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  • Lawrence Trousdale-Smith

Building muscle with calisthenics

I'm going to cover some of the nuances of building muscle with calisthenics, which, when you separate the drama from the data, really aren't that different from weight training


I would like to offer you the insight of thinking of resistance training only as resistance, not weights or body weight


Does the body know the difference between the two? Or does it simply know that it is applying force and a muscle is contracting?


It can be more efficient to think of exercises as either of the following


1. Closed kinetic chain (CKC) , hands stay glued and the body moves - such as a pull up


2. Open Kinetic chain (OKC) the body stays glued and the hands move - a lat pull down)


When we look at the body mechanics of how these two exercises compare, we can start to see where its easy to slip up in closed kinetic chain exercises when looking to build muscle


Firstly, when my hands are glued and I have to move my whole body, I generally have more to think about, which leads strongly into the main point of this piece.


"What am I trying to achieve with this exercise?"


When it comes to CKC exercises, goals are often chopped and changed between one of two things


1. Thinking of the exercise itself as a measure of performance


2. The goal of building muscle with that exercise


For example


"I want to get to 20 pull ups" is a different goal from "I want to build a bigger back and biceps, i'm going to use pull ups to do that"


The reason being, and its important to make the distinction here, that in the first statement, the exercise reps themselves are the measure of performance, in the second, muscle size is the measure, pull ups are just the means to get there.


Think of it as power lifting compared to bodybuilding. The power lifters goal in the bench press is to lift the most amount of weight. For his sport, he is not overly concerned with how his pecs look


The bodybuilders goal may be to build the biggest, most defined pecs possible, the bench press just happens to be one tool of many for doing that


When it comes to competition time, the power lifter wins by lifting the most weight. The bodybuilder wins by having the best physique, his bench press numbers are not given to the judges. It is one of the only sports where you don't win by doing the same thing you do leading up to competition. You train by using resistance to build a physique, but you win by posing.


If their outcome goals are different, why should their processes be the same? They are both using the bench press, and to the untrained eye it may look the identical, but they are using it for a different effect.


One of the bodybuilders biggest goals here, is to feel the chest working, and send the pump into that muscle. If he only focuses on weight lifted and reps completed, he may not feel the muscle working, and be shifting into the mindset of power lifting, which for his goals, aren't most helpful to him.


If the power lifter focus' on getting his chest pumped, instead of using his body as one machine to lift the most weight, he is not training in a way that helps him towards his goals of lifting the most weight possible.


Lets take what we now know, and apply it to calisthenics.


If someone had a goal to do more pull ups, say 20, they are being exercise specific in their goal, like the power lifter. The pull up performed in the most efficient way for max rep goals (still strict, non kipping) wont be felt much in the back and biceps, because its not helpful to feel pumped when looking to do the most reps.


If someone has a goal to build a bigger back and biceps with pullups, the form of the pullup will change to feel it most in those muscles. The tempo will slow down, and most likely the total reps will be cut roughly in half.


Building muscle with calisthenics (remember, its just mainly CKC exercises, nothing magically different than weights) isn't complicated, its just that often our goals and speech are interchanged, which leads to a poor process and unsatisfying results if this isn't realised


Of course, the power lifter will build muscle when bench pressing, and the body builder will get stronger, but its a disservice to think of them as the same goal.


That all being said, lets go over some basic goals, that apply to both CKC and OKC exercises when it comes to building muscle. Highlighting the fact that these apply to CKC, we're here for calisthenics after all.


Excuse me for being a generalist here, but I want to leave you with a sense of what to do next and what works.


1. Mind muscle connection- you should be able to tense the working muscle on demand, and throughout the exercise


2. Slow and controlled negative portion of the rep. Remembering we're going for building muscle, not max reps


3. Training in the 8-15 rep range (the generalist part. But for the sake of this piece, which is focused on the idea of not going for max reps, I want to highlight the fact that the exercise variation needs to be hard enough to fail in this rep range)


As ever, be clear on your goals, and even clearer on your process towards them


Lawrence




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