Can you build muscle with just Bodyweight training?

One common misconception is that without gym equipment or a set of dumbbells, it becomes impossible to build muscle. But this really isn’t true. You only need to take a look at calisthenics movements or turn on the Olympics to see the gymnastics to see some world class physiques.

Understanding how muscle development actually works will alter your approach to training. If we know how to build lean muscle, then we can learn to adapt different aspects of your program, change some elements and keep the progressions going.


How Do Muscles Grow?

Muscle Hypertrophy (muscle growth) is believed to occur due to three main mechanisms. Mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage.

Mechanical tension is the resistance applied to the muscle. Metabolic stress refers to the accumulation of metabolites, which is produced by the metabolic process associated with exercise. It creates the ‘burning’ feeling when exercising. And muscle damage is the pain and swelling that is associated with a hard workout.

When a program is being designed, specifically with the aim of muscular hypertrophy, these three primary contributors to muscle growth will provide the best results.

However, it must also be taken into consideration that it’s not just what we do within our training program that determines our results. Nutrition, sleep and stress management will also impact how successful the program is.

So, how can we implement these concepts into bodyweight workouts?


Mechanical tension

Straight away, we need to look at how we can overcome the limiting factors that will prohibit the amount of mechanical tension we can create without the overload of gym equipment. As our bodyweight allows us to put our bodies under a certain amount of tension, we have to look at other variables. You can add resistance bands to increase the load slightly, or you can alter the movement patterns to make the exercises progressively harder.

A good example of this would be a push up on your knees, transferred into a push up on your toes. Increasing the load on the working muscle groups.

Another example would be doing triceps dips on a chair and eventually progressing into dips where you are supporting your entire bodyweight.

You can also get creative and try extremely difficult movements such as handstand push ups. However, safety is paramount, and if you are taking the leap to try some of the most difficult exercises, make sure someone is there to help spot you and support the movement.


Metabolic stress 

There are really only 2 ways in which to increase metabolic stress with bodyweight.

  1. Upping ‘supersets’ or ‘giant’ sets. This is where you group different exercises without taking rest in between.
  2. Reducing the rest times in between sets or restricting blood flow to the focused muscle group.


Why does time between reps make a difference?

When muscles contract and relax, a blood pooling effect is formed within the muscle. This causes swelling within the muscle, also known as ‘the pump’.

This restricts blood flow to the muscle meaning there is a lack of oxygenated blood being able to ‘fuel’ the muscle during the contraction phase of the movement.

This result is a build-up of metabolites within the working muscle. The resulting metabolic stress on the muscle creates an anabolic (muscle building) effect leading to molecular signalling and an increase in hormonal response.

This leads to a large build-up of metabolites within the muscle. The resulting metabolic stress placed on the muscles has an anabolic (muscle building) effect leading to molecular signalling and an increasing hormonal response by the body driving hypertrophy.

Occlusion training is where you restrict blood flow to the muscle you’re training. This can be used to encourage hypertrophy and support muscle mass using much lighter weight and increasing the number of reps performed during each set.

Applying some form of restriction to the blood flow to the muscle you’re working on and using a light load for many reps can help you achieve a similar effect.



Muscle damage

I’d imagine you have heard of the term ‘DOMS’. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness can occur one to two days post workout. This is the result of micro tears within the muscle following exercise. It’s a very common sensation that many people experience at some point during the recovery phase of exercise.

While it is not 100% guaranteed that you will experience DOMS, it can be used as a noted indicator that hypertrophy has been achieved.

It should also be noted that the severity of the doms should be directly correlated with more and more hypertrophy being achieved. If you are new to exercise you are far more likely to experience more doms, until your body get used to it.

The way to induce the most damage is during the eccentric phase of the movement. This is the stretching of the muscle. By decreasing the speed of this phase of the exercise, you can create more muscle damage. Try incorporating a countdown as you perform the eccentric movement of the exercise. For example, with a bicep curl, as you lower the weight, this is the eccentric movement (the stretch of the muscle).


In Summary

You can most definitely build muscle while just training with bodyweight exercises. It just requires a bit of adaptation to your surroundings and to your training methods and program.

By knowing what drives muscular hypertrophy should help you to focus on the adaptations required to help get the most from your bodyweight workouts, and still achieve great results.

And while our ability to create a great deal of mechanical stress on the muscles, what we can do is look towards the metabolic stress and muscular damage aspects of training. Train smarter. Think about how you can make the exercises more difficult.

Something as simple as slowing down your reps on a push up could make all the difference.