The muscle building process is known as hypertrophy – a process that involves an increase in size of skeletal muscle through a growth in size of its component cells. It is a reaction triggered primarily by certain types of workouts that stimulate the muscle cells to increase in volume. This process occurs over a long period of time and only if followed by a proper diet and recovery period.
Is it possible to build lean muscle mass with pure bodyweight training? My answer is definitely yes. 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 to how athletes approach bodybuilding. Let’s dive into specifics!
Get a Low Bodyfat Percentage First
A common mistake people do is jumping right into hypertrophy training regardless of how high their body fat percentage is. From an aesthetic point of view, it is pointless to build muscle if your body fat percentage is high. Muscles don’t grow all of a sudden and if you want to see those little aesthetic improvements, then achieving a low body fat percentage is crucial.
I personally started bodybuilding calisthenics after I lost the extra pounds. This method allowed me to notice every small improvement I have made in the years since. Honestly, you can’t tell for sure how effective a core workout is if you don’t have visible abs because of the belly fat. If you want muscle definition, then please start with this step first and then move to…
Avoid Common Mistakes
One common mistake in building muscles with calisthenics is to do exercises that create too much time under tension or too little. Doing exercises like Typewriter Pull-ups or Freestyle on bars will simply get in your way of gaining size because of that.
Besides time under tension, there are also exercises that require too much stabilization. Some examples are Dips on Gymnastic Rings or Free Handstand Pushups. These exercises are truly great for other goals, but when it comes down to building muscle mass you should do Dips on parallel bars and Handstand Pushups against a wall instead.
Muscles grow stronger and bigger with basic, simple and compound exercises only. The best of them are pullups, pushups, dips, handstand pushups, leg raises, squats and sprints. And within those movement patterns belong several basic variations that are at least of the same importance, like diamond pushups, chinups etc.
Too much work on plyometrics, isometric and stabilization training will never trigger the hypertrophy response. These exercises build muscle to a certain point only, but you will never get big enough by doing them.
Another mistake is to expect the same results as someone else regardless of your own physiology and genetic makeup. Manage your expectations and do the best you can with the program you already follow by applying the principles herein.
Avoid doing too much aerobic training. It was generally considered that consistent anaerobic strength training will produce hypertrophy over the long term, in addition to its effects on muscular strength and endurance. Muscular hypertrophy can be increased through strength training and other short-duration, high-intensity anaerobic exercises like circuit methods. However, by adhering to the following basic principles you should be able to gain size with calisthenics in a matter of months.
Tempo or Time Under Tension
This refers to how much time are you putting your muscular system under load. Practically, it means how fast or slow you are doing the exercise. In bodybuilding, the general tempo is 3-0-3, which is considered perfect for hypertrophy. This means that the concentric portion of the movement is about 3 seconds and the eccentric portion of the movement is also about 3 seconds. You can also pause at the top or at the bottom if you like, for 1-2 seconds.
You can respect this general rule in calisthenics as well. If you want, manipulate the tempo a bit, like 2-1-4, 3-4-4, 3-2,4 or even 2-5-3.
The time under tension for hypertrophy is between 6 to 12 seconds. Manipulate the tempo however you like, but fit into this interval of 6-12 seconds. Anything less than 4 seconds is not considered to be time under tension efficient for strength and power gains.
This basically means how much work you’re doing during your workout. The volume consists of the number of sets and reps that you do.
You must first understand this principle and also about the inverse relationship between sets and reps. If your sets go up, then your reps will go down. And if your reps go up, then the sets will go down. You must find the sweet spot between them. In order to trigger hypertrophy though, you will have to add high volume regardless of how you work with the sets and reps.
How much of it though? From experience, I can say that there are certain rep ranges that stimulate the muscles for growth, like:
- 6-12 reps/set for any pull-up variation
- 15-25 reps/set for any pushup variation like diamonds, regulars, wide, decline, incline etc.
- 6-10 reps/set for Wall-Assisted Handstand Pushups
- 12-20 reps/set for Dips
- 30-50 reps/set for regular bodyweight Squats
- 7-10 reps/set for any Leg Raise Variations (besides those lying on the floor which are a lot easier)
- These repetitions are all related to the tempo you choose to work with. You can do 25 pushups or 15 pushups with the same time under tension, and the only difference would then be the tempo. Try them both, but do not use time under pressure any less than what I have already recommended. Tempo can always be varied and this why I have given you options not only for it but also for volume.
