Can you build mass with body-weight exercises?

Look at an Olympic gymnast and you can tell, yes, muscle mass is possible without weights!
Jeff Milton
February 16, 2023
Can you build mass with body-weight exercises?

Can you build mass with body-weight exercises?

Typically, to build muscle mass, load and resistance is required for the muscle to be stimulated enough to recover bigger and fuller. Often we think of load and resistance in the form of barbells, dumbbells and weights. These certainly are effective methods to add muscle mass!

However, muscle mass can be built with body-weight exercises! Bodyweight training is often referred to as calisthenics. If you’ve ever seen Olympic gymnasts, you’ll notice they have beautiful and strong physiques (fun fact: the word origin of calisthenics comes from the Greek combination of beauty and strength). I mean, look at Sam here, a U.S. gymnast-I’d say he’s pretty jacked and his sport is moving his body about.

Building muscle primarily comes down to several factors:

Mechanical Tension and Progressive Muscular Overload

Mechanical tension is essentially moving heavy things. When athletes squat or press a lot of weight, this is mechanical tension. When we feel the various body parts acting as levers to move an object, that’s the mechanical tension. When the muscles are overloaded, they respond by growing. However, in order for the growth to happen, especially consistently, they need to be progressively overloaded. For example, if you can do 10 push-ups, in order for the muscles to be overloaded, you’ll need to do 15 push ups. And then next week aim for 20. And so on. 

Metabolic Stress and Training Volume

This is when the muscles are fatigued. When we feel a burning sensation, or our veins are swollen, or we feel a “pump”, this is muscle fatigue at work. Training volume refers to the amount of fitnessing we are doing over the period of the day or week. If you simply do 10 push ups a week, you won’t see the same response as if you did 10 push ups a day, or 50 push ups every two days. 

Of course, traditional weight lifting is an effective means of building muscle. Resistance bands can also build muscle. Even just tensing muscles in what’s called isometric contractions can build muscle.

The big question for this article is whether the resistance of your bodyweight is enough to stimulate muscle growth?

This is where it gets tricky. It is possible to get ripped with bodyweight exercises, but typically the body will still need an object to move around, or an object to move. We can do things like air-squats, ab exercises and push ups and their various alterations, with differing levels of stances, isometric and static holds, sets and rep schemes. However, that might be about it. To build the glutes, quads, chest, shoulders and the lats, which are primary muscle groups, we’ll need objects to either hang from (like for pull-ups), dip from (like ring dips), move up and down (think barbell) or drastically alter our plane (think one leg on the floor and one leg on a bench for lunges).

The more our body can move around, or the more our body can move, the more mechanical tension and muscular overload we can accomplish, thus, the more mass we can build. 

If we are beginners in the fitness space, simply moving the body in any capacity will reap rewards. But as we improve physical capacity, our bodies will adapt to the demands on it and we will need tougher, more complex, differing exercises to continue to develop and grow. 

However, bodyweight exercises are a fantastic place to start, as well as return to once we’ve become fitness beasts. A few reasons for this is that bodyweight exercises require no equipment, which often means we have to focus on our mobility and flexibility (which is important for reasons we won’t discuss here), often involves isolated muscle groups, can reveal and train deficiencies in our balance and motor control. 

I’ll finish with this: any way we move our body is good for us to do.

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