Can Bodyweight Exercises Build Muscle?

One of the biggest misconceptions in the fitness community is the notion that bodyweight training is useless for muscle growth.

Given my affinity for bodyweight training (or ‘calisthenics’) over the years, I have constantly been told by others that it is a waste of time, and that I would be better off solely focusing on weight training.

Before I go any further, I will note that my training experience involves a mixture of both bodyweight training for extensive time periods, as well as weight training for extensive time periods.

Specifically, I would spend a handful of years solely devoted to bodyweight training, and then I would switch to weight training for a few years, and vice versa.

Now, I can say from first-hand experience that the notion that bodyweight training cannot build muscle is ludicrous.

While it is undeniable that calisthenics are not superior to weight training for muscle growth, it is certainly an effective means for achieving muscle growth.

This is especially true when it comes to difficult bodyweight exercises that many jacked gym rats can’t even do (such as one-arm push-ups and pistol squats).

Simply following a regimen of many different push-ups variations, pull-ups, dips, and bodyweight/pistol squats has worked wonders for adding muscle to my physique.

While my gains are certainly better when I focus on the weights, they are not that far off from what I can achieve solely through bodyweight training.

The issue with me bringing this up, however, is the sample size.

Specifically, I only have myself to use as a first-hand example, which has caused many people to dismiss these results by saying I just have ‘good genetics’.

Fortunately, this backlash against bodyweight training eventually lead me to do some research into the matter.

Below is an excerpt from my upcoming book on bodyweight training that will be released in the near future.

The section posted relates to what the research shows in regard to training with very high rep ranges, which is usually the case with calisthenics practitioners.

It also addresses the number one reason anti-calisthenics individuals bring up to suggest that bodyweight training is useless.

Let’s get to it.

 

“To this day, it shocks me how many people believe that calisthenics can’t build muscle. All you have to do is look at a world-class gymnast to see that bodyweight training can be a potent muscle builder. Having said that, the belief that you can’t gain muscle with calisthenics probably stems from the notion that your body can’t gain muscle using high rep ranges. The problem with this theory is that it is flat-out nonsense.

For one, a study by Weiss, Coney, and Clark (1) demonstrated that a group of subjects who trained in a 23–25 rep range experienced just as much muscle growth as the group that trained in a 13–15 rep range. Another study by Schoenfeld and colleagues (2) showed similar findings, demonstrating that training in rep ranges of up to 35 per set elicited an equal amount of muscle growth as training in a typical bodybuilding rep range of 8–12 reps per set.

Furthermore, numerous studies have demonstrated that training with just 20–30% of your 1 rep max elicits similar growth as training with75–80% of your 1 rep max when performed to muscular failure (3–7). Given that most calisthenics movements will require more than this 20–30% threshold, it is reasonable to presume that muscle growth can be attained through high-rep bodyweight training.

MANIPULATING YOUR FIBER TYPES

It should be noted that in all of these studies, the subjects in the high-rep group trained their sets to muscular failure. This is believed to be very beneficial when training with low loads, as it allows you to recruit more motor units (8, 9), which will result in more muscle growth (9).

Another potential mechanism that has been proposed for the muscle gains seen through low-load training is the growth of the slow twitch muscle fibers (10). Considering these muscle fibers are characterized as ‘fatigue resistant’, it makes sense that a greater amount of time under tension would best stimulate these fiber types. Evidence out of Russia supports this viewpoint, showing that training in high rep ranges preferentially activates slow twitch muscle fibers (11, 12).

Furthermore, while it is commonly assumed that slow twitch muscle fibers have worse potential for growth compared to their fast twitch counterparts, this assumption likely stems from the research being biased towards higher training intensities (13). As demonstrated in a paper by Fry (14), bodybuilders commonly display greater development of their slow twitch muscle fibers compared to powerlifters, which makes sense considering bodybuilders usually train with higher rep ranges. Importantly, this finding supports the notion that slow twitch fibers have a robust capacity for growth, considering the superior muscularity that bodybuilders possess.

The second flaw with the belief that calisthenics can’t produce muscle growth stems from the notion that everyone can perform an inordinate amount of repetitions of each exercise. While we just discussed how someone could easily achieve muscle growth using high rep ranges, even if this were not the case the thought that everyone can do sets of 50+ reps with any bodyweight exercise is absurd. How many people do you know that can easily do a set of 20 pull-ups? How many people can do one-arm push-ups or one-legged squats for a huge amount of reps? Not many. And that right there is the beauty of bodyweight training. It is not simply doing standard push-ups or bodyweight squats to gain a muscular physique, it is the endless variations of each exercise that allow gaining muscle with calisthenics to be far more attainable than people realize.”

 

As you can see, the evidence clearly shows that robust muscle growth can be attained with low-load, high-repetition training (10).

While these findings refute the argument that bodyweight training cannot provide enough of a stimulus (via load) to elicit muscle gains, an argument that does hold credence is progressive overload.

Obviously once your ability to perform a bodyweight exercise reaches a high level (i.e. being able to knock out 30 straight pull-ups or 100 straight push-ups), simply doing more and more reps may not be ideal for muscle growth.

In this case, it is crucial that you progress to harder exercise variations.

