Bodyweight Hypertrophy: The 10 Irrefutable Ways to Build Muscle Using Calisthenics

One of the biggest myths in the fitness industry is that bodyweight exercises cannot be used to build muscle.

Resistance is resistance, whether it comes from an external weight or from the body itself.

Below, I’m going to share with you my top 10 ways to adjust your bodyweight training routine so that you can gain as much muscle mass as possible.

1. Distribute Your Bodyweight Unevenly

In the same way as with conventional weight training, in order to build muscle using bodyweight exercises the muscle must be fatigued within a low rep range. Think about the physique of endurance athletes; they have very slender bodies. Training for endurance involves high reps, which increases the capillary diameter in the muscle to allow more oxygen. More oxygen will enable the muscle to work for longer.

When training for mass, however, it is important to stay away from high rep training, and instead focus on tearing the muscle tissue. This is accomplished with low reps.

An inherent problem with bodyweight exercises is that it is not possible to simply add weight to ensure that the muscle is fatigued within a low rep range. However, by adjusting how the weight of the body is distributed, fatigue can be achieved with fewer reps, thereby tearing the muscle and stimulating growth. We can use the push-up as an example.

Most people perform push-ups with their weight evenly distributed across both arms. If the body’s weight is shifted so that one arm bears more of the load, however, the amount of resistance on one side increases. Of course, it is important to switch sides to ensure that strength develops evenly. You can also play around with weight distribution, for example by splitting the load by 75/25 or 60/40.

You can apply this technique to most bodyweight exercises, such as chin-ups, pull-ups, squats, etc.

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2. Change The Angle Of The Exercise

bodyweight hypertrophy ring pushups

As mentioned above, the goal of bodyweight bodybuilding is to fatigue the muscle within a low rep range. Another way of accomplishing this is to adjust the angle of the body during the movement.

Knee health score 3

Changing the angle of the body means that you target the same muscle group, but a different area. For example, a normal push-up usually works the middle portion of the chest, but if the feet are elevated and placed on a chair (with the hands remaining on the floor), emphasis is instead placed on the upper portion of the chest. This gives the chest a fuller look.

This technique is called ‘Angular Training’.

3. Utilize A Bodyweight Drop Set

bodyweight pushup hypertrophy

A drop set is a technique used to tear muscle tissue more effectively by incrementally reducing the resistance. This can be done by either using lighter weights, or by using increasingly easier bodyweight exercises.

There are inherent levels of difficulty built in to bodyweight exercises. For example, a one-legged squat is much more difficult than a normal bodyweight squat, while a normal bodyweight squat is in turn more difficult than a partial bodyweight squat. This inherent difficulty can be used to tear more muscle tissue.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s use the push-up as an example again. When doing a bodyweight drop set, you should select three exercises of varying difficulty that each hit the same muscle group. For the push-up, let’s choose (1) decline push-ups, (2) normal push-ups and (3) push-ups with the knees on the ground.

To start, you would do a set of decline push-ups (the hardest exercise) until you cannot complete any more. You would then switch immediately to normal push-ups (the medium-difficulty exercise) until you reach fatigue. Finally, you would switch to push-ups with the knees on the ground (the easiest exercise). Once you have reached the final exercise, you are recruiting muscle fibers that would not have been recruited using the hardest exercise alone.

4. Increase Time Under Tension

Time under tension is extremely important when it comes to bodyweight bodybuilding. If the muscle is not kept under duress for a long enough period of time, it will not tear.

When using bodyweight exercises, the number of reps is not the only important factor. The other important factor is to ensure that you are keeping the muscle under tension for a suitable length of time.

5. Reduce Your Speed

Here’s a little experiment for you. Drop down to a push-up position and crank out as many push-ups as you can, then remember that number. An hour later come back and do another set of push-ups, but this time count five seconds on the way down and five seconds on the way up.

I would be willing to bet that the second time you did the push-ups you got far fewer reps. And wasn’t it harder too?

When you reduce your speed, you use little to no momentum, which forces your body to recruit more muscle fibers. As a result, more muscle fibers are torn.

6. Add More Volume To Each Set

L-sit bodyweight hypertrophy

Some of the greatest and most effective bodybuilding workout plans ever made incorporate high volume. What is volume? Volume is the number of sets in your routine.

As you reach higher levels of fitness, it can become harder to tear down muscle tissue. The body becomes too efficient and resistant to change. Working a muscle group using high volume, however, enables the muscle to be fatigued more and more with each passing set.

