Can you gain muscle on a calisthenics program?

Garage Gym Athlete
Can you gain muscle on a calisthenics program?

Hey, Athletes! Can you gain muscle on a calisthenics program? Episode 189 of The Garage Gym Athlete Podcast is up!

Can you gain muscle on a calisthenics program?


  • Jerred talks about gaining muscle doing calisthenics only.
  • He discusses his thoughts or worries with adding run volume and effects on hypertrophy
  • Jerred goes over a study on this and gives the listener takeaways
  • And A LOT MORE!!

Diving Deeper…

If you want to go a little bit deeper on this episode, here are some links for you: 

Reference these studies for this week!

 Garage Gym Athlete Workout of the Week 


Thanks for listening to the podcast, and if you have any questions be sure to add it to the comments below!

To becoming better!

- Jerred

Podcast Transcript


Welcome to the Garage Gym Athlete Podcast, where we talk about fitness, health and anything to help you become the most optimal human beings. Let's dive into it.

What's up ladies and gentlemen? Jared Moon here and welcome to the Garage Gym Athlete Podcast. It's just me today. I'm going to be providing you some updates on my training. We got some good feedback in previous podcasts where I did that. I'm also going to be talking about the... Some of the questions I've been getting around, can you gain muscle while adding in run volume?

If I'm actually worried about doing a calisthenics only program with, or mainly calisthenics only program and losing strength and size, those kinds of things. I'm also going to cover some research, and then ultimately talk about takeaways that you should be thinking about in your training based off some of the research I'm going to go over today.

So first I'll give you an update on my training. I am, If you haven't, if you didn't catch some of the previous episodes, I'll go over this quickly. So ultimately I want to get better, good at, again, the Murph workout. This past Memorial Day, I wasn't really happy with my performance. The running was the worst of it.

Calisthenics weren't so bad because I have been consistently training. So I have been in this injury zone for about a year and a half, two years. With my lower back and that all stems from trying to squat 500 pounds and run a five minute mile. And I finally got back to normal. I'm good now, but I really only, I don't really care about that goal as much right now, because I would rather not lift 500 pounds and be healthy and be able to run and do Murph fast and all those, I'd rather be able to do everything I'm doing right now, as opposed to bring that weight back on the bar.

And so until I feel ready for that, this is my goal right now. I'm just, I'm looking to run faster, build my aerobic base. I want to get amazing at calisthenics again. I want to be able to do a crap ton of pull ups, push ups, squats with no fatigue. And I just want to be able to run really fast, getting to the sub six minute miles again, and all those kinds of things.

And that's what I've been working on. So right now, what my training looks like, I am training seven days per week. Unless I absolutely feel like I need a rest day. If I feel like I need a rest day, either based off of objective data, like the Garmin is telling me, or if I just feel it, but I've only actually had one of those since I started all of this.

I've just felt pretty good because it's only calisthenics and running, which is not too demanding. What my training looks like, those seven days, four days per week, are run days. So I'm basically, uh, in 80% of those, basically three of those days, I am doing just zone two work. I started to add a little bit of, I'd run six miles, then add like a zone four mile at the end.

I just started doing that over this last week. I don't know if I'm gonna continue doing that. I think I still need more base work before I start throwing in any more of the zone four stuff. But that's what I'm doing, running four days per week, hitting about 20 miles, maybe just over 20 miles per week.

We're running and I'm feeling really good doing that, especially with so much of it being zone two, uh, zone two is not very taxing. I feel like I could do a lot more of it, but again, I don't want to add too much volume too fast, get injured. I, to be honest, I don't think I'll even pass 30 miles per week at the peak of everything I'm trying to do.

I think 20 to 25 is, is like the sweet spot. I don't know if I even want to run more than that. So that's where I'm at with the running calisthenics. I covered that, like I am doing it. Two to three days per week with calisthenics. And if you want to know the exact programming I'm doing for calisthenics, just published this past Saturday.

So this episode is being published on a Monday. So two days ago, I did about a 10 minute YouTube video where I break down exactly what I'm doing in my calisthenics program. I'm talking about exactly. What I'm doing, the percentages, how I do sets and move from week to week, all these kinds of things. So if you're interested, like really interested in what I'm doing and you want to know more about the programming, this is the, the shameless plug for the YouTube channel, go to the YouTube channel, we're not going to publish that one on the podcast because it's half the video is me at the whiteboard going over stuff on the whiteboard and talking about programming and it just wouldn't have made sense to publish here.

So definitely go check that out. So that's what I'm, it's, I'm looking at right now. seven days of training, um, running four days per week, a lot of zone two, then a lot of calisthenics training. And some of the questions I have gotten are, am I worried about losing strength and size with running as much as I'm running?

