I assembled a list of 10 essential and best tips to build muscle with calisthenics training. It doesn’t matter if you just began bodyweight training or you have some experience with it already, my suggestions apply to everyone, myself included.
Do Basic and Compound Calisthenics Exercises
Trust me that in reality, to build muscle mass with calisthenics, you don’t need more than a few compound and basic exercises. The essential bodyweight training exercises are pushups, pull-ups, dips, squats, leg raises, sprints, running, and plyometrics. Add to each big family some variations like commando pull-ups, body rows, wide grip pull-ups, close chinups, pull-ups with a towel, and so on. Some examples of plyometrics would be frog jumps, high jumps, box jumps, burpees, explosive pull-ups, pushups, etc.
Then you have handstand pushups and one-arm pushups, a few tougher variations, and even easier ones like just standing upside down in your hands. Dips, incline pushups, narrow and decline pushups.
Regarding squats, you can do crouch walks, walking lunges, sumo squats, regular squats, pistols, Bulgarian splits, and the plyometric I talked about earlier. Then even if running and sprints belong to athletics, they are still bodyweight exercises. Hence I add them. You have variations like flat runs and trail runs with elevation gain, hill sprints, etc. However, except for sprints, running isn’t a muscle-building exercise, but I will explain why I added it later.
The last family is leg raises. They are easier, and you have several different variations: hanging off a pull-up bar, doing leg raises on a dip station, or on the ground.
So this is the diversity of exercises you should rotate every week or two from now on. Use these exercises and compound them into a weekly training journal that fits your purpose, desires, and goals (YouTube video: How to start calisthenics from 0).
I know there are hundreds of more exercises and variations, but in my humble opinion, you’re just wasting your time with those because the media pushes everything that finds new, less boring and simple, complicating everything for the wow factor. That’s why you see a lot of pushups on napkins to allow a little bit of sliding and adduction, and God knows what other exercises that just make me laugh when I see them. Not saying they don’t work effectively, but you should stick as much as possible with basic calisthenics to build muscle.
Train More Frequently and Maximize Gains
Your training should be pretty much repetitive. It’s a cycle, which is why it’s called a training routine. The purpose is to fatigue the muscles and make them hurt. As soon as you recover from soreness, hit the same muscle groups or exercises once again. If that means repeating a workout that week, great! You can also slightly change it.
The most crucial aspect is to stress the muscles continually. That’s why you need pressure and repetitive training. Your workout can be the same as last or slightly changed, with other variations but based on the same essential exercises. That is the key, so make sure to do that in order to build strength and muscle.
If your volume drops on the second workout, then it’s normal. It happens to me, too. We are not machines to perform the same every time. Embrace this variable and focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t.
You Need Volume and Tension to Stimulate Hypertrophy
You can only gather volume with moderate exercises. It’s the number of reps you accrue in total that fatigue and burn the muscles entirely. But at the same time, you also need to generate high force and tension in the muscles. That can come as you progressively build reps and do more challenging exercises. That is why I promote old-school calisthenics exercises. It’s not the fanciness that will get you to build muscle with bodyweight, but the fundamentals applied in a strategic way.
To mention a few: handstand pushups, more difficult pull-up variations, pistol squats, 100-meter hill sprints, etc. But basically, any exercises that challenge you for 3-4 reps will generate huge tension and a fast contraction that you need to get stronger and bigger. For me is the one-arm pull-up, one-arm push-up, a sprint, etc. For you, doing diamonds can be as challenging, especially if you are a beginner.
So find those strenuous exercises and work with them too. Do volume training and select the hard exercises in one workout or divide them into several workouts. What matters is being consistent with them and training more frequently. Nonetheless, I don’t care what exercises you choose, they all work, but you have to accrue as much volume when possible: How Much Volume is Enough To Build Muscles with Calisthenics. Or you can watch the video below:
You Need Fast Reps and Control Over Execution
I usually recommend and do a regular speed and tempo for each repetition made. But I control the movement at all times and more so the negative part. If you are also doing regular speed, then that allows you to do more reps, which is excellent.
But doing a slower tempo also works. In this situation, do a fast and powerful contraction on the positive portion and go as slow as possible on the eccentric part. It’s the same with explosive moves. You have to control the negative part a lot more because there you can gather more time under tension after you just powerfully contracted on the concentric part. And by all means, respect the correct form and full range of motion. This applies religiously to beginners, and control comes from executing correctly through the range of movement.
Focus! You Need Mind-Muscle Connection
When you train, don’t discuss other matters or your life problems with your buddies. All the conversation, focus, and concentration should be uplifting to help you rep out and train better and aggressively. Or train alone, in silence and concentrate on every repetition and contraction.
If you allow technology, friends, life problems and family to interfere, that will drive you away from training, and your performance can drop significantly. Thus, your results will suffer over time if you train in this fashion regularly. Also, don’t overthink about weather conditions, state of mind, finishing faster, and so on.
Train with patience and have your workout routine prepared on paper before starting. Never start without one, and please keep a training journal. Check the list set after set and exercise after exercise. You finish when you complete what’s written on the list and never before.
Keep The Pause Short and Burn Out the Muscles
Never rest more than 90 seconds – 2 minutes from set to set except when you only purpose to train for strength or power gains. The muscles respond when they are stressed, and pause is significantly essential. The shorter it is, the more your muscles will suffer, burn out more rapidly, and drain completely.
That affects your total work volume, but it doesn’t matter. If you need to be time-efficient, then doing 30-45 seconds in-between is perfect, even if it will reduce the volume tremendously. I generally rest 1 minute and 1 minute and a half if I have enough time available to train.
