There isn’t a doubt in my mind that you can build a substantial amount of muscle and strength through body weight training. In fact, I train with body weight exercise because there are some massive advantages body weight training has over weight training when it comes to building muscle.
Still, some times the muscle just won’t build and it can be frustrating so I created this little trouble shooting guide to help you if you’re struggling.
#1 You’re focusing too much on reps
Body weight training tends to lend itself to building up endless reps. People are proud of being able to do 100 push ups, 1,000 crunches and so on. This approach to endless reps is not the way to build a lot of muscle and strength. Body weight training isn’t any different than any other form of strength training. It needs to make your muscles work hard, really hard, for them to even think about growing. This means doing exercise that are so difficult that they are a struggle to do more than 10-15 reps and anything over 20 reps is almost impossible. I’ve never been big on being able to do 100 push ups. I can do 100 push ups……if I did them the easy way, but easy doesn’t build jack squat!
#2 You’re not focusing enough on your technique
Technique isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. The entire potential to build muscle with a specific exercise is how well you can perform that technique.
The very worst thing you can do is to consider the push up or the pull up and think to yourself “yea I know how to do that.” The instant you believe you fully understand any body weight exercise is the second you stop looking to advance your technique. There is always more to learn about the basics. I’ve been dedicated to pull ups for over 6 years and I’m still learning how to do them better every single week. Those who look to advance their technique build muscle. Those who keep doing their exercises the same way week after week don’t.
#3 You’re not keeping a log.
Hard work doesn’t build muscle, progression does. If you’re not tracking and ensuring you’re progressing your workouts you simply won’t build muscle. It’s not about a specific set or rep routine nor is it about a fancy program. It’s about working out better and better for long periods of time.
The very best way to ensure you’re making progress is to keep a workout log. I made the super massive mistake of not keeping some sort of a log for many years and, not surprisingly, I hardly built any muscle. When you keep a log you have a muscle building GPS that tells you exactly what you need to do to build muscle. If you’re not keeping a log you’re just guessing and hoping to build muscle by pure chance and luck.
Don’t risk you muscles to chance. Get a cheap notebook or just take notes on your phone. Write down what you do and make a few notes on how you can improve your technique next time. I promise it will make a huge difference.
#4 You’re mind to muscle connection is poor.
Your technique and progression is all about creating tension and the only thing that can create that tension is your own brain. It doesn’t come from a weight, a tool, or even an exercise. It’s all between your ears.
Using your muscles, and infusing them with tension, is a skill. I would even go so far as to say that the whole point of training, and developing your technique, is to become more proficient at using your own muscles. You use your muscles like a musician uses the keys on a piano. Most folks just jump into the exercise and bust out reps which is kind of like sitting at a piano and just banging around on the keys. At best it’s the same tired rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb over and over.
Meanwhile the calisthenics technician is doing his push ups trying to get 5% more muscle activation in their triceps at the bottom of each rep. Their entire focus is on firing up their target muscles and tensing them with as much power as possible. It’s a focus only a few people even know exists, let alone how to do it, but for those who understand it their entire workout is on a whole different level and so are their results.
#5 You’re not trying to do anything
Yoda had it wrong with his “do or do not, there is no try.” There most certainly is a try and if you don’t have it you won’t build any muscle.
The entire reason why you body changes in any way due to any sort of training is when your mind makes a demand which your body can’t quite fulfill. So if you’re trying to go all the way down with your pull ups, but your body can’t quite make that happen then there’s a conflict and your body will change to resolve it. It has to. Unless of course your mind isn’t sending that signal and it’s settling for “okay that’s good enough.”
This is why that log is so important. You need to know, without a doubt what you’re trying to do with every workout, every exercise, every set and even every rep. If you’re trying your training and if you’re training you’re demanding your body to build more muscle and so it shall.
#6 You’re ignoring the center line rule
Progressive calisthenics makes a lot of use of pulling your limbs closer to the center of your body. When you do this, you place more tension in your muscles and much less stress in your joints. This not only goes for your hands and feet up also your knees and elbows. The tighter and more compact your limbs become with your basic exercises the more your muscles work. Unfortunately, a lot of folks use more of a weight lifting technique with many body weight exercises. Their arms flare out to the side as do their legs. This sort of training is done exactly because it’s a lot easier to do which means you can lift more weight. There’s good reason why you won’t see any power lifters using a close grip during a bench press competition. The down side to the wider grip is that it places more stress on your joints.
So suck it in! The closer everything comes to your center line, the harder it will be on your muscles and the easier it will be on your joints. You’ll create more muscle building tension and save your joints as well which is super important. Nothing prevents muscle growth like painful joints.
#7 You’re recovery sucks
You don’t build muscle when you workout. You build it by recovering from your workout. Diet is important, but even more important is sleep. Make sure you get as much as you can. If possible, try to get enough so you don’t always wake up to an alarm clock. I’m dead serious about this sleep thing. I’ve had many times in my life when my own muscle and strength gains have been made or broken just because of my sleep patterns.
As regard to food, stick to the basics. First, eat real food. There isn’t a pill or powder on the market that actually causes muscle growth. Only your own workout can do that. Food cannot build muscle so don’t try to eat your way to size. Far too many people over eat and gain weight, but they are delusional in the fact that they are just getting fatter. You can pack on 10 pounds of fat in a month, but 10 pounds of muscle is almost impossible unless you’re on drugs. I always look at things like protein powders and other supplements as second rate substitutions for real food. Given the choice, I’ll take a bacon and turkey sandwich, loaded with veggies over the highest quality protein shake any day. It tastes better, satisfies hunger better, and helps you recover better. You can’t ask for much more.
