Does calisthenics build muscle?
To stimulate our muscles to grow, we have to expose them to some kind of overload.
Can you experience this kind of overload by doing calisthenics? Read on and find out!
Does Calisthenics Build Muscle? What is Calisthenics, And What Benefits Does It Offer?
In essence, calisthenics is bodyweight training. Instead of lifting external weights, such as barbells for resistance, you’re using your body. For example, you might sit on a pulldown machine and do lat pulldowns for your back in a gym. With calisthenics, you would do pull-ups instead. The two exercises train many of the same muscle groups, but one uses external weights for resistance, and the other – your body (1).
But calisthenics is more than that. It’s not just about doing bodyweight squats, push-ups, and some pull-ups. Calisthenics is an art that blends athleticism, grace, and beautiful movement into one. The art often includes challenging and beautiful activities like the human flag, planche push-up, and muscle-up. Doing these exercises is beautiful but also incredibly beneficial for your overall athleticism, balance, and strength.
What makes calisthenics great is that it teaches your muscles how to work together. Even simple calisthenics activities often involve three, four, five, or more major muscle groups. Instead of training muscles in isolation, they work as intended, resulting in impressive athletic abilities.
What Makes Our Muscle Grow?
Contrary to what many believe, muscle growth doesn’t occur from a small number of actions. There are no perfect or ideal exercises for muscle growth. Instead, our muscles understand and respond to tension and stress. So long as we provide both, we can see great results.
1. Training Volume
Training volume refers to the amount of work we do in a workout. The most common way to track it is to count the number of hard sets we do.
Research suggests that doing more work delivers better results, up to a point (2). We can also do too much and risk overtraining and muscle loss.
2. Training Intensity
Muscle growth can occur in every repetition range (3). But practicality dictates that we train in a moderate range that stimulates our muscles, allows us to progress over time, and doesn’t pile too much fatigue.
Training with incredibly light weights might seem easier, but it often fatigues us more and takes longer. Training with heavy weights might seem efficient, but it takes us longer to recover and puts more stress on our joints.
So, it’s best to train with anywhere from 6 to 25 repetitions across most exercises.
In the training context, effort refers to our proximity to muscular failure. Regardless of your training style, you can’t build muscle without adequate effort.
In general, a reasonable effort level to aim for is to leave one or two repetitions in the tank across most sets. Doing so still forces you to work incredibly hard but doesn’t prolong your recovery period unnecessarily (4).
Regardless of your training style, progression will play an integral role in muscle growth (5). You might be following a fantastic training program that helps you build muscle now. But do the same workout for a year, and you’ll find yourself stagnating.
Our muscles need to experience some sort of overload to keep growing and getting stronger. Otherwise, they adapt to the stress and tension we provide and don’t have a reason to keep developing.
So a good muscle-building program will continually force you to work harder, be it by doing more work, lifting more weight, learning more challenging exercises, or something else.
5. Exercise Selection
Doing multiple exercises is beneficial for optimal muscle growth because they allow you to train different regions of your muscles and stimulate the largest possible number of motor units. For example, doing flat and incline bench pressing is beneficial for chest growth because both movements train your chest from different angles (6). As a result, one movement emphasizes your middle and lower chest, where the other primarily works your upper chest.
Doing multiple exercises is also beneficial for increasing your training volume but varying the stress you cause your joints and connective tissues. Doing so can prevent aches and overuse injuries.
Does Calisthenics Build Muscle?
Yes, if you cover the above criteria. Calisthenics is a great way to train, and you can build decent amounts of muscle, especially in your upper body.
So long as you do enough training volume (sets and reps), push yourself hard enough, progress gradually, and do multiple exercises, you will see great results.
First, it’s good to start with at least ten sets per muscle group per week. Your biceps, shoulders, and triceps will probably grow from less direct work because they are involved in the major calisthenics movements: pull-ups, push-ups, and more.
Second, work hard and do enough repetitions per set. Ideally, do at least six reps per set and leave one or two in the tank to allow for good recovery.
Third, make sure to overload your muscles. You can do that by doing more sets, training more frequently, doing more reps, resting less between sets, or adding extra weight on yourself (such as by wearing a weighted vest).
Of course, good nutrition, recovery, and adequate sleep also play an essential role in building muscle. Calisthenics training is fantastic, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Calisthenics is a fun, challenging, and fulfilling way to elevate your physical abilities, build muscle, and improve core stability.
When done correctly, calisthenics can build impressive amounts of muscle, especially in the upper body. So, if you’ve been wondering about it and want to try calisthenics, do it.
By the way, be sure to bookmark my MASSIVE collection of calisthenics and strength building exercises!
Other Helpful Resources
- The Progressive Overload Principle: Definition and Science
- Bodyweight Workouts For Beginners: The Ultimate Guide
- At-Home Bodyweight Exercises For Your Chest: The Definite Guide
- The Push Up Academy: Push up Workout for Beginners
- The Popular Curvy Body Workout at Home Routine Revealed!
- What is the Best Dip Station for Calisthenics: Reviews and Top Picks
- Pull Up Program For Beginners: Progression Exercises To Have You Doing Pull Ups Like a Beast!
- What is Functional Training Workout? Science and Benefits
- Snarr RL, Hallmark AV, Casey JC, Esco MR. Electromyographical Comparison of a Traditional, Suspension Device, and Towel Pull-Up. J Hum Kinet. 2017;58:5-13. Published 2017 Aug 1. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0068
- Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):94-103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764
- Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct;29(10):2954-63. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958. PMID: 25853914.
- Morán-Navarro R, Pérez CE, Mora-Rodríguez R, de la Cruz-Sánchez E, González-Badillo JJ, Sánchez-Medina L, Pallarés JG. Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Dec;117(12):2387-2399. doi: 10.1007/s00421-017-3725-7. Epub 2017 Sep 30. PMID: 28965198.
- Kotarsky CJ, Christensen BK, Miller JS, Hackney KJ. Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Mar;32(3):651-659. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002345. PMID: 29466268.
- Rodríguez-Ridao D, Antequera-Vique JA, Martín-Fuentes I, Muyor JM. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(19):7339. Published 2020 Oct 8. doi:10.3390/ijerph17197339