A very common question people ask is: “Can I build muscle with calisthenics?” The short answer is yes but there are many nuances to it. Before you read on it might be worthwhile to check our tips for starting out with calisthenics.
It’s important to point out that beginners will see much more rapid progress in the first few months compared to athletes coming from a gym background. It is simply because the body is not accustomed to the type of resistance bodyweight exercises provide so it will adapt faster to the new “shock” to the system. In this case, a full-body routine and hitting the same muscles twice a week could be a great way to stimulate visible muscle growth.
On the other hand, if you are an experienced athlete and have been training with weights multiple times a week when switching to calisthenics you will need to be more conscious about planning your routine. In this case, more targeted split training (push/pull/legs) might be more efficient. Also, consider training each set to failure and implementing longer rest times not just in between sets but also in between workouts.
Targeting the growth of leg muscles is notoriously challenging with calisthenics. Stimulating the glutes, hamstrings, and calves without adding weight is very difficult because the legs are already used to bearing the load of our body weight during normal, daily activities. To increase the difficulty here, the implementation of unilateral and plyometric exercises makes a lot of sense. In addition, there is no harm in adding a weight vest or even a barbell with plates to our repertoire of workout equipment.
In this article you will learn what the process of muscle growth is like and how to adapt your training routine to best target hypertrophy.
Understanding muscle growth
The muscle tissue is made of muscle fibers and each fiber contains a single cell. Muscles grow as a result of the increase in the size of the cells they are made of. This is a form of hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy is not only related to muscle growth though. Some non-fitness-related examples are an enlarged heart due to high blood pressure or a larger liver in response to chronic alcohol consumption.
While you can induce hypertrophy in skeletal muscle with resistance training, for optimal progress there are other conditions that need to be fulfilled.
Many factors are within our control but there are some that we can’t influence. While we can optimize the way we train, eat and recover, we can’t alter our genetic code. Just like in life, we have to focus on what we can change and make the most out of what we have.
Factors contributing to muscle growth include genetics, gender, age, mechanical stress, muscle damage, metabolic stress, nutrition and recovery. Let’s address them one-by-one.
Genetics and gender both play a significant role in muscle hypertrophy. Studies show that DNA has about a 50% impact on the variance in lean body mass and muscle fiber proportion. We all know from experience that some people develop certain muscles much easier than others and it’s important to understand that to a significant degree, our strengths and weaknesses are hereditary.
When it comes to gender, testosterone is the deciding factor for muscle growth. Males typically experience more hypertrophy than females due to higher levels of testosterone, particularly during puberty. On average, males have about 60% more muscle mass than females.
Age is also a factor that influences the rate at which we can develop and retain muscle. Younger athletes, usually below 30, have an easier time building muscle because of the higher levels of anabolic hormones in their bodies, such as testosterone. With age, there is gradual muscle atrophy or loss of muscle mass. This happens due to decreased physical activity and subsequent decreases in hormone levels. It is important to keep in mind that with targeted nutrition and an appropriate workout plan, it is possible to build muscle and strength even in old age.
The three main body types
The concept of body types that predetermine weight gain or weight loss tendencies is often referred to as somatotypes. The three main somatotypes proposed by American psychologist William H. Sheldon are ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph. It’s important to note that somatotypes are a generalized framework and do not provide an absolute prediction of an individual’s ability to gain or lose weight. Here’s a brief description of each somatotype:
- Ectomorph: Ectomorphs are generally characterized as having a lean and slender physique. They tend to have a fast metabolism and may find it challenging to gain weight, including muscle mass. Ectomorphs often have a smaller bone structure, narrower frame, and lower body fat levels.
- Mesomorph: Mesomorphs are typically considered to have a more athletic and muscular build. They have a moderate metabolism and can both gain and lose weight relatively easily. Mesomorphs tend to have a more muscular and well-defined body, with broader shoulders and a narrower waist.
- Endomorph: Endomorphs generally have a larger, rounder, and softer body type. They typically have a slower metabolism and may have a tendency to gain weight more easily, particularly in the form of body fat. Endomorphs often have a wider bone structure, more body fat, and find it more challenging to lose weight.
Mechanical stress happens when you put your muscles under load or tension. It is probably the most important driver behind muscle growth. In order to induce optimal adaptation it’s also important to gradually increase the load or time under tension. In resistance training this is called progressive overload and refers to gradually increasing the demands placed on the muscle over time.