Do Cardio, Target Fat and Build Lean Mass
I said that running isn’t a muscle-building exercise, and it is true with few exceptions. You first do cardio to target fat loss, considering you are interested in building lean mass and not just bulking up with body fat too. Although calisthenics training burns fat in general, it’s easy to bulk up and exceed in weight even so. It depends on what you do in the kitchen too. I posted below my way of eating:
However, prolonged sessions of cardio at a steady pace will utilize a proportion of 75% of your fat reserves to fuel the movement. So, you will never consume protein or the muscles to fuel the body and supply the activity with energy. Plus, your glycogen reserve will stay there for your calisthenics sessions. All you have to do is keep a bpm under 130, jog from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, and you will secure the result.
Then you have the trail run with extreme elevation gain. This specific run will recruit the leg and core muscles to a great extent. Because of the fast and repetitive contraction, and because it’s a compound exercise similar to walking lunges or pistols, it will recruit the entire leg and core muscles. Do it for long enough, tire the muscles, and they will reshape and become more prominent. Hill sprints contribute a lot too, and you should integrate them not only for fat loss purposes but also to increase muscularity in the legs.
To conclude, keep your training focused on calisthenics and sprint intervals but include 1-2 steady cardio running sessions every week if you have to burn some body fat too.
For Muscles, You Need Calisthenics Split Workouts
You have several different approaches, all great to build muscles. Split your routine separately: day one for pushups with dips, day two for pull-ups with abs, then legs, fourth-day dedicated to cardio, and on the fifth day, do a combination of pull and push. That’s your first week. On the following, you can do some upper-body circuits or pyramids and do some classic sets and reps at the end. Also, remove one upper-body workout and add one more for legs like a sprint session. Let the other leg workout consist of squats.
You go back and forth with these training methods, adding one and removing another, but always trying to build reps and train correctly. The exercises remain. You do more or less of one and another based on the needs. I have this article with a training plan for over 2 weeks and 10 different bodyweight workouts. But please avoid making one frequent mistake I see very often, and I talked about it in a video right here!
Do More High-Intensity Interval Training
The best interval training you can do is actually a sprint interval workout. But everything else that includes power workouts, explosive exercises that utilize more muscle groups at the same time and as a system, for short intervals, will fit perfectly. Here I am referring to total body calisthenics circuits. One workout like this per week is perfect, depending on what you do on the remaining days.
The main reason why you need power training or high-intensity interval training is to enhance the growth hormone and improve the general threshold. So keep these workouts pretty short, between 20 and 40 minutes, extraordinarily intensive and with minimum rest. How long the sessions should be, depends on the fitness level.
A few other reasons are that sprint intervals typically speed up the basal metabolism, and that will enhance your ability to convert body fat in energy, keep fit and build lean muscle mass. Not only that, but it regulates insulin, making you more sensitive to it. As you see, building muscles isn’t always about the direct use of the muscles and contractions.
Eat More Food and The Right One
You can’t grow muscles unless you eat more and correctly. If you also deposit body fat in the process, remember what I said about cardio training and include more interval training. If you had one or two cheat days per week, then more reasons to include those types of training.
The cleaner you eat, the easier it is to build lean mass and burn fat, but it takes a hell lot of time if you do it naturally. Your body can convert carbs into body fat, depending on how sensitive you are to insulin. That’s why you may need more power training to make yourself sensitive and not resistant. So eat more of the right food.
BONUS TIP: It’s Not All About Strength Training
You see, it is not all about training the muscles and your nervous system. Your hormones play a crucial role too, and nutrition and proper training impact that directly. Also, getting enough sleep is vital.
You need mechanical training for direct use of the muscles, but then you need to stimulate the metabolism, enhance the growth hormone, and generally improve the proper function of your organism to cause it to respond accordingly.
If you are resistant to insulin but continue to eat refined carbs in abundance, you’ll have a hard time burning fat no matter what you do. Therefore, your nutrition intake has to be correlated with your training. On the other hand, doing high-intensity intervals relies almost totally on glucose, glycogen, and, thus, the carbs you eat. So you either eat more fat and protein or choose the low-GI carbs and try your best with intervals to make the organism function a little better. Or just include steady cardio, which doesn’t rely on glucose so much.
One type of exercise utilizes one or several kinds of fuels. Some, like cardio, use oxygen and fat reserves, while calisthenics uses more glucose for direct use of the muscles or from storage. Sprints work on glycogen.
So I generally recommend a diet based on complex carbs, fat, and protein in regular sizes but adjust the ratios of these macros according to the type of exercise you plan on doing.
You don’t need calories to run 1 hour on flat, but you definitely need more sustainable food to run 1 hour in the mountains where the climate is harsher and where you have elevation gain. It’s the same with sprints and calisthenics training.
But classic sets and reps don’t overload the cardio and respiratory system so much. That will allow you to build a lot more reps than doing circuits of the same exercises. Just because you fall behind with oxygen consumption and your heart rate goes over 150, it will reduce your ability to accrue more total reps. You need more pause to calm the heart down and catch air again. That’s why split workouts, classic sets & reps can bring an advantage when training purely for hypertrophy is the goal.
So pay attention to these details because if your purpose is only to train the muscles, there is no need for a conditioning workout provided by the total body circuits of calisthenics. On the other hand, if you plan to improve in the other aspects or need to enhance them, as I said, you can speed up the pace, shorten the pause, and include more exercises that work more muscles at the same time and so on.
For everyone who got the second edition of my program, just pick from that abundance of workouts, let’s say 10-20 routines and make a monthly plan with them. Pick the ones you feel are more appropriate to your needs and what you love doing. Everything that I discussed here, all the different training styles I included in my program, so please utilize it with utmost attention because it’s really well-thought-out.