We go to the gym to lift weights as we know that this is a proven way to build muscles but sometimes we get bored in lifting weights and you want to try some other training methods.
Calisthenics exercises are a very good option, especially as you don’t need to go to the gym to train, but sometimes you doubt if you can build muscles doing it when you are only lifting your own body.
Calisthenics training is very effective in building muscles, especially in the upper body and core area. The right amount of intensity in the exercises, good quality of sleep, and enough protein in your diet are important factors that affect the growth of muscle cells in your body also known as muscle Hypertrophy.
Let us understand first how muscles grow in general, what conditions you can create to enhance this effect, and we will cover what type of Calisthenics exercises best to do this.
How do muscles grow?
According to an article from MedicalNewsToday; “Muscle size increases when a person continually challenges the muscles to deal with higher levels of resistance or weight. This process is known as muscle hypertrophy.”
When you expose your muscles to loads that are higher than usual, you are causing microscopic damage to the individual muscle fibers of that part of the body. Your body will then react by repairing the damaged tissue so it will not get damaged the next time you expose it to the same amount of load.
And if you continuously expose your body to higher loads every session, you will end up progressively building more muscles over time. This is provided that you gave your body enough time to repair before exposing it the next session.
It doesn’t matter whether you are lifting weights or just doing a bodyweight movement, if the intensity is enough to break some muscle tissue, you will stimulate the body to be in a hypertrophy state.
Factors affecting muscle growth
Here are 3 general factors that you need to consider to provide to your body for optimal muscle hypertrophy.
1. How intense is your exercise
Intensity simply means how hard is the exercise you are doing. The harder the exercise, the more stimulation you send to the body to build more muscles. Here are 3 easy ways to add more intensity to an exercise:
a. The amount of load your muscles carry
This is the most common way in making an exercise harder especially if you are working out with weights as you can just add more plates onto the bar and you know that it is heavier.
But it is not that simple with bodyweight exercises as you only carry your own weight unless you do weighted Calisthenics in which you wear a belt so you can hang plates while you exercise. Other Calisthenics exercises such as front levers and planche will be more complicated as it uses the principle of leverage to control intensity. A few inches going forward or backward can greatly affect the amount of load.
So make sure you know the right progressions in doing Calisthenics exercise and pay attention to how your body positioning as this will greatly affect the intensity of the movement.
b. The muscles time under tension
This literally means the duration of time your muscle is tensing. The longer the time under tension, the more intense the exercise is. So if you are doing more reps, you have longer time under tension, assuming that the speed between reps remains constant. Another way of increasing the time under tension is by slowing down your movement or pausing somewhere within the range.
c. The eccentric phase of the movement can carry more load
The eccentric phase is the part of the movement where the muscles are lengthened as it is doing the movement. In general, it is the lowering part of the movement that the muscles will go into an eccentric contraction. For example, in push-ups, pull-ups, and dips, the eccentric phase is when you’re lowering down your body.
The eccentric part of the movement can carry more load than the concentric part (the shortening phase of the muscles or when you are going up) of the movement. This means that you have more capacity when you are going down than when you are going up.
Knowing this, you can add more load or add more time under tension when you are into the eccentric phase of the contraction. This is commonly demonstrated in bodybuilding where the spotter will help his partner lift the weight up then allow the partner to lower down the weights on their own when going down.
On top of this, not only eccentric contraction has more capacity to carry more, but the muscles will also undergo more damage microscopically when it is lengthened, which is a perfect condition to stimulate muscle growth. But there is a caveat to this as you will also need more time to recover. It is good for you to know this as you will be able to apply this knowledge later on to specific Calisthenics exercises.
If you want to read more on the nitty-gritties of what I am talking about, here is an article from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Increasing the intensity of your exercise is only the first step towards muscle building. Your muscles will not grow if you are not allowing your body to recover before the next session. So here are the two important factors in recovery.
2. Quality food is the building block to repair muscle tissue
Once you are done with your intense training, your individual muscle fibers are damaged from the exercise. Your body is depleted with the energy it needs to repair. The most important thing you need to consider is what to eat to aid the body in repairing itself to build more muscles so you are ready for the next session.
