Growing Muscles with Bodyweight Training: Q&A

So this week, the Weekly Neat Workouts series is on hiatus. But I prepared another little intermezzo for y’all.

There are some common and understandable misconceptions about building muscle mass (or bulking, as some may call it) by solely using bodyweight exercises.

There is lots of confusion when it comes to the choice of exercises, program design and the right diet.

So in this little Q&A, I want to bust some of those myths. Read on if that struck your attention.

Q: Aren’t bodyweight exercises too light to trigger muscle growth?

A: Have a look at the exercises I introduced in the Neat Progressions. Try one of them and see if they’re light.

Your muscles don’t know if you’re lifting a barbell or your own body, it all comes down to the amount of resistance and the resulting tension of the activated muscles.

Q: But how can you progressively add resistance without adding weight?

A: Easy. With some minor tweaks, you can make any exercise ridiculously hard. As chance would have it, I recently wrote an article about all the different methods to progress with bodyweight exercises. It all works with zero equipment.

Q: Okay, I get it. So bodyweight exercises are pretty effin’ sweet. But I don’t know which exercises and how often and what not …?

A: Creating your own workout routine is no rocket science.

If you’re not already impressively strong, I suggest starting with the basics: push-upspull-ups and squats.
Once those get easy (Let’s say I wake you up in the middle of the night. You should be able to do 30 push-ups, 10 pull-ups and 50 squats with ease.), you can progress to stuff like one-arm push-upshandstand push-upspistol squats and back bridges.

But as a general rule of thumb, a good workout routine for bulking includes these elements:

  • Compound exercises: These are moves that require lots of muscles simultaneously, as opposed to isolation exercises.
  • Intensity: In all your sets, you should go near failure (meaning you cannot do one more rep with proper form). Your muscles should burn and you haven’t been sitting around in your workout session resting all the time (60 to 90 seconds rest between sets is enough).
  • Brevity: An intense workout can, by definition, not be too long. If you can work out for over an hour, you’re not working out hard enough. 2-3 intense sets are enough to make your muscles understand that they need to grow. So yes, it’s okay to keep it short, as long as it’s intense.

Q: Alright, got it. And how often should I do this?

A: If your workouts are really intense, 2 to 3 times a week can be enough to trigger muscle growth. You don’t grow when you work out, but when you rest. You have to give your muscle tissue enough time to repair itself. This repair mechanism will induce muscle growth.

Q: Well cool, so I’ll just do those workouts about 3 times a week and then I’m going to look like Hugh Jackman in Wolverine?

A: Not so fast, Skippy. If you want to grow, you have to eat the part. There is no workout routine in the whole wide world that will give you muscle gains if you don’t eat enough. You cannot build muscle from nothing. In order to get bigger muscles, you have to eat a caloric surplus!

You can work out all you want. You might get a bit stronger due to the adaption of your nervous system, but you ain’t gonna grow a lot. Eat big to get big!

Q: But I don’t wanna get fat from eating too much!

A: You won’t. You just have to trust your workout routine. If you train hard and intense, and if you’re eating mostly real food, most of those calories will transform into sweet, sweet beef.

Maybe you’re going to add just a little bit of fat to your frame, but with the right training, your muscle growth will greatly outperform your fat gain. You won’t even see the little bit of additional fat because of all the new muscle mass. Promise. Pinky swear!

Q: Okay, but I’m gonna hit the cardio trainer hard, just to make sure I’m not gaining any fat.

A: That is not necessary. If you enjoy running, cool. But it doesn’t help much with muscle growth. Stick to your intense workouts, trust that you will pack on mostly lean muscle mass, and you’re good.

Q: Okay calm down, I believe you. So what protein shakes do you recommend?

A: Ah, now we’re talkin’. My recommendation is the Juicy Steak Formula 2000, depicted to the right.

Jokes apart, you don’t need to slurp those repellently tasting shakes. It’s a big fitness myth that you need excessive amounts of proteins. Yes, you need a decent amount, but if you have a protein source made out of real food for every meal, like a steak, feta cheese, ground meat, etc., you’ll be fine.

It’s far more important to eat enough overall calories.

Q: I think I understand. But how long does it take to get jacked? Beach season is coming!

A: I understand the impatience. We’re used to the “Get ripped in 30 days” promises. Don’t believe the hype. If you put in some work, you will see results.

But with everything that’s worth achieving in life, this will take some patience. Probably a bit longer than you’d like. Stay consistent with your workouts, track your progress in a workout log and the gains will eventually come. If it were easy, everybody would look athletic and jacked.

Make working out part of your life rather than a quick fix. Have some fun with your workouts, too.

If you want to learn more about building muscle with calisthenics only, check out C-Mass by Paul “Coach” Wade. I read it and highly recommend you read it, too.

It’s written with Wade’s zero-bullshit attitude, includes lots of sample programs and very sound advice for getting big using nothing but your own bodyweight. It’s one of the best bodybuilding books I’ve come across.


I hope I could clear up some of the informational fog that surrounds the fitness world. Take care and have fun beefin’ up!