Make Gains and Build Muscles with Calisthenics

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

February 5, 2020

There are solid reasons why you are not having results in bodyweight training and I can offer you my approach to finally make gains and build muscles with calisthenics.

I know it’s frustrating, training bodyweight for a year or two, putting in the effort, work ethic, and time, only to realize you made no significant improvement. Then, of course, self-doubt surface, and you get confused. Being in that spot, you may start to blame calisthenics training, the genetic makeup you inherited, the training routine, and so on. It’s normal, but there are ways around it, and believe it or not, it’s not a question whether calisthenics is for you or not.

Bodyweight training works as effectively as everything else, and your muscles don’t acknowledge whether you lift your weight against gravity or external weights. It’s your brain who does it. Still, muscles and strength grow under certain circumstances only, as you will find out.

Your Sports and Fitness Background

More often, it’s not about the genetics you inherited or the fact you may be a hard gainer. One crucial detail that many rarely recognize is the influence of our sports and fitness background.

Were you physically active during childhood? Did you practice sports with regularity, or were you more sedentary? Reflect deeply upon these questions because it makes a huge difference and can be the answer to why you are a hard gainer or achieved no significant results in calisthenics until now.

It’s incredibly relevant because, as young, we develop fundamental athleticism and strength, which facilitates gains in our adult life. Or it complicates the entire growth process.

It could be a reason why I made more progress in calisthenics in a shorter time in comparison with someone else. Our muscles have their memory, and even if I lost them multiple times, I could always come back and make gains again if I did a correct routine over a long time.

I was extremely active back then, and the main reason I got into sports is that I was extremely sick. I overcame that and built great athleticism. But I don’t want to discuss my sports background as it’s not the topic of our conversation. I wrote about it in detail, though, and I think there is a lot you can learn from my experience: Read about my sports and fitness background.

If you were sedentary or never practiced sustained and severe training regimen during childhood, it’s less likely to have rapid progress with calisthenics in your adult life. It doesn’t matter if it’s bodyweight training, lifting weights, athletics, etc. Moreover, you may compare yourself too much with athletes like me, without taking into consideration all the characteristics of my life and components that made us who we are.

I indeed worked extremely hard to achieve this insane physique and strength. It didn’t come easy, even if I have an excellent sports background. Calisthenics, as well as running on the mountains, were strenuous for me, and I had to be very consistent with making gains. Believe it or not, I was a student of calisthenics and running, although I mastered other sports alternatively. So act like a student, beginner, and learn the process correctly.

You may have a different pace also because of your sports background, not to mention that you are different in almost all the other aspects. Stop comparing yourself with others or with me. Look in the mirror because that’s your only competition. Can you beat the current version of yourself months and years from now? That’s the attitude you must adopt. All the habits you integrate must lead there.

You can’t change the past, but you can do something every day so you can enhance the future you. In the absence of such a background, you must build it from now on regardless of age. Will it take a lot? Most probably, but everyone can build decent muscles and strength regardless of genetics and lifestyle if patient.

That’s why I always say, focus on performance, basic exercises, and train harder. It’s about enhancing your athleticism. Strengthen your body, tendons, bones, connective tissue, and you will increase the performance tremendously. It is that moment and that moment alone when you start making real gains in calisthenics.

If I needed one year to achieve something great, you might need 2 or 3 (depends on each individual). And I know that three-six months of serious commitment may strike you like a lot of time and effort. But what if I told you I have over a decade of hard training behind, plus a sports background?

Compensate that sedentary lifestyle you had with being a hard worker from now on but do it at your own pace and speed. Time is your ally if you work smart and enough. If you are fat and want to shrink by doing calisthenics, then learning about the workout routines that do it best is what I suggest you do. Then learn nutrition and make other crucial connections among these two.

Make a plan and study everything because only then you can rest assured you’re executing a good plan that leads somewhere good. To help you with that, check out my article about how to target fat loss: The Right Way to Burn Stubborn Fat: 3 Simple Steps! That being covered, let’s discuss now more about muscle gain and what you missed in your calisthenics training!

How Much Work You Do?

Results with Calisthenics

Muscle gains equal the work you overdo. Are you putting in enough work? I’ve seen this way too much — people who are afraid to add reps and volume because it destroys their gains.

