If you want to build mass and bulk up, you need to pick up some heavy stuff repeatedly… or so you’re told.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t. Your body alone is heavy enough to achieve that same exact goal, minus the expensive gym membership, free weights and complicated machines.
Not only does bodyweight training allow you to bulk up as well as a bodybuilder, but it provides your body with more than just some new, pretty-looking muscle. With bodyweight training, you can build muscle, increase your strength, develop your endurance and get into a split while you’re at it!
Yes, you can build mass with calisthenics
Why would lifting weights be more effective than bodyweight training? Your body doesn’t differentiate the kind of weight you’re working on, but rather how you work. Bodybuilders have the muscle-building technique down pat, while calisthenics tends to be better-known for muscle endurance.
…but that’s not all calisthenics is good for!
We live in a society convinced that without the gym, you can’t get fit.
I’m here to tell you…that’s a preconceived notion and a load of bullsh– bullcrap.
Ever Google male gymnasts? They’re packed with muscle, yet rely ONLY on bodyweight training.
Here’s the thing: to build mass with calisthenics, you gotta train a bit differently.
The “Science” Behind Building Muscle Mass
How does muscle grow? If you don’t know, well… you should, and I’m here to guilt you into finding out how.
More seriously though, muscle doesn’t grow while you’re training it. It grows when you’re resting.
For your muscles to experience that growth, they need to be challenged by tension or weight for an extended period of time. It is this specific kind of stress that breaks down muscles with micro-tears. Rest allows them to rebuild. If you’re eating enough calories, your body will naturally use that rest-time to both restore the muscle and add some mass to it.
Calisthenics can easily recreate a situation where enough tension or weight is placed long enough on the muscle that it’ll resist, then tear, and rebuild with more mass. The more you train, the more tension or weight you’ll need to place on the muscle. Its levels of resistance grow the more you train and develop strength.
See? You don’t need to be a bodybuilder to build mass.
How do I build muscle mass with calisthenics?
Create a tension/resistance in the muscle
This stress will help your muscle grow in the same way weight-lifting would.
But if you want to build muscle mass as quickly as possible, calisthenics won’t be right for you.
If you want to make it a long-term thing though, calisthenics is totally for you.
If you’re familiar with calisthenics, you know that it’s focused on progressions. Start with what your body allows you to do, then up the ante as you keep training.
More than that, don’t think that just because you can easily execute 20+ push-ups, you’re advanced.
Calisthenics wants you to slow it down, and focus on your form.
Some technical stuff
Here’s some useful terminology if you take your training seriously:
1. Concentric, or positive movement is the movement where you go up in your push-up. Technically, it’s the motion of an active muscle while it’s retracting under load.
2. Eccentric, or negative movement is the movement where you go down in your push-up. Technically, it’s the motion of an active muscle while it’s lengthening under load.
Bodyweight muscle-building techniques
You don’t need to be a bodybuilder to build muscle mass, but you do need technique. Here are some of the main tricks you can use to maximize your bodyweight training aiming to build muscle mass.
1. Slow it DOWN
Bodyweight training relies heavily on the application of concentric and eccentric movement. Depending how you train both concentric and eccentric movements, your body will develop differently.
So even if you can do 20+ push-ups, I want you to slow down the entire movement and deconstruct it into separate steps.
Instead of powering through as many push-ups as you can, do less and focus on your form. In fact, try taking 30 seconds for each aspect of the movement.
Go down slowly, controlling your descent the entire time (4s minimum). Once you get down to a couple of inches from the ground, stop for a couple of seconds before pushing yourself back up in one explosive move.
By doing this, you’re taking the time for your eccentric movement to happen. You’re helping the muscle develop differently than most people train it. In fact, eccentric movements are where the micro-tears I mentioned will happen most. So stop ignoring the eccentric movements if you want to gain that big muscle!
2. It’s all about the angles
Angular training is this awesome technique where you use the angle of your body to create more tension in the muscle.
If you move your body around, adjust its angle, move your elbows in or out, bend or extend your knees – you’re doing angular training.
