Man before and after building muscle with calisthenics

Calisthenics is a popular form of exercise that involves bodyweight movements to build strength and muscle mass. While it can be an effective way to achieve your fitness goals, there are common mistakes that people make when trying to build muscle with calisthenics. These mistakes can lead to frustration and lack of progress, ultimately hindering your muscle-building journey. In this article, we’ll explore the most common mistakes and show you how (not) to build muslce with calisthenics.

What you will learn in this article:

Reason 1: You choose the wrong exercises

Man doing human flag in calisthenics

The first step of this “how (not) to build muscle with calisthenics” guide is about the chois of exercises. Although nearly every strength focused exercise will build some muscle, they are far away from being optimal for that goal. Some of them have a different focus, improve a different ability or are more of a good all rounder for different things. So they are not wrong in general and you should only make sure that they are matching with your goals and you’re doing them for the right reason! 

Why you don’t build muscle with muscle ups

Man doing a  muscle up

Yeah, the muscle up is something like the holy cow of calisthenics. But the truth is that this exercise is not optimal to build muscle. There are different reasons for that.

Reason 1: It’s too hard for most people

If you can only do 2-3 sloppy reps how can you expect muscle growth? To build some muscle with muscle ups you should be able to do more and also clean reps and let’s be honest most people can’t do that.

Reason 2: You switch the worked muscles

If you do a muscle up you switch between a pull up and a dip in each rep and this is not optimal to focus on a specific muscle or muscle group. It would be way more effective to do regular dips or pull ups alone and get the most out of each movement without wasting energy for the other one.

Reason 3: Muscles are under stimulated

The muscle up is all about that high explosive pull up to pass the bar. You don’t have to stop the set because you maxed out your regular pull ups or dips but because you can’t pull yourself high enough anymore to do the transition. So in the end you would still be able to do a couple of regular pull ups and way more dips. And these missing reps could make a significant difference in terms of muscle development. 

Why you don’t build muscle with static handstands

man doing a static handstand

The Handstand is another great example for the wrong exercise selection. We love doing the Handstand, but it’s not that good to build muscle. Of course Handstands require some strength – but when it comes to the Free Handstand it’s mostly about coordination, balance and mobility. It’s also a static exercise with a relatively low intensity because your joints are aligned above each other. It’s like going to the gym and instead of overhead presses you just hold the weight with straight arms above your head.

Try these handstand variations to build muscle

  • man doing a handstand push up to build muscle with calisthenics
  • man doing a pike push up to build muscle with calisthenics

If you want to build muscle, don’t just hold a handstand but move. Handstand Push Ups on a wall or Pike Push Ups are the right choice for building big shoulders with Calisthenics. Free Handstand Push Ups on the other hand require a lot of practice and coordination. Even well trained athletes can’t do the same amount of free reps than supported reps on the wall. It’s just not optimal if you have to stop your set because you lose balance and not because you couldn’t do another rep in terms of strength.  

Why you don’t build muscle with fancy push ups

man showing why not to do fancy push ups to build muscle

Fancy push up combos are the last example for a bad exercise selection. Yeah these look cool but won’t build that much muscle. Most of these combos are about explosive strength and combining different elements with each other. This is not optimal because you interrupt the muscle tension in each rep and waste energy by switching into weird positions that have no real purpose at all. Of course it’s ok to try these push up combos as some form of challenge. This can be fun and keeps you motivated, but don’t think they are optimal for building muscle.

Reason 2: You’re doing too much!

  • chart with the right workout volume to build muscle
  • chart with the workout volume
  • chart with workout schedule to build muscle

When it comes to building muscle, more does not always equal better. Simply put: If you’re doing too many sets with too much effort for a muscle or muscle group you will waste your time and mess up your gains. Especially if you put all of that volume in just one training session. To make it better, reduce the total volume done per muscle or muscle group and also split it up into several sessions a week. This results in less junk volume done per  session and also done per week.

When we talk about the overall volume done per week for each muscle or muscle group, we suggest 5-10 sets with moderate effort for beginners and about 10-20 sets with moderate to high effort for advanced athletes. Of course there are also valid training methods and systems that use a high volume training approach, but you have to reduce the effort to be able to do that much volume without risking an overtraining syndrome.

Calisthenics skill training is a great example for that.  Especially when we talk about skills with a strong focus on technique. So a Free Handstand is learned best if you do it often while working with low or moderate effort. So once you are able to hold it on a wall for 30 seconds + and the basic strength is not the limiting factor anymore, you can practice the free standing version nearly every day. This results in a high frequency training but also in a high amount of sets done per week.

Reason 3: You choose the wrong rep range

  • chart with the right muscle growth and reps
  • chart with reps range to build muscle

Maybe you’ve heard that 8-12 reps are optimal to build muscle and the further away you are from this rep range the less effective it gets. Well this is only half the truth because some studies show that some people respond better to higher and some better to lower reps. So yes, it’s not wrong to focus on the 8-12 rep range because the majority of people will build muscle with it. But working in a lower or higher rep range can also work and comes with some additional benefits.

The only thing you should avoid is going too low or too high. If you can do dozens upon dozens of reps the exercise is too easy and if you struggle to do just a few reps and can’t even do them with proper form it’s way too hard.

The difference in rep speed

man doing reps fast and slow to show the difference

Another point to consider is the rep speed, because the amount of reps alone won’t give you the full picture. For example: If you do your reps very slow you end up with way less reps as someone who does them very fast even if both of you worked for the same time. In our experience it’s optimal to vary the rep speed to get the individual benefits from both a faster and a slower execution.

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