Article last updated: June 2018 by Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer
When you start your fitness journey it’s easy to get the idea that you need weight training to build a muscular physique. But that is wrong.
Plenty of people have built muscular physiques with the use of basic calisthenics exercises such as chin ups and diamond push ups.
The main benefit of many calisthenics exercises is that similarly to the olympic lifts, they move your body through space.
By doing so consistently, you will not only signal to your body that is has to get lean and muscular but you will also improve your athleticism.
When you can knock out 20 clean chin ups with full range-of-motion and full control, you will be lean and muscular. There’s no way around it.
And if chin ups are too easy or too difficult for you, there are always ways to scale the exercise up and down.
For example, if you have high body-fat levels and you’re weak, you can start with inverted rows and negative pull ups to build up enough strength to do your first pull up.
The same goes for any other calisthenics exercises.
There are time-less, proven progressions that you can use to achieve your first rep on each of the calisthenics exercises and later move on to more advanced stuff such as handstand push ups, muscle up and front levers.
The #1 key to muscle gains is progressive overload.
When you progressively overload your muscles, they will get bigger – regardless of whether you do weight training or calisthenics exercises.
The issue with calisthenics is that once you can do your first 15-20 pull ups with ease, it becomes more complicated to progress.
With weight training you can just keep adding more weight, but with calisthenics you will have to use different strategies to keep building muscle.
In this article, I will teach you 6 proven strategies that you can use to make the basic calisthenics exercises harder and thereby keep building muscle mass for years to come.
Let’s get started:
1. Increase Time Under Tension and Work the Negative Phase Hard
If you time yourself next time you do a set of 20 push ups you will most likely find yourself completing that set in less than 30 seconds. This means you’re missing out on gains.
The optimal time-under-tension for muscle growth is 40-60 seconds per set.
Why 40-60 seconds and not more or less?
When you use less than 40 seconds you’re working mostly strength, power and the Central Nervous System and when you use more than 60 seconds you’re moving into doing endurance work for the muscles.
With 40-60 seconds time-under-tension you have that sweet spot balance where you are using enough resistance to create overload on the muscles while also getting a good pump, burn and mind-muscle-connection.
Assuming that you do 10 chin ups, you want to spend about 4-6 seconds per rep to reach the target time-under-tension.
Now, we know that most of the muscle building happens during the negative phase of the rep. (When you lower yourself).
As a result, most of the time-under-tension should be during the negative phase of the rep.
A good rule of thumb is to spend 1-2 seconds on the positive phase and 3-4 seconds on the negative phase.
A few seconds may not sound like much, but try recording a video of your usual set of push ups and you will see that most of your reps are done in less than 1 second.
With the optimal time-under-tension you will spend 5 seconds per set (5 times the amount you spent before)!
Now imagine how much difference that alone will make.
2. Focus On Developing A V-Tapered Upper Body With Powerful Arms
Most of us can gain about 20 pounds of muscle mass in the first year of training and 30-40 pounds over the first 3 years of training.
While this sounds like a lot, you need to keep in mind that a lot of guys make the mistake of adding muscle mass everywhere without any thought given to where the mass is added.
For example, I see a lot of guys doing endless sets for the upper abs, lower abs and obliques. There’s nothing wrong with working the abs, but you have to keep in mind that abs are muscles and muscles can grow.
When you overdevelop the abs, you thicken the waist and take away from building the V-taper.
The V-taper is important because it makes you look like you actually train when you wear clothes which most of us do the vast majority of the time.
When you combine it with big arms, you will appear powerful and proportional in a fitted shirt.
So how do we develop the V-taper and arms?
To develop the V-taper and arms, the most important muscle groups to bring up will be as follows:
- Lower and upper lats. (#1 way to increase shoulder width when people see you from the back).
- Upper chest.
- Triceps. (Especially the lateral triceps for the V-taper).
- Front Shoulders.
- Medial shoulders.
- Rear shoulders.
You can use variations of pull ups, chin ups and diamond push ups to sculpt most of these muscles:
- Chin Ups to develop the lower lats: Use an underhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder width to target the lower lats. When you pull yourself up, lean back a bit with your upper-body and contract your lats for more lat activation.