In fact, calisthenics uses angular training to make exercises progressively difficult. It is at the core of many calisthenics progressions; a new athlete training wall push-ups will make the exercise progressively difficult by adjusting the angle of the exercise. By placing your feet further and further away from the wall, you’re adding more weight onto your arms and making the push-up increasingly difficult.
An awesome example of angular training is the Typewriter Push-Up.
In this exercise, your starting position is a wide-armed push-up. Using your toes, arms and balance, you move your weight around your body, creating the need to RESIST in a variety of way.
Guess what? You’re pushing your muscles, creating tension and resistance that will then cause the micro-tears which will then cause – guess what? – muscle growth.
3. JOIN THE RESISTANCE!
No, I’m not talking about a revolution. I’m talking about bodyweight distribution.
Even in calisthenics, you need to work with a low rep range if you want to build muscle mass. If you worked longer, you’d be focusing on muscular endurance. That’s not what you’re looking for, right? So don’t.
The thing with bodyweight training is… you can’t increase the challenge-level of your workout you carry by just adding weight.
But there’s a trick!
This is where bodyweight distribution comes into play.
It might come as a surprise to you, but when you’re in a neutral push-up position, for example, your weight is evenly distributed between your two arms. Guess what happens if, oh, maybe you placed all your weight on your right hand? SURPRISE! More weight is added. Suddenly your right side needs to RESIST and stay strong against this weight that you didn’t need a machine to add on.
Let’s take the Typewriter push-up again.
It’s the perfect example of angular training, but it can easily be used for bodyweight distribution.
If, instead of doing the movement by pushing on your arms and moving around, repositioning your body, you can simply move from one side to the other. You’re switching your bodyweight around without changing anything else, and bam! You need to RESIST.
You gotta EAT if you want to grow BIG and STRONG
If you want to build your muscles, you gotta eat.
Well… It’s time to get science-y again.
For muscles to either be maintained or grow, you need protein. Depending what your goal is, you need lots of protein.
Remember when I talked about the micro-tears your muscles experience when you work out? When you rest, your body uses protein chains to repair those tears, and if you want more muscle, you need more protein. Basically.
Many different publications talk about this, including Men’s Health. Different studies talk about different portion-size, but most people agree that 0.75 grams of protein should be eaten for every pound of bodyweight you have…if you’re already within a healthy body fat range.
If you’re overweight, you should eat the portion of protein you’d need if you were at your ideal bodyweight.
But that’s not all.
It’s not just about eating the right amount of protein. Scheduling is super important too, and you need to portion your protein throughout your different meals. Trying to O.D. on protein in a single meal just doesn’t sound quite right, does it?
Well, don’t do it.
Try dividing your protein-intake into at least three different meals in the day. In fact, the more balanced your protein-intake throughout the day, the better. If you stock up on protein in one specific meal, you’ll basically create a backlog in your system, and your body won’t benefit from that.
And one more thing…
The most effective way to consume protein is to have a meal a couple of hours before and right after your workout. Studies have shown that slightly upping your protein-intake before and/or after your workout is one of the best ways for it to help your muscles grow.
If you work out early in the morning, make sure to eat a meal right after.
This is a promise: your body and energy will thank you.
…and your muscles will get bigger.
Gimme a muscle-building workout NOW!
Before I share the awesome program I’ve come up with, there are a few things you need to know to train calisthenics well.
For example, you might not know that your body gets accustomed to a single, repetitive routine. So let’s talk about periodization for a second.
High volume and multiple sets might pack on muscle quickly, but you shouldn’t only train this way.
Training exclusively this way will get you stuck in “general adaptation syndrome,” which means your body will adapt to the program quickly. You’ll run into a massive plateau.
This is why you should use a periodized routine. Choose one that emphasizes high volume and multiple sets—a plan that intersperses hypertrophy workouts with regular strength-focused workouts.
If you switch up your habits, your body can’t really adapt to a single workout, so your muscles will constantly be stimulated into growing. Periodization means varying exercises, workouts or weekly routines.
You could organize your week to be 2-to-1 hypertrophy/strength rotation; you do 2 hypertrophy workouts (8 to 12 reps, 6 sets) for every 1 strength workout (4 to 6 reps, 3 sets). Slotting in a strength day helps me lift more on my hypertrophy days.
