Tuesday, June 30, 2015

12 Mistakes in Building Muscle through Calisthenics

I thought I'd do something a little different than the usual exercise video and do a video podcast instead. In this podcast I talk about body weight exercises and how to build muscle from calisthenics:

Here are the show notes:

I’m not sure what it is, but there’s a fascination with body weight only programs.  It’s the number one search topic on my Strength and Physique blog, and I know many personal trainers have their own body weight only programs.

I don’t think it’s the cost factor (calisthenics can be done without equipment), because I’ve seen people do just body weight exercises at the gym.  Which is ridiculous, because why do calisthenics at the gym when you can do them anywhere for free?

Not only is there a lot interest in body weight only programs, but there’s a lot of interest in building muscular bulk through body weight only programs.  Can you build muscle mass on just calisthenics?

Yes.  But the road to muscle mass is long and narrower on a calisthenics program.  Wanting to build muscular bulk on just body weight exercises is like wanting to go to Vegas by bicycling there instead of flying in.  It can be done.  It’s just harder.

Although there are lots of body weight only programs out there, there aren’t very many that focus on building muscle mass.  At least there aren’t any that effectively build muscle mass.  Most body weight programs are just general fitness workouts or fat loss workouts.

There are some good books on body weight training purely for strength.  The two that I recommend are the The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline and Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade.  These 2 books serve as a good intro to strength calisthenics.

Paul Wade also has a book called C-Mass, but it’s not quite as good as Convict Conditioning.  The book does a good job of reviewing muscle building principles, but the actual program is very rudimentary.

Now if you’re looking to build muscle solely through calisthenics, then you’ve got to ask yourself, “Why?”

Why build a house with just a hammer when you should have an entire toolbox?  You can build a decent physique on body weight exercises only, but having a decent physique is not the same as having the ultimate physique. 

If you want the ultimate physique, then you'll need to go to the gym and train with a variety of equipment. But if you're satisfied with a decent physique, then moderately difficult calisthenics will develop some.

Now if you decide to train with just calisthenics to build muscle, then stick to these principles:

1. Do pull-ups, dips and squats
2. Include a balance of movements
3. Go through a full range of motion in your exercises
4. Do high reps for muscular size
5. Alternate between high and low reps
6. Do multiple sets of low reps
7. Focus on single lines of motion
8. Avoid plyometrics
9. Incorporate isometrics.
10. Do unilateral movements
11. Attach weight
12.   Cycle your training

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Lifting with an Injured Back

Q: I want to say thanks for those Strength and Physique updates.  Those are nice little nuggets and tips in my inbox. I just got done with my last physical therapy session for my tweaked back. I fucked up my bulging discs back in March and had to go back in for therapy.

And then once my back was better, there were OTHER issues they discovered: muscle compensations and imbalances affecting my hip/pelvis alignment. 

My back is actually much better now (when I tweaked it doing, of all things, a yoga stretch I had lots of nerve irritation which was scary as it made my legs feel weak) but there are other issues with a rotated pelvis and/or hip misalignment. 

But one question I wanted to ask you was what your thoughts are on lifting for those with injured backs? Obviously, I need to always be mindful of my form and if I'm pushing the boundaries, but my physical therapist discouraged me from doing deadlifts anymore. Even my orthopedist didn't want me doing deads, or squats unless they were body weight squats. 

I don't agree with them, even though I understand they are saying that out of an abundance of caution (this was my second injury in less than a year, but this new tweak wasn't from lifting I don't think, it was from an advanced yoga stretch that irritated my bad discs). I had, though, been doing some light deads, and I mean like 40-60 lbs.  The ortho thought it was way too much because he said it still put too much stress on the spinal column.

The reason I want to try and get back to doing deads is because we've discovered my upper back muscles keep getting trigger spots, my spinal erectors get real tired since I've been desk bound. I've been trying to stand up and work at my desk more often, trying to walk/move every half hour and just get up out of the damn chair. 