- Wide Grip Pull ups to develop the upper lats: Use a wide overhand grip to target the upper lats. When you pull yourself up, lean back a bit with your upper-body and contract your lats for more lat activation.
- Close Grip Chin Ups to develop the biceps peak: Use a narrow underhand grip to target the biceps. When you pull yourself up, focus on using the biceps as much as possible.
- Close Grip Pull Ups to develop lower biceps mass: Use a narrow overhand grip to target the lower part of the biceps and build overall mass. When you pull yourself up, focus on using the biceps as much as possible.
- Diamond Push Ups to develop the upper and inner chest and front shoulders: Place your hands slightly higher than usual so you are pushing from an incline angle. When you push your self up to the top position, push your elbows and chest muscles together then hold the peak contraction at the top for 2 seconds and repeat.
- Diamond Push Ups to develop the lateral triceps: Place your hands lower than usual (around the top of your ab muscles). When you reach the top of the movement, rotate your elbows to the side until you feel a very good stretch in the lateral triceps then hold that for 2 seconds and repeat.
The good thing is that focusing on the target muscles above and optimal time-under-tension are complimentary.
When you spend a lot of time-under-tension you will automatically have enough time on each rep to actually focus on the muscle you want to work.
On each of these exercises you want to use the optimal time-under-tension and slow, controlled negatives to properly work the muscle fibres.
But how about the rear and medial shoulders?
The rear and medial shoulders get worked indirectly with diamond push ups and pull ups and for guys with good shoulder genetics, that will be enough to build those round 3D-looking shoulders. But most of us don’t have good shoulder genetics.
We need to work the shoulders and all other slow-responding muscle groups from many different angles and resistance bands will help with that.
3. Get Resistance Bands To Work All Muscle Fibres
When I got into training many years ago, there was this whole idea going around that you could do 3 weight training exercises for your whole body: Bench presses, squats and deadlifts. (I cover that in my post Why You Shouldn’t Do Starting Strength as a Beginner).
Now I see a similar thing in the calisthenics community where people believe they can build an amazing physique with variations of chin ups, pull ups, push ups, dips and squats.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Variations of the big compound exercises can help you build about 70-80% of the muscle mass you are able to build naturally.
However, it’s the last 20-30% that truly makes a difference in your physique.
To understand why the last 20-30% are important, you can simply take a look at the way your muscles are structured:
- Triceps: You have 3 triceps heads and the triceps make up 2/3 of your arm size. To develop all 3 heads you will need to do a variety of pushdown movements. You can’t do that with calisthenics exercises alone.
- Biceps: You have 2 biceps head and one of them responds best to an underhand grip while the other one responds best to a hammer and overhand grip. You can work all these grips with variations of pull ups and chin ups, but unless you are incredibly strong, you won’t be able to get in enough volume to grow them to their maximum size. I haven’t met a guy yet who can do 8 sets of 20 close grip pull ups with clean form and after 7 years of training, I can’t even do that myself.
- Shoulders: You have 3 shoulder heads and to grow the medial and rear shoulders you will need some kind of lateral raise and reverse fly movements. You cannot replicate these with calisthenics exercises alone.
- Upper chest: The upper chest only makes up a small part of the chest but it’s the most important part because it’s the part most of us are lacking to get that squared looking chest. Compared to the rest of the chest, the upper chest muscle fibres can be worked with a low fly movement and that can only be done with bands, cables or dumbbells.
So working on these last 20-30% is really worth it and all you need is 3-4 bands with different resistances.
Resistance bands are cheap, easy to bring with you anywhere you go and they can replicate nearly all dumbbell and cable exercises.
Furthermore, by changing up the placement of the resistance band and having 3-4 different resistance bands, you can progressively make each exercise harder just like you would if you had a set of adjustable dumbbells.
Here are some of my favorite exercises that you can do with resistance bands:
- Lateral raises for lateral shoulders.
- Reverse flyes for rear shoulders.
- Face pulls for rear shoulders.
- Front raises for front shoulders.
- Triceps extensions.
- Triceps pushdowns with regular and reverse grip.
- Rows for the upper back.
