What Is Calisthenics? (And Does It Build Muscle?)

There are many different methods and training styles out there that can help us get fit and build our bodies. 

Some people may gravitate towards powerlifting and some towards a more bodybuilder training style.

Some trainees prefer that most of their training be made up of cardio and endurance training, whether running, cycling or swimming. 

And most will probably find themselves doing a combination of the many different training styles out there.

In this article, we are going to talk about a form of training that is great in many ways. 

It is great for beginners, it is very affordable, can be progressed and regressed as needed for each individual, and can be done pretty much anywhere. 

We are talking about calisthenics. 

Disclaimer: None of the information in this article is intended to be medical or health advice. Always consult with a qualified physician before taking part in any exercise or fitness regimen. This article contains affiliate links. If you decide to purchase a product from the link provided I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

What is Calisthenics?

Calisthenics is a method of training that uses your own body weight for resistance while performing certain movements. 

Resistance training is most often thought of or imagined as moving an external weight through space while your body is in a fixed place. 

Movements like bench pressing, row variations, and seated leg exercises fit the bill here. 

Calisthenics movements on the other hand such as push-ups, pull-ups, dips, squats, and lunges require you to control and move your body through space, to build strength and coordination. 

The list of movements that qualify as calisthenics movements go way beyond the few I just mentioned. 

Beyond just the basics of push-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, inverted rows, sit-ups, and planks,  you have advanced movements such as pistol squats, handstand push-ups, muscle-ups, planches, and levers.

The list goes on and on.

What are the benefits of Calisthenics?

Calisthenics has many benefits ranging from muscle building, strength increases, and overall body control and awareness. 

  • It’s great for beginners. Nearly anyone of all fitness levels and backgrounds can implement some form of calisthenics training into their lives. 
  • Little-to-no equipment needed. Since we are using our own bodies as resistance for training, we won’t need to have much on hand to get our workouts in. *
  • Very affordable. Since we don’t need much equipment, or even a gym membership, starting and staying consistent with a calisthenics training style is great on the budget. 
  • Can be done nearly anywhere. You don’t even have to leave your own house if you choose not to. And on the flip side, you can hit up your local park or playground to enjoy nice weather and possibly others training in the same style. 
  • Develops body control, strength, and awareness. Performing even the most basic bodyweight movements requires total body strength and control. In the pull-up (assisted or otherwise), for example, your lats and biceps are doing the majority of the work, however, you will also be using your middle and upper back and rear delts to pull yourself through space. You will also be creating full body tension through your core and even your legs to help ensure controlled, efficient, and symmetrical reps. 
  • It’s just a really cool thing to be able to do. Ok, this one is completely subjective, but for me personally, there is something cool and also rewarding to being able to have control over your own body. I’m talking about just the basics as well. Being able to knock out sets of quality push-ups and pull-ups just feels great.

Does Calisthenics Build Muscle?

You can definitely build muscle with calisthenics. The real questions are, how far along are you in your training lifestyle as a whole and how much muscle are you looking to build?

The principles for building muscle with weight training hold true with Calisthenics as well. 

You need to focus on mechanical tension as well as progressive overload over time. 

If you are brand new to training, you will be able to achieve both of those elements using just your body weight. This goes for your entire body, except for most likely your legs, which we will touch on quickly later on. 

As you get stronger and your current body weight becomes easier and easier to move for reps (especially if you lose some weight in the process), you will reach a point where just your body weight alone isn’t enough resistance to achieve enough mechanical tension to drive muscle growth without doing a greater and greater number of reps. At some point, this becomes impractical. 

This is also why, as we mentioned earlier, growing your legs with just bodyweight squats and lunges will not work for a great majority. Your legs are already very strong and have grown used to carrying your body weight around daily. So without adding some external resistance to challenge your legs further than what it’s been used to working with, significant muscle growth is unlikely. 

For some people, bodyweight Calisthenics alone just might be sufficient to build enough muscle to where they are satisfied and are not looking to get any larger beyond that certain point, but for those of you seeking to continue growing beyond that will need to add some extra resistance to your Calisthenics movements. 

Adding weight to your Calisthenics movements can be done in different ways. 

Wearing a weighted vest is a great option for nearly all exercises. It allows you to add weight to push-ups, pull-ups, dips, squats, lunges, and just about anything else you can come up with. 

In my experience, you may feel a bit restricted in your upper body during push-ups and pull-ups but not enough to significantly ruin the movement pattern. 

Another great tool to add resistance is a dip belt. This piece of equipment isn’t as versatile as the weighted vest, as you can really only use it for movements that put you off the ground like pull-ups, chin-ups, muscle-ups, and dips. You can really load a dip belt up with a large amount of weight the stronger you get as well, just make sure that your belt is rated for it. 

These are my two favorite options, but you also have others out there like chains and sandbags.

Summing It Up

Calisthenics is a great form of training, whether on its own or in combination with other types of exercise. 

It can be used to learn, strengthen and reinforce healthy movement patterns, become masterful of your own body, as well as build muscle. 

Whether you are brand new to any type of training whatsoever, or a veteran looking to add a new dimension into their fitness lifestyle, Calisthenics has something for pretty much everyone.

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