As a skinny guy, can I use calisthenics / bodyweight workouts to build muscle?

We get a lot of guys writing in who aren’t eager to hit the gym. That’s understandable. I don’t know a single skinny guy who wants to strut his no-muscles into a weightlifting gym. I sure as hell didn’t.

So many skinny guys would prefer to train using their own bodyweight at home. Besides, they’re more interested in learning how to build a Frank Medrano style physique than a bulky bodybuilder’s anyway. Calisthenics can seem like the best way to accomplish that.

Can us skinny guys / ectomorphs build muscle by doing bodyweight workouts / callisthenics for a Frank Medrano body?

First, some background. In the photo above, Frank Medrano is 5’9, around 160 pounds, and around 5% bodyfat. This about the maximum musculature that a bodybuilder with his frame could hope to achieve at that bodyfat percentage (without using steroids). So Frank Medrano actually has proportionally more muscle than most bodybuilders, he’s just got a really slender bone structure (small wrists, narrow shoulders, narrow waist and such), making him look less bulky.

Under normal conditions he looks a little more human… but still has a pretty exceptional degree of muscularity and leanness.

Can us skinny guys / ectomorphs build muscle by doing bodyweight workouts / callisthenics for a Frank Medrano body?

I know he doesn’t look that big at first glance, so to put his size into perspective, here’s me after gaining fifty pounds (130 to 185ish at 6’2). I still have much less muscle mass (for my size) than Frank Medrano.

Can us skinny guys / ectomorphs build muscle by doing bodyweight workouts / callisthenics for a Frank Medrano body?

I think as skinny guys we’re seeing ourselves in Frank Medrano’s bone structure, and that’s why we’re drawn to naturally slenderly structured physiques like this. Without experience in the muscle-building world though, it’s really tough to gauge how much muscle mass someone has, how difficult it is to get those results, and what the best way to get there is.

The good news. A very lean and quite muscular physique is actually achievable for a lot of ectomorphs. We tend to have slenderer bone structures, and we also tend to be able to get quite lean. Combine some hearty weightlifting and nutrition with some extra curls (or chin-ups) and we’re well on our way.

The not-so-good news. Frank Medrano achieved his physique due to many years of incredibly hard work combined with extremely good (and rare) genetics. (And with elite athletes there’s always the possibility of steroids.) He’s risen to the very top of the callisthenics world because he’s pretty much superhuman.

Trying to imitate his workouts in order to become as lean and muscular as him would be like playing basketball like Shaq with the hopes of growing to 7’1. Just because someone does something, it doesn’t mean that that’s what’s responsible for their results. Like Shaq, basketball and his height. Like Frank, calisthenics and his muscles.

Brad Pitt in Fight Club? Not so difficult for a skinny guy to achieve with some clever weightlifting. Frank Medrano? Prrrretty much impossible to achieve an upper body like that with just bodyweight workouts… unless you have the world’s best muscle-building genetics.

How to get a lean and muscular physique. The best way to build a muscular physique is to follow a training program that maximizes mechanical tension. This is the tension placed on the muscle by the weights that you’re lifting. The heavier the weight (study) and the larger the range of motion (studystudystudy), the more muscle you’ll build. This is the most important factor when it comes to building muscle. The tricky part is that if the tension isn’t intense enough it won’t stimulate any muscle growth (study).

If you’re doing lighter workouts, the adaptations they’ll cause are very different. Instead of growing more muscle fibres, you’ll increase the quantity of mitochondria in your muscles and increase the activity of aerobic enzymes. Instead of developing muscle size and strength you’ll develop better muscular endurance.

Some mechanical tension is involved with callisthenics, however it’s not anywhere near as much as you’d get with a weightlifting program designed to build muscle. Most guys plateau very early with bodyweight / callisthenics programs and then reach a point where they’re unable to get heavier without also getting fatter. (If you’re doing lots of very heavy chin-up variations you’d plateau much later in your back and biceps, since chin-ups are both very heavy and use a large range of motion.)

That’s why it’s relatively common for natural bodybuilders, strength trainees (and football, rugby and basketball players, sprinters and other athletes who lift weights) to get as muscular as Frank Medrano… whereas in the callisthenics world it’s extremely extremely rare for guys to be that muscular unless they also lift weights. (And many of the most muscular callisthenics guys do lift weights to develop their muscle strength and power, coordination, mobility and stability.)

Summary: Callisthenics are sweet, but if you can’t rely on your genetics to deliver the muscle mass that you’re looking for, you’ll want to build your muscle size/strength/power with weights, not with your bodyweight.

If you want the best of both worlds—badass calisthenic abilities combined with big, strong, versatile and functional muscles—then you’ll do best by doing calisthenics and lifting weights, which is what many of the top calisthenics guys do who aren’t naturally exceptionally muscular.

If you’re looking to absolutely maximize on your genetics by getting as enormous and lean as you possibly can, in order to look like Frank Medrano, you’ll likely have better success by following science-minded weightlifting practices. Here’s what naturally skinny and slenderly built Eric Helms—a bodybuilding researcher—was able to accomplish (without any drugs) over the course of a few years:

Eric Helms—calisthenics versus weights for naturally building muscle as a skinny guy / ectomorph

How to build muscle at home. If you don’t want to hit the gym though, that’s totally cool—I get that. I gained my first twenty pounds in the privacy of my own home. I’d say, instead of getting just a chin-up bar and doing just calisthenics, get some heavy adjustable dumbbells (like this), too. With that you’ll have everything you need to build muscle size/strength. If you also get an adjustable weightlifting bench (something like this) you’ll have a fully optimized setup.

Training for muscle growth at home gym isn’t all that complicated or expensive, it’s just best done with weights… not bodyweight 🙂

Category: 3. Exercise & Weightlifting Questions

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