Building strength and muscle with calisthenics and other bodyweight exercises can be as effective strategy as dumbbells, barbells or kettlebells. Using your bodyweight to build strength just requires a bit more imagination, knowledge and novelty.
Exercises such as push ups, dips, pull ups, and inverted rows can be as effective as using weights. That is the truth.
I have done it. Eero Westerberg has done it. Bodyweight exercises will build amazing strength and size, but only when the training parameters are right.
You have to make your bodyweight exercises harder in order to grow and progress. After you can do easy 10 reps, you should move onto next the progression.
Building strength with any approach requires progressive overloading.
Progressive overloading just basically means progressively increasing the difficulty of an exercise. I.e. adding weight to your bench press every week is progressive overloading weight training.
Progressive overloading is pretty much the only way to build strength or size in the begin with, since without causing stress to your body, the body will not experience any urges to grow stronger.
Only when you do something that is difficult for your body to perform, you will get stronger.
Workouts will breakdown the muscle tissue during training, and then during the recovery phase, build the muscle back up as stronger and bigger.
The same rules of muscle hypertrophy apply to bodyweight training as they do on weight training. There are two common types of muscle hypertrophy:
In myofibrillar hypertrophy the number of muscle cells in the muscle increase. This results mainly as increased strength and a bit of dense muscle. This is the type of muscle low rep strength work primarily builds.
In sarcoplasmic hypertrophy the volume of sarcoplasmic cells inside the muscle increase, and as a result, the muscle grows bigger.
Higher reps (3-5+) often cause sarcoplasmic hypertrophy in the muscle.
How to do Progressive Bodyweight Training
With dumbbells, progressive overloading is just using heavier dumbbells instead of lighter ones.
With bodyweight training, progressive overloading becomes a bit more complex; but still simple enough for everyone to do.
1. Adding weight with dip belts or weighted vests
After a regular chin up becomes too easy, one of the simplest ways to make chin ups harder is to use a dipping belt and add some external weight hanging on your waist.
When you use a belt for extra weight, you practically have no limits how much resistance you can add to build strength and size with progressive overloading.
Focus on building strength and adding resistance, and everything else will take care of itself.
With push ups, a weighted vest can be an amazing tool. Weighted vests can also be used with chin ups but a dipping belt is the most comfortable option.
A weighted vest turns a basic push up into a real hardcore exercise. The biggest weighted vest can hold up to 60-90 pounds (30-45kg) of weight.
Our recommended weighted vest is from Mir. You can get one from Amazon.com.
Perform a push up workout with 60 lbs weighted vest, and it will certainly be effective.
2. Adjust the leverage of the exercise
This is what advanced bodyweight exercises mostly are. They are levers. That's why the two advanced exercises are called front lever and back lever.
Even planche is nothing but levering your body with the correct technique and strength.
For example, when you do a basic push up, the center of mass is slightly distributed to your legs and you aren't lifting your entire bodyweight.
Elevate your legs and perform decline push ups, and the center of mass moves closer to your head and you are lifting a higher percentage of your bodyweight.
In plain terms, you are pushing more of your bodyweight with a decline push up compared to a regular push up where the center of mass is in a more favorable position.
3. Focus on one arm or one leg at the time
One of the easiest ways to turn bodyweight exercise into real killers is to focus on one arm at the time.
This includes working towards:
- One arm chin ups.
- One arm rows.
- One arm push ups.
- One leg squats.
There are simple progressions towards every single one of those exercises.
You are not going to jump straight into real one arm chin ups. Instead you focus on the correct progressions that move towards performing a real one arm chin up.
One arm chin up assisted with an elastic band requires an immense amount of strength. Focusing on one arm at the time will build strength like nothing else.
Even with bodyweight inverted rows, you can do one arm archer rows to really blast your back.
One way to make push ups harder for you is to move your arms closer towards your waist. These are called hip push ups or pseudo planche push ups.
You are merely adjusting the center of mass by leveraging your body.
Optimal Sets x Reps Range
We highly recommend of doing all the big compounds movements for 5 sets and 5 repetitions.
We have found this sets and repetitions range to be the optimal for building strength and size with any type of training.
The difficulty of the exercise should be intense enough for you not to be able to do more than 5-10 repetitions per set.
Doing over 10 repetitions can work on isolations but won't be as effective range for building size and strength with big compound movements like pull ups.
Calculating The Resistance Of Bodyweight Exercises
- How much weight do you lift in a push up?
With a basic push up, you are lifting around 65% of your bodyweight.
If you are weighing 160lbs (73kg), the amount of bodyweight lifted is about 105 pounds or 47 kilos.
Basically, you are bench pressing about 50 kilos with every rep you do a push up.
When you elevate your legs, you can increase the percentage up to 80%.
When you perform a real handstand push up, you are pretty much lifting your entire bodyweight.
- How much weight do you lift in a pistol squat?
With a pistol squat, you are lifting your entire body minus the leg you are using to push your body up.
Your one leg weighs around 20% of your bodyweight. This means you are lifting 80% of your bodyweight with a single leg squat such as a pistol squat.
This means, if you are 160lbs (73kg), the amount of weight lifted in a single leg squat is about 130 lbs or 58 kilos.
Getting Started With Bodyweight Training
Now you have all the tools to start your personal bodyweight journey.
To find out more information about the correct training and progressions to exercises, please read our other articles on this site.
If you need more help, you can contact us for personal online coaching.