Establishing big and ambitious goals in calisthenics is great, but reality beats our expectations, unfortunately. You can build a great body with calisthenics but it requires a lot more time than expected to get those great results.
Calisthenics is not to blame! Comparing the results made with calisthenics and weight lifting, in terms of speed and general fitness, I think most of the guys who do conventional bodybuilding have little to no results (not talking about the pros or those who really know what they are doing). Hence I cannot blame the gym and bodybuilding or weight lifting. I rather blame their actions.
I lost body fat with calisthenics until I was skinny, and then I put on great mass with calisthenics. So it’s possible, and I am not privileged. I just worked my craft and knew exactly how to do it. When I made mistakes, I changed my approach and improved eventually by learning from them.
Therefore, I will explain certain steps in your calisthenics evolution so you can understand why it takes time to improve, regardless of how good the training routine is. Along with the article, I also recommend the video below where I explain the volume needed in general to grow your strength and muscles too:
The Fat Loss Dilemma
Too many people want to jump directly into strength training to build mass and get rid of body fat altogether. Instead of doing that, I suggest you lose the extra body fat stored on the belly first, and here is why:
- A couple of pounds more will slow you down and affect performance while training
- By being heavier, it’s harder to do pull-ups or pushups, and perhaps you will be unable to reach the hypertrophy rep ranges
- You will tire sooner by being heavier, and it will also slow down the metabolism
- More weight does not mean more strength. You only add more stress and pressure on tendons and ligaments, which can cause damage
- With body fat surrounding your body, you can’t see muscle definition even if they exist. Everything underneath will be invisible to your eyes. Very demotivating!
We often see actors and how lean their physiques are while performing in movies, and to such an extent that it makes their bodies look extremely massive. Well, that is mostly thanks to their low body fat rate. You don’t need to have a great size of your frame to look ripped. A very good muscle definition followed by a low body fat percentage it’s all one needs.
Take a look at Frank Medrano or Hannibal for King. They both have extremely low body fat ratios and well-developed muscles. They look even bigger because they are very jacked and due to proportions too. It doesn’t matter how much fat you have to lose because if that covers the abdominals, then get rid of it first.
If you are skinny but still have belly fat, then it is pointless to train your abs with core exercises to remove that. It has nothing to do with it. Body fat is stored energy and burnt only if necessary, so generate the circumstances for that to happen (read here about the mathematics of weight loss). Genetics have nothing to do with it either.
Aerobic and cardio training will trigger a fat loss response better than any other strength training regimen or HIIT. Understanding the timeframe for when this will happen is a matter of understanding the following mathematical equation:
- 1 kg (2 pounds) stored body fat = 7500 kcal.
A grown-up man may only need around 2200 kcal per day to survive. To trigger a fat loss response means that you will burn more than you take from food. By training, you can easily burn around 400-1000 kcal and another 400-1000 kcal from the diet. It will require mental toughness, though. It’s hard to avoid that chocolate when you are used to consuming it regularly.
From experience, I know that by following a clean diet, moderate in calories, and by training with cardio exercises 3-4 times (40-60 minutes each session) a week, it is possible to lose around 2 pounds of naturally stored fat per week. That is why it may take you several months to lose the extra fat. So forget about those goals of losing 2-3 pounds a day or every second day. Everything that is extreme leads to failure after all. Plan everything in the long term and you will be successful.
Meanwhile, you will enhance your performance, stamina, certain skills, state of mind, and even feel better about yourself. At the end of this journey, or in the meantime, you can also consider starting to do 1-2 sessions of strength training per week to prepare your body for the next goal.
The Hypertrophy Confusion
Elliott Hulse once said:
“Both lifting weights or lifting your own bodyweight create resistance against your neural muscular system that is going to cause it to respond. Therefore, it all comes down to how you work with certain variables and particularities like volume, intensity, rest, tempo, frequency, and form -many of which are similar in calisthenics to how athletes approach bodybuilding.”
To cause a hypertrophy response takes a lot of effort and patience. You have to:
- Add a higher volume (more sets and reps)
- Train more often, from 3 times a week to 4 or 5
- Master the basics in terms of form, range and execution
- Keep on training using relatively low rest times to boost muscular endurance
- Increase the intensity of the exercises like choosing the One Leg Squat over Regular Squats, and even combine these two under the same routine
- Train (sometimes) using a higher tempo.
The great advantage, though, is that all those variables are correlated. You may train to master pull-ups, and in reality, you become stronger and endurable, creating more powerful neuromuscular connections. Then you need further stimulus and push harder to build muscles.
Although you may desire to gain mass, focus on mastering the basics better, as that is what will get you there.
Don’t get me wrong, but your main goals should follow a natural and gradual order. Your weekly attention should be to:
- Train the same muscle groups more frequently.
- Know what exercises to add or eliminate.
- Improve sets and reps to increase the volume. This is also related to the frequency.
- Design a training program that is hard and smart but also sufficiently rich in all kinds of fundamental moves. However, please keep it clean and simple.
That is why you have to be disciplined and consistent over time. All the pieces will fall into the right place, and you will get more muscular if you focus on these aspects.
First, get to know your training routines and try to make the best of them. Strive and learn through repetition and mistakes. It may take you months until you master those workouts. But during this period, you are getting stronger, which is important for muscle growth. Muscles are related to strength. In calisthenics, you can not build muscles without building strength, and you can not build strength without making those muscles scream a bit for mercy.
That’s why it is important to repeat this cycle as often as possible. Your body doesn’t know how many workouts you do, but after a full year, it will matter if you trained 3 times a week or 4 times a week.
There also exists a so-called mind-muscle connection. By mastering the basic workouts, you improve that connection between mind and muscles. Strength comes from here. The nervous system will empower you by training the mechanical parts through exercises. Concentrate and visualize yourself performing. Stay focused on each repetition and form!
You might have heard of muscle endurance or strength of different kinds. These are all connected, but the most essential is muscle endurance. Having it well-trained will allow you to do a lot more reps and recover faster. That is how I went from 4-5 reps pull-ups per set to 10-20 reps per set.
During the first months of my calisthenics journey, I couldn’t gain great mass because I struggled to master the most basic parts of calisthenics. I started from 10-12 dips per set, 12-15 pushups, 4-5 pull-ups, and reached 20-30 dips, 20-30 pushups, and 10-20 pull-ups per set. Once I was able to increase all the variables I mentioned earlier, my body started to grow.
How Much Time for You?
Being overweight and having a very low fitness level may take two years to achieve something great. During this period, you will have to be very consistent for almost every week of every month.
As a newcomer, skinny, but not a beginner in overall fitness, it may take you months to a full year to notice great results. Age is also one variable, and a 20-year-old will have faster results. A background also makes a difference, but it is not the cornerstone. Your attitude will impact the outcome even more.
In any case, don’t blame calisthenics. It will work if you put in the time and effort. The progress is not gradual nor constant. You’ll progress in sound waves, and you will have to get past certain obstacles to get the job done. Although one hour a day doesn’t sound like much, you will be amazed to see how many people blame that for not exercising at all.
I started as a fat guy, over 87 kg and lost enough weight to reach 72-73 kg (I am 184 cm tall). I was skinny but with calisthenics, I also put on a great amount of muscle, reaching 85-86 kilograms. I looked muscular, and then I got bulk at around 95. Big, strong and with belly fat because building up is not always the hardest part. It is almost as hard to maintain what you build. Now I am shrinking to 88 kg. Now you can understand why the progress is not constant.
Also, believe me when I say that strength is not always the same. Sometimes you can’t do those established reps. It happens to me too, because we’re not a machine! See everything from a wide perspective and never get frustrated.