The choices when it comes to fitness and exercise are nearly endless. But many people discount bodyweight exercises entirely when it comes to building muscle. This can be a huge mistake, though, as bodyweight training can be a fun, safe, and effective way to build muscle strength and size.
It is possible to build muscle with only bodyweight exercises. A program that includes high-volume bodyweight training, plyometrics, functional bodyweight training, and challenging calisthenics can greatly increase muscular strength, size, definition, and endurance.
What are the factors that make bodyweight training effective for muscle growth? And what should you look for when choosing bodyweight exercises to include in your exercise program? And how many reps should you do for each different exercise? This article will attempt to explain the fundamentals of bodyweight exercise training for muscle strength and size.
Building Muscle with Bodyweight Exercise: Does it Work?
Despite the bad rap that it gets among the weightlifting community sometimes, calisthenics and bodyweight exercises are far from being useless in the realm of strength and muscle building. Many athletes (among others) have found great success and become quite chiseled through the use of such training, including, most famously, Bruce Lee, who did all sorts of crazy advanced calisthenics as part of his ever-evolving martial arts training program. Studies themselves confirm the fact that calisthenics is excellent for improving body composition and strength.
With that being said, many people will incorporate calisthenics into their training routine by doing 2-3 sets of 10-20 pushups or situps or some other bodyweight exercise. Many of these people will then complain that they saw little to no difference in muscle size or strength. In this case, it is not that the exercises being done are bad, but just aren’t being used to their full potential. The things you can do with bodyweight training to target the goal of increased muscle size, strength, and definition, including primarily high-volume training combined with functional training and calisthenics progressions, will be explored below.
Why High-Volume Bodyweight Training?
High-volume bodyweight training works because it mimics the same stimulus that your muscles would get lifting much heavier weights. This means, potentially, hundreds of situps, dozens of pull-ups, and enough squats to make it difficult to sit down without collapsing. But the idea isn’t just to pump out some arbitrary number of any one exercise. It is to go until you reach mechanical failure and then isometric failure, the point at which you can no longer do another repetition of the exercise or even hold any one portion of the movement.
What will this look like during a set? Well, your sets will be what are called isometric failure and mechanical drop sets. If you are doing a sit-up, for instance, you might get tired enough that you can’t complete the movement entirely. Perhaps you would then do situps but only halfway up, and then you might simply squeeze your abdominal muscles while attempting to hold yourself halfway up once you can no longer do that.
This turns an easy movement into a struggle against a force you are now too tired to overcome: it has become an ‘overcoming isometric’ movement, one of the best kinds out there for building crazy strength.
This type of training will increase the time under tension that your muscles will experience, which in turn will create lots of muscle damage and stimulate the growth of those same muscles through increased protein synthesis. It also will create metabolic stress as a result of the blood moving to and remaining in the muscles you’re using.
In short, you’ll be experiencing something similar to the effects of a bodybuilding workout in which you curl dumbbells for dozens of reps. High-volume bodyweight training is similarly excellent for hypertrophy.
Along with increasing metabolic stress, there are other aspects of this type of training that aid in muscle hypertrophy, including the creation of new capillaries or blood vessels in the muscles and the following increase in blood, nutrients, and hormones in said muscles. Additionally, training to failure increases muscle recruitment.
As your muscle fibers become exhausted over the course of an exercise and you approach failure, your body has to turn towards fast-twitch (or more explosive) and larger fibers and nerves (which together form a muscle motor unit). This will lead to increased strength gains and hypertrophy as if you were doing a traditional weightlifting routine with 80% or more of your 1 rep max.
One thing to keep in mind with this type of training is joint fatigue. While someone with healthy and durable joints should have no problem doing lots of any sort of basic calisthenics exercise without pain, numerous lifestyle and other factors can contribute to making an individual’s experience more difficult. Vary the type of movements you do and be mindful to ease into your training routine. Don’t continue performing exercises if they are causing pain beyond what you might feel from typical delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS and see a doctor if necessary.
Explosive movements such as the clapping pushup or jumping squat can be excellent for recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers. Practicing these movements may help you to utilize fast twitch muscle fibers in similar explosive movements such as the ones you might use while doing a sport. This type of strength is sometimes referred to as ‘starting strength’ or strength speed. Throwing a jab or diving off the blocks at the start of a swimming race are just two examples of movements that can be enhanced through such exercise. Other good plyometric exercises to consider are box jumps, burpees, and explosive pull-ups.
Functional Bodyweight Training
Functional bodyweight training is a great addition to any type of calisthenics program. Movements like the crab walk, lizard crawl, bunny hop, donkey kick, and snake crawl build intermuscular strength, enhance coordination and balance, and improve flexibility and joint health. In addition to animal movements, advanced calisthenics movements can be worked towards in the form of a progression.
Progressions can help you work towards even the most incredible and impressive exercises and holds, including flag holds, planche pushups/planches, and one-armed and even fingertip pushups. A one-arm pushup progression might look like pushups, then incline pushups, then half pushups, then diamond pushups, then supported one-arm pushups, and then finally one-armed pushups. Both isometric and plyometric progressions can increase the amount of weight being lifted by your muscles during a bodyweight exercise, thus increasing strength gains and hypertrophy even further.