Can Calisthenics be used to gain size?
It's crazy that this question even needs to be answered, but there is a persistent belief held by many in the fitness community, that calisthenics aren't capable of developing a good amount of muscle mass- hoisting some heavy ass iron is the only way to grow. Equally annoying, there are those that concede that someone can build quality size with calisthenics, but only if they practice the gymnastic/circus variety. Both of these positions are false. Here is the deal... You can get properly jacked with just the basics. How do I know? I've talked to people who have done it, I've trained people who have done it, and I've done it myself.
Let me tell you three stories- one about someone I trained with, one about the people I have trained, and the last about my own training...
Back in about 2013, one of the neighbors around SDSC operated a business that hired former convicted felons as part of a program to get them back on their feet and reintegrated into society. I met one of these employees one day after his shift was up. We started talking fitness and hit it off immediately. He didn't have any money, but wanted to train, so I said he could workout with me during my lunch break. So, we started training together. I would always squat, bench, deadlift, press etc. and he would just stick to push ups, pull ups, dips, bodyweight squats and crunches. He would pump out endless reps in our hour and a half workout. Dude was shredded.
After one workout he brought over some shitty liquor to share. We had a few drinks and talked about his training in prison. He went in in his early 20's, weighing 145 lbs. He had been skinny his whole life, and was desperate to put on some size to help him survive in the new environment. He had no access to weights so he trained calisthenics daily, adding reps as often as he could. Upon his release four years later, he weighed 175 lbs. He looked absolutely jacked, and was so lean that he had veins on his abs.
The second story is about my experience training clients. I've worked with a lot of military and law enforcement. Prepping them always involves a ton of calisthenics. Usually for guys and girls going into a special selection process, I might have them limit lifting to a single exercise per day, done for low volume. Training is usually 3-5 days per week with lifting done usually 3 days per week, each day focusing on a different lift. Obviously, this is an extremely low volume lifting program. BUT, I program a TON of basic calisthenics for these folks. They always improve their body composition and muscle mass through this process, and as crazy as it sounds, the development of their physiques appears to outpace that of the pure lifters.
My back after a year of (almost) daily pull ups.
The last anecdote I can offer is taken from my own training experience. Before I lifted, I was into calisthenics. I'm naturally very skinny. During a period of forced inactivity I dropped down to 155 at 6"1'. Getting back into calisthenics, I made steady progress up to 185lbs, while still keeping visible abs, all from just push ups, pull ups, split squats, bodyweight squats and running. I ended up dropping calisthenics while I focused exclusively on lifting for about 4 years, blew up to a chunky but muscular 235. I was fat, poorly conditioned, but decently "barbell strong". I hated it so I cut the fat to 205, did my best lifting at that weight, then quit the iron all together. As of writing this, I haven't lifted in over a year and a half. In that time I have only been doing the basics- push ups, pull ups, squats, running etc. and I have leaned out to 185 while keeping my 15.5" arms. Since I am an avid record keeper, I have records of my measurements before lifting, when I was just training calisthenics, and I have officially returned to my pre-lifting dimensions. I wouldn't say I'm big by any stretch, but calisthenics have definitely given me a good athletic physique.
I don't think it is really possible for most people to get huge off calisthenics, and that isn't because of the limitations of calisthenics but because of genetics. The same is true for weight lifting as well. Most people just don't get really big. They can add some good muscle mass but getting extremely muscular is difficult for the vast majority of people. As a method of training, there is no doubt that calisthenics can be very effective for putting on a good amount muscle mass. In future posts I will talk about some of the methods of using calisthenics to build muscle.