Calisthenics For Building Muscle : Build Muscle Without Weights


Calisthenics’ is on the increase amongst bodybuilding circles because they are now beginning to realise that if performed correctly bodyweight exercise can build muscle mass.

Think about this concept – it really was not that long ago that bodybuilders did not have access to all of the high tech gyms and free weights to build muscle. Amazingly many of the top bodybuilders such as Charles Atlas relied heavily on callisthenics to become bigger and stronger.

Unfortunately, many bodybuilders are still sceptical about adding callisthenics into their gym routines because there are mixed reviews in terms of its success.

The main issue why people fail to build muscle with callisthenics is that they are using a muscular endurance protocol instead of a muscle growth model. These two models are totally different in their entirety and the outcomes achieved will not be the same.

Think, to build muscle in the gym – ‘Would you use a muscular endurance model?’ Hopefully not because your success would be rather limited and the same principles apply for callisthenics – so let’s explain this further!

What Is Functional Strength?

Functional fitness involves training for activities that we perform in our daily schedules and they copy the movements that we execute at home, during work or when doing chores.

Developing strength has a functional benefit in that it makes daily living easier and you can perform movements with less stress being placed on the body.

Each of the exercises in terms of functional strength concentrates on more than one body part to produce some compound movements e.g. a squat with an overhead reach, as this replicates daily movements and works muscles together that are used in daily manoeuvres.

By utilising more functional compound movements during the home training sessions will be a catalyst for your daily movements being more energy-efficient whilst less stress and burden is being placed on the musculoskeletal system.

The strength exercises used should incorporate all of the body’s different movement planes, a variety of angles and this builds up the stabilisers as well as the main muscle groups.

Some of the exercises will activate the posterior kinetic chain; this is an important group of muscles, tendons and ligaments that run up the back of your body. They aid with coordination, balance, muscular strength, muscle power and of course posture.

Therefore functional strength has the following benefits:

  • Daily tasks are easier because you have strength gains and you are more conditioned
  • Musculoskeletal and joint function is vastly improved
  • It improves the range of motion at all of the major joints within the body
  • It boosts your quality of life and helps to prevent injuries
  • Increases your basal metabolic rate and helps with weight maintenance
  • It develops your core and other body stabilizers

The Role Of The Core

The use of bodyweight exercises is an excellent strategy for copying daily movements. The use of additional equipment such a Swiss ball can utilise a huge variety of bodyweight exercises whilst engaging your core fully.

Core strength is vital for all basic movements and this has the following impact on your performance and health:

  • It boosts your body’s capability to fully stabilize itself by activating the abdominals, hip flexors and shoulders
  • It aids balance, stability and posture
  • A boost in core stability equates to gains in core strength
  • Reduces the risk of many musculoskeletal injuries e.g. lower back pain

Focus On Low Reps

As a bodybuilder, you tend to focus on a lower rep range to build mass by overloading the muscle. This strategy causes the muscle to produce micro-tears and ultimately to grow.

Therefore if you want your muscles to grow using callisthenics then you need to adopt the same principles. You need to get out of the mindset of trying to knock out as many bodyweight exercises as possible and stick within an 8-12 rep range.

The main reason why bodybuilder’s fatigue their muscle during a lower rep range is because they add more weight to the equation. You can achieve this principle by using bodyweight exercises and adopting the following 2 training methods:

#1: Angular Training

For angular training, all you have to do is to change the angle of your body to make the exercise more challenging.

A good example of this concept is to make a push more difficult; then elevate your feet off the ground as this changes the angle of the push-up and this concentrates more on your upper pectorals.

There is a huge amount of different ways to change the angle of your body and a small change can make a big difference to your muscle size.

However, never perform an exercise beyond its natural range of movement at the joint/s and always concentrate on good form when executing all bodyweight exercises.

#2: Alter Your Weight Distribution

This training method has the most impact on making any bodyweight exercise more challenging because it can fatigue the muscles used rapidly. For example, if you keep pumping out 60 push-ups, that is great but you are working towards muscular endurance.

Try this technique instead of a 50/50 split why not alter the weight distribution on your arms to 40/60 or 30/70. Don’t forget to shift to both sides so they are being worked equally.

Keep within an 8-12 rep range and adjust your weight distribution until you are working within these rep boundaries. This is by far the easiest method of increasing the difficulty of the exercise.

Perform Multiple Sets

Bodybuilders tend to perform more of the ‘same sets’ of the ‘same exercise’ in order to fatigue and micro tear the muscle tissue.

A good strategy when performing bodyweight exercises is to perform between ‘6-8 sets’ of the same exercise on the same muscle group. This will ensure that the muscles are fully fatigued, thus ensuring maximal micro-tears for muscular growth.

Perform A Split Workout

A split work out is where you perform one body part per day and this training method ensures that your muscles are fully fatigued whilst having enough time to recover effectively.

A key point to consider is that your muscle grows when resting and the right workouts are important to ensure micro-tearing has occurred-to facilitate this muscle growth.