In calisthenics, you can increase load or intensity by adjusting the body position or adding weight to the exercise while at the same time performing it in a good form through a full range of motion.
Resistance training causes micro-tears in muscle fibers which triggers a natural repair process. Part of this repair response is inflammation which helps to clear the damaged tissue and trigger the recruitment of specialized satellite cells that fuse to existing muscle fibers. In other words, the body overcompensates by replacing the damaged tissue and adding more to reduce the chance of damage in the future. Muscular adaptation and growth occur as a result of this repeated muscle damage and repair cycle.
During exercise there is an accumulation of metabolic byproducts such as lactate, hydrogen ions, and creatine. There is a theory that metabolic stress stimulates the release of insulin-like growth factors and increases the production of reactive oxygen species, this way supporting the repair and growth of the muscle.
Metabolic stress can also cause muscle swelling or cell volumization which activates the pathways involved in muscle growth. The swelling can also cause stretching of the muscle membrane which may also promote growth.
Metabolic stress also stimulates the production of heat proteins which aid in protecting the muscle from damage.
A sufficient amount of protein is necessary to support muscle growth and repair. It is generally recommended that athletes consume 1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on their fitness level and goals. Some studies found that consuming more than 30g of protein in a single meal did not significantly enhance muscle protein synthesis. Therefore it might be better to distribute the required protein intake into more, smaller meals per day e.g. for a 90kg person 6 meals containing 30g of protein each.
Consuming carbohydrates before and after exercise can also help to support muscle glycogen stores and enhance recovery. Additionally, athletes should aim to consume an adequate amount of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.
FAQ: What happens if I exercise properly but don’t eat enough protein?
To repair and rebuild the muscle after resistance training the body uses amino acids that are the building blocks of protein and are necessary for protein synthesis. If you don’t consume enough protein, your body won’t be able to rebuild the muscle tissue effectively. Low protein intake at increased physical activity levels may also increase the recovery time needed and weaken the immune system.
Adequate rest time between workouts is crucial for muscle growth and injury prevention.
During sleep, the body repairs and rebuilds the muscle tissue that has been damaged during exercise. The release of growth hormones during sleep promotes protein synthesis which is an important prerequisite for muscle growth.
Sleep and rest also help with cortisol regulation. Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress such as exercise. High levels of cortisol can have an adverse catabolic effect on muscle growth as they break down muscle tissue.
How to exercise for optimal muscle growth?
When it comes to resistance training there are three main factors that influence muscle hypertrophy:
Gradually increase intensity
In order to trigger muscle adaptation we need to challenge our muscles with sufficient intensity. This means doing exercises that feel difficult enough to fatigue the muscle within a certain number of repetitions.
Progressive mechanical tension overload or progressive overload for short is one of the major ingredients of muscle growth and architecture. This is achieved by gradually increasing the intensity of the workouts. In calisthenics, you can do it by choosing a more difficult version of the exercises on the progression chart or by adding weight.
Keep volume in mid-range
This refers to the amount of work you do in a given time period, most typically we measure it by the total number of sets and repetitions in one or more workouts.
Volume and intensity go hand in hand and can affect whether the adaptation results in increased muscle mass, strength or endurance.
Higher load and lower number of repetitions (1-5) coupled with longer rest times (3-5 mins) trigger a high level of neural adaptation by recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers. This type of workout is mainly beneficial for strength development while also contributing to hypertrophy.
Higher volume is generally better for muscle growth than low volume. There is no agreement however in the scientific community as to what is the “ideal volume” for hypertrophy. The safe bet is to exercise within a moderate rep, set and load range. For optimal hypertrophy try to stay within 6-12 repetitions while completing 3-6 sets of each exercise. Choose the exercises from the calisthenics progression chart that you can perform in a good form and in a way that fatigue doesn’t set in outside of the recommended rep and set ranges.
There is also proof that it’s possible to build muscle with moderately difficult exercises performed over more than 12 repetitions per set – the key here is to go with a moderate volume and perform each set to fatigue.
Balance frequency with recovery
To maximize muscle hypertrophy each muscle group has to be targeted/trained frequently enough to stimulate growth. It’s important to keep in mind that intensity and frequency have to be inversely correlated. The more often you exercise the easier your individual workouts have to be in order to recover and progress.