You Don’t Need A Gym To Do Calisthenics But Can Bodyweight Moves Really Build Muscle Like A Barbell?

School Of Calisthenics David ‘Jacko’ Jackson reveals exclusively to RSNG how he and his clients use weights-free moves to pack on new lean muscle while learning crowd-stopping skills like The Human Flag and The Handstand Press-Up.

RSNG First of all, why might I want to build muscle with calisthenics if I already have access to free weights? DAVID JACKSON PT ‘Training in calisthenics gives you a goal of learning a new skill like a handstand or working to a seemingly ‘impossible’ move like a Human Flag. It feels impossible when you first try and it certainly did for us (at the School Of Calisthenics) because we started with no previous gymnastics experience. It even seems impossible when you first contemplate the mechanics and how much strength you need to suspend your body against gravity in a human flag. You certainly need lots of strength for that and in doing so, you build muscle as you train for it.’

RSNG What do we need to build muscle, in general terms? DJ ‘The process of building muscle (hypertrophy) in its simplest form is providing a stress to the body, which forces it to adapt to the stimulus so that the next time you provide the same or greater stress it has adapted to be able to deal with it more comfortably.’

‘Resistance training provides the stress on the musculoskeletal system, which it needs to adapt to when we’re talking about building muscle. We often think of external resistance and the barbell or dumbbells are usually the first things we reach for when we require more resistance.’

The body doesn’t know where the resistance is coming from and it doesn’t care either

RSNG So, where does calisthenics fit into that picture? DJ ‘The body doesn’t know where the resistance is coming from and it doesn’t care either – it responds and adapts to the stress we place upon it. So, the resistance can come from an external weight or it can be our bodyweight. The key is the level of the resistance.’

‘Yes, a normal push up may become ‘too easy’ and won’t create enough resistance to provide a stress to create a muscle building adaptation, the same way if you only ever lifted the 20kg barbell on the bench press.’

RSNG Yes, that’s most people’s view on bodyweight moves – good for circuits but not building muscle – so how do you do progress the resistance? DJ ‘The push up can be progressively loaded by changing body angles and joint mechanics. Progressing your push up towards a planche, for example, gives you not just an amazing photo when you can do it, but also an end goal to work towards. We just need to progressively increase the load on the shoulders, chest and triceps by changing the hand position, and body alignment to provide the progressively increasing resistance and stress you need to stimulate muscle building adaptations.’

‘Rather than manipulating the barbell by adding more weight, you need to think of your body as the barbell and manipulate your body position to increase the resistance demand.’

I’m working on Human Flag pull ups – basically horizontal pull ups in the Human Flag

RSNG OK, but isn’t there an upper limit where you exhaust the ways you can progress with bodyweight? DJ ‘The great thing about calisthenics is the journey is never ending. You never reach a point where you can’t create enough resistance to keep adapting. Take my human flag journey as an example; it was once impossible, then time passed and it became relatively easy: 32 seconds Human Flag is my best. And now I’m working on Human Flag pull ups where you are basically doing horizontal pull ups in the Human Flag position, it’s insane… can’t do one yet but I’m redefining my impossible!’

RSNG What kind of bodyweight moves should we pick for building muscle? DJ ‘We need to ensure we are getting well rounded variety in our training. That means doing equal amounts of pushing and pulling in both vertical and horizontal planes. For example:

Pull-ups (Vertical Pull) Make standard pull-ups easier with a resistance band, or make them harder with archer pull-up progressions to one-arm pull-ups.

Bodyweight Ring Rows (Horizontal Pull) ‘Change the position of your feet and angle of body alignment to make these harder or easier. Progress towards feet off the ground in tuck horizontal rows, and eventually a front lever.’

Handstand Press-Up (Vertical Push) ‘Use a wall to help you improve your stability, or if you need to make it easier start with pike press-ups. To progress, raise your hands on a box or Reebok step to allow a deeper range of motion. Eventually building up to the Holy Grail of press-ups: the freestanding handstand press-up – no walls needed!’

Planche Press-Ups (Horizontal Push) ‘Change your hand position in relation to your hips. The closer to the hips the harder these are. Raise your feet on a box and lean forward to progress towards eventually a planche, and one day planche press-ups.’

RSNG How do we approach volume of calisthenics training for muscle building? DJ ‘Go for high volume, 6 -12 reps (75-85% 1RM) of 3-5 sets with 60-90 seconds rest between sets – its tough!’

RSNG What about the frequency of workouts and recovery? DJ ‘The latest research into hypertrophy training says that it’s more useful to keep the volume high and try to hit body parts more than once a week. This is where a traditional weight training or bodybuilding split routine is potentially not as good as calisthenics, because you would hit body parts only once per week. But with Calisthenics we are training multiple muscle groups together, rather than trying to isolate single muscles and therefore they get trained more frequently.’

Play the long game and be consistent with your training rather than looking at a quick fix

RSNG Muscle growth takes time, so how long does my calisthenics programme need to be, and do I need to use periodisation? DJ ‘Periodisation is important. Specific built-in rest weeks following a programme of progressive overall is key to creating the need for adaptation and growth, but then also allowing for a recovery process for that to happen.’

‘The athletes we’ve trained over the years to Commonwealth, European, World and Paralympic titles (as oneathlete Ltd) have followed a 3-week load, 1-week deload periodisation plan. It’s simple but effective. Progressively increase over weeks 1-3, which in this case might be increasing your volume in terms of the sets you do in week 1-3, and then a de-load where you back off in week 4.’

‘The hypertrophy adaptation, in terms of increase in muscle mass, isn’t going to happen overnight or even in a 4-week block. So, you’d typically follow this for 2 to 3 cycles and assess, change and adapt your programme depending on the results you see. It’s over months and years that you build up long-term muscle growth, so play the long game and be consistent with your training rather than looking at a quick fix.’

RSNG You’re obviously a massive fan of calisthenics, so what are the other benefits to working without weights? DJ ‘If you’re anything like us you become so focused on the goal, you’re thinking about what you can do with your body rather than how it looks, which has a hugely positive affect on your mental wellbeing! The fact that you are building strength and muscle mass as a consequence of the training is the beauty of calisthenics.’

‘The training is also fun and motivating. Once you achieve something you previously thought, and felt was impossible, your motivation to keep training for the next ‘impossible’ goes through the roof. It changes the way you think, it becomes: “What could I achieve?” Now we’re addicted to redefining our impossible!’

WHAT NEXT? Can you do a handstand? If not then there’s still time to train for World Handstand Day on June 2018 when School of Calisthenics want your help to set a brand new handstand world record. Check out these tips from their channel…

Comments are for information only and should not replace advice or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time. Work with a personal trainer on unfamiliar exercises.