Calisthenics and Muscle Gain – part I

muscle gain

Is is hard to gain weight with calisthenics? Can you achieve muscle gains with only bodyweight exercises? What is the best way to do it? In this blog, we will give you some insights on how you can gain muscle mass (MM) with only bodyweight exercises. To start, we get into musle repair, how muscles grow and which key factors are important for muscle growth. In the second part of this article, we provide you with some great exercises. 

Muscle Gain and Physiology: in Short 

Muscles are the most adaptive organs in our bodies. Whenever they get damaged a bit they come back stronger. This is obvious in resistance training. For example, doing 3 sets of maximum push-ups will cause small tears in your muscle fibres. This is called muscle trauma and will activate your repair mechanism. Satellite cells located on the outside of your muscle will clean up the damaged cells and replace them and fuse with your existing muscle. The results is that your muscle tissue becomes stronger.

Hormones, especially your growth hormone, certain amino acids and testosterone help regulate this process. They play a role in repairing your body and musles. In turn, resistance training and certain type of foods can stimulate the production of these hormones. 

Key Factors in Muscle Gain 

There are 3 important factors when it comes to growing muscle. They’re all equally important and if one fails you cannot grow muscle as fast or at all. 

Resistance Training 

Resistance training breaks down muscle tissue and let’s your body know it needs to get stronger so you can lift that weight next time. In order to achieve this goal, you need an overload stimulus. That means you need some type of resistance that makes your muscles fatigued.

For example, you can perform 3 sets of 10 pull-ups with ease. Afterwards, your muscles are not tired and there is no muscle soreness. So that is not overload. You can increase the overload factor though. You can increase the weight, number of repetitions or the number of exercises. By adding 5 kg to your body, performing 3 sets 12 reps and adding two more back exercises your muscles will become more fatigued. For muscle mass growth and the subsequest muscle gain it important to wear down your muscles. Since you do not use dumbells or barbells in calisthenics a weighted vest or resistance band is recommended to increase the level of resistance.  

Resistance, Repetitions and Exercises – How to Get Them Right 

To grow mass and gain muscle it is said that 3 sets with 6 to 12 repetitions with 65-85% resistance weight of 1 RM (repetition maximum) is the best way to grow muscle. Click here to find out more about the optimal number of repetitions. After testing your 1 RM and calculating your resistance weight, you need to calculate your reps. In calisthenics we recommend you to check if your own body weight is enough. If not, you can use resistance bands or weighted vests to adjust the weight. Do around 30 to 45 minutes of resistance training per body part and about 4-5 compound exercises and 1-2 isolated per training. And if you feel like this is not enough for you, increase your weight or reps. But take into account that doing too many exercises can leave your muscles very damaged and your recovery time much longer.  

Nutrition and Muscle Gain

Nutrition is the second key factor. There is a lot of information about nutrition on our website. For your own benefit, we recommend you to read those articles and increase your knowledge. In short, you need to be in a caloric plus to gain weight. You need about 10% more than your normal daily intake. Of course, protein with the right amino acids is important especially after a workout. For best results, do need eat later than 3 to 4 hours after your workout. And make sure to include protein. The best amount is around 0.8 to 1.3 grams or protein per kg of bodyweight. Also make sure to eat healthy products that contain vitamins like fruit and vegetables and to drink at least 1.5 to 2 litres of water per day.  

drink water to increase muscle gain
Drink water to recover

Rest and Sleep 

Rest is the third key factor, but just as important as the previous two. After a workout, your body needs a 24-72 hours recovery from your last workout. This applies to the body parts that you targeted. You can train your upper body on Monday and your lower body on Tuesday. But it is possible that your body has not fully recovered by Wednesday. Therefore we recommend to perform resistance training 2 to 3 times a week per body part. With an upper/lower split you can train both parts two times a week and one of them a third time, if you want. Then switch this the second week to train both parts 5 times in 15 days with 5 rest days. This results in training your whole body 2.5 times a week, which is enough. 

Also look at your sleep pattern. You need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep daily. In this during your sleep that your body repairs itself. Make sure you sleep enough, especially if you feel wore down or tired. Having a good sleep pattern is very important for muscle gain. Click here to find our how to improve your sleep.

enough sleep is essential for muscle gain
Enough sleep is essential


Gaining muscle mass takes time, especially to see a noticeable difference in the way you look. Therefore, expect to be training for at least 12 weeks to achieve great and visible results. Do not give up. Be sure to stay tuned for our next article. Because we will provide you with some great exercises for muscle gain.

Literature used in this article

1: Morree de JJ, Jongert MWA, Poel van der G. Inspanningsfysiologie, oefentherapie en training. Houten: Bohn Stafleu van Loghum; 2011. 150-157, 163 

2: Morree de JJ. Dynamiek van het menselijk bindweefsel. Houten: Bohn Stafleu van Loghum; 2014. 193-224. 

3: Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, al. National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. 2015: Sleep health, 1(1), 40–43. 

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