And that's one thing. And then also specifically, if you're only doing calisthenics, Is that problematic for, am I going to lose a lot of muscle mass? Am I going to lose a lot of strength? And that's what I want to focus on today. And before I get into any studies that talk about this stuff, I want to talk about that for first things first is like gaining muscle mass while running.

Now, what I want people to know, no matter what other people do, other influencers, other gurus, whatever. It is very challenging, very challenging, to gain any significant amount of muscle mass while also doing large amounts of cardio. And I would put what I'm even doing, 20 miles per week, that's pushing to me in the bucket of large amounts of cardio.

30 miles per week and above, you're really there. And the reason it's very difficult is because They counteract one, one another. And so I have seen people do it successfully, but most of the time, what I see when I see someone who's really good at running and they're also really jacked or strong, they were strong or jacked first, I'm talking.

A hundred percent of the time, a hundred percent of the time. That's what I see. I see someone saying, yeah, you can do both. It just do both. I do both. You can do both, but they don't, they always miss the, Oh yeah, of course. I've been training strength and hypertrophy for 15 to 20 years. And then I added running.

And I'm, I can do both and I look amazing, but you can do it too. It's just every other influencer on the planet saying, yeah, you can look like me. Just do what I do. Follow my thing. It's BS. It's very hard to gain muscle mass while you're also doing a lot of cardio, unless you already had a lot of mass or strength to begin with, then you can just go into maintenance mode there and add endurance training, and maybe you can gain a little bit more, but it is very challenging.

Okay. And now I'm not saying it's impossible. Absolutely not saying it's impossible, you absolutely can do it. There's a lot of research stating that just conditioning in general is going to help you develop more capillaries and like more blood flow. And we've talked about these things a lot in the podcast, more blood flow in and out of your muscles is what helps them grow and recover, but I'm just letting know, uh, letting other people know that it is, don't go into it thinking it's going to be an easy journey.

And I think once I talk about the science and the training, you're going to realize that there's nothing easy about doing any of this. And so just know that if you're looking to do both at the same time, it is very hard. I don't have any fantasy that this is going to be an easy thing just because I'm doing calisthenics predominantly.

Now, the second question I do get revolves around that. Hey, if you're switching to mainly a calisthenics program, programming and running, aren't you going to get a lot weaker and lose a lot of size? And am I going to get weaker? The answer would be yes. So. If you're not training with a barbell or a heavy load and hitting a one rep max or heavy percentages close to your one rep max, you will lose some of that strength even if you're doing a ton of calisthenics training.

Because strength training and hypertrophy training are two completely different things. And I've even had to explain this to my kids lately. They saw some super jacked guy on the TV and they were like, oh, that must be the strongest guy in the world. And I was like, no, he's got an amazing body, but... Here's what the strongest guy in the world looks like and I pull up like the top power lifter and they're like, Oh, wow, that looks very different and it's very true.

And when you get into the lower weight classes of power lifting, this is absolutely true. The, the, the power lifters who are in the lower body weight classes, they look like very normal average people. In fact, some of them are pretty small, but they can lift weights that will just blow your mind that you couldn't even touch.

And then, but if you were to bring the power or the, the bodybuilder in with the super big jacked muscles to come try and lift what the smaller power lift they're doing, they probably couldn't do it because strength, si strength and size are two completely different things. They go, there is like a, an overlap and the Venn diagram a little bit, but not an overwhelming amount.

They don't go hand in hand. So you can be really strong without the size and you can have a lot of size without a lot of strength. Not no strength, just not a powerlifter strong. And yes, Me following a calisthenics only program, I'm definitely gonna lose some strength if I don't do something about it.

It's not like I have to lose strength. I'm already aware of this. And so one thing that I am adding to my training is very low volume barbell work. I'm talking about three sets of three, maybe get up to five sets of five. on just the big lifts, like the squat, the bench and the deadlift. Or if I don't want to do the bench, I'll do strict press might even flip between them, but ultimately looking to maintain strength without getting too much volume in on under the barbell, because I just don't, that's not even my goal right now, but I just don't want to lose a lot of strength.

So that's what I'm going to be doing to maintain my strength. Absolutely. You will lose strength if you don't touch a barbell, don't touch weights for however long I ended up doing this program. So I just want to answer those questions because I have been asked them. Yes, it's very hard to gain muscle mass while doing a lot of cardio.

You have to find the sweet spot, and you have to train really hard on the strength training side of this to make it work. And I'm going to talk about that, the science behind that in a minute. And then yes, you will, I absolutely will lose strength if I don't do something to combat it. And I'm just going to do that with low load barbell, barbell training.