In most cases, I recommend doing eight sets in total. For example, when doing push-ups perform one set of push-ups until full muscle fatigue, then rest for sixty seconds before performing another set. Do a total of eight sets.

7. Squeeze The Muscle During The Rest Period

Isometric training is one of the most forgotten styles of bodybuilding and strength training. Some of the greatest Strong Men in the world, such as Charles Atlas, to name only one, utilized isometrics.

One method of incorporating isometrics into your current bodyweight routine is to spend the rest period contracting the muscle that has just been worked. For example, by focusing on tensing the biceps fully after completing a set of chin-ups, the prolonged tension will continue to tear muscle fibers.

8. Focus More On The Eccentric Contraction

bodyweight hypetrophy chin up

The eccentric part of the contraction is the golden ticket for building size.

The movement of a muscle is divided into two phases: concentric and eccentric. During the concentric phase, the muscle shortens. For example, it is the concentric contraction of the bicep that pulls the body up during a chin-up. During the eccentric phase, the muscle lengthens, as in the down movement of the chin-up.

Research has shown that the eccentric phase is more effective than the concentric phase for building muscle. How do you focus more on the eccentric movement? Slow it down. During the chin-up, for example, count to ten as you go down. You’ll notice that it makes the exercise much harder.

9. Rest for Less Than 90 Seconds

When your goal is hypertrophy, or building muscle mass, you don’t want to let the muscle fully recover during the rest periods. My recommendation is anywhere less than 90 seconds, but 45-60 seconds is the ideal range.

Knee Health Score 2

When you rest for more than 90 seconds, you are focusing more on strength gains, as the muscle is able to fully recover between sets. If you rest for short periods, you are able to recruit different muscle fibers during later sets, because many of the muscle fibers have not yet recovered.

10. Periodize Your Training

The final principle that I’d like to share with you is the principle of periodization. Periodization means tailoring your workout regiment to focus on different goals over a different period of time.

My recommendation is to spend three to four weeks focusing primarily on muscle hypertrophy and growth. Utilize the principles above, and strive for as much size as possible.

Next, switch gears and spend three to four weeks doing strength work. This could be with weights, or you could focus on extreme calisthenics such as the planche, handstand, front lever, or pistol squat.

After the strength phase, spend a week in active recovery to let your muscles fully heal. Play volleyball, go kayaking or hiking, swim in the ocean, etc. After this week is up, you can jump right back into the hypertrophy stage with a vengeance, fully recovered.

Bodyweight exercises are not just for getting lean. The methods outlined above will allow you to build size using just your own bodyweight.

– Todd

Show/Hide Comments (10 comments)
  1. anon

    What do you make of Herschel Walkers routine?

    • Todd Kuslikis

      Can’t say anything about it, looks solid.

      – Todd

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  3. Jay

    Great article!
    I have worked out with weights in the past, but recently i have started to try to build up my physique with only bodyweight exercise.

    I like to do a full body workout with 2 full days rest in between. i dont rest between exercises, in between handstand pushups ill do bodyweight squats.. in between dips and pushups ill do jump squats. in between my pullups i will do ab work. by “in between” i mean my 45-60 second rest period. i keep reps between 6-12

    the whole workout will last around 40 mins and always leaves me feeling pumped after.

    do you think this is an effective style of working out?
    i havent been using it long enough to know how far i will get in terms of mass.. but it feels great and feels better than when i used weights.

    Thanks very much,

    • Leo

      How far have you gotten, mate?

  4. Brendon

    Nice article Todd! Makes perfect sense!

  5. Brandon

    When doing drop sets, if using your pushup example, would you do the three pushup variants in a row with no rest and do the combined exercise 8 sets ([Decline, Normal, and knee push up]x8) or something like doing each exercise a few sets while stepping down from hardest to easiest (Decline X 3, Normal X 3, Knee X 3)?

    • Todd Kuslikis

      Hey Brandon,

      The 3 push variations would be part of the same set. Go from on one to the next until you complete the set. Then rest and begin another drop set.

  6. Jon

    Hi Todd, when training to failure like this what is your recommendation regarding recovery? Do you split into body parts or do one humungous, full body, 8 sets per body part training session!!

    • Todd Kuslikis

      Hey Jon,

      Great question. Yes, definitely split into body parts like a typical bodybuilding routine: Mon: Chest/Tris, Tues: Back/Bis, Wed: Legs, etc.

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