Share the routine already!
Don’t expect this routine to magically make your muscles grow. It’ll help, but it won’t happen in a day, a week or even a month for some people. Just keep that in mind.
Here’s a one-week program that I’ve followed with amazing results.
MONDAY – BACK AND TRICEPS
- Assisted 1 arm pull-up work 3 – 5 x 1-5 (L/R)
- Wide Pull-up 3 – 5 x 8-10 / Wide Row 3 – 5 x 8-10
- Close Pull-up 3 – 5 x 8–10 / Close Row 3 – 5 x 8-10
- Normal Pull-up 3 x MAX
- 1 Arm push-up 5 x 5 (R/L)
- Diamond Push-ups 3 – 5 x 15–20
- Triceps extension 4 x 8–10
- Straight Bar Dips 3 – 5 x 6–8 (Slow eccentric movements)
- Dips 2 – 3 x MAX
TUESDAY – LEGS
- Pistol Squats 5 x 5 – 10 (R/L) (If you can’t perform a pistol, find a variation that fits you)
- Normal Squats 3 – 5 x 15-20
- Close Squats 4 x 15-20
- Lunges Matrix (Front, Side) 3 x 6 – 8 (Go immediately from Front to Side Lunge)
- Calf Raises 5 x 15 – 20 (Slow Reps)
- 1 Legged Calf Raises 3 – 5 x 10 (Slow Reps)
- Jump Rope 3 x 70 – 140 jumps with straight knees using your calves as a jumping power / Sprints 5 x 30 m 2 x 50 m (MIX IT UP)
WEDNESDAY – REST
This means don’t work out. But if you want to move, do yoga, spend an hour stretching and training your flexibility…that’s a good thing.
THURSDAY – SHOULDERS
- Handstand Wall 3 – 5 – 45+ Sec (If you can perform a free stand handstand then do it!)
- Handstand Pushup Wide 3 x 6 – 8 (FREESTAND OR USING A WALL)
- Handstand Pushup Close 3 x 6 – 8 (FREESTAND OR USING A WALL)
- Hindu Pushup 4 x 10 – 15 – SUPERSET – Pseudo Pushup 4 x 10
- Straight Bar Dips (Slow negatives) 4 x 10
- Dips 4 x 8 – 12 (Slow tempo)
NOTE: If you can’t perform a handstand pushup, then you can follow our book on Getting Started With Calisthenics.
FRIDAY – REST
Again – stretch, do yoga, meditate, move, have fun, play with your body.
SATURDAY – CHEST AND BICEPS
- Wide Push-ups 3 – 5 sets of 15 – 25 reps
- Close Push-ups 3 – 5 sets of 15 – 25 reps
- Declined Push-ups 3 – 5 sets of 15 – 25 reps
- Dips 4 sets of 12 – 25 reps
- Chin-ups 4 x 8 – 12
- Chin-ups negatives 3 – 4 x 6 – 8 negatives
- Rings Biceps Curl 4 x 8 – 12
- Close grip chin-ups 3 x MAX (GIVE ALL YOU GOT)
SUNDAY – REST
Calisthenics can DEFINITELY help you build the muscle mass you want, but the process won’t be as instantly visible as weight-lifting.
…The results will definitely be more long-lasting though!
But what if I can’t do some of these exercises?
WHY the program above although good, WILL NOT GET RESULTS FOR MOST OF YOU…
Create an optimal training routine just for you
This is a problem a lot of us run into. We’re given routines – usually based on a standardized level – beginner, intermediate, advanced. Calisthenics Academy used to do that too – because it’s very hard to create a personalized training for each and every person unless we spend a significant amount of time with them.
There was just one problem with this approach (actually there are a lot of problems with it) – it hindered our athletes’ progress. We’ve written extensively on the matter in the blog post, The end of beginner/intermediate/advanced – that is hurting your training.
It simply explains why a lack of personalization is hurting your training.
Imagine if some of these exercises above were too hard for you. Your body will try to compensate with a poor form, movement dysfunction and possibly risk injury if it’s too challenging.
