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I receive many questions through email about people trying to build muscle at home with bodyweight exercises. The questions vary, but they can be summed up by one simple sentence: Can you REALLY build muscle without lifting weights? The principles of weight gain are the same regardless of which implement you use. An important aspect of any weight gaining program is muscle overload. You must push your body beyond it’s normal capabilities. You can do this through two methods: 1) High Volume Training and 2) High Frequency Training.
High-volume training involves performing a multitude of repetitions of a variety of movements. Many bodybuilders are able to gain lean muscle mass using relatively light weights. How? They perform a multitude of repetitions using a lot of different exercises for that one body part.
One popular high-volume approach is known as German Volume Training, pioneered by Vince Gironda. German Volume Training is when you perform 10 sets of 10 repetitions of one movement. Of course, when using this technique, the weight you will use will be super light!
How would you set up such a program with regards to bodyweight training? Simple: Choose one bodyweight exercise to perform in a day and perform 10 sets of that movement. Your repetitions will vary based on your strength levels.
Here is a sample routine you can use:
Rest 30-60 seconds between each set depending on your fitness level.
Try other approaches to high-volume training, as it will become extremely boring if you were to perform the same movement over and over in one workout. I urge people to vary their grips and body positions when performing bodyweight exercises. In fact, the more variations of a movement you can include in your regimen, the better you will be able to develop your body.
High Frequency Training is a training method made popular by Chad Waterbury. The idea is to hit a muscle group as frequently as possible within a week. His programs often involve hitting a muscle group 6 times per week!
HFT works very well. For a practical example of how high frequency training works, the next time you go to the garage, notice the forearms of your mechanic. They are extremely well developed. I’m sure your mechanic does not go into a gym to train his forearms. So how did he build such great forearms? Well, a mechanic spends all day grabbing, gripping, and twisting tools in order to fix cars.
Want an even better example? Now, with this example, you’ll be convinced of what results you will get if all you do is pullups. Look at a rock climber: most rock climbers do not lift any weights, and yet have extremely large and developed forearms, biceps, lats, and upper backs. How did they develop these muscle groups? All they did was climb. The more they climbed, the more their bodies adapted to the stimuli, and the bigger these muscle groups became!
Applied this to bodyweight training, you simply perform a different variation of the pushup, pullup, and squat every single day. Chad Waterbury has actually used bodyweight-only approaches to helping his clients gain massive amounts of muscle mass!
Forest Vance has put together a great program for you, which covers everything you need to gain strength and muscle with bodyweight calisthenics.