Considering the difficulty involved in performing certain bodyweight exercises (most of them involving the use of one limb), it will take you quite a while to develop the strength to do these.

This is also why the notion that bodyweight training is only useful for beginners is ridiculous.

It’s not like someone can progress from performing sets of 10 standard push-ups to doing sets of 20+ one-arm push-ups in a few months.

Strength progression takes a long time, and it slows the more advanced you become (15).

Given these points, both the research and common sense suggests that not only can bodyweight training build muscle, but it can also be highly effective for muscle growth as long as it is used in the appropriate fashion.

As with weight training, an emphasis on progressive overload must be maintained to ensure consistent muscle and strength gains.

 

References

  1. Weiss LW, Coney HD, Clark FC. Gross measures of exercise-induced muscular hypertrophy. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2000 Mar;30(3):143–8.
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of low-vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct 1;29(10):2954–63.
  3. Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, West DW, Burd NA, Breen L, Baker SK, et al. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;113(1):71–7.
  4. Jenkins ND, Housh TJ, Buckner SL, Bergstrom HC, Cochrane KC, Hill EC, et al. Neuromuscular adaptations after 2 and 4 weeks of 80% versus 30% 1 repetition maximum resistance training to failure. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Aug;30(8):2174–85.
  5. Ogasawara R, Loenneke JP, Thiebaud RS, Abe T. Low-load bench press training to fatigue results in muscle hypertrophy similar to high-load bench press training. Int J Clin Med. 2013 Feb 26;4(2):114–21.
  6. Van Roie E, Delecluse C, Coudyzer W, Boonen S, Bautmans I. Strength training at high versus low external resistance in older adults: effects on muscle volume, muscle strength, and force–velocity characteristics. Exp Gerontol. 2013 Nov;48(11):1351–61.
  7. Fink J, Kikuchi N, Yoshida S, Terada K, Nakazato K. Impact of high versus low fixed loads and non-linear training loads on muscle hypertrophy, strength and force development. SpringerPlus. 2016 May 20;5(1):698.
  8. Burd NA, Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Phillips SM. Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Apr 26;37(3):551–4.
  9. Morton RW, Oikawa SY, Wavell CG, Mazara N, McGlory C, Quadrilatero J, et al. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. J Appl Physiol. 2016 Jul 1;121(1):129–38.
  10. Schoenfeld BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Krieger JW. Muscular adaptations in low-versus high-load resistance training: a meta-analysis. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016 Jan;16(1):1–10.
  11. Netreba A, Popov D, Bravyy Y, Lyubaeva E, Terada M, Ohira T, et al. Responses of knee extensor muscles to leg press training of various types in human. Ross Fiziol Zh Im I M Sechenova. 2013 Mar;99(3):406–16.
  12. Vinogradova OL, Popov DV, Netreba AI, Tsvirkun DV, Kurochkina NS, Bachinin AV, et al. Optimization of training: development of a new partial load mode of strength training. Fiziol Cheloveka. 2012 Dec;39(5):71–85.
  13. Ogborn, D., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2014). The role of fiber types in muscle hypertrophy: implications for loading strategies. Strength Cond J, 36(2), 20–5.
  14. Fry AC. The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations. Sports Med. 2004 Aug 1;34(10):663–79.
  15. Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. Applications of the dose-response for muscular strength development: a review of meta-analytic efficacy and reliability for designing training prescription. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Nov;19(4):950–8.

 

Comments

  1. Adam Frith says:

    What would a typical training week look like for you when you’re just training bodyweight?

    • Honestly, it changes all the time depending on what I’m focusing on.

      When I was by far the most focused on calisthenics (during my University days), a typical week would be at least 700 push-ups (bare minimum) done 3 days per week. Pull-ups would be 100 – 300 done 2 – 3 times per week. Bodyweight squats were anywhere between 800 – 1500 done once per week.

      Nowadays the volume is far less, I am working a lot on one arm push-ups, which is generally 3 – 5 times per week. Pistol squats 2 – 3 times per week. Pull-ups is always a mainstay in the routines, and right now is about 100 reps done every other day.

      Like I said, however, the volume will always change depending on if I want to incorporate weights into the routine, if I am doing more cardio training, etc.

  2. Muscles grow because CNS got stimul during muscle contraction, if this is met it doesnt matter why your muscle contracts. Be it heavy free weight or bodyweight. Difference is your body waight cant change as fast as freeweight or machine weight. Thats why someone say bodyweight wont do well for gaining weight. You can change difficuilty of bodyweight exercise by making it harder for your body to perform given movement, if proper conditions are met, your body will grow.

    But heavy squat is heavy squat, you can one leg squat as you want even jump between reps and kiss your chick butt, but its still much more useful just put weight and squat.

    That being said I still mix freeweight with bodyweight fullbody day to ensure my muscle mass while growing it still is able to do chinups, weighted dips, one arm chinups etc…
    Like muscles should be usefull not just big.
    You should still be able to move your body, climb obstacles, not just be a heavy clunky block of mass.

    • Precisely why I stated that weight training is superior to bodyweight training for maximizing muscle growth. But this does not mean bodyweight training is useless for muscle growth, as you point out.