the way in which you perform your exercises will always determine what you get out of the training.
And what most tend to focus on with calisthenics is endurance—that is what high-rep, vigorous workouts that often come to mind are best at. But what if I told you that immense gains are attainable with nothing more than bodyweight exercise?
That’s right—it is possible to combine all the convenience of calisthenics (working out where you want, when you want, with very little risk of injury, etc.) with measurable and impressive muscle growth! But how, you ask?
Simple: by taking steps to modify your workouts for maximum muscle tear and reparation!
Increase Resistance by Redistributing Your Bodyweight
A high-rep workout is best for endurance, while a low-rep, heavier resistance workout is the way we achieve hypertrophy. Growth occurs with repeated, minor tearing of muscles, which our body will subsequently fix and rebuild—bigger, stronger, and better than before.
The problem here is obvious: how do we increase resistance (and make tearing easier) without venturing into weight training territory? There are two approaches, not necessarily mutually exclusive:
- Distribute your weight unevenly while doing symmetrical exercises. Think of a push-up. Your weight is spread out evenly between both arms, right? Well, what if you put most of it on one arm? You would get more resistance, of course! It goes without saying that you would then need to repeat the set with opposite weight distribution in order to even everything out! This trick can be applied to most moves, and will drastically increase their effectiveness.
- Alter the exercise’s angle. Let’s go back to the push-up. Classic move, nothing fancy. Now, try and do a set with your legs suspended on higher elevation, such as a stool or bed! So much more difficult, right? Good news is, this puts much more of your weight on your arms, drastically increasing resistance! And the effect only gets more intense as you go more vertical! This principle can be applied to most any bodyweight move you can think of. Change the angle to less comfortable (within reason), and you’ve increased the kick—and the potential gains!
Consider the Drop Set Technique
Put simply, a drop set is where you perform a set, often until failure, and instead of resting afterward, immediately proceed to an easier version of the exercise. You then ride that one out as far as you can. Repeat while there’s life left in you.
In the example of push-ups, let’s assume that you started with decline push-ups. You work them until failure, then instead of taking a break, you get your legs down from the elevation, proceed to regular push-ups, do them until failure, and finally finish it off with knee push-ups, also until failure.
This is merciless and shouldn’t be done regularly, but mixing it up with your regular routine is sure to take you a long way! Just remember to take it easy afterward, which we will elaborate on later!
Make Use of Increased Time Under Tension
As we’ve gone over in our articles on bicep and triceps training, Time Under Tension (TUT) is an extremely potent muscle-building factor. What it comes down to is optimization, or finding exercises that are challenging enough to cause tension, but not so brutal as to bring you under a certain number of reps per set. For optimal muscle gain, this number is between 8 and 12.
For fine tuning, existing exercises can be modified by bodyweight redistribution (as explained above), or by one other, simpler technique: slowing down. Slower reps are not only more difficult, but also increase your TUT. Win-win!
Add in Sets, Not Reps
What happens if you increase reps per set? Your body starts optimizing for endurance. Nothing wrong with that… unless muscle gain is what you want.
So how do we add a little bit more oomph to an exercise we’re running at full speed? Sets. Feeling like you can push until twenty instead of ten? Cool, just move them over into another set. Six, seven, eight sets, you say? It’s all good, for as long as you feel the burn.
Take Rest Days
While doing the work is crucial, don’t forget that it is during rest that the actual progress takes place. Tear through your muscles all you want, but they will neither grow nor recover unless you let them.
A day of rest between subsequent workouts should be considered minimal in order to see any results, and if you’ve really done a number on yourself, consider taking two rest days. Your body will thank you for it!
Mind Your Time Between Sets—And Shorten It If Necessary
Unless you are doing some other kind of specialized training (in which case you’re probably at the wrong place), taking a pause that is longer than a minute and a half is overkill. You don’t need it, and it might end up sabotaging you by allowing the muscle to recover completely before the next set, delaying the tearing and lowering your potential gains.
30 seconds to a minute will always be the ideal calm between storms.
Eat Well, and Eat Properly
You can’t build something out of nothing, and if you aren’t inputting enough raw materials, your body will struggle with results regardless of the killer training you make yourself endure.
Simply put, you need a caloric surplus, and you need protein and good fats. The less sugar, the better off you will be, but this is a rule that you can bend if your goal is solely to gain muscle.
Just keep in mind: less sugar = more muscle definition. And better defined muscles will always look larger!
Chris is an experienced Calisthenics practitioner focused on isometric exercises and street workout. He founded thehybridathlete.com in 2017, which was subsequently acquired by theyhybridathlete.com
He is based in Portland and has been working out using solely his own body weight and bars for the past 6 years.