Look around online or even in some popular bodyweight training books and you’ll notice a common thread: an encyclopedia of exercises with no real strategy to build strength and muscle.
Or worse yet, a circuit routine.
Look… there’s nothing wrong with a circuit routine if your goal is to build muscular endurance. But I don’t believe you’re here to build endurance. I believe you’re here to build muscle and strength.
Functional strength, that is.
If that’s your goal, a circuit routine just won’t cut it. Nor will an encyclopedia of exercises in which you pluck out a few and do them.
You need a strategy to modulate the intensity of an exercise, because it’s intensity that builds strength and muscle.
Not volume. Not variety.
This is why simply cranking out a higher number of pushups won’t make you bigger and stronger. It will simply give you good endurance at doing pushups.
To visualize this difference, imagine the body of a marathon runner vs. a sprinter. The sprinter has much more strength and mass, despite their event lasting a fraction of the time it takes to complete a marathon.
Why? Because a 100 meter dash is a more intense race than a marathon.
How To Increase The Intensity Of Bodyweight Exercises
Now you know that intensity is the key factor in building strength and muscle with calisthenics.
But how exactly do you modulate the intensity of bodyweight exercises? It’s not like you can change your bodyweight every time you want to make an exercise more intense.
In traditional weight training, modulating intensity is easy. You simply slap more weight on the bar, pick up a heavier dumbbell, or stick the pin into a higher weight on a machine.
But with bodyweight training, it’s not as straightforward. In order to make bodyweight exercises more intense, you have to figure out ways to decrease your leverage.
This can be done a number of ways:
- Changing body position (think incline pushups vs. pushups on the ground)
- Increasing range of motion (think half squats vs. full “ass to grass” squats)
- Removing assistance (think assisted dips vs. unassisted dips)
- Switching to a single limb movement (think pullups vs. one-arm pullups)
- Applying force on the muscles at the edges of their range of motion (think iron cross)
Although it’s a good idea to eventually learn how to decrease leverage with bodyweight exercises on your own, don’t freak out if you’re a noob. All you have to do is follow an exercise progression.
What is an exercise progression, you ask?
Progressions are nothing more than a step-by-step series of bodyweight exercises that go from “really easy” to “damn near impossible.” Every good exercise progression is based on this idea of decreased leverage.
Look around the internet, in books, or even this blog and you will find progressions to help you achieve whichever type of bodyweight exercise you want to accomplish.
For example, if you want to do a pushup, you can follow this progression:
Wall Pushups > Incline Pushups > Knee Pushups > Full Pushups
Master wall pushups, then move on to incline pushups (which are a bit tougher than wall pushups). Master incline pushups, then move on to knee pushups.
And so on.
In calisthenics, your body is your barbell with as many plates as you’ll ever need. You add or subtract weight to that bar by increasing or decreasing your leverage.
Pretty nifty, right?
The “Secret” Of A Killer Calisthenics Routine
Now you know that in order to build functional strength and muscle with calisthenics, you must increase the intensity of your exercises over time. You also know that in order to increase intensity, you must decrease your leverage.
But how exactly does this work in practice when you are doing your bodyweight workouts?
Well… increasing the intensity of your bodyweight exercises every workout isn’t realistic. If that were the case, you’d be doing one-arm pullups in a matter of weeks.
With weights, you may be able to get away with increasing intensity every workout or every other workout (especially if you’re a beginner) because it’s easy to add and subtract weight from a bar.
But bodyweight? We already discussed that increasing intensity isn’t nearly as straightforward.
Instead, the best way to get bigger and stronger with calisthenics is to work at a fixed level of intensity until you hit a certain number of repetitions, then jack up the intensity.
This is what’s known as “double progression.”
For example, consider the step from incline pushups to knee pushups. As you work at incline pushups, over time your reps go up.
Eventually your reps get high enough to where you are no longer building strength and muscle and instead building endurance. This is when you want to jack up the intensity (i.e. move on to knee pushups, which is the next step in the pushup progression).
When you move on to knee pushups, your reps will drop because the exercise is more intense. You then work with knee pushups and build up your reps from there.
Rinse and repeat.
If you follow this double progression approach, your muscles will have no choice but to put on beef and get stronger.
Whichever calisthenics routine you choose to do, check to ensure it follows this double progression approach.
Best Rep Range For Muscle And Strength
I mentioned above that once you reach a certain number of repetitions with an exercise, you are no longer building muscle and strength but instead endurance. It’s worth diving deeper into this topic because it ties into setting goals and designing routines.
The three main training attributes that most people are concerned with are as follows:
- Hypertrophy (muscle growth)
These attributes all lie on a continuum. At one end is strength and at the other is endurance. Hypertrophy is somewhere in the middle.
Now… depending on how you train you can specifically target which attribute or attributes you wish to train.
- Lower reps target strength
- A medium number of reps targets hypertrophy
- Higher reps target endurance
There is a lot of overlap. For example, if you are training in the lower rep range, you will still be building some hypertrophy, just not as much as if your reps were a little higher.
A 2005 article in the Journal of Sports Medicine offers the following breakdown:
- 3-8 rep range targets strength
- 8-15 rep range targets hypertrophy
- 15-20+ rep range targets endurance
I want to reiterate that there is overlap, even outside of these rep ranges. For example, at 20 reps you are still building some hypertrophy, just not as much as if you worked at 12 reps.
If you are training for the military and need to perform a high number of pushups, pullups, etc. for basic training, then you should probably train in the higher rep ranges so that you target endurance.
But for the vast majority of us, we want strength and muscle. This is why it’s a good idea to try to keep your reps below 15-20 per set for most of your exercises.
Now… beyond specifically training for endurance, there are situations where higher reps makes sense:
- You’re a beginner (higher reps build up your tendon and joint strength)
- You’re nursing an injury
- You’re having trouble bridging the gap from one exercise to the next
If any of these scenarios fit the bill for you, then I recommend training with higher reps.
For example, in regards to the last point consider progressing from knee pushups to full pushups. Would it be easier to make the jump to full pushups if you could only do 8 knee pushups or 20?
Let’s not get too caught up with the numbers. Remember, there’s a lot of overlap between the attributes of strength, muscle, and endurance.
As you gain experience, you will figure out how to tweak things to better fit your individual needs.
I covered a lot here. If you made it this far, bravo. You are light years ahead of other trainees spinning their wheels with high rep training and circuit routines.
In the end, getting bigger and stronger with calisthenics is really not much different than traditional weight training. The main difference is that you have to manipulate your body to modulate the intensity of an exercise, rather than simply slapping more weight on the bar.
Luckily, calisthenics exercise progressions are everywhere (including this blog). Simply Google “[name of exercise] + progression” and you’ll see them there in black and white.
When you implement a progression into your routine, be sure to follow the “double progression” method of moving from one exercise to the next.
For strength and muscle, keep most of your working sets below 20 reps. In some cases, it may make sense to use higher reps.
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