Q: “You’ve got a nice [YouTube] channel here. As I love doing pull ups, I decided to write a message to you. I’m wondering if it’s possible to build a decent upper body without working out at the gym? I’ve seen something called ‘Calisthenics’ training which is based only on the weight of your own body. Those guys who use mostly bars in parks are really built.
“So what do you think? Is it possible to build a decent muscled body and make the whole upper body strong with only pull ups and some push ups?
“I’ve been doing pull ups for about 18 months so far. In the begining I couldn’t do a single pull up. Now it’s about 17 reps, but I use additional burden (2 dumbbells, 5 kgs each) so that is 10 extra kgs total. I do 5 series (10, 7, 6, 6, 5) as the ‘Recon pull up program’ says 3 times a week. In another 2 days I train biceps, triceps and few other parts of my body with push ups, chest expander, etc.
“People say it’s not possible to go too far without working out at the gym on all those different devices. Well unlike them I think differently. In my opinion all I need to look decent in the future is just keep doing my work. Because it is all about working on your body for a long time. Effects will come with time, won’t they?
“One more thing: I heard the age of 35/36 is the moment when the body starts getting weaker. Of course if someone had never been working on his body before he will get stronger if he start training. But what if someone is in great shape already? I heard it’s hella hard to make any progress, keep the same results or have low body fat after this age. As you are 39 years old did you notice any changes lately? I’m 19 years old so I’m just curious.”
My Answer: HOW DARE YOU POINT OUT MY OLD AGE YOU YOUNG WHIPPER SNAPPER!!!
Yeah it’s not like as soon as you hit 35/36 a timer goes off and your hair falls off your head, your gut expands to enormous proportions and your nuts shrink to the size of raisins. Aging tends to be gradual, and it depends on if you eat right and get lots of sleep and exercise. If you keep training, and training right, then you will get stronger as you age. This is partly why powerlifters tend to peak much later than other athletes. Strength is simply about practice and conditioning your nervous system through repeated effort. If you keep practicing over the years, then you will get stronger.
As far as your physique, that’s also dependent on whether or not you consistently train and eat right. If you overeat the wrong foods, then yes you will age and age rapidly. I’m 39, but I maintain my physique through consistent strength training and eating a diet that is calorically low but nutrient dense.
Have I gotten weaker and less solid over the years? Yes, but not because I’m getting older. I switched from a high calorie/high protein diet to a near vegetarian diet (calorically low, nutrient dense) and that has caused me to lose muscle mass and strength.
Anyway, to answer your question “Can you build decent strength and physique on calisthenics only?”
Yes you can build a decent physique if you include enough variation in your exercises. So if you’re doing pull-ups, then rotate through various grips and widths. Try harder pull-up variations such as the sternum pull-up, the mixed grip chin-up and the subscapularis pull-up.
For the chest and triceps, then do dips and DIFFICULT pushups variations, such as the side to side pushup.
Now 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 one. In Neo-Classical Bodybuilding, I devote a whole chapter to body weight training.