I don’t know about the fool who taught you that, but your purpose must change that mentality. You can’t do a minimum amount of effort and expect great results. Your body development correlates directly with the amount of stress, exertion, workload, and overuse that you continuously do. And if all these are not sustained adequately and sufficiently by nutrition and recovery, then my friend, calisthenics it’s not the problem. It’s you, doing everything upside down.

How to put it better for you? The one who works harder with consistency, over time, will be the one to benefit more even if genetics or the sports background help or do not. What I mean is, train more frequently and add more workload into your training routine, and you will gain more muscles and strength.

I see this trend in calisthenics, where athletes or beginners do a minimum amount of work because it maximizes results by allowing space and time for muscles to refresh and recover. First hand, trends are not the best pathways that lead to real results. Calisthenics makes no exception!

The old school way was and still is superior in almost any aspect. You should train old school and allow new technology to help the process. By technology, I mean further studies in nutrition, clothing, shoes (in case you are running), using the smartphone to keep a training log, and so on.

You have to help yourself with technology to increase performance and speed recovery, and not make your workouts too easy! Many trainers came with this trend or a new machine that leads to perfect programming, which in reality doesn’t exist.

Most of you focus a lot on doing low sets, low reps, and unnecessary variations. Or you train too many skills, which is a trend also (just see what Street Workout is nowadays: Street Workout According to Wikipedia).

Even progressive overload can work if you add enough reps and sets to it. I don’t care if you do Lever Pull-Ups, Towel Pull-Ups, or Weighted Pull-Ups because they are all compound and essential exercises to building muscles and strength. It matters the way you train with them, though!

So if you picked three hard exercises like Lever, Uneven, and Weighted Pull-Ups, my question is, how do you train with them? These variations are difficult, they generate a lot of tension, and due to that, the amount of reps decreases significantly with every set done. The trend is that you allow more rest, do fewer reps, and sets to have the muscles fresh for the next set or variation.

This approach is adequate for gaining strength and power. But to build muscles, you need to stress and burn them entirely. Unless you fatigue them and get that muscle soreness, then it’s useless. Do you get lactate from doing what you are doing at the moment?

I have to tell you honestly, almost all my workouts produce lactate or that burnt in my muscles. It is after it hurts when it truly counts for muscle growth. Okay?

If I do extremely difficult bodyweight exercises like muscle-ups or handstand pushups, lever pull-ups, then I still keep a relatively low rest time and a more extensive range of sets. In terms of reps, I may do the maximum amount I can handle for every set. And I don’t focus only on those hard variations. My workout usually continues with light and moderate exercises.

Or if I do only progressive overload in a workout because I may only want to train my maximal strength, then on the second workout of the week, I do a high rep routine, short break, military-style baby! Of course, you can’t do only volume training because overdoing something can lead to overtraining and maybe to injuries at some point. Out of 10 consecutive workouts, perhaps 5 or 6 of them are challenging, and the others are of light and moderate intensity. Therefore, include deload weeks, but also smash your workouts as often as possible.

Other Stuff You May Not Pay Attention To

You have to be aware that linear progress doesn’t exist! In my fitness journey, I had a lot of ups and downs, and that is why I’ve been through 4 body transformations until 29.

I am more mature now than ever before, so I don’t think I will lose my shape again. I bet you also go through hard times, and it matters the attitude you adopt once you come closer to an obstacle.

So talking about progress or plateaus, I can relate with you why you are too much into progressive training, as the Convict Conditioning system. It’s easier to track performance when you know you added a rep here and there to a variation that once was impossible to do.

Volume training can’t track progress as much, because your reps can drop to half in a workout compared to another. But the focus shouldn’t be on that. Concentrate on repping out and focus on performance alone.

I am in love with hardcore training. For me, pain is a necessary evil. The only progress you can track here is summing up the reps and workouts you do every week.

How many pull-ups, squats, dips, pushups, leg raises, sprints had you done in 2019? Or you may not even keep a training journal.

I know my numbers and trust me that if I compare mine with the vast majority, then you understand precisely why I progressed faster.

My focus is to train more frequently with basic, compound, and essential exercises. I know when to switch to cardio, HIIT, and back to sets and reps, while others stick only with a training method and record their slow progress in terms of reps and strength. Most of them never do full-body circuits, pyramids, and so on. They only add three sets, several variations, one harder the previous one, and that’s it, workout done!