So eat well and get plenty of sleep. Oh yea, have some fun while you’re at it. Mental and emotional stress also slows down recovery. Training and life is supposed to be fun so make it so 🙂
#8 You lack consistency in your training
Lack of consistent training is the #1 reason many people don’t build the body they want. They train here and there on an irregular schedule or they will workout for a few months and then stop for whatever reason. If they do train regularly, their routine is always here and there. Every workout is a random grab bag between whatever they feel like doing and what they have time for.
Things like muscle confusion and keeping the muscle “guessing” are really popular right now but they are a complete myth. Your muscles are very simple, they will do whatever your mind tells them to do. It’s training your brain that’s the hard part. Hence the reason why many people have poor mind muscle control.
Actually scratch that. Your mind is very easy to train, but it takes repetition to do so. This is why you had to go over things like the lines for a play or your math tables many times in school. Each repetition reinforced the same mental actions until they became second nature. Then, and only then, could you move up to more advanced things.
Building muscle takes a lot of repetition, especially when it comes to improving your technique. It requires that you do many reps, every week for not just months, but years on end. This is one of the big muscle building advantages of calisthenics. Body weight training requires a fraction of the resources so you can still keep your workouts consistent no matter what curve balls life throws at you. This is why I always tell folks “you need to ensure you can maintain a consistent muscle building routine for at least 3-5 years without many, if any interruptions. High maintenance methods like driving out to a gym and doing a 3 hour routine are hard to maintain for more than a few months, but a simple push up and pull up routine is not nearly as challenging.
So set up a routine, get on it and stay on it!
#9 Your mind is stuck.
I often get emails asking me “Hey Matt, I can only do 5 pull ups, what do I do?”
The answer is simple; now you do 6. I know it seems like a dick answer but its the best one I’ve got. The sad part is I’m often met with “but I can’t do 6, I just told you I can only do 5.”
No, you only think you can only do 5. Your body has a massive amount of potential and strength stored in it. Ordinary people have been known to lift an entire car or jump over 6 foot fences. Police officers suit up with extra armor whenever they are confronting a drug addict high on angel dust because they know it’s going to be like fighting super man. In all of these cases, the person’s body isn’t particularly trained for that strength, but mentally they are on a whole different level.
Again, the body does whatever you mind tells it to do. Also again, the mind grows into a habit through repetition. The more you stop and tell yourself you can only do 5 pull ups the more you convince yourself that you’ll never get 6. With each set your mind thinks 1…….2…… I’m feeling strong….3……..4…..okay time to start feeling tired…….and 5…… okay I’m at my limit so I’m done.
This is why Paul Wade talks about banking strength in Convict Conditioning. It forces you to save just a bit for the next workout. This way your mind doesn’t get in the habit of always stopping at a limiting performance. Instead it gets in the habit is thinking “I can do more next time” and so you do.
#10 You’re own body is holding you back.
80% of the game is half mental said Yogi Berra, but your potential to build muscle does depend upon the genetic and physical cards you bring to the table.
First off, age is a big factor. Most folks hit their muscle building stride in their late teens to early 20s. Personally, I didn’t start building any decent muscle until I was almost 25. So if you’re still struggling to grow a full beard your body still hasn’t gotten your entire muscle building systems fully set up. If you’re in your teens, or early 20s you can, and will build muscle, but your muscle building prime is just around the bend. Take this time to dial in your habits and technique and you’ll be in prime muscle building position once you’re ready.
Second, your potential to build muscle always depends upon how much muscle you have to begin with. Just as a bigger balloon will inflate more than a smaller balloon, someone with more muscle mass will grow more than someone who’s simply smaller. Most of the folks who end up being really big started off being pretty big. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it if you’re starting off pretty skinny. No one fully knows how much muscle someone can potentially grow, so give it everything you’ve got. Just understand that it will take you more time and effort.
#11 You always workout on your own.
Body weight training tends to be a solitary pursuit. Because of this, it’s up to you to push yourself and critique your own technique. More often than not, this results in the limiting habits and poor technique that I mentioned before.
This is also why you need to keep a log. A log is sort of like a personal trainer, it lays out in black and white what you need to do and wont let you get away with doing just what you feel like doing. It’s also a good idea to video yourself doing your exercises. I know it might feel like your elbows are in tight to your sides, or that you’re going all the way down with your pull ups, but a video might show you something else entirely.
And lastly, see if you can find a workout buddy. A good workout partner is hard to find, but if you can find one your workouts will improve greatly and so will your results.
#12 You’ve subconsciously programmed yourself to be small and weak
Say you’re working out and a big body builder walks into the gym looking massive and ripped. What’s your reaction? Do you think to yourself “wow he looks incredible!” Or do you pick him apart behind his back? “I bet he’s on juice” or “His calves look skinny” or even “looks like a big dumb knuckle dragging gorilla.”
One of the most powerful ways you can train your brain is to comment on other people. If you make negative comments about someone you’re programming your subconscious to prevent you from getting those results. However if you make positive comments you do the opposite. You program your mind to seek out and embrace those results.
Sometimes we may feel insecure around someone who has something we really want, be it money, muscle, or a cool partner. In order to feel better we try to convince ourselves that what they have isn’t all that great or may even be a bad thing. What we don’t realize is we are actually pushing away the very thing we want! If you criticize the lean you’ll stay fat. If you criticize the rich you’ll stay broke. If you criticize the strong you’ll stay weak and puny.
There may be more reasons to put on muscle, but these are the biggest ones. If you have any questions about anything specific just jot it down below!