Recommendations vary in terms of how much protein you need, the percentage of fat and carbs in your diet. But a good rule of thumb is to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. So if you are 150 lbs, you will need 150 grams of protein a day. Then you can fill in the fats and carbs accordingly.
If you are on the leaner side, you can keep or increase the number of carbs and fats that you normally take and see after 4 weeks if you are seeing results. If you are not building enough muscles, then you can increase your intake a little bit more.
If you are trying to lose fat, you can decrease the percentage of carbs and fats in your normal daily diet and check the results after 4 weeks. If you are building muscles and losing fat then you are on the right track, but if you are not getting leaner, then you may consider cutting the fats and carbs.
Best is to consult a dietician that is specialized in body transformation to aid you with this if you want to see faster and safer results.
3. Sleep is when the body rebuilds itself
You will need 6 to 8 hours of sleep to recover from an intense workout. Some individuals may need even more. Sleep is literally when the body will repair itself. All repair hormones like your growth hormone will be very active at this stage to rebuild all the damaged muscles from your workout.
You may need more than just a night’s sleep to get your muscles ready to do the exercise again if your recovery is slow or you really push yourself to the limit the previous session.
How to do Calisthenics exercises to build muscles?
Based on the understanding of how muscles grow, we can conclude that any Calisthenics exercise can be used to build muscles. Of course, assuming you choose the right progression of the exercise depending on your level. But there are common practices that are best to achieve this. Let’s take a look at them.
This is the simplest way to build more muscles in Calisthenics. You can add load to your dips, push-ups, pull-ups, and chin-ups. Planches and levers are a little more complex to add weight on, and besides, you have to be at a very advanced level before you can add weight to these exercises.
The drawback to weighted calisthenics is the setup. You will need weight belts and plates to do this method, which means you can most likely only conveniently do it in the gym.
Weighted Calisthenics is also a good way to build strength in Calisthenics. Here is an article I wrote about it.
Can high-volume training work to build muscles?
It can work if you do it right. Intensity is still the key, so you don’t just add reps for the sake of adding reps, but you add reps to increase the intensity of your sets. Doing 20 push-ups for 5 sets can be considered high-volume training, but it won’t stimulate muscle growth if you can actually do 30 push-ups for 5 sets.
One disadvantage in doing high-volume training is the amount of time it requires to finish the session. This is even worse the more advanced you are as you will need tons of reps to get you to the right intensity.
What is the best rep range for Calisthenics exercise?
Common knowledge of 8-12 or 10-15 reps is best for building muscles, but why are there too many variations of these rep ranges?
Your strength and capacity between sessions differ depending on your sleep, stress level, and recovery habits. Confining yourself into a certain number of repetitions will short-change your returns in building more muscles.
Intensity is the key, so if you still have more reps to go and you finish your set, then you are not stimulating your system enough to build muscles. But make sure you pay attention to your form, as pushing too hard with bad form can lead you to injury.
If you are still getting started, here is an article I wrote about how to do push-ups correctly.
What is the best tempo for building muscles?
Tempo is the timing of how you perform a movement. A simple way to describe it is to go slow, or go fast, or go fast up and slow down.
Since we know that the eccentric phase of the movement can carry more load than the concentric phase, we can optimize each rep to build muscles by controlling the tempo of the exercise.
Going fast up and going slow down will give you the best way to stimulate muscle growth as you increase the duration of the eccentric part, thus increasing the intensity. How slow do you go down? Around 4 seconds is a good start.
Adding pulses on the last rep
This is a good method to deploy if you don’t want to do too many reps. On the last rep, you can add small range pulses at the hardest part of the range. This will finish off your set with good intensity to stimulate muscle building without spending more time adding more reps.
For example, instead of doing 15 reps pull-ups, you can do 10 repetitions and add small pulses on your 10th rep. The number of pulses will depend on the reserve you have left.
How long do you need to rest in between sets?
Rest time can vary from 30 seconds to 5 minutes between sets. In general, you rest longer when you want to build strength and shorter when you want to build more muscles. This leads us to the conclusion that 30 seconds is the best rest time!
But not so, as resting too short will not help you recover for the next set, which will compromise on how intense you can do it. Remember, high intensity is also a significant factor in muscle hypertrophy. 60 to 90 seconds, in general, is a good rest time to effectively build muscles.