Getting Big on Body Weight Exercises

Q: Can an Asian male get big by doing only body weight exercises?

-J. Yu

My Answer: You can, but it's very tough.  You're going to have a much easier time getting big off of barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells.  I get this question all the time on my strength blog.

There's a number of reasons for why it's more difficult to get big solely off of calisthenics.  For one thing, most people think of calisthenics as just push-ups, pull-ups, air squats and crunches.  There's a lack of variety in people's minds when it comes to body weight exercises.  In reality, there is a wide variety of calisthenic exercises, but most people don't know more than a handful.

In order to grow bigger, you have to expose your muscles to a variety of exercises.  You can certainly work on just push-ups and abs and get toned triceps and abs, but your overall musculature will not be very big.

The other mistake people make when doing just body weight exercises is that they do super high reps.  If you just did push-ups and sit-ups, then you can do a lot of them.  You may be doing 20-30 reps a set if you're fit.

The problem is that in order for you to grow, your reps should be in the 3-10 range.  This is when knowing a wide variety of body weight exercises is helpful, because you can perform harder exercise variations to put you in the hypertrophy zone of 3-10.  Working in the 3-10 rep range develops the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have far more growth potential than the slow-twitch endurance fibers built from 20+ reps.  Compare the physiques of sprinters (who train their fast-twitch fibers) and marathon runners (who train their slow-twitch fibers).

This is where free weights such as barbells and dumbbells beat calisthenics, because you can use progressive overload.  With barbells and dumbbells, you can choose a weight that puts you in the 3-10 rep range.  With calisthenics, you're stuck with your own body weight.  The only way you can work a muscle harder is do a different exercise.  So instead of doing regular push-ups, you can do feet elevated push-ups.

So if you decide to do just body weight exercises, then make sure you do a diverse set of exercises.  In High Tension Exercises for Muscular Growth I go over a wide variety of exercises (body weight, barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell) that you can choose from to put you in the hypertrophy zone of 3-10 reps.

If you're new to body weight only training, then I would suggest the following exercises for complete physique development.  If you want to gain muscle, then the rule of eating more calories and protein still applies.

CHEST-pushups, dips

BACK-pullups, inverted rows
DELTS-handstand pushups
TRICEPS-diamond pushups
QUADS-Bulgarian squats, lunges
HAMSTRINGS-one legged Romanian deadlifts
CALVES-one legged calf raise
ABS-Hanging leg raises

By the way, a lot of Asian guys ask me, "Can an Asian male get big?"

You got to stop thinking of your Asian heritage as a liability.  It is a defeatist attitude.  Whether or not Asian men have a more difficult time gaining muscle is irrelevant.  If you think of your heritage as a liability, then it tends to permeate all aspects of your life, not just in the gym.

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