But the PT said she felt that doing deads to strengthen up the back muscles would just lead to MORE muscle compensations and upper back tightness....she did give me some light exercises for the thoracic spinal area: 

Prone T exercises
Prone Y flexions
Prone extensions
Face pulls 

She also advised me NOT to do shoulder shrugs anymore as that would just tighten up my neck and shoulders too since I'm at the computer all day. 

Any thoughts or suggestions would be much appreciated if you get a chance to reply. I don't think my lifting days are done, I just think I need to be real careful about what I do and not try and go heavy. 


My Answer: If you want to squat and deadlift, then you should ask yourself "Why?"

Is it for leg development: for size, for looks?  Is it for maintaining strength?  Is it for athletic competition or to develop physical prowess on the job?  Is it for general fitness?

The barbell back squat and deadlift are great exercises, but they are not absolute requirements for fitness.  Barbell squats and deadlifts stress the lower back and compress the spine.  I would rather you do body weight squats, goblet squats, lunges, cable pull-throughs, one legged RDL and front squats.  These exercises work the legs without stressing the lower back.

You say that you want to get back to doing deads because your upper back has trigger points and your spinal erectors get tired.  Does your PT have you do trigger point therapy?  This is where you lie on a lacrosse ball and massage out the trigger points and release the tension in the upper back.

Prone I-Y-T-A extensions and face pulls strengthen the lower trapezius and fix your posture from desk jockeying.  However they don't increase your thoracic mobility.  If you're not doing mobility work, then I would recommend these mobility exercises.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Manipulating Meal Frequency to Maximize Muscle

Bodybuilding dogma states that in order for you to build muscle you have to eat. You want to be big? You got to eat big. You have to eat a lot, and you have to eat often. Bodybuilders typically eat 6 times a day. But is it necessary to eat all the time?

When I was a young buck concerned with getting big and muscular, I was eating all the time. I’d pack 3 mini meals to take to work. My meals were a protein drink, a protein bar and a can of tuna mixed in with mac and cheese. Each meal had about 20-30 grams of protein. Plus I made sure I drank a lot of water. With breakfast before and dinner after work, I'd total 5 meals a day.

I used to eat frequently, but I found that it was far too expensive and time consuming to always be eating. It helps to gain and maintain muscle by eating frequently, but it does interfere with your lifestyle and work. You can’t really do much if you’re carrying around a cooler of food and have to eat every 2-3 hours. You also can’t perform athletically, because a full tummy is making you sluggish.

You can eat 6 meals a days, and you will initially gain some weight. But all that food overburdens your digestive system, and your body becomes less efficient at metabolizing it. Your body gets used to eating all the time, and your gains in muscle size plateau.

Now if you plateau in your weight training workouts, what do you do? You switch things up, or you pull back. It's the same thing with your diet. Dieting should be in phases, just like training. If you reach a plateau in your muscle gains, then you can pull back from 6 meals a day to 2-3 meals a day.

To build muscle, it's not necessary to eat 6 times a day. What is necessary to gain muscle, however, is that you eat a lot of calories and protein. So if you can only fit in 3 meals a day, then just make sure they're 3 large meals. It is about total caloric intake, not about the number of meals.

There are many different meal frequency plans, ranging from one meal a day to 6 meals a day. Here are 3 meal frequency plans that will build lean muscle and minimize fat gain:

Fasting Diets

Fasting diets are all the rage now, but fasting is best for fat loss, not for weight gain. Old-time bodybuilders were known to have fasted from time to time to detoxify their digestive systems from phases of heavy meat eating.

Fasting has a number of health benefits, such as improved insulin sensitivity, greater fat loss, and better protein absorption. You don’t even have to fast for very long. In fact you can improve your insulin sensitivity and your protein absorption efficiency after just a few hours of fasting, up to 30-50% greater efficiency.

If you fast for too long, however, then you'll lose a lot of muscle mass. Muscle is the engine that burns fuel (fat), and you want to maintain that larger engine to burn more fat. If you fast for too long, then your body breaks down muscle (a process known as catabolism) and you end up with a slower metabolism because your "engine" is now smaller.

There are a number of different fasting diets, the most famous being the Warrior Diet. This is where you fast throughout the day and eat one large meal for dinner. Most people will find the Warrior Diet too hard to follow. Plus you end up losing quite a bit of muscle mass on this diet.

