Can You Get Big From Calisthenics?
In this article I will be aiming to answer the question “can you get big from calisthenics”. Calisthenics is essentially any exercise that involves just using your bodyweight. Examples of such exercises can be pull ups, dips, push ups, bodyweight squats, sissy squats, burpees, crunches, TRX training, etc.
High Rep Training – The Driver For Progression
As calisthenics movements are performed using just bodyweight, the main driver for progression over time will be adding more reps. For example if you are doing pull ups you could start with say three sets of five reps. Over time you can add more sets to increase volume or you could shoot for more reps per set. You may aim to go from 3×5 to 3×6 to 3×7 and so on over time.
If you are indeed able to increase reps in this manner over time using just bodyweight the total accumulated volume will certainly spur on muscle growth. In addition you will also be gaining some strength and endurance over time from this progression. Adding reps over time is a form of progressive overload as you are making the muscles work harder and providing more of a challenge to your muscles.
Tempo training is another fantastic way of making the muscles work harder. Let’s use the same example of the pull up. We can start with regular pull ups in our calisthenics routine. As this becomes very easy we can make the movement harder by doing it in a tempo fashion. If we count “1,..2” on the way up it means the rep will be slower and our muscles will work harder to perform the same movement. To progressively make the movement harder over time simply make the tempo longer. Work up to counting to 4 on the way up. By progressing on your calisthenics exercises over time through the use of tempos you will be stimulating more muscle fibres and providing a serious challenge to your muscles! This extra stimulation would aid in muscle growth over time. The same tempo principle can be applied to bodybuilding when using weights. I like to do my hammer curls in a tempo fashion – count to 3 on the way up and again on the way down. The burn is no joke.
Gymnastics rings are a great tool for making calisthenics exercises much harder and stimulating the stabiliser muscles a lot more. It is a big reason why gymnasts look so well muscled in a lot of cases, calisthenics exercises on rings can definitely spur on serious muscle growth over time.
A good example is the dip. By doing dips on gymnastics rings the movement becomes substantially harder as a result of the extra stabilisation required. You can then work to increase the number of sets and reps over time with your ring exercises.
Changing The Angle Of Movements
To make calisthenics exercises harder you can change the angles to alter the difficulty of the movements. A good example of this is using the TRX suspension system. Let’s say you are doing a bodyweight tricep exercise using TRX handles, you are standing with your arms outstretched and holding onto the handles. You then bend your elbows as you lean in to the handles and then press away. This is a fantastic tricep exercise, to make it harder with just bodyweight you can move your feet further back. The further back your feet are the more leaned over you are and the harder the exercise becomes. This is actually one of my own favourite tricep exercises to finish off a workout.
For the dip, you can make the exercise a bit easier by leaning over more. This will target a lot more upper pecs and anterior deltoid. To make the exercise harder you would stay in a more upright position. In an upright position the triceps will be worked harder. For push ups the exercise can be made substantially harder by bringing your hands in very close. Diamond push ups for instance are notorious for being very tough and a killer for the triceps. Another way of making push ups harder is by elevating your feet on a bench or chair. This will result in a much deeper stretch on the pecs at the bottom and make the movement tougher. Therefore playing around with angles can make a big difference in exercise difficulty.
Limitations Of Calisthenics – Lower Body
One of the big limitations of calisthenics when it comes to getting “big” all over and building thick muscle all over your body is the lack of exercise variety for the legs. For bodyweight leg exercises you are limited to bulgarian split squats, bodyweight squats, pistol squats, jump squats, etc. There isn’t as much of a challenge with different angles as there is with other exercises like pull ups, dips and push ups.
You will notice that people who do exclusively calisthenics don’t tend to have great lower body development in general in comparison to their upper body. Another limitation is the lack of focus on the rear delts. It is true that you can perform a lot of inverted rows, but rear delts tend to be a muscle group that is lagging as well in people who train exclusively calisthenics.
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In conclusion to answer the question, yes I do believe calisthenics can make you big. If you perform the exercises in a way where progression is built in as I have talked about – through adding reps, tempo, changing angles. You can certainly develop a muscular physique and look big with just calisthenics. However in my view it is sub-optimal. Training with weights is the best way to add slabs of muscle all over the body and progress the best as you have unlimited loading potential and countless exercises to choose from for all muscle groups.
For the best of both worlds I would recommend people to do both weight training and calisthenics. Calisthenics can serve as active recovery on off days and also assist you in improving your endurance. It can also strengthen your tendons, high rep push ups for example are great at strengthening the pec tendons.
If you have any questions about anything I have written in this article, please leave me a comment below. I would love to answer any questions you may have. If you are currently doing some calisthenics exercises, let me know how things are progressing. As always, stay safe and enjoy your training!