It is not a secret anymore that bodyweight training is suitable for building muscle. People all over the internet proved this over and over, but still there is some sort of confusion out there. Why do some people gain muscle mass easily with bodyweight training and others don’t?
Should you train every day with using your bodyweight? Is bodyweight training easier than weight training? People seem to ask these questions on a regular basis although the answer is quite obvious. The key to building muscle with bodyweight is understanding that your bodyweight is just another type of resistance.
Basically, your body can’t tell a difference whether you use a barbell, kettlebells, or your bodyweight. Well, to be precise, there is a difference for your body skill-wise, however intensity-wise you can replace a barbell exercise with a bodyweight substitute with virtually no negative effects for hypertrophy.
Therefore, you can apply all the successful and time-proven hypertrophy principles from the weight room to your bodyweight training to get results. To cut a long story short, I have narrowed the whole gamut of muscle building tips to 5 that will bring you the best results. Here we go:
Bodyweight Training Tip #1: Progressive Overload
If you want to get muscular using only your bodyweight, you will have to obey the time-honored principle of progressive overload. It states that to get bigger/stronger/better, you have to increase the difficulty of your training with time.
In regards to bodyweight training, this means that you have either to add reps, sets, or most importantly, exercise difficulty with time.
Additionally, more experienced practitioners of bodyweight strength training can consider better technique, less rest times between sets, and other minor improvements as an application of the progressive overload.
So for example, if you are able to do 15 regular push-ups, there is no point in constantly repeating this feat. Either move to diamond push-ups, or add sets or reps. Also, you MUST progress forward. In case you do not, you have to revisit your knowledge in successful strength training programming.
Bodyweight Training Tip #2: Suitable Amount of Training Volume
According to lots of fitness professionals, building muscle is highly dependent on the amount of training volume. In my experience, this is definitely true. If you can build muscle with low-volume strength training, that’s great.
However, if you do not grow for some reason, then you might need to review your training volume. The rule of thumb here is to perform around 25 reps per muscle group per week with adequate intensity. You might need more or less. You will have to experiment to figure this out.
Bodyweight Training Tip #3: Compound Moves
The fact that big compound moves that involve large motor units build substantially more muscle than small isolation work is a no-brainer in weight training.
Luckily, in bodyweight strength training, there are not many ways to isolate a certain muscle group, and in most exercises, you have to use your whole body – which is certainly good for hypertrophy. This principle should be a cornerstone of your exercise selection.
Bodyweight Training Tip #4: Caloric Surplus
So, why are there dudes who do mind-blowing stuff with their body, but at the same time possess that ‘do-you-even-lift’ look? Well, if they train compound moves with enough volume and progress to heavier feats with time, then the answer is definitely their diet. They are not eating enough.
Despite what you might have heard, nutrition is far more important for muscle gains than training. Your program can be perfect but if your diet is inappropriate, then you will not build any muscle after the beginner gains.
I won’t go into the details here, but if you are training for a decent time and haven’t already built some appreciable muscle, then you have to count calories and macronutrients. You have to determine your daily “maintenance” calories and to increase this number by 10-20%. Use the Tool below to determine your maintenance calories.
A good starting point for your macros is 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% fat. I recommend you to get into a habit of logging all your food into a caloric calculator/diary. For example, I use My Fitness Pal. It takes me around 2-5 minutes per day to log everything I eat.
If such a commitment seems difficult to you, then maybe building muscle is not your thing. Here is an article that will get your nutrition on track. It isn’t geared towards muscle gain, but with the right supplementation and macros you will achieve your goals.
Bodyweight Training Tip #5: Sleep
Finally, putting on some serious muscle will be quite hard if you do not invest properly into recovery. The single best thing you can do is to sleep at least 8 hours per night.
Putting It All Together
The simplest way to implement bodyweight training for hypertrophy is to take a well-known time-proven program like Starting Strength and to substitute barbell exercises with bodyweight versions.
Bench presses will become dips or push-ups, squats will become pistols, etc. Of course, there is no bodyweight substitute for deadlifts, but as a possible solution, you can find a sandbag and perform single-leg deadlifts instead.
In the end, let me give you some real perspective regarding bodyweight training. Trying to build muscle with pure calisthenics is not the best way to do it.
Basically, it is not the best because you cannot maintain a steady progressive overload with purely bodyweight exercises. In barbell training, you are able to add 2.5 kg of resistance to the same movement pattern.
However, with calisthenics, to increase difficulty, you might have to learn the completely new movement pattern, which most of the time will feel way harder comparing to a 2.5 kg barbell increase.
Let me give you an example. Let’s assume that your goal is the one-arm push-up and you can do 10 diamond push-ups per set at the moment.
To acquire the skill, you have to increase the intensity. The next step in the progression can be a partial one-arm push-up with your feet wide. However, after trying it, you figure out that you can do only 1-3 reps per set.
So, any way you implement this, your training volume will decrease substantially, which is far from effective if we are talking about hypertrophy.
Additionally, my experience shows that to load an easier movement pattern is way better for building muscle than to learn a more complex one. Furthermore, leg work using bodyweight training is quite limited.
A possible solution for these problems is to use external weight in simple bodyweight exercises like dips and chin-ups. But that is the theme for another article.
So should you use bodyweight training for hypertrophy? If your goal is to build as much muscle as possible as fast as possible, then no. Get access to some weights, preferably a barbell.
However, if you are not in a rush and you are keen to learn some cool tricks in the process, then you are welcome to try the beast that is called bodyweight strength training.