Can you really build muscle with calisthenics?

Hi! I am the author and founder of Old School Calisthenics

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You can really build muscle with calisthenics, but it will not be easy. It takes a great amount of time, patience and consistency. For example, before I started calisthenics training, I was frankly skinny, but with time and through hard work and consistency, I clearly built a muscular and strong physique.

Many who claim that you can build muscle with calisthenics didn’t actually follow a pure bodyweight routine. Most of these individuals did a sort of hybrid training with more emphasis on calisthenics. On the other hand, the guys who struggle a lot to make others believe calisthenics is not efficient for building muscle never relied on calisthenics for this outcome.

I am one of the few who practiced pure calisthenics training more than 90% of the time and kept it like this for almost 2 years. The other 10% represented some weighted pushups, pull-ups, dips and squats. However, that’s a small fraction. So yes, I did a lot of bodyweight pushups and dips and still built a great chest with them. During my calisthenics journey and while building myself muscular, I never did bench press or lifted any conventional weights. I enjoyed, however, a few weighted calisthenics here and there. But that’s about it!

I posted my calisthenics body transformation on YouTube; you can see the video below:

Calisthenics vs. Weights Physique

Dedicate 1-2 years to calisthenics training, and you won’t regret it. I have one suggestion: stop comparing the physique you achieve through calisthenics training to the one you get from lifting weights. They are both highly effective in muscle development, but the muscle fibers indeed develop a bit differently. Train without hesitation, calisthenics revolves around functional exercises and provides many more benefits than just growth. It’s quality training.

I think that calisthenics builds a very natural and functional look or aesthetics. Basic bodyweight exercises, if done correctly, train the muscle fibers qualitatively.

Build muscle with calisthenics
During a pull-up, dips and pushups workout.

Listen, I trained many guys, provided many calisthenics programs, and I’m coaching professional athletes these days. They all build great physiques and athleticism out of calisthenics. So, eliminate doubt and fear.

Lifting weights can be great. It’s good exercise, but I always advise starters in resistance training to focus more on calisthenics, regardless if they intend to build massive strength, a muscular physique, good fitness, aesthetics etc. You should be able to master basic calisthenics before lifting heavy. Calisthenics is overall better and more beneficial to the vast majority.

Is it possible to build muscle with calisthenics?

I know that many bodyweight exercises might strike as easy or at least not hard enough to stimulate the muscles properly. That’s not true! Calisthenics exercises like dips, pull-ups and many squats and pushup variations employ the phasic muscle fibers associated with growth. I am not talking bullshit here. I study kinesiology, sports medicine and sports physiology. Hence, it’s all science. You will obviously need multiple variations to train the whole fibers effectively, genetics also plays a role, but only consistent training can stimulate hypertrophy if nutrition is really on point. The food quality will determine the quality of your mass, and then the calorie intake will determine how much mass you add. You don’t want to gain too much fat, so eat relatively clean, but this depends greatly on the individual.

I have built a pretty muscular physique so far with calisthenics. I could get even more massive, but I honestly enjoy being athletic at the moment since I need too much food and calories to sustain a very massive body. My nutrition is really good and if you need some insights, check the video below:

You may be wondering why I talk about nutrition when the question is whether calisthenics can potentially build muscles, but food and calories are what will make this happen. You can’t have great gains without sleeping well all the time and without eating properly and sufficiently. Some skinny guys will have problems with that, but the problem is the calorie intake, not the exercise. I know it’s tough to eat more when you burn everything out, but it’s the only way.

Calisthenics is resistance training. It puts your organism in a catabolic state. Lifting weights does the same thing. But it’s during an anabolic state when you grow bigger and stronger, not when you train. And the more training you do, the harder the workouts are, the more nutrients and calories you need. This also means better and more sleep.

The Impact of 10-Week of Calisthenics on Women

A study on ResearchGate from June 2015 was conducted on women who followed a 10-week bodyweight training plan to assess their growth in abilities and muscles: read the paper here. They had great improvements, but men are more inclined to build muscles than women. However, the study particularly emphasized the nutrition aspect.

They concluded that without a properly balanced diet, the bodyweight training program has a small impact on the body composition, but it helps improve general physical fitness: strength, endurance, flexibility, coordination etc. Thus, if you want to build muscle with calisthenics, nutrition and sleep should preoccupy you once you have a good workout program.

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