Bodyweight Training is BAD for Muscle Growth or not
You know body weight training sucks for building muscle. Do you think I build this mass through bodyweight training? Believe me, You didn’t build that mass through bodyweight training. Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?
How effective is calisthenics that’s body weight training for muscle hypertrophy?
Can someone theoretically maximize hypertrophy using nothing more than their body weight? Let’s have a look at what the scientific literature suggests.
It’s widely believed that six to twelve reps are superior for building muscle. And given bodyweight training is commonly done with higher reps, this may be used as evidence bodyweight training is suboptimal for muscle hypertrophy, yet the science doesn’t support this.
A multitude of the paper suggests per set reps between six and 35 are comparably effective for building muscle, provided those reps are performed to or close to failure.
A strong hypothesis as to why lower and higher reps can be similar for hypertrophy is that they ultimately produce similar mechanical tension, the primary hypertrophy stimuli.
Mechanical tension is essentially the force expressed by muscle fibers. They have a mechanosensory that can detect the force and convert it into a signaling cascade that produces hypertrophy.
To optimize overall mechanical tension, we’d want to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible and have the individual fibers produce decent tension for their sufficient duration.
Lower reps with heavier loads will instantly involve higher mechanical tension, and it only increases as you near failure.
Higher reps initially involve low mechanical tension, but as you continue repping out a nearing failure, more muscle fibers are recruited, and many fibers may increase their force contribution.
So overall, mechanical tension ends up being similar between lower and higher reps.
It’s also worth noting mechanical tension is mechanical tension.
Your body has no sensors to detect whether free-weight machines or body weight is used to generate fiber tension.
It’s not like just because you’re using a bodyweight exercise, your fibers refuse to grow.
It’s also worth noting other hypothesized stimuli like metabolic stress or MicroTAS simply do not have compelling evidence they are powerful drivers of hypertrophy.
We have further data supporting this. A 2017 Japanese paper compared higher rep bench press training to higher rep pushup training, and chest and triceps growth ended up being similar.
A 2018 USA paper compared progressive pushup training with harder variations with lower reps to lower rep bench press training, and both groups saw chest growth.
The percentages favored pushup training, but the difference was not statistically significant.
So the difference could just be due to chance. So bodyweight exercises can be effective for hypertrophy, and bodyweight training is effective for hypertrophy? There are some potential pitfalls of bodyweight training long term.
2- Progressive Overload Potential Pitfall
The most straightforward way to progressive overload bodyweight movements is to perform more repetitions.
So long as you stay within the six to 35 rep range, this is perfectly fine for hypertrophy.
The current data indicates progressing through increasing reps is no less effective for muscle growth than increasing load.
Now, it is also technically possible to increase the load with bodyweight exercises by using harder variations that have you work against a greater percentage of your body weight.
That’s done by manipulating body position or progressing to single-limbed variations. The current research indicates a wide range of rep tempos are comparable for inducing muscle growth.
So attempting to slow down your repetitions or even add pauses can likely also be effective ways to progressive overload body weight movements.
Finally, although strictly not body weight, using added weight is also an option. Weighted calisthenics can be great for long-term progression.
This 2019 Norway study found that when load equating weighted pushups and bench presses, recruitment of the chest, triceps, and shoulders were similar between them.
3- Regional Hypertrophy Potential Pitfall
Sont literature indicates muscles do not grow evenly across their regions in response to training and exercise.
The implication is training with a few biomechanically different exercises per muscle will likely better optimize its overall regional growth.
Some may feel calisthenics may be limited in this area, as they feel there’s not much exercise variety available yet.
That is not truly the case with the upper body at least, you likely want to train the biceps at different shoulder angles.
Training the triceps at different shoulder angles is probably a good idea too. And this again can be done with bodyweight variations.
Training the chest at different inclined angles can likely be useful, and done with body weight.
The back trained biomechanically different bodyweight movements. There are a variety of body weight exercises that can collectively optimize the regional growth of many muscles. It’s not necessarily a pitfall.
4- Lower Body Potential Pitfall
Calisthenics may have some very real pitfalls around lower body training. There is evidence that hamstring activation patterns differ between hip extension and leg curl-based exercises.
So to optimize overall hamstring development, you’d want both movements a leg curl.
Body weight variation exists with the Nordic curl, and this is an excellent exercise frequently used in the athletic world.
There’s no proper bodyweight hip extension exercise that will recruit the hamstrings with the other main lower body muscles the quads, glutes, and calves.
Exercise selection isn’t a problem. You have sporting variations that will hit the quads and glutes reverse Nordic curls that can hit the quads further, hip thrust variations that can hit the glutes further, and standing and seated calf raise for the calves.
The problem, however, is many of these are difficult to overload in the long term. Relative novices can perform way more than 35 reps on calf raise, and hip thrust variations with squatting variations progressing to pistol squats can take a while, but once you’re able to report on pistol squats further long-term overloading with body weight alone is difficult.
So I think progressive overload with some lower body exercises is a real pitfall. Due to this, I think it’s reasonable to speculate a person cannot match their lower body hypertrophy with calisthenics only.
That shouldn’t be mistaken in saying no lower body hypertrophy occurs with calisthenics. I should also note that you can still train with more than 35 repetitions.
It can still elicit muscle growth, albeit perhaps not as effective as staying within that six to 35 range.
Body weight exercises can stimulate hypertrophy as effectively as free weights or machines, provided you’re getting two or three to failure in a six to 35 rep range.
Overloading body weight exercises, in the long run, need a little creativity. Increasing rep numbers, using harder variations, or manipulating rep tempo are all viable strategies.
They exist a rate of different bodyweight exercise variations that can collectively contribute to producing great regional development of your muscles.