Just probably one, one day per week. So that kind of answers those questions, but I wanted to get into the science of this a little bit more. Because there's a really cool study, it's from 2012. And the name of the study is Resistance Exercise Load Does Not Determine Training Mediated Hypertrophic Gains in Young Men.

And so they had 18 men that were 21, plus or minus one year, and they had their legs randomly assigned to two of three training conditions that differed in contraction intensity or contraction volume. And so they were either doing three sets... to failure at 80% of their one rep max, or they were doing one set of 80% to failure.

Or lastly, they were doing three sets of 30% of their one rep max trained to failure. And they trained three times per week, and they did this for 10 weeks. And the main thing that they were measuring, I could get into all the Little things, they took biopsies of the vastus lateralis, and they did post exercise biopsy following the first bout of exercise, then they measured signaling proteins.

So they're measuring actual muscle, and then they're looking at muscle protein synthesis. So they're looking to see if the muscle size is growing, and then they're also looking to see if what will make muscles grow, muscle protein synthesis, if that is measured the same or different across these different, uh, modalities.

And it's very interesting what they found. And they were also looking at total, total, total recruitment of muscles, so how much of your muscles are recruited during these, uh, different types of lifting. And what's very interesting is that when you're looking at hypertrophy, what they found was, it was basically the same if you did three sets, At 30% of your 1 rep max, trained to failure is basically the same in hypertrophy muscle growth as 3 sets of 80% trained to failure at your 1 rep max.

And that's wild, right? That's wild. Now, you're going to be doing a lot more repetitions at this 30%. Obviously, like, you're going to be doing a lot more repetitions. But that's more manageable. That's more manageable for most people. And you're going to be able to see the same amount of muscle growth. Now, they also found that if we're looking at just muscle strength, the 80% categories are going to win out.

Because if you want to get stronger, you have to go see. That top end, you have to go practice and play with those top ends. And that's just something that's true of any performance metric. If you want to be faster, yeah, you can do a lot of aerobic base training zone two stuff. But at the end of the day, if you don't go practice being fast, if you want to run a five minute mile, there's gotta be some practice of running five minute miles.

There's gotta be some 400s, 200s, 800s at that pace. So you can learn and develop and recruit the muscles necessary to be able to perform at that level. And it's the same in strength, right? If you want to be really strong athlete, you have to go see that top end. You have to go practice in that top end.

That's how strength training works, but it doesn't work that way. According to this study for muscle growth, it seems like the most important thing for muscle growth is going to be recruiting the most muscle fibers and Taking that to failure and taking your movements to failure or extreme fatigue. And those might be one in the same.

Taking a lift to failure or extreme fatigue is going to recruit more muscles, more muscle fibers, and so that's what's causing them to grow. So really all you need to think about is the fatigue if you're looking to gain strength. And the reason this study is so cool is because this helps me answer the question, Am I worried about losing muscle mass in doing calisthenics training?

And according to this, I'm not. Like, I'm just really not worried about it. Because I know that I just need to train hard. And this is where I say it's difficult to gain muscle mass and run at the same time. I need to train hard. in all of my training sessions. I can't go through the motions. I can't do eight pull ups, five sets of eight pull ups, when in reality I need to be doing five sets of 15 because that's more of what's going to challenge me and take me to that fatigue level.

Like, I have to be pushing it every single set, every single time that I go to the training session. I have to be in the right mindset and ready to take my training to that level. And I'll be honest with you, a lot easier to do with calisthenics training mentally than it is with a barbell. Because if you told me three times per week, I need to train to failure at 80% of my winner at max and all these different lifts, and I had to do that three times per week.

That's actually going to tax me personally more on the mental side than push ups, squats, pull ups, those kind of things, because the coolest thing I think about calisthenics is, and I know this about myself and doing calisthenics, I know this about having trained a lot of people in the military doing calisthenics, is you can always do more calisthenics, right?

You can, you can, I can have you do a max set right now, we can just rest for a minute. And then you can do more. You can always do more calisthenics. Your body's very good at, at using its relative strength. So relative just being lifting your own body weight. And so your body's really good at those things.

And so when we're looking at this 30% threshold, it's actually really easy to get to. If you. Look at whatever your one rep max bench press is and you're like, okay, what's 30% of that now? You can equate that to the push up be like the push up when I'm doing a push up I'm not lifting a hundred percent of my body weight, but let's say I'm lifting 60 or 70 percent of my body weight How close is that to?