A better way to fasting for those looking to build and maintain lean muscle is a little known diet called “Animalbolics.” In this diet you eat 2 meals a day: a large breakfast or brunch and a large dinner. The A.M. meal is low carb, high protein and fat. The P.M. meal is high carb, protein and fat.

The Animalbolics Diet is much easier to follow than the Warrior Diet and is much better at building lean muscle. If you’re not a breakfast person or if you don’t get hungry often, then this diet is for you. Some people don’t eat breakfast, since they have sensitive stomachs in the morning, or they just want to go to work and not wake up early to cook breakfast.

With the Animalbolics Diet, it’s not imperative that you eat breakfast right away. You can extend your night time fasting further by skipping breakfast and eating brunch or lunch. You can drink coffee in the morning. This will help you get through the morning on an empty stomach.

Here’s a sample meal plan for the day:

Wake-up: Coffee with cream, no sugar

Brunch: Mexican omelet with a side of sausage or bacon. Mexican omelets are a good choice, because they have guacamole, sour cream and salsa. This way you get some healthy fats, extra protein and extra calories.

Dinner: Steak, salad and baked potato with butter

The King, Prince, Pauper Diet

With the King, Prince, Pauper Diet, you eat three square meals a day. What differentiates this diet from other diets is the distribution of calories throughout the day. You eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. In other words, you eat a large breakfast, a medium sized lunch and a small dinner. If you don’t have much of an appetite at the end of the day, then this diet is for you.

The reason this inverted pyramid distribution of calories works is that a large breakfast satiates you, and your appetite is lower throughout the day. You end up eating less and less as the day goes by, and you don’t get fat. Here’s a sample meal plan:

Breakfast: Mexican omelet with sausages or bacon, buttered toast and coffee.

Lunch: Roast chicken with rice and vegetables

Dinner: Soup and salad

The Zigzag Diet (aka 5/2 Plan)

Olympic weightlifting legend Tommy Kono was renowned for his ability to move up and down weight classes. Kono was the only Olympic weightlifter to have set world records in 4 different weight divisions: lightweight, middleweight, light-heavyweight and middle-heavyweight. To move up in weight, Kono would eat 6-7 meals a day. To lose weight, Kono would go back to eating 3 meals a day.

You can employ Kono’s method of weight gain by eating more frequently. If you eat 5-6 meals every day, however, you'll make some good gains in weight at first, but your body will get used to eating that much food. Your muscle gains will slow down. You will have to eat more protein to jumpstart growth, which eventually becomes a vicious cycle, because now you're eating more and more protein just to maintain size.

To avoid this dietary plateau, you can fluctuate your meal frequency by dieting in short cycles: five days of 5-6 meals and two days of 2-3 meals. This is known as the Zigzag Diet or 5/2 Plan.

With the Zigzag Diet you eat 5-6 meals Monday to Friday, but then drop to 2 meals a day on the weekends. Your body will welcome the break from all of that eating. In fact it will go into panic mode and start utilizing the protein and carbs much better once you go back to high frequency eating during the week days.

The Zigzag Diet is great diet if you are looking to bulk up and get big.

Choose the Diet Plan Best for You

Bottom line is everybody is different. Some people have the time and discipline to eat every 3 hours, while others just don’t have the stomach for all that food. Experiment with different meal frequencies and see what works for your lifestyle.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Pre-Contest Training

Abdome trincado com as dicas de Arnold

Hey James,

Hope you're well.  Really enjoying the specialization programs from your books.  They're really working out for me. I like the training style.  The routines are very different from anything I've done before, so a big thumbs up as I'm seeing good results.  My muscles look and feel full, which is exactly what I want! :]

I was just wondering if the mesocycles and the specialization routines would work well for a physique competitor?  Would they be good for pre-contest prep workouts?

Many Thanks.
Have A Great Day!


My Answer: Yes the specialization routines would work fine as pre-contest prep workouts.  Be sure, however, not to train your legs right up to your contest.  You should stop training the legs a week before the event.