- Rows for the medial back.
- Hammer curls.
- Flyes for inner chest.
- Low flyes for upper and inner chest.
- Presses for chest.
One big benefit of using bands is that you can train the smaller muscles at a much higher volume and volume is key to build muscle.
For example, if you use diamond push ups to work the triceps, you will become fatigued at some point and it will be hard for you to do sets with the optimal time-under-tension of 40-60 seconds.
This is where you can change to resistance bands and do easier exercises such as pushdowns and thereby continue working the muscles from different angles while still getting the optimal time-under-tension.
Alternatively, if you continued with the diamond push ups you would be forced to do a lot of unproductive sets where the time-under-tension is far below what you need.
By working your muscles from a variety of angles and having all this added volume in each training session, you will be able to trigger a lot more muscle growth compared to doing the calisthenics exercises alone.
4. Train Weak Muscle Groups 3-4 Times Per Week, Train Them First and Change up the Range of Motions
If you come from a bodybuilding background you most likely limit yourself to train each muscle group once or twice per week.
If you come from a calisthenics background you most likely have the complete opposite approach, pounding away at a full body routine 5 or 6 days per week because that’s the kind of message promoted in most calisthenics motivational videos: “All day everyday”, “work hard everyday” and so on…
So what’s best for muscle building? Again, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Most studies (and my 7 years of experience) show that your muscles recover within ~48 hours of training given optimal recovery.
This means that you can hit a weak muscle group 3-4 times per week (every 2 days).
Now I’m not saying that you should train everything 3-4 times per week, but definitely prioritise the weak muscle groups and hit them as hard and often as possible.
So here are some practical tips to set that up:
Let’s say your arms don’t respond well to training.
If you want to make them grow, you have 3-4 opportunities each week to make them grow, so use them!
Go in and do them first thing in your training 3-4 days per week, then do the less important muscles after.
When you train a muscle group often, you will have a lot of time to play around with different ranges of motion.
If you look at how professional bodybuilders train chest, they often do half reps on bench presses because the first half of the rep activates the chest.
Once the bar passes the second half of the bench press, the triceps take over and the triceps already have a separate training day in their split so they don’t wanna activate the triceps more than necessary on their bench press.
In addition to using limited range-of-motion to work target muscles, it can also make the exercise a lot harder (as long as you keep the tension on that one target muscle you’re working rather than using momentum and swinging).
The exercise becomes harder because you place constant tension on just one muscle so each rep essentially bleeds into the next. (Quote: Amir Siddiqui from Symmetry Gym).
The same principle can be applied to calisthenics.
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.
The reason to why you don’t want to (always) lock out is because it takes some of the tension off the muscles and puts it on the joints.
By keeping continuous tension on the muscles, you will generally get more work done in a single set.
With that said, you don’t want to go to the extreme and now become the guy who never locks out on any exercises.
There are benefits of locking out as well.
For example, when you lock out on a chin up and hang in the dead hang, you stretch and work the long head of the triceps which a lot of people lack development in.
Furthermore, by locking out on some of your sets, you prevent losing mobility in case you don’t stretch a lot post training or do yoga on the side.
So when someone tells you there’s just one way you should do an exercise it’s wrong. By doing an exercise in just one way, you limit yourself a lot.
You can experiment with different range-of-motions on each exercise, then make a note file on your phone where you note down how to best work each body-part with a given exercise.
There’s a lot of individual variation here so there’s no one way to do this. This is why taking written notes of how YOU respond is so important.
5. Combine Calisthenics Exercises Into Circuits to Speed Up Metabolism and Muscle Building
You can train calisthenics all day but if you don’t have low body-fat levels the muscles you build won’t show.
To lower your body-fat levels through calisthenics training, you want to do the opposite of everyone else:
Everyone else is either running outdoor or doing boring cardio in the gym such as walking on the treadmill for 45 minutes while reading a book. And everyone else isn’t really getting the results they want.
Both are inefficient ways to cut up your physique because they don’t have a lasting effect on your metabolism.
The key to burn fat through training and reveal muscle cuts is to train in a way that speeds up your metabolism so you keep burning more body-fat – even when you’re at rest.