An example of a split work out regime is as follows:

  • Monday – Chest/Arms
  • Tuesdays – Shoulders/Back
  • Wednesdays – Legs
  • Thursdays – Chest/Arms
  • Fridays – Shoulders/Back
  • Saturdays – Legs
  • Sundays – Rest

Overload Your Work Outs

Overload is a very important principle of training that is fundamental to a successful muscle growth of any kind. Your muscles do adapt very quickly to any training regime and overloading the muscle group will create a new stimulus for growth.

There are a variety of training methods to overload your workouts and these are as follows:

  1. Add some extra bodyweight exercises onto the end of your workout
  2. Increase the number of sets performed as this will fully fatigue the muscles used
  3. Increase the frequency of the workouts per week but remember that you need proper rest to grow effectively

Bodyweight Exercises For Callisthenics

Some of the main advantages of using bodyweight exercises are that they can be performed literally anywhere, you need no equipment, they are cost-effective and you can make them as hard or as difficult as you want.

There are a huge variety and variation of all basic bodyweight exercises. For example, there are over 20 different types of push-ups and squats and these can be adapted to match your fitness levels.

To build up strength properly all of the major muscle groups need to be fully activated and your bodyweight is the perfect resistance to allow this to happen.

A well-designed strength workout should be both fun, worthwhile with between 8-10 exercises that target all of the major muscle groups.

Try the following exercises doing 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps each and allow 60 seconds rest in between each set. All of the exercise such be performed at a high to moderate tempo and increase your tempo as your ‘form’ improves.

Use the descriptions of the 10 exercises and concentrate on your ‘form’ when executing them. Never compromise on good ‘form’ as this will lead to musculoskeletal injuries and this will put you back to square one in terms of your strength gains!

#1: Clock Lunges

Starting Position

  • Begin standing tall with legs hip-width apart
  • Step forward with your right leg and bring the left foot on to tiptoes behind you
  • Start to lower your left knee to the floor making sure your right knee does not go over your right foot
  • Aim for a 45-degree angle with your right leg and perform a traditional forward lunge

Finish Position

  • Then take a large step to the right and perform a lunge again
  • Complete the exercise with a backwards lunge and return to the standing position.
  • Visualize yourself moving around a clock face

#2: Split Lunge Jump

Starting Position

  • Begin with your left leg a forward lunge

Finish Position

  • Push up through both feet so you jump up and both feet meet in the air
  • Land back down in the lunge position with the opposite leg in front
  • Repeat this motion
  • Keep the upper body tall and the core tight at all times

#3: Squat Tuck Jumps

Starting Position

  • Begin by bending your knees and engaging your core and glutes
  • Enter into a basic squat position

Finish Position

  • Power up through the legs as you jump up and tuck the knees up to the chest if possible
  • Return back down into a squat
  • Repeat this motion
  • Maintain a tall upper body all times

#4: Glute Bridges

Starting Position

  • Begin by laying on your back and bring your heels as close to your glutes as you can
  • Have your arms extended out straight to stabilize your body

Finish Position

  • Flatten out the lower back as you tighten the core and bring your arms out to the side to help keep balance
  • Begin to push up through the hips flexing the glutes as you do, maintain a flat lower back
  • Push up as high as you can, you should only feel this working the glutes
  • Lower the back down to the floor

#5: Reverse Lunge and Kick

Starting Position

  • Standing tall with your hands on hips for balance
  • Bring the right leg back into a reverse lunge aiming to keep the front knee in line with the ankle

Finish Position

  • Press into the left heel as you bring the right leg up and kick it out in front of you at hip level
  • Return the right leg back into the reverse lunge
  • Repeat

#6: Single Leg Deadlifts

Starting Position

  • Begin in a standing position with feet together

Finish Position

  • Lift the right leg, then lower arms and bodyweight forwards whilst lifting the right leg further behind the body
  • Keep left knee bent and move arms forward as close to the ground as possible
  • Raise upper body when lowering the right leg
  • Change legs

#7: Plank with a Core Twist

Starting Position

  • Start by balancing on your right knee and left hand
  • Extend your left leg back keeping your foot on the floor for added balance place your right hand behind your head
  • Engage your core muscles to stabilise your spine

Finish Position

  • Twist your upper body and rotate your right elbow towards your left elbow
  • Touch your right elbow to your left elbow, then return to the starting position
  • Aim to touch your elbows, if you can’t just go as far as you can comfortably move
  • Maintain a smooth and controlled motion throughout the exercise

#8: Pull-Ups = Palms Facing Away/Chin Ups = Palms Facing You

Starting Position

  • Begin in a dead hang, arms fully extended & hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Elbows straight, chest up & shoulders back

Finish Position

  • Lower legs parallel to the floor, knees 90 degrees and ankles crossed
  • Lead with the chest when pulling up & drive elbows to the ground
  • Clear bar with chin & lower body in a controlled manner

#9: Dip & Kick Outs

Starting Position

  • Lower your body onto a bench/chair/sofa with hands in contact with them
  • Knees should be bent to 90 degrees and feet should remain flat on the ground