Coming to 30% of your one rep max I bet it's pretty close if it's not What do we have to do we have to add a vest and for some people it's probably gonna be More like your body weight is going to be more than 30% of your one at max for some people might not be. So you might have to add a vest, but then that's it.

You're in this perfect zone to gain, gain muscle, but you just have to make sure you're executing the sets properly. You have to make sure that you are doing them to basically failure and you're taking as far as you can. And that's why if you do go end up watching this YouTube video where I talk about my calisthenics training, if you follow the method I talk about in there, everything, again, is individualized and tailored to you because I have you do tests first.

So a minute of push ups, that way I know how many you can do, and then we make sure that all the reps, sets, and everything are geared towards how many you can do and not this arbitrary do 3 sets of 15. I've done a ton of research. Looking at calisthenics programming, and I talked a little bit about this in another podcast, but it's just crazy what you find and how crappy the information is.

So you find one of two things, you either find super generic things that are like, yeah, do three sets of 15 air squats. That's going to be good. And it's like, why, why? Like, why do you think that would be good for me? That, that, that might be good for a random person, but it's not individualized. 15 is basically warmup, right?

Like it's not a big deal. And then you find the other extreme where we're basically getting into gymnastics with people doing all sorts of crazy stuff. Yeah. Like human flags and, and all these crazy things on parallettes. And you might not be interested in the, like, I'm not interested in those things, even though I do find them impressive, it's just not what I'm trying to get good at specifically.

And maybe some of that will develop over time. But what I really find interesting is, Hey, can we cook up a good calisthenics program that's gonna get me really good at calisthenics, build some muscle at the same time, and increase my overall performance in the ways that I want to perform? So, performing in workouts like Murph, performing in workouts like Broken Arrow, performing in workouts 5K.

I'm more interested in those just because intrinsically those are more fun to me. That's what I want to do. And you can very easily do the programming to make sure that you're in that 30% range. And that's what I'm going to be thinking about now. I I'm diving so deep into this stuff. You can actually expect a lot more content.

Probably on the YouTube channel about how I think calisthenics programming should be done to maintain muscle mass, to grow muscle. And I'm going to keep track of all these things. So I'm definitely going to publish more information about this as I find things, because I feel like you can even do calisthenics a little bit differently to target different muscles.

You can make sure that you're getting closer to this 30%, taking things to failure, all that kind of stuff. And I think that's what's, that's what you need to think about in a calisthenics program. And that's what I think this study did. It's just very refreshing to know that you can still gain muscle and do bodyweight only type of stuff.

You just have to be at the appropriate level of intensity. And that's what I wanted. What I talk about for you as the garage gym athlete is one thing I've always said on this show is how you lift matters, like how you do anything matters. And I'm not just talking about the form. If you are doing a barbell back squat, yes.

I want your form to be perfect, every single rep, but to me that always is, it always goes without saying. If I say that I'm going to drive my son to school today, I don't have to throw in the stipulation, Hey, I'm going to drive my son to school and I'm going to follow all the traffic laws and rules on my way to his school.

Like it's assumed, right? Like I'm going to go the speed limit. I'm going to use my blinker. Like I'm not going to cut anybody off. Those things are just assumed. And it's the same when I talk about you doing a back squat. My assumption, if you're someone who has decided to train, when you do a back squat, I'm just assuming that you want to do that back squat perfectly because it doesn't help anybody for you to do that poorly.

You might be able to squeak out five extra pounds by doing it incorrectly, but there's, it doesn't help you at all. And it doesn't impress anybody, so there's no reason to do it poorly. So, let's get that out of the way. Under the assumption that you're doing every repetition to the best of your ability with the best form, now I'm talking about how you do the movement matters.

Okay, and I'm not talking about form. I'm talking about how hard is the movement for you. And that's why at Garage Gym Athlete we try to always assign a percentage to what you're lifting, almost no matter what. That way it gets individualized and we know it's hard for you based off of the percentage that you have selected.

That's why we're so big into percentage based lifting. And a lot of other programs are not a lot of other programs. We'll just tell you to do three sets of eight, go from light, moderate to heavy, and I'm not saying we've never programmed that way, but typically if we do, it's because the first week is we're letting you calibrate, and then the next week we're pushing you to get heavier.

When it's percentage based, we know that it's going to be challenging, and so when you're going through your training on a day to day basis, whether you're following our program or something else, Make sure that you are engaged and you're focused on every single repetition. Because if you have been training for a long time and you're like, I really feel like I should look better or different.

That, there's... One of two things, in my opinion, that could be going on, one is nutrition. That's going to be the first and probably biggest. So the first is going to be nutrition. If you don't have your nutrition, the nutrition side of everything you're doing, like dialed in, or at least avoiding a crappy diet, avoiding excessive alcohol and caloric intake, like on the weekend stuff, you can't outwork that, right?