Nutrition

You can do everything I said 100% perfectly and still get nowhere unless the diet isn’t what it should be. Let’s get clear upon something. I became incredibly shredded because of nutrition. You can’t get under 12% body fat unless you eat the right types of foods. It’s not about calories and the exchange of energy!

But my body fat is a lot lower than that. To reach this insanely small body fat percentage requires a lot of effort and discipline. You have to cook and prepare your own meals too.

Moreso, you have to know about the cooking methods, ingredients, nutrients, types of carbs, lipids, and protein. Too many of you are convinced that protein is what matters the most in muscle growth. Well, you’ve been fooled by idiots because, in reality, we need more complex carbs than protein to build muscles and strength.

Besides that, if your mineral and vitamin levels are low, then mood, the way you think, and even strength or endurance in training are affected. So do you eat fruit, do you drink water that has a rich abundance of natural elements in it?

Everything is related, and food sustains your physical effort. It is the one that rebuilds your connective tissue and makes your muscles respond better. We are firmly attached to food. It affects our brains and the way we think about everything. You want muscles, then make sure you eat right because that’s your fuel to sustain everything over the long run.

You could lift weights and reach nowhere, exactly like with doing calisthenics. This article propagates toward those who hibernate in the gym as well. Very few people know how to maximize their results naturally even inside a gym.

If your diet isn’t sustainable for your lifestyle and long term, then you are wasting your time!

I can’t cover all the vital aspects of this topic. But I need to put an emphasis on it as I know its importance. Maybe you do everything right, but you lack in this field. It can be the reason why you don’t grow muscles or increase performance: strength, power, coordination, endurance, etc.

Don’t worry. You can find on my blog a lot of articles about nutrition:

  1. Basics Nutrition. Learn How Foods Impact Your Health and Fitness Goals
  2. The Best Types of Carbohydrates and Their Relation with Glycemic Index

Recovery

Recovery is strictly related to sleep and diet. You may eat well, train hard, and frequently but sleep poorly or insufficiently.

You need to sleep sufficiently enough for the brain first. It can profoundly affect performance in training and also the ability to rebuild your muscles.

Strength can drop, resistance to endurance work, and even the immune system. That matters if you train outdoors in a harsh climate as I do.

There are different levels of tiredness. Believe it or not, the vast majority of civilized societies suffer from acute or chronic fatigue. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come out with sleep alone. You have to induce that deep sleep and need for rest by doing sustained physical effort. Your brain might be more tired than your body. Mind that!

I usually overcome fatigue with a prolonged cardio session on the mountains, or by hiking. The abundance of oxygen, plus extended moderate exercise, helps me sleep and recover better. So you could say that we eliminate chronic fatigue with physical fatigue.

High volume calisthenics can induce a lot of stress in the body and mind. That’s why you need to either deload and, if not, participate in other types of activities based on oxygen consumption like cardio. That will relax the body and brain. It’s the increased pulmonary activity and blood that circulates rapidly in the system that helps. Maybe walking in nature isn’t sufficient to stimulate that. You may need moderate-intensity based on oxygen consumption. That releases stress and increases dopamine levels.

Other things I do for recovery is using a foam roller. Massage the muscles, and when you do that, it has to hurt like hell. Muscles recover when you apply a lot of external pressure. Stretching, in most cases, is overrated. You need almost daily stretching to prevent injuries and tiredness in the long run. Otherwise, sports massages, deep tissue massages, acupressure, and a foam roller is what you should do weekly. Here is an article about the recovery I do: Deep Tissue Massages for Muscle Recovery

If you release that soreness in the muscles, you will also sleep better. You can enhance recovery, and that helps you train for longer, better, etc. Don’t forget that all I said above influences a lot because it facilitates blood circulation. Guess what blood brings to your cells – nutrients.

As you can see, everything is a daily routine. One relates to another, and when everything is correctly done, time will decide how your body develops.

To conclude, you need all this because it helps you train better. Do you understand me now why everything is related to performance? Sleep and eat well, and your strength will increase. Once that happens, your muscles endure more workload. That overuse will bring lactate, burnt, all those signs that matter in hypertrophy.

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