In 2013 I made the best gains in my life, and most of them were a result of hard calisthenics.
The interesting thing, though, is that I didn’t focus on increasing the reps on the different exercises.
Instead, I tried to make the basic calisthenics exercises harder by implementing the following 4 techniques:
- Reduce momentum and swing.
- Focus on working your target muscles.
- Increase Time Under Tension.
- Implement Giant sets and Reduce rest-time between sets.
I will deal with each separately below:
1. Reduce momentum and swing
When I see guys doing push ups and pull ups, I often see them using terrible form to get in more reps.
On pull ups they swing their body excessively and use the stretch reflex at the bottom to bounce up.
On push ups they use half of their maximum range of motion and pump out quick reps.
This won’t do much for you in terms of muscle gains.
Using momentum and swing means that you’re putting stress on your joints instead of your muscles.
We don’t that. We want to work the muscles, not our ego.
2. Focus on working your target muscles
When you eliminate momentum and swing from exercises, you have taken a step in the right direction, but you can make the exercises even harder by focusing on the target muscles.
Take a look at the examples below:
- Regular chin ups or pull ups: Lean back slightly with your upper-body and squeeze your lats.
- Close grip chin ups: Use your biceps to pull yourself over the bar.
- Diamond push ups: Keep your elbows in and contract your chest throughout the whole movement.
The benefit of doing this is that you can train your weak-spots and make them grow.
For example, a lot of guys struggle building their backs because their biceps take over when they do chin ups.
By leaning back slightly, and really squeezing your lats, your lats get a much better workout even though you do less reps.
3. Time Under Tension
Another technique that makes calisthenics exercises harder is time-under-tension.
For example, when you do chin ups, don’t rest at the bottom before each rep. Instead, go as far down as you can without locking out your elbows, then immediately pull yourself up again.
If you perform each rep correctly, each rep will bleed into the next one.
… And when each rep bleeds into the next one, you create a massive tension on your muscles, compared to resting between reps.
4. Giant Sets and Reduce Rest-Time Between Sets
Most training routines recommend 2-4 minutes of rest between sets. You can aim for 30-60 seconds.
Also, to make calisthenics harder, do several exercises without a break (giant sets).
For example, do diamond push ups first, then close grip chin ups and finish off with single-legged squats. (All 3 exercises without a break).
This is one (giant) set.
Repeat this giant set 2-4 times with 3-4 minutes of rest between sets, and you have a full body workout which can be completed in around 20 (painful) minutes.
You Gotta Eat
You can have the best bodyweight exercises in the world, but without a caloric surplus, you won’t build muscle.
The reality is that you have to EAT to recover from those workouts and gain muscle.
For most people, it’s hard to get in enough calories by eating chicken breast, lean fish, brown rice and broccoli.
I have never in my life gained a serious amount of muscle by using low-calorie foods as staples in my diet.
My best gains have been a result of eating high-calorie meals on a consistent basis:
- Rib steaks with White Rice covered in Ketchup.
- Hard-boiled Eggs (used as snacks).
- Weight Gainer Shake: Bananas, Strawberries and Natural Peanut Butter blended.
Unlike chicken breast and lean fish, those meals are tasty, and I never get bored of them.
Here’s a picture of some delicious rib steaks that I cooked yesterday:
Food is fuel for your body.
Without the right fuel, you simply won’t gain muscle.
The Art of Making Each Rep Harder
The truth is that when it comes to gaining muscle mass, you need to switch your focus away from:
“How do I increase the maximum amount of reps I can do?”
“How do I make each rep harder?”
I learned this from the legendary bodybuilder Serge Nubret who trained with light weights year-around.
If Serge can build a world-class physique using light weights, I figured that I can use his principles for my calisthenics training.
…And build a lot of muscle mass!
To give you some perspective, I could do about 20 chin ups before I started implementing his principles.
After implementing just a few of them, my reps were cut in half.
Despite doing less reps, I started seeing muscles in places I had never seen before because I finally started working on my mind-muscle connection.
Be proud but stay hungry,