I also found that between 4 and 5 sets are enough to build muscles. Another thing that will add volume is the number of exercises that attack the same muscle group. I’d say that for hypertrophy you need 3-4 variations.
- Wide Pull-ups
- Horizontal Pull-ups
- Diamond Pushups
- Decline Pushups
- Regular Pushups
I know that bodybuilders or maybe even calisthenics athletes would consider these numbers to be efficient for muscular endurance only. But in reality, this is not true, because increasing the ability to resist fatigue with anaerobic workout is one way to stimulate hypertrophy or muscle growth. And most of the calisthenics workouts you will ever do are anaerobic and will fatigue your muscles.
To endure muscle fatigue, you must increase the volume. I actually published an article about The Benefits of Doing High-Volume Calisthenics! As a beginner, you will also have to work to reach these rep ranges. Check Out My Beginner Program!
There are many different ways to define intensity. But, the one that interests me here is about how hard an exercise actually is to execute. For instance, the wider is the grip for pullups, the tougher it will be to do them.
So, there is also an inverse relationship between volume and intensity you use. If you use a lot of intensity, then your volume typically goes down, and vice-versa. The sweet spot for hypertrophy is to use a moderate intensity. You will have to avoid intensity to ensure a certain volume. In calisthenics, it is very tricky to do that.
Some of the calisthenics athletes will use added weights for their exercises to increase intensity: weighted pull-ups or weighted dips and squats. Others will just use harder variations instead, like one leg squats or one pushup, lever pull-ups etc. I personally choose basic bodyweight exercises of moderate and easy intensity that allow me to increase the volume even more. This way I can train for longer and exhaust my muscles even more.
You must understand that for hypertrophy reaction you have to exhaust the muscles to attain that muscle soreness the days after. Too much intensity will lower down your volume which works kind of against muscle building. In a training session, you need to drain your muscles of energy and the best way to do that is by getting them pumped and training for longer.
Nevertheless, on the opposite side, when the strength dramatically decreases and you can’t keep up with the same intensity, you have 2 options:
- To decrease the intensity by helping yourself with elastic bands. For instance, you can do pull-ups or dips with elastic bands. They will allow you to add more repetitions and to preserve good form and execution.
- To change the exercise for an easier one. For instance, if Wall-Assisted Handstand Pushups are tough then you can replace them with Pike Pushups. You can also replace Dips with Diamond Pushups and the list goes on.
Work with intensities in a certain manner that allows you to hit your set and rep parameters or volume. Also, keep in mind that you need to hit a tempo and rest time.
For instance, if I were to train my back and biceps then I’d choose 3-4 pullup variations. I’d do as many sets as I possible without any help and then I would simply complete the remaining reps using elastic bands.
The rest interval is another thing you must always consider. It basically means how long you rest from set to set. Now, the higher your intensity is, the higher your rest intervals are going to have to be.
This exactly why I recommended you to use moderate or even easy intensity. Then your rest interval will be sort of low-moderate. Generally, the breaking time, if you are looking to build muscles, is about 60 seconds. Sometimes less for conditioning training, and sometimes more, if you are looking to add more strength training to your program.
This basically means how many times a week are you hitting a body part or a pattern of movements (like pulling movements). What I have discovered for myself, but also what I have found to work for others is that for hypertrophy it is best to hit the same muscles twice a week. This means you will have to repeat the pattern or the same workout.
Train your biceps, pecs, triceps, back, core, and legs twice a week to ensure the muscle growth process.
Most of the basic exercises in calisthenics are good for building muscles. Thus, it doesn’t matter which one of these is better (Chinups versus Pull-ups for instance), because what is really relevant for muscle growth is actually the way you do these exercises.
I think that you know how Cross-Fit athletes used to do pull-ups. They move too fast and use too much momentum. The movement that triggers hypertrophy should be done with relatively slow speed and in total control. The form must be good and the depth of motion should be near to complete. Otherwise, your goal is doomed to failure!
The same result can be achieved by choosing to do different tempos but keeping the same time under tension. Like 12 pull-ups versus 7 pull-ups done at the same time. I personally used both approaches and one of my recommendations is to change the tempo very often. Maybe once every 1 or 2 weeks. Your body will react to these changes and so you will gain more experience to know what’s best for you.