Overcome These 6 Calisthenics Misconceptions To Build Muscle And Strength

bodyweight training calisthenics matt schifferle Mar 04, 2024

-written by Coach Matt Schifferle

Since I can remember, I’ve always imagined making bodyweight training the core focus of my strength and conditioning. I even used to daydream about being able to stay in shape without needing a gym or fancy equipment.

Like many kids with a dream, I shared my vision with friends and mentors in the hope they could help make it a reality. And like much wide-eyed youth, I was told to be realistic and keep my head out of the clouds.

Coaches told me it was impossible to build real muscle and strength without weights. Friends made fun of me for doing push-ups when we went camping. Eventually, their beliefs became mine, and I became one of “them” while giving up on my dreams.

Thankfully, I eventually stumbled across the writings of Paul Wade and the Kavadlo brothers. Those coaches encouraged me to pursue my passion and make my vision of bodyweight-based strength training come true.

I don’t blame my mentors for discouraging me. I used to hold those beliefs myself. It’s an understandable perspective, but it’s also incorrect. It comes from some key misunderstandings about bodyweight training, which I want to address.

#1 Bodyweight training is still weight lifting

Calisthenics may not use weights in the traditional sense, but it still is a physical discipline that conditions the body by lifting a unit of mass against the pull of gravity.

Unlike bands, isometrics, or springs, you’re still generating resistance by moving a unit of mass against the Earth’s gravity.

The only difference is that you are the weight you lift rather than moving an external object.

#2 You still progress by adding weight

I was always told calisthenics wasn’t effective because you can’t add weight like with free weights or machines. Using progressive resistance is essential in any strength training program. So if you don’t lift more weight, how can it be effective beyond a basic level?

This claim may seem true at first glance, but it’s completely false. It’s often easier to add weight with progressive calisthenics than external weights! Some folks will point to a potential change in body weight as a means to change resistance. While changing your weight can work, it’s not a reliable or practical way to achieve progressive training. Others use a weight vest to add weight or use bands to reduce their body weight. Both options can work, but there’s yet a third way to add weight to the muscles you want to work.

What I’m referring to is a quick and easy way to change the weight you’re lifting with nothing more than your static body weight. Maybe “changing weight” isn’t the right term to use. Instead, you’re adding weight by shifting it from one area of your body to the next. There are three primary ways we’ll be exploring how you can add weight with progressive calisthenics.

The first is to shift your body weight between your upper and lower body. A common example of this is the traditional incline push-up progression. Push-ups on an inclined surface, like a kitchen countertop, place most of your weight on your feet, so there’s relatively little weight on your hands.

Placing your hands on lower support, like a step stool, further transfers weight from your feet to your hands. So, you’re adding weight to your hands, producing more resistance, just like lifting a heavier weight. Changing the angle of your body to gravity can shift weight between your upper and lower body.

The second way to add weight is to shift weight from one side of your body to the other. This strategy is more common with unilateral exercises where one arm or leg does more work than the other. Shifting your weight from one side or the other places more resistance on one arm or leg.

The final way to add weight is to extend the limbs of the body to add weight away from your center of support. This technique uses leverage, just like holding onto the very end of a baseball bat makes it more difficult to lift the end instead of choking up on the handle. Extending the limbs can use leverage to increase the resistance on stabilizing muscles, like the abs, shoulders, hips, and back.

All three progressive strategies make it possible to add or subtract the weight from your working muscles by shifting your body position. You don’t need to adjust any plates on a bar or change a weight machine. A subtle shift is all that’s necessary.

#3 Progress doesn’t happen in steps

Many progressive calisthenics strategies outline progression in a series of steps from easy to most challenging. Using steps makes it easy to show the progression on paper, but this is not always the most practical way to progress in practical application.

