Are Calisthenics Good For Muscle Gains?

You may be wondering, “What on earth are calisthenics?!”. Calisthenics involve exercises that utilize our body weight, requiring minimal or no equipment. Examples include push-ups, pull-ups, dips, sit-ups, planks, and bodyweight squats. Unlike traditional weightlifting with barbells or dumbbells, calisthenics focus on moving our bodies through space.

These exercises are great to keep in a strength or muscle building program not only because they require minimal equipment, but also are relatively less fatiguing and easier to recover from than our traditional barbell or dumbbell lifts. Although they are often perceived as very difficult, calisthenics exercises are scalable based on your current fitness level. If a standard push-up seems daunting, start with an incline push-up and progress to floor or decline variations as you build strength.

Let’s look at an example of a movement and how you can change the intensity based on your needs.

  • Push-ups: The simplest regression for a push-up would be to elevate your hands on something. Start at a height you can do 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps. When that becomes easy to do, try 3 sets of 8-10 reps at a slightly lower height. Since push-ups are relatively easy to recover from, you can do them 2-3 times a week for optimal progress. Even if your starting position is the height of your kitchen counter, you would be surprised to see how low to the ground you would be after a couple months of training them consistently!
  • Pull-ups: Pull-ups are a slightly different beast to tackle. For many, the progress is a lot slower than doing push-ups on the ground. When starting out, you’ll want to consider using an assisted pull-up machine or bands. Begin by doing 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps 2-3 times per week. As the bands start to get smaller or you are using less assistance on the machine, I would then start to replace one of those days with lower reps of 3-5 and increase to 3-4 sets.
  • Dips: The same technique of assisrance mentioned above for pull-ups can be used with dips. For dips, you want to make sure you are going to a proper depth that your current shoulder mobility allows. With this exercise, it’s easy to go too deep too soon and then get shoulder pain. It’s better to start on the lighter end and work on your range of motion before ramping up too quickly. A good rule of thumb for dips would be to at least try to get your upper arm parallel to the ground.

But what if bodyweight push-ups, pull-ups, and dips become too easy? The beauty of these exercises lies in their adaptability. Add resistance using a dip belt for dips or try a weighted vest or plates on your back for push-ups. I personally like to do push ups them at the end of a workout, when my chest and triceps are already heavily fatigued. Simply doing bodyweight push-ups with my feet elevated or even on flat ground is challenging enough. For added challenge, introduce pauses or vary the tempo in each rep.

Keep in mind that for any of these exercise to be effective for building muscle or strength, we need to train them within 4 reps to absolute muscular failure. This means if I am doing set of 12 reps and there is no possible way I could so a 13th rep with good form, then I need to at least do 8 reps for it to be an effective set.

Calisthenics offer a versatile and scalable approach to fitness, whether you are a beginner or seasoned athlete! Don’t be afraid to add them into your routine, you won’t regret it!

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