And now imagine if some of these exercises were too easy they wouldn’t challenge your muscles to grow – you’d simply be wasting your time.
This is why we created Calisthenics Academy: to offer a fully personalized training program reflecting exactly where your level is for optimal performance.
Take the assessment to see how do you stack up on the 8 fundamental calisthenics moves
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First off, if you’re new to gymnastic rings, start with my previous article that covers gymnastic grips. It’s necessary to learn how to walk before you run. There are several reason why using gymnastic rings are better than more common forms of exercise, like weight lifting and cardio. For starters, rings require an adjustment in how your muscles communicate with your brain.
Unlike weights, rings are less stable, and require a lot of mental focus to properly manage. On my first time up on the rings it looked like someone was shocking me with an invisible taser. My muscles were twitching, my whole body was shaking uncontrollably, and I had a particularly goofy expression on my face. The slightest shift in balance can cause the rings to move, therefore, significant core strength is necessary for all exercises. [tweet_box design=”box_11″]After a few session on the rings, you’ll increase your mental focus, core strength and coordination.[/tweet_box]
Here are a few simple exercises to get you started:
1. Reverse Row
Use a neutral grip and hold yourself below the rings as you walk your feet forward, almost like a reverse plank position. Keep your legs straight, pull torso as far as you can forward , then slowly come down.
5-7 reps per set
Start with a neutral grip below the rings. Keep your shoulders down and your chest up. Pull yourself straight up and come down slowly. No kipping! This isn’t Crossfit. There are many grip variations so I would recommend starting with neutral grip (easiest), then trying outward facing grip (intermediate), eventually moving towards inward facing grip (difficult).
3-6 reps per set
[tweet_box design=”box_11″]Use a false grip and push yourself above the rings. Keep your arms straight and by your sides.[/tweet_box] Roll your shoulders back, don’t shrug, and hold.
10 seconds per set
Get yourself into the Top position but this time you should be in the above-the-rings grip. Keep your shoulders down and don’t let your shoulders drop past rings as you go down. As you push up to full arm extension, turn your wrists out.
3-5 reps per set
Tuck L-Sits (Intermediate)
Once you feel confident with the Top Position, you can move onto the Tuck and L-sit. From the Top Position, bring your knees to your stomach and be sure not to round your back. If you’re feeling wild, straighten your leg forward so that they’re parallel to the ground.
10 seconds per set
If you’ve mastered all the above movements and are convinced you’re God of the Rings, (Sounds like a sequel to The Hobbit), the Muscle-up will be a much needed reality check. Start with a false grip while hanging from the rings, and pull yourself up with enough momentum to get your chest above the rings and hands in your armpits. Lean forward and push straight up, keeping your elbows by your side the whole time. Keep your posture upright and turn the rings out, just like in Top Position, then let yourself back down slowly into the false grip.
3-6 Reps per set
At first, repeat with as many sets as you feel comfortable with. Universal Rule of the Rings (again, sounds like a great sequel to The Hobbit): Your core and leg muscles need to be stable, meaning zero movement and momentum during each exercise. Not just for form but as an exercise itself. Keeping your lower body stable requires just as much muscle activation as the pushing and pulling of your upper body.
The underlying theme of gymnastic-ring training is patience. If you can only do one pull-up initially, thats okay. Next time go for two. Everyone has to start somewhere, those who succeed are patient with themselves.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always looking to provide readers with the best advice possible. Your feedback in the comments below is a great way to continue the conversation.
Which exercises did you like the most?
Which exercises were the hardest to progress on?
[tweet_box design=”default”]How can I improve my cardiovascular endurance when calisthenics is based on building muscle strength?[/tweet_box]
You want to be lean and mean, right. Think about that for a minute from Paul Wade’s – perspective on the inside – the prisoner and the author of the legendary Convict Conditioning – the training program – our program is based on- Getting Started with Calisthenics. It’s not going to do you a lot of good to be able to slog through hours of jogging, running, or cycling, when you’re in the middle of a prison fight, or get called out to a hand-to-hand battle of strength and honor in the rec yard.
