How to Gain Muscles with a Calisthenics Workout: the Ultimate Guide

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. 

1. 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.  

2. Use the Right Nutrition

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

3. 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

Summarizing

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 keep on reading, because we will provide you with some great exercises for muscle gain.

Compound Exercises for Muscle Gain

Compound exercises are the way to for muscle gain. They are exercises in which several muscles joints work at the same time. For example, squat exercises. In those, you use your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, stabilizing foot muscles and your abdomen. Not every muscle is trained equally, of course. In squat exercises you do not train your abdomen as much as your quadriceps. But compound movements let you target more muscles in a shorter amount of time. Knowing how to emphasise during exercises is key here.

Make Things Harder for More Muscle Gain

In calisthenics, you usually do not use dumbells or barbells. But a weighted vest or resistance band is great to increase the level of resistance that your bodyweight offers. Another way to increase resistance is to increase the difficulty of the exercise itself. For example, you could a jumping squat (explosive) or single leg squat (increased weight) instead of a regular squat.

Leg Exercises for Musle Gain

In calisthenics and the gym, many leg exercises are compound movements. You need to train your glutes which are divided in maximus, medius and minimus. Or simply upper and lower glutes. But you also have quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings and calves. We have many articles on our site about leg exerises. Click here to read why you should never skip leg day. And check out part one and part two on leg exercises for beginners in calisthenics. Here is another list of great leg exercises for muscle gain.

  • Squats: main focus on quadriceps and lower glutes. But almost all leg muscles are activated.
  • Single leg deadlift: main focus on hamstrings and glutes. Also great for core stability.
  • Lunges: main focus on quadriceps and glutes. Leaning forward emphasises quadriceps. Leaning backward emphasises glutes. 
  • Single leg hip trusts: main focus on upper glutes, glutes maximum and hamstrings. For more resistance you can put a heavy bag on your hips. Also great for core stability.
  • Side plank with side leg raises: main focus on obliques and glutes medius/minimus.
  • Single leg calf raises: main focus on calves. More challenging on an elevated plateau like stairs.

Back Exercises for Musle Gain

Your back consists of a lot of small muscles that are almost always working together. Your lower back and upper back are divided into two groups.

The upper back muscles are mostly located around your shoulder blade and are also active in shoulder movements. The biggest ones are trapezius (traps) upper, middle and lower, rhomboideus (rhombs) major and minor and the teres major and minor.

Your lower back consists of your latissimus dorsi (lats) and erector trunci. These insert on the upper back. With a pull-up bar and rings you can train your back perfectly!

Here is our list of useful back exercises that train your biceps too and all help your muscle gain. 

  • Pull-up: main focus on lats, teres major and lower traps. Wide grip emphasises your lats more. Small grip emphasises your lower traps/rhombs more. 
  • Australian Pull-up: main focus on rhombs, middle traps. Supinated grip emphasises your middle trap and biceps more. Pronated grip focuses more on your rhombs.
  • Back lever / skin the cat for beginners: main focus on erector trunci. Trains almost the entire back and rear delts. Skin the cat is a great way to train for the back lever.
  • Ring external face pulls: main focus on teres minor and rear delts. Can also be done with a resistance band.
  • Handstand push-up: main focus on upper back and shoulders. Can also be done against a wall if it is too difficult. Back faces the wall.
  • Chin-ups: main focus on traps, rhobms and biceps.

Chest and Triceps Exercises for Musle Gain

Your chest does not contain as many muscles as your back and legs. All chest exercises are compound. But if you want bigger muscle gain you need to emphasise all parts of your chest.

Your chest consists of the pectoralis major and minor (pecs). The major one consists of an upper, middle and lower part. In our series of articles about chest exercises series you will also find this article for beginners. The pectoralis minor is mostly there to assist your pec major. Your triceps work together with your chest in compound movements. 

With calisthenics you can do dips, push-ups or ring fly’s for your chest. Some of them also work on the shoulder muslces. Here is a list of great chest exercises.

  • (Super) push-up: main focus on chest. The lower you place your hands the more bodyweight your chest has to push. Daimond push-ups focus more on your triceps.
  • Straight bar dip: main focus on lower chest and deltoideus. The lower your dip is, the more you work your lower chest.
  • Decline push-up: main focus on upper chest and front deltoideus. Around a 45-degree angle.
  • Parallel dip: entire chest and triceps. Lean more forward to focus on the chest and not triceps. Stay up straight to focus more on triceps.
  • Wall handstand push-up: main focus on front shoulders and upper chest. The other way around from the handstand push-up, belly facing the wall.
  • Ring chest fly: main focus on middle chest.
  • Skull crushers: main focus on triceps.

Conclusion: Is Calisthenics good for building muscle?

Yes! These blog provided you the best compound exercises to gain muscle with only calisthenics exercises. As you notice progress you can make it more difficult for yourself by increasing resistance. 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. And do not give up. To read more about the best calisthenics exercises check out our blog right here.

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, S.et al. National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. 2015: Sleep health, 1(1), 40–43. 

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