You can't outwork this crappy diet. I really don't believe that you can. So getting that dialed in. And getting enough protein, like the, those things on the nutrition side are the biggest thing. The second thing that could be going on is that you are just going through the motions. You're not really executing.

And I think this is where a lot of people plateau. And I, to be honest, I struggle with this all the time. Especially if I'm following like hard to kill programming, I might have an old outdated max. I don't want to retest it. And then I go through it and I'm like, that felt easy. And I'm just happy I did the movement for the day.

That's fine. Like you're still getting benefit in exercising, but. We're not getting all the benefit we could have actually making progress if we still want to make progress. So how I'm lifting becomes very important, making sure that my muscles are engaged, making sure that I'm focused, making sure that my muscles are getting fatigued, because sometimes in a performance setting, you're trying to do things to where you won't get fatigued.

If you just wanted to get it fatigued as possible on the back squat, you would go as slow as you could on the way down, you'd pause at the bottom, and you'd go slow on the way up. You wouldn't lock out your knees at the top because it would keep constant pressure on your muscles. And then you just keep moving like that.

And you'd only be able to do three reps instead of 15. And so there's a happy medium between those two things where. On the flip side, you just drop into the bottom as fast as you can. And the back squat, you explode up and you're just kind of like doing these bounce squats, mainly because you're looking for the number of repetitions is more important to you, or the weight on the bar is more important to you.

But you have to really ask what is the most important thing to me, because most people don't only want. An incredible level of strength and performance. They also want to look a certain way. So if you feel like you don't look how you think that you should, and you're doing all the training and your nutrition is decent, then that's going to be something for you to look at.

That's going to be something for you to look at for sure is how you're executing these things. Because I guarantee if I went on a program where I was like, you know what? The science says I only have to do three sets at 30%. Okay, I'm going to see no results because I'm missing the major factor that they put in there that I have to train to failure.

And that should be the biggest indicator here is that even at the 80% they said that the 80% didn't save them. Like if they just did 80% for six reps and called it good, they wouldn't see the same repetitions that the three sets of 30% saw because there's a level of effort. There's a level of intensity that has to be seen for you to see results.

And so that is how you should approach. Your training and that should be your biggest takeaway is make sure that you're going through the movements now for me I am still gonna stay on this track of a lot of calisthenics taking things to failure a lot of running That's my foreseeable future. I will continue to update All of you here on the podcast and on the YouTube channel, definitely go check out the YouTube channel because I am becoming slightly obsessive with all these, this calisthenics stuff and growing, can you still grow muscle?

How do we maintain strength? Where does the kettlebell get involved in all this? And I'm very obsessive at the moment with this, and I want to make sure I'm documenting it. And I'm going to be doing that at the whiteboard on the YouTube channel. So definitely go check out the YouTube channel. Which is at Garage Gym Athlete on YouTube.

You can actually go to youtube. com slash Garage Gym Athlete if you want to check us out. And you will see more of those types of videos popping up. And as always, if you ever have any questions about any of this, like some of the questions I've been getting, um, on Instagram and via email, I'm always happy to answer them and talk them through like I did here.

So if you want to gain muscle, focus on how you exercise. The training intensity, going to failure, fatigue. If you're only worried about strength, you don't have to worry about those things as much. Just make sure you're hitting the sets, reps, and you're playing at the right intensities. But that's it for this one.

I really appreciate all the garage gym athletes out there doing our training, sticking around, hitting it hard. I wish I was on the hard to kill track with some of you right now. It really is my favorite type of training. A lot less boring than just doing running and calisthenics, but just I'll be back eventually.

And I want to share everything that I'm learning in the process as I am learning and doing new things right now. If you are interested in checking out our training, we have multiple different training tracks. We do our best to follow all the best science and research like I'm doing here. Anytime I'm attacking a new program, I'm like first asking, what does the research say?

What does the science say? Can I back this up? Is there a better way to program it? Those are the things that we're always looking at when we're programming. If you want to be a part of a program that's looking at all those kinds of things and actually cares. What the science says and not just an influencer who's saying, Hey, do what I do and you look how I look.

Then definitely check out garage gym athlete. You can sign up for a free trial by going to garagegymathlete. com and you can join us for a free trial, check out the training, see if you like it, don't like it, and we would love to have you. But that's it for this one. Thank you so much for being a podcast listener.

If you have a second, I would love a positive comment and five star review really help the podcast out. We really do appreciate all the ones that we have had so far. And my last reminder, if you don't kill comfort, we'll kill you.

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