Establishing big and ambitious fitness goals is great but the timeframe to accomplish them is never going to meet our expectations, unfortunately. The process for achieving our dream physique with bodyweight training requires patience and takes a lot of time, like if you were training with weights.
Therefore, you can say that it is a myth that you can’t build a physique by training purely with calisthenics exercises. For instance, I think that most of the guys who lift have little to no results, hence I cannot blame the sport itself and I would rather blame their actions instead. I lost body fat with calisthenics until I was skinny and then I put on great mass, so it’s possible. I am not a privileged guy. I just worked my craft and knew exactly how to do it. Then when I made a mistake, I changed my approach and improved eventually by learning from my own mistakes.
In this article, I will explain certain steps in your evolution so you can understand why it takes time to improve regardless of how good the training regimen and lifestyle is.
The Weight Loss Dilemma
Too many people want to jump directly into strength training with the intention of building mass and getting rid of body fat altogether. Instead of doing that, I suggest you lose the extra weight stored on the belly first, and here is why:
- A couple of pounds more will slow you down and affect performance while training
- By being heavier it’s harder to do pull-ups or pushups and you will be unable to reach the hypertrophy rep ranges
- You will tire sooner by being heavier and it will also slow down the metabolism
- More weight does not mean more strength. For instance, ligaments and tendons tend to stay the same. More resistance will stress them more, which can cause damage
- With body fat surrounding your body, you can’t see muscle definition even if those muscles are there. Everything underneath will be invisible to your eyes.
We often see actors and how lean their physiques are while performing in movies, in such a way that makes their body look extremely muscular. Well, that is mostly thanks to their low body fat percentage. You don’t need to have great size to look really ripped and muscular. Take a look at Frank Medrano or Hannibal for King -they both have extremely low body fat but with decent mass. They look bigger because they are very jacked and due to the proportions. It doesn’t matter how much weight you have to lose it (20 pounds or 1 pound). If that is what covers the abdominals or the rest of the body then you have to get rid of it first. As a fact, you should know that there is no such way as losing weight from certain spots. If you are skinny, but still have belly fat, then it is pointless to train your abs to remove that. The fat loss reaction comes as a response to your training regimen and diet. Your body will decide from where to burn stored fat and use it as a source of energy. That energy is burned only if it has reasons to, otherwise, it will keep it there. Genetics have nothing to do with belly fat.
Cardio training will trigger this type of response better than any other kind of strength training regimen. Comprehending the timeframe for when this will happen is a matter of understanding the following mathematical equation:
- 1 kg (2 pounds) stored body fat = 7500 kcal.
A grown-up man may only need around 2200 kcal per day to survive. To trigger the fat loss response means that you will have to burn more than you take from food. By training, you can easily burn around 400-1000 kcal and from diet another 400-1000 kcal. It will require mental toughness though. It’s hard to avoid that chocolate when you are used to consuming it regularly.
From experience, I know that by following a clean diet, low in calories too, and by training with cardio exercises 3-4 times (40-60 minutes each session) a week it is possible to lose, naturally, around 2 pounds of stored fat per week. That is why it may take you several months to lose the extra fat. So forget about those goals of losing 2-3 pounds a day or every second day. Everything that is extreme leads to failure after all. Plan everything in the long term and you will be successful.
Meanwhile, you will enhance performance, stamina, certain skills, your state of mind and even feel better about yourself. At the end of this journey, you can also be considering starting to do 1-2 sessions of strength training per week, just to prepare your body for the next goal.
The Hypertrophy Confusion
A much smarter person than me and with a lot more experience stated something great. He is a popular guy everywhere on the internet, by the name of Elliott Hulse and he said:
Both lifting weights or lifting your own bodyweight create resistance against your neural muscular system that is going to cause it to respond. Therefore, it all comes down to how you work with certain variables and particularities like volume, intensity, rest, tempo, frequency and form -many of which are similar in calisthenics to how athletes approach bodybuilding.
To cause a hypertrophy response takes a lot of effort and patience:
- You must be able to add high volume (more sets and reps occasionally)
- You have to train more often, that gives the high frequency (from 3 times a week to 4 or 5)
- You have to master the basics so you can train to maintain good form while performing
- You must be able to keep on training using relatively low rest times in order to boost the muscular endurance
- At some point, you will have to increase the intensity of the exercises like choosing the One Leg Squat instead of Regular Squats
- Or, sometimes you will have to train using a low speed which will increase the tempo.