What you need is pure brute strength.
The kind of strength that gives you the confidence to take down any challenge. [tweet_box design=”default”]Stick with calisthenics and it will deliver.[/tweet_box]. And when it’s all said and done, you’ll not only be the strongest badass around, you’ll also have the cardiovascular endurance to fight your way through a no-holds-barred brawl and survive, or run for your life like you’ve just escaped from San Quentin.
On the surface, calisthenics training may seem like it’s exclusively a strength training program based on the progression exercises for each of the FUNDAMENTAL 8 Exercises (one-armed push-ups, one-armed pull-ups, one-armed handstand push-ups, one-legged squats, straight leg raises, and stand-to-stand bridges). But when you put in the time to follow the program, there’s a lot more going on that just building muscle strength.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate intensity cardiovascular activity, and at least two days of strength training exercises for best health. Most people see the strength training component of the cardio recommendation as a call to action for walking, jogging, aerobics, or spending time on a treadmill or stationary bike. And go to any gym, and you’re likely to find the bikes and treadmills full of people putting in their time on one of those hamster wheels.
But it’s not really necessary, especially with Calisthenics. One of the hallmarks of calisthenics program started by Paul Wade’s program perfected during his 19-year stint in prison is high-rep training for each of the progression exercises for the FUNDAMENTALS. This approach is perfect for building muscle strength and endurance. It’s also a safer way to go about doing it compared to lifting heavy weights, that helps you master technique and build the kind of muscle memory that makes doing the exercises a little easier with every workout.
But the benefits don’t stop there. Give the workouts your best effort, and you’ll be huffing and puffing to muscle your way through them. You’re actually getting cardiovascular benefits from calisthenics workouts, and moving through the exercises in a workout will keep your heart rate elevated long enough to strengthen your heart, lungs, and muscles. Use this heart rate calculator from the Mayo Clinic and you’ll find that a sustained CC workout will keep you in the ideal range for building cardiovascular strength and muscle endurance.
Prison-Style Cardiovascular Exercises
The calisthenics workouts provide adequate cardiovascular benefits to help you build endurance. But if you really want to step up your workouts and accelerate the amount of fat you’ll burn from week to week as you master the progressive exercises for the FUNDAMENTALS consider adding some prison-style cardiovascular exercises. If you were locked up in a cell, long runs or cycling just wouldn’t be possible. But these prison-style exercises are more challenging than traditional cardio and will leave you in a sweat-soaked puddle of your own hard work.
This exercise combines push-ups and squats that is guaranteed to leave you huffing and puffing. Get in a squatting position. Then place your hands on the ground and kick your legs back so you’re in push-up position. Then kick your legs back to squatting position, raise your hands above your head and jump as high as you can. Start with 5 or 10 and work your way up to being able to complete a set of 30.
Jacked-Up Jumping Jacks
This old-school exercise has been a staple for athletes and prison inmates for centuries. It provides some strength-building benefits to your arms and legs. But it also good for your cardiovascular health, especially if you modify the exercise to make it more difficult that the traditional move. Stand straight with your hands at your side. Quickly extend your arms out and raise them over your head vertically. At the same time, jump slightly and spread your legs. To make the exercise even more difficult, start in squat position. Then jump as high as you can while extending your arms and spreading your legs. Try to see how many you can perform in a minute and then try to break your record as you get stronger.
[tweet_box design=”default”]You don’t need a lot of space to do this bodyweight training exercise[/tweet_box] either. But it will really challenge your cardiovascular system. Get in position with your hands on the floor with one knee on the ground and the other knee bent at 90 degrees with your foot on the ground. Bring your back leg forward while moving your upright leg to kneeling position. Alternate between legs quickly and see how many you can do in 30 seconds to a minute.
Cardio Power of Calisthenics
[tweet_box design=”default”]Calisthenics is designed to build muscle strength and calisthenics endurance[/tweet_box]. You’ll burn plenty of fat as you develop more muscle tissue. And the high-rep workouts provide an effective cardiovascular workout for your heart and lungs.
The problem, however, is that people don’t know how to make them progressively more challenging over time.