Good luck!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Bench Press on the Strength Training for Fat Loss Program

Q: I am interested in doing your Modern Strength Training/Fat Loss program:
  1. One arm kettle bell swing
  2. Front barbell squat
  3. Barbell hack squat
  4. Pull ups
  5. Push ups
  6. Preacher curl
  7. Bench dips
  8. Side lateral raise
  9. Calf press leg press machine

If I add the bench press on that program or switch it with one of the work out, would it ruin the whole program?  I've been bench pressing for the start and warm up as always. I was also advised to do bench press only once a week as well. Another question I have is, am I allowed to do cardio exercise on the same day or should I do it on separate day?


My Answer: You should do cardio on a separate day.  As far as adding the bench press, that would lengthen an already very long workout.  If you really want to do the bench press, then do them instead of the push-ups:

  1. One arm kettle bell swing
  2. Front barbell squat
  3. Barbell hack squat
  4. Pull ups
  5. Bench press
  6. Preacher curl
  7. Bench dips
  8. Side lateral raise
  9. Calf press leg press machine

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Body Weight Supersets

Q: Hi I'm 14, and I like to workout with just body weight.  It seems like I'm stuck.  I don't know what to do. I'm going for strength training and weight loss, but I'm such an amateur.  I don't have a diet or food plan, I started using this app that counts calories and that's it. Please give me some feedback, I don't know what to do.

This is my routine. If you have any suggestions, I'd be very grateful. These workouts usually make me feeling sore, you could say they are hard to finish.  I feel like my abs aren't really getting hit all around and as hard. I'm 5'7, 180 lbs, age 14, 18-25 body fat.

Note: I usually have to wait more than 2 days to recover


  • Wide Push-ups 3x8
  • Perfect Push-up 3x8
  • 1.5 Push-up 2x10 - 30 seconds rest
  • Resistance Curls 3x12 (each arm) 
  • Wide Dips 4x12
  • Cross Crunches 4x12
  • Sprinter Abs 3x15
  • Reverse Crunch 3x12
  • Mountain Climbers 30 seconds x 2
  • Leg Raises 3x8
  • Pistol Squat 3x8 (each leg)
  • Plank 60 seconds


  • Push-ups 4x20 
  • Wide Dips 4x8
  • Backpack Curls 3x8 (each arm)
  • Heel Touches 4x20
  • Opposite Toe Touches 4x12
  • Leg Raises 4x8
  • Plank 45 seconds
  • Prison Squats 5x15 (weighted)


  • Cross Crunches 4x12
  • Toe Touches 3x12
  • Leg Raises 4x6
  • Heel Touches 4x20
  • Flutter Kicks 2x30
  • Mountain Climbers 30s x3
  • 1.5 Pushups 4x5
  • Wide Grip Pushup 4x8
  • Wide Dips 4x10
  • Resistance Curls 3x8 (each arm)
  • Close Stance Squat 3x10
  • Wide Stance Squat 3x10

- Mac T.

My Answer: You have a lot of ab exercises in these workouts, and these ab exercises are not very good ones.  I would get rid of these exercises and do gecko planks instead.

You also have no back exercises.  I suggest you add in some inverted rows.  Since you're trying to lose fat, then do your exercises as supersets:

Superset #1:

  1. Pistol Squat- 8 reps (each leg)
  2. Inverted rows- 8 reps
  3. Rest 90 seconds between supersets.  Perform superset 4 times.

Superset #2:

  1. Prison Squats- 15 reps (weighted)
  2. Dips- 12 reps
  3. Rest 90 seconds between supersets.  Perform superset 4 times.

Superset #3:

  1. Backpack Curls- 8 reps (each arm)
  2. Close Stance Squat- 10 reps
  3. Rest 90 seconds between supersets.  Perform superset 4 times.

Superset #4:
  1. Push-ups- 20 reps
  2. Wide Stance Squat- 10 reps
  3. Rest 90 seconds between supersets.  Perform superset 4 times.

Gecko Plank 60 seconds, 3 sets

Follow the above workout 3 days a week, every other day, for 3 weeks.  The only liquids you should be drinking are water, tea and unsweetened coffee.