As the saying goes, many paths lead to the top of the mountain. Not only are there many ways to progress in calisthenics, but everyone has unique skills, strengths, and challenges along their journey. What you need to do to achieve a single-leg squat may be very different from what someone else needs to do. Following a cookie-cutter program can push you into workouts that aren’t right for you while also neglecting several key variables holding you back.

That’s why I’ve outlined the progressions in this book in phases rather than steps. Each phase has a general starting point with an introductory exercise and an end goal that you’re working to achieve. This phase-style approach gives you the structure you need to progress, but it also affords you a lot of flexibility to dial your technique to the perfect level.

#4 Calisthenics workout routines should be different from weight lifting routines

I’ve known several people who take up calisthenic training, and it’s almost as if they find themselves in an alternative universe. Programming methods that would have been silly and foolish in the gym can become accepted and even cool regarding calisthenics.

Doing 100-reps with an empty bar on the bench press might seem silly in the gym, yet that 100-rep goal seems badass when it comes to push-ups. The same folks who laughed at people doing lightweight dumbbell circuits brag on social media about how they completed a bodyweight met-con in record time.

Fundamentally, nothing changes when you swap out the bench press for push-ups. Everything about programming and workout structure should be the same; rep-for-rep and set-for-set. While using a different strength training method, you should still use your muscles the same way. If you were doing five sets of 5 reps under a barbell but then strived to do 200 push-ups daily, don’t be surprised when your results are different. It’s not because you swapped weights for calisthenics, but instead, the fact that you made massive changes to your programming.

#5 Calisthenics training is all about doing…

When I started calisthenics, people in the gym would assume that I was doing a lot of jumping jacks, crunches, burpees, and other high-repetition exercises. These days, when I tell people I do calisthenics, they think I’m doing backflips and acrobatics on a bar in a park.

Both of these approaches to calisthenics training are legitimate, and it’s understandable why people would jump to that conclusion, seeing as that’s what they see people doing in the media at the time. Calisthenics can include a wide variety of training styles. I much prefer to focus on approaches based on building muscle and strength.

But like any method, calisthenics training encompasses various exercises and applications. Just like the genre of rock ‘n’ roll can encompass everything from Buddy Holly to Marilyn Manson, Calisthenics includes a wide range of attributes. It’s too diverse a discipline to fit into any conceptual box.

I’ve always used bodyweight training in a Grind Style Approach. I use techniques and programming to work the body in a very similar fashion to bodybuilding and powerlifting. The techniques require little skill to create the most direct stimulus for building muscle and strength.

The techniques and methods in this book fit my Grind Style Approach and are far from a comprehensive approach to bodyweight training. There are plenty of other ways to use calisthenics beyond what you find on these pages, and I encourage you to pursue other styles if you like.

#6 Calisthenics isn’t better or safer because it’s “more natural.”

This belief promotes the idea that bodyweight training is somehow more “paleo” or primal and is, therefore, superior to less natural methods. This belief often includes the idea that it’s more functional and safer.

But let’s make one simple fact very clear; the very practice of working out or exercising is not natural. Engaging in a repetitive movement to stress the body is a relatively modern concept. The fundamental idea of proactively conditioning the body with physical movement is modern and even could be considered artificial. Calisthenics training may be one of the oldest methods of engaging in such physical conditioning, but it is no more natural than drinking bottled water.

As they say, the only zen you’ll find at the top of the mountain is the zen you bring up there. Conversely, whatever functional qualities, safety, or effectiveness you’re looking for depends on what you bring to your training.

I mention these five misunderstandings to hopefully break down any artificial barriers that may prevent you from gaining the most benefit from your training. On the one hand, bodyweight training is nothing special, unique, or even more effective than any other method. The good news is that it’s also no less effective when you know how to use it properly and include it in your workouts as you see fit.

I will be discussing what to do for you and your needs later on, but let’s jump in and explore some key principles you want to keep in mind to ensure your success.

This is an excerpt from Coach Matt Schifferle's Progressive & Weighted Calisthenics, included in the Ultimate Bodyweight Bundle!

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