Now, these are all variables that have to be trained over time and as soon as you finish with cardio and fat loss training. The great advantage though is that all those variables are connected to each other. You may train to master the form for pull-ups but in reality, what happens is you becoming stronger and increase the muscular-endurance. Get how it works?!
After you may have been training for a couple of months to achieve low body fat, you will now have to put a lot of work to stimulate further muscle growth. This is especially hard for beginners in fitness overall due to the lack of strength.
As a newcomer, you will so better be planning to master the basics as far as possible instead of thinking how fast you can put on 10 pounds. That will happen while you just get better with your training. Don’t get me wrong but your main goals should be how to:
- Train the same muscle groups twice a week
- Know what exercises to add or eliminate
- Improve in sets and reps to increase the volume
- Train with for a higher frequency, from struggling with 3 workouts a week to completing 5.
- Design a training program that is hard, smart but also sufficiently rich in all kinds of fundamental stuff.
That is why you have to be disciplined and consistent over time. All the pieces will fall into the right place and you will get more muscular if you focus on these goals that in my opinion are more realistic than I wanna grow at least 20 pounds this year but I don’t know how, so calisthenics is not good. Shit. I will go lift again, and maybe this time I will be lucky!!!
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The diet will also have a great impact. In this situation, you will have to switch from not getting enough calories to getting more than you can eat. This is also why it’s best to have a low body fat percentage, otherwise, if you are still pretty fat you can’t just eat like a hungry wolf because you will get fat too. Nevermind the added pure mass for you will not be able to notice it at all.
First, get to know your training routines and try to make the best of them. Strive and learn through repetition and mistakes to train more and better. It may take you months until you will master those workouts, and for you will make no sense. But during this period you are actually getting stronger which is important for muscle growth. Muscles are related to strength; you can not build muscles without building strength and you can not build strength without making those muscles suffer every time. That’s why is important to repeat this cycle as often as possible. Your body doesn’t know how many workouts you do, but after 1 full year, it will matter if you trained 3 times a week or 4 times a week.
Do not forget that your body is only a consequence of your actions over time!
There also exists a so-called mind-muscle connection. By mastering the basic workouts, you actually improve that connection between mind and muscles. That directly reflects your strength. By training the mechanical parts through exercises, the nervous system will empower you. Concentrate and visualize yourself performing.
You might have heard of muscle-endurance or strength of all kinds. These are also connected but what matters the most is that particular muscle-endurance. Having it trained well will allow you to do a lot more reps and to recover from a set a lot faster. That is how I was able to go from 4-5 reps per set for pull-ups to 10-20 reps per set. It increased my dynamic and maximal strength too, but also kept me fit as I was training more and burned more calories too.
This is why I preached about high-volume calisthenics. Somehow, it relates to everything.
During the first months of my calisthenics journey, I couldn’t put on great mass and that was only because I was struggling to master the most basic parts of calisthenics. I started with 10-12 dips per set, 12-15 pushups per set and 4-5 for pull-ups. I reached numbers of 20-30 for dips and pushups and 10-20 for pull-ups. Once I was able to increase all those variables, my body started to grow.
How Much Time for You?
Starting overweight and with very low fitness level it may take you 2 years to achieve something great. During this period you will have to be very consistent for almost every week of every month.
As a newcomer, skinny, but not beginner in overall fitness, it may take you months to a full year to notice some great results. Age is also one variable and usually the 20-year-old will have faster results than others. A background also makes a difference, but it is not the cornerstone. Your attitude will dictate your results.
In any case, don’t blame calisthenics. It will work if you put in the time. The progress is not gradual, nor constant. It progresses like a sound wave and you will have to get past certain obstacles to get the job done. Although one hour a day doesn’t sound like much, you will be amazed to see how many people blame that for not exercising altogether.
I started as a fat guy over 87 kg and lost enough weight to reach 72-73 kg (I am 183 cm tall). I was skinny, but with calisthenics I also put on a great amount of muscle, reaching 85-86 kilograms. I looked muscular and then I got bulk at around 95. Big, strong and with belly fat, because building up is not always the hardest part. It is almost as hard to maintain what you build. Now I am shrinking to 88 kg. Now you can understand why the progress is not constant.
Also, believe me when I say that strength is not always the same. Sometimes you simply can’t do those established reps. It happens to me too, because guess what: you’re not a machine! See everything from a wide perspective and never get frustrated.