Let’s cover some definitions. Building muscle i.e. making a muscle bigger than it was before is referred to as muscular hypertrophy. Just to avoid confusion this blog post discusses hypertrophy and not strength gain. Often times strength gain is an outcome of hypertrophy and the two are correlated but there are many other factors that contribute to an individual’s ‘strength’ other than the size of their muscle. Strength will be covered in another blog post but for now let’s forge ahead with hypertrophy…
One of the main causes of hypertrophy is mechanical tension which is created by a muscle travelling through a large range of motion (ROM) while contracting against a resistant force, leading to microtrauma (small damage to the muscle). Then given the right recovery resources are available i.e. nutrients from food (with adequate protein) and rest, the body will repair the damage. If the stimulus to cause the damage, and the recovery resources are adequate the repair will increase the amount of contractile proteins in the muscle (myofibrillar hypertrophy) leading to a larger muscle overall. So in a nutshell…work the muscle, eat, sleep and let the muscle recover and it gets bigger, simple 😊! This is not an exhaustive description of all mechanisms of hypertrophy but for the purposes of this discussion, it’s more than adequate.
So can you cause this mechanical tension required for hypertrophy by using bodyweight (BW) only movements? The short answer is YES! Here’s why…
In the table below we see data showing the average percentage of maximum voluntary contraction (MVR) that occurred in the Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) during various back exercises using BW, machine and free weights. This data was collected in a study carried out by Porcari et al in 2018 (link included below) on a sample of 19 individuals aged 18-25 who were familiar with resistance training. The weighted movements used 70% of the subjects one rep max (1RM) for 5 reps and the BW movements were also performed for 5 reps but with no external weight added. The MVR was measured by placing electrodes on the muscle and taking electromyography (EMG) measurements. The BW exercises are circled in red.
We can clearly see from the table that contraction for the Lats was greatest in the pull-up and chin-up. The other BW movements of the inverted row (hanging underneath a bar or gymnastic rings and performing the opposite of a push-up, or an upside down push up to but it another way) and the I-Y-T raises (raising your arms up and forming the shapes of these letters with arms and torso, while laying prone on a bench with no external weight added) fared less well compared to some of the non-BW movements for Lat activation.
However if we look at the table below showing MVR during the same exercises but for the Middle Trapezius (MT), on average the inverted bodyweight row and I-Y-T raises do as well or better than all exercises (with the barbell bent-over row, being roughly as effective).
But from this study that is still not the full picture. If we look at Lower Trapezius activation in the below table we see that the staple bodyweight movements of the pull-up, chin-up and inverted row did worse than all the machine or free-weight movements. However the I-Y-T raises did the best of all exercises.
For the purposes of our discussion the data from the study has some limitations. It would better inform our question if the rep maxes of the BW exercises where calculated for each individuals (i.e. how many un-weighted pull-ups can they do in a max set), then adjusted the weight of each of the non-BW exercises so that rep max was matched. This would lead to the same relative intensity being performed for each exercise e.g. if the subjects max pull-ups is 10 and their max reps on 60 kg bent over row is also 10. We also don’t have any information on the training experience of the individuals which could vary widely and can have a large impact on the effectiveness of the BW exercises for creating mechanical tension. This aside the data still shows that compared to the free weight and machine exercises tested, the BW exercises are in the circumstances of this study (which as we mentioned already are not perfect), are as good or sometimes better at creating mechanical tension on the main musculature of the back .There are many other muscle groups that could be looked at but for the purpose of keeping this post a reasonable length I’ll omit delving into them too deeply.
Does the above mean that bodyweight training is more optimal for everyone to build muscle? No… A key principle for long term hypertrophy is progressive overload. Simply put this means you need to increase the demand on the muscle overtime to see consistent gains. Let’s look at an example, are pull-ups as demanding to you 1 month into training them as they are after a year of consistently training them? No. Of course you will be able to progress by adding reps and sets of an unweighted exercise for some time and indeed you should be doing this if your goal is hypertrophy, but eventually you will have to add weight to make the demands on your muscle enough for them to grow further.
As we already discussed adding weight to pull-ups is easy enough but what about say an exercise like the push-up? The push-up is a fantastic tool to grow your chest, triceps and anterior deltoids, and when done with strict form are more challenging than most give them credit for. However after a time, increasing the difficulty of the push-up to be useful as a primary exercise (i.e. the main movement of your session and not a movement close to the end of your workout) for chest growth is in my opinion needlessly difficult. There are ways to do it effectively, but the set up requires as much or more equipment, and is decidedly more awkward in my opinion than if you were to simply bench press. Putting weight plates on your back is awkward to do by yourself and they have the habit of moving around mid-set, rubber bands have a non-linear resistance curve (no change in difficulty at the bottom of a rep but lots of resistance at the top). The effective method of performing weighted push-ups that I allude to you can see here from Fitness FAQs, no doubt effective but its seems needlessly complicated to me. As a side note I will sometimes include push-ups or a variation in programming for non-beginners, but it will be closer to the end of a workout if the reason I’m programming it is for hypertrophy.
So if your main goal is to get as big as you can and hit every muscle fibre from every angle, you simply need other options than your bodyweight. There are some movement patterns and muscle fibre angles that calisthenics is not best suited to overload.
My closing thoughts on this are: -
As a beginner newer to resistance training you can build muscle very well on the whole of your body (and yes, legs included) using only bodyweight movements. You don’t need anything apart from something to hang from (bar, rings, a tree 😊) and the floor. In the photo from this blog post I not touched any external weight or used any barbells, dumbbells, machines just my own bodyweight and the local calisthenics park.
If you really don’t want to use equipment or external weight you can continue to build muscle and improve after the beginner part of your training has ended, just use harder bodyweight variations of exercises (like archer push-ups etc.). But the limitation is that there is often a large jump in difficulty in between exercise variations e.g. that archer pull-up is multiple times harder than a standard pull-up. You’d be able to gain muscle quicker if you use external weight and think about incorporating bar bells dumbbells, machines etc.
In the real world however it is rarely the case that a person’s only desire from their training is hypertrophy but a combinations of that and other goals. I personally structure my own training to work toward specific skills (like the handstand push-up), and add in hypertrophy work where it's supportive to acquiring the skill or in muscle groups I want to grow. If you're interested in a program that is designed in this way head over to the CONTACT page to send me an email or leave me a message.
Thanks for reading
Link to the study used above -