Body-weight workouts might seem like an almost stone-age way of working out when you've got so much fancy equipment available at your gym, but calisthenics, or body-weight training, can be a surprisingly effective method of building muscle mass. Forget just doing the odd set of pushups or body-weight squats though; unless you're a rank beginner you'll need a little more than these to build slabs of sculpted muscle.
Women and Muscle Building
Anyone can build muscle, regardless of age, experience or gender. Women typically have a harder time building muscle than men though, as they have naturally lower testosterone levels, claims Michael Wood, director of the Sports Performance Group in Cambridge, MA. As a newbie female lifter you can gain around 0.75 to 1 pound of muscle per month, which drops to 0.1 to 0.2 pounds per month after a few years of serious training, according to nutritionist and trainer Leigh Peele. While you may not build big, bulky muscles, even with free-weight or machine training, you can build lean muscle mass.
The idea that you can't build and sculpt muscles with calisthenics is one of the biggest myths surrounding body-weight training, writes strength coach Nia Shanks on her website. The key to building muscle is progressive overload -- keeping your workouts challenging to break down and build new muscle fibers. You need to do this by increasing the load you're lifting, adding sets and reps, shortening your rest periods or slowing down your exercise tempo.
Calisthenic exercises lend themselves well to total-body or upper-body, lower-body split routines. As you don't have a huge number of machines, barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells available to you, you'll need to get inventive. Start out with a simple workout consisting of body-weight squats, lunges, planks and pushups. Aim for three sets of eight to 12 reps on each and three maximum holds on the plank. As you progress, include more advanced exercises such as single-leg squats, jump lunges, elevated pushups with your feet on a bench, chinups and hill sprints.
You'll probably struggle to build lots of muscle with a calisthenics-only routine, but you can build a firm, toned, sculpted body using just body-weight exercises. Consider your diet too -- to build muscle you need to eat more calories than you burn, so up your food intake, particularly from protein-based foods such as meat, fish and dairy, along with unrefined carbs from whole grains, fruits and veggies and healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado. If you don't want to give up the gym for good, add one or two calisthenics exercises to each of your sessions rather than switching over to body-weight training completely.
Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.