A smart training program will get you relatively proficient at basic push-ups on the floor quite quickly, and once someone is capable of performing 30+ reps in a row, they tend to start favoring other movements like the bench press as their primary upper body horizontal pushing exercise for lower rep strength work.
Then again, some trainees set their sights on hitting a round number like 50 or 100 push-ups as a short-term goal but even then, the focus is on improving muscular endurance via higher reps as opposed to working and making gains in the traditional strength and hypertrophy rep ranges (5-12 reps or so per set).
Thus, push-ups are often labeled a “beginner exercise”, and drastically overlooked as a strength building exercise by many gym-goers.
So how does one go about making push-ups challenging for even the more advanced trainee?
Enter Gymnastic Rings
Gymnastic rings are one of the cheapest and most versatile training tools money can buy, and an excellent addition in your workouts for enhancing upper body strength and size once regular push-ups on the floor become a walk in the park.
Due to the added instability factor, the rings require significantly more stabilizer strength than when hands are kept firmly on the ground. Consequently, you’ll feel push-ups on rings much more in your abs and experience some amazing chest pumps.
A few key pointers for all of the following ring push-up variations:
– squeeze your glutes and brace the abs
– try to maintain full body tension
– don’t allow sagging of the hips
– own the eccentric part of the movement by lowering under control
Variation #1 – Weighted Ring Push-Up
This is your standard ring push-up with added resistance. Wear a weight vest or add weight plates on your back.
You’ll notice that as long as you have a capable spotter helping out once the poundages start climbing into heavy territory, you’ll be able to externally load ring push-ups for quite some time.
I would consider two 20 kg (45 lbs) plates a decent feat for a male in this exercise – provided that full range of motion is being used and the lower back stays flat throughout the movement. Three or four plates (60-80 kg) of added weight would already be “strong” in my eyes.
Variation #2 – Wide Ring Push-Up
As you’re descending into the wide push-up, turn your palms so that they’re facing your feet and spread the rings out to your sides.
Variation #3 – Ring Flye
While technically not a push-up, the ring flye nevertheless provides for an excellent variation as you inch towards more and more demanding ring push-up progressions.
As with the wide push-up, keep pushing the rings out and away from you but this time keep the palms facing each other. The straighter the arms, the more difficult this movement becomes.
Variation #4 – Ring Archer Push-Up
Here you’ll straighten one arm as you’re descending while keeping the other arm firmly tucked in close by your side, resembling an archer aiming and ready to fire an arrow at his target in the bottom position.
As you’re coming back up, think of simultaneously pushing with the arm closer to you and pulling with the straight arm to return back to the starting position.
Notice that as I’m going down, I shift my body away from the arm I’m straightening, which is an easier variation of the ring archer push-up. You can make this movement even harder by keeping your body completely still from the chest down throughout the exercise.
Variation #5 – Ring Modified Planche Push-Up
As you’re lowering into the push-up, start turning your hands so that your palms end up facing your face slightly before hitting rock bottom, then maintain hand position until you’ve gone all the way down.
Reverse the motion when coming back up into starting position.
Variation #6 – RTO Push-Up
These are A LOT HARDER than they look.
It takes a great deal of strength to prevent the rings from turning back in in this position and you’ll be shaking like Robert Downey Jr. during heroin withdrawal while trying to maintain control of them in the middle of a rep when first giving these bad boys a go.
As you can see in the video, my right arm struggles slightly to keep the right ring from turning back in (rep #2 looked pretty good though).
Most people will not be able to do RTO push-ups in a smooth manner with their palms fully facing away from them at first. Start with the rings at 45 degrees and work your way forward from there, opening them further out as the weeks pass by and you begin getting the hang of these.
Give these 6 ring push-up variations a try and experience a marked increase in your upper body pushing strength.
Ready to take on the rings and experience a marked increase in upper body pushing strength? Then give these 6 ring push-up variations a try.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below!
Watch this phenomenal street workout performance that will definitely be a source of motivation for you as well. What you will simply love about the street workout is that you do not require any complex equipment. You can manage it easily with the available resources and this is what makes street workout so popular.