Finish Position

  • Bend elbows should be roughly 90 degrees and flex the left knee into the chest
  • As the arms straighten, extend right knee out in a straight kicking motion
  • Place foot on the extended leg back onto the ground and lift bodyweight back by extending elbows

#10: Wide Arm Push Ups

Starting Position

  • Hands wider than your shoulder width with palms in contact with the ground
  • Extend your arms and stabilize wrists
  • Keep your legs together and your body straight at all times

Finish Position

  • Lower your chest down until it almost touches the ground
  • Push your bodyweight back up
  • Always engage your core
  • Do not let your lower back dip
  • Exhale on exertion

Tips For Working Out Without Weights

How can you exercise without the use of weights? While keeping it challenging, interesting and evolving at the same time?

Following are 3 highly entertaining, but challenging ways that you can work out without the use of weights:

#1: Count Down From 10

In the case of pull-ups and dips, most of us can’t seem to go higher than a certain number.

The first mistake that many people make in this case; is to attempt doing reps and sets in ascending order, and continuously without a pause.

Instead, try performing reps in descending order. For example: Finish a set of 10, then a set of 9, and so on and forth until you get to the last set of 1.

This is very effective when it comes to achieving a good volume of exercise, and due to the decrease in the workload after each set; your muscles will get enough time to recover before starting the next one.

#2: Go Back To Basics

As goofy as it may look, training with kids’ exercises; such as the bear crawl or the crab walk is an excellent way to increase mobility and strengthen your core.

In addition, these extremely easy-looking exercises will not only get your heart rate up but also severely challenge your endurance.

For the bear crawl, you should walk on all four legs, with them positioned in a fairly straight manner so that the hips are above head level for the bear walk.

For the crap walk, bridge your hips up while sitting on the floor and try to walk backwards and forwards with the use of hands and feet in that position.

#3: Use A Deck Of Cards

Why go through the drudgery of performing the same exercises in a clockwork routine, when sooner or later you will get tired of the workout.

One way to make this a little more fun and interesting is to make a game out of it.

Take out a deck of cards, assign each exercise you will be doing to a different suite, for instance, diamonds could be push-ups, clubs could be pull-ups and so on.

Now place the deck face-down on the floor and start the game by turning over cards and doing whatever exercise that suite designated along with the number of reps.

The 3 Rules Of Bodybuilding Without Weights

While many would prefer to build muscle with the use of weights, working out only with our own body weight also has its benefits.

For one, working out without using weights is highly challenging and more fulfilling, especially for those who don’t wish to become overly muscular.

This type of training also helps the body to move efficiently and skilfully, which can’t be learnt otherwise.

As with every type of fitness and exercise training, however, this too comes with a few rules.

  1. Respect Your Body
  2. Use Your Entire Body Strength
  3. Consistency Always Beats Intensity

Callisthenics FAQs

Here are some questions about callisthenics. If you have any of your own please feel free to submit them below using the comment form provided.

Can You Build Muscle With Only Callisthenics?

Yes, it is certainly possible to build muscle using just callisthenics. As long as you are able to provide your body with enough resistance to stimulate muscle hypertrophy.

Is It OK To Do Callisthenics Every Day?

Yes, you can perform callisthenics every day, but you must ensure you are alternating the muscle groups used.

For example, you could exercise your upper body one day, then your lower body the next. This will allow your muscles to recover.

Is Callisthenics Better Than Gym?

Both disciplines have their pros and cons, so I would recommend doing both.

To build muscle and strength you should be using free weights and the machines found at the gym. Callisthenics will help work on your motor skills, strength and endurance.

Choosing both will give you the best of both worlds.

How Long Does It Take To See Results From Calisthenics?

If you are a complete beginner to any kind of resistance exercise then you will likely start to see results from callisthenics in just a few weeks.

To see a substantial change you will need to remain dedicated for a number of years. You cannot expect to see overnight changes.

Do I Need Rest Days With Calisthenics?

You should give yourself the occasional rest day, even when you are alternating the muscle groups you exercise.

To see muscle growth you need to give your muscle fibres time to repair and grow.

In Conclusion

You don't necessarily need weights to build muscle as long as you are able to push your body to its limits.

Progressive overload (making your workouts harder) will lead to hypertrophy and muscle and strength gains. This can be achieved through callisthenics and bodyweight exercises alone.

Also, don't forget that your nutritional needs are incredibly important too. So I would highly recommend that you read the following article.

Leave a comment below if you want to tell us about your own experience with callisthenics.


Article Name
Calisthenics For Building Muscle : Build Muscle Without Weights
How can Calisthenics help you to build muscle and strength? Learn why you should try this new technique to see huge gains.
Publisher Name
Hi, my name is Jonathan, a fitness blogger and bodybuilding enthusiast and I am the founder of Skinny2Fit. I want to provide you with easy access to good advice that is both simple and to the point. Helping you gain muscle mass and strength!



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