The way to do that is to put your calisthenics exercises into circuits.
Here’s an example of an effective calisthenics circuit:
- Chin Ups.
- Diamond Push Ups.
- Hanging Leg Raises.
Do one circuit like this with 40-60 seconds time-under-tension on each exercise and you’re looking at each circuit taking between 3-5 minutes.
This means you will effectively work your muscles while simultaneously getting a high intensity cardio training in.
If you do 4 proper circuits in a training session, you have 12-20 minutes of time-under-tension for your muscles and a high quality cardio training at the same time!
Over time this kind of training will have a lasting metabolic effect so you will burn more body-fat while at rest.
Traditional cardio such as walking on the treadmill or running doesn’t have that lasting metabolic effect.
In fact, if you’re a skinny-fat guy who doesn’t carry a lot of muscle mass naturally, doing traditional cardio can make you lose some of that hard-earned muscle because you signal “weight loss” to your body rather than “fat loss”. (This is what kept happening to me until I finally got my training dialled in).
The circuit training prevents that muscle loss so it’s not only a little bit better than traditional cardio. It’s WAY better.
6. High Quality Nutrition (Should Be #1)
I’ve now equipped you with a lot of proven training principles to build a V-tapered upper body with big arms.
But how about nutrition? Can training make up for a bad diet?
The answer is a big NO.
As long as your calisthenics program is well-structured, nutrition will be the deciding factor in regards to whether you gain muscle mass or not.
Your body needs building blocks to build muscle mass and tone.
These building blocks come from your diet in the form of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and overall Calories.
The biggest problem right now is that a lot of guys follow generic fad diets that don’t produce any lasting results and violate the proven principles of modern nutrition.
I’m talking about fad diets such as “intermittent fasting”, “low carb”, “paleo” and “IIFYM”.
Here are the problems with the diets mentioned above:
- Intermittent fasting: Going for long periods of time without food so your blood sugar get’s low. When your blood sugar is low you will find it very hard to pack on muscle mass. There’s a reason to why bodybuilders (the most muscular individuals on earth) eat every 2-3 hours: It works.
- If It Fits Your Macros: According to IIFYM you can eat what you want as long as you hit your daily target protein, carb and fat intake. This is again wrong because the micronutrients of your nutrition matter a lot. Your muscles don’t just grow from protein, carbs and fats. They need vitamins, amino acids and minerals for optimal growth.
- Low carb and paleo: The main fuel for your muscles and brain is carbs. Eating low carb and using fats as fuel can work for a small minority of the population but for most of us it won’t produce any lasting results.
These fad diets only produce lasting results for a small minority of the population so you will always be able to find some guys who get results with these approaches but these guys get results in spite of their nutrition rather than because of it.
The key to set up a good diet that works for you is to look out for your BioFeedback.
Here’s how you should feel on an effective long-term diet strategy that produces long-term results:
- Stable blood-sugar, focus and energy levels: You maintain high and steady energy levels throughout the day.
- Great digestion: You have little or no gassiness and bloating after eating meals. You have regular bowel movements and find it easy to get business done at the toilet.
- Good skin, blood flow and body-temperature: Your skin looks vibrant, there’s no major acne, you have good blood flow and a healthy body-temperature.
- No intolerable hunger: You have times of the day where you have a slight level of tolerable hunger but you never feel intolerable levels of hunger. Tolerable hunger is good for fat loss. Intolerable hunger sets you up for massive binges that will make you re-gain body-fat.
The key to get long-term results from your diet is to balance these basic BioFeedback requirements with a diet that is just aggressive enough to produce results in your physique.
When you combine proper nutrition with proper training, you will get MUCH better results compared to focusing on training alone.
The Art of Making Each Rep Harder
Here are the 2 most important things you want to take away from this article:
- Increase Time-Under-Tension to 40-60 seconds per set.
- Focus on working the negative phase of each rep hard because that’s where most of the muscle building happens.
When you follow the 2 tips above your reps will be cut in half and some guys can’t take that because their ego is too fragile.
But trust me when I say that’s the way to go if you are training to develop your physique while staying injury free.
Be proud but stay hungry!