Weighted Calisthenics: Easily Gain Muscle, Strength & Improving Skills

Weighted calisthenics is a way of training that consists of adding weight to basic calisthenics exercises. With the right approach, it will help you become stronger, more muscular, and will skyrocket your progress with skills like the planche, front lever, and one arm pull-up.

And in this article, I will teach you “the right approach”.

Keep reading if you want to learn:

  • When and how to get started with it
  • How to progress effectively and safely
  • How to use weighted calisthenics to supplement your skills training
  • And more

When and how to get started with weighted calisthenics?

Picture of a weight plate ready to be used for weighted calisthenics

Before you add any weight to your basic calisthenics exercises you have to ask yourself: am I at a point where it makes sense to add weight?

Have I mastered the exercise?

The prerequisites I would give you before considering weighted calisthenics are:

  • 3 x 12 pull-ups
  • 3 x 15 dips
  • 3 x 15 push-ups

Being able to hit these requirements is an assurance that you have mastered the exercise and will not get injured by adding extra weight.

Once you reach the above point, ask yourself if doing more is helping your goals.

If your goal is endurance training, then the answer is yes, and you can continue unweighted.

However, if your goal is getting more muscular and stronger, which the majority of people want, then doing even more reps will not be in line with your goals.

How to get started

Let’s take the example sets and reps above to help you better understand the process.

Your unweighted training looks like this:

  • 3 x 12 pull-ups
  • 3 x 15 dips
  • 3 x 15 push-ups

And your weighted training will look like this:

  • 3 x 8 pull-ups +11/22lbs (5/10kg)
  • 3 x 15 dips +11/22lbs (5/10kg)
  • 3 x 15 push-ups +11/22lbs (5/10kg)

Add as much weight as you need to drop from 3 sets of 12 and 15 reps to 3 sets of 8 reps.

The most important rule when training weighted calisthenics is that your weighted reps should look exactly the same as the unweighted reps. Form always comes first. Adding weight doesn’t make sense if you mess up your form.

So the starting point is pretty straightforward.

You add enough weight to make the exercise challenging again.

How much weight should you add?

I can’t give you an answer to this question but...

What I can do is help you figure an answer for yourself.

Adding weight is very individualized. It depends on how strong you are. If I tell you to use a weight that is too heavy or too light for your goals, I’m not helping you.

And this is what it all comes down to. Goals.

Do you want to optimize getting stronger or more muscular?

Attribute

Number of sets

Number of reps

Strength

3-5

3-5

Muscle mass

3-4

8-12

If you want to get stronger, choose a weight that allows you to do at least 3 sets of 5 reps, and at most 5 sets of 5 reps. Doing 3 sets of 3 reps would be too little volume.

If you want to build muscle, choose a weight that allows you to do the exercise for at least 3 sets of 8 reps, and at most 4 sets of 12 reps.

Getting the right weight for you is trial and error.

Fortunately, you don’t need more than a few minutes to find it.

How to progress with weighted calisthenics

Progressing with weighted calisthenics can be frustrating.

Every little bump in weight can feel exponentially demanding. So how can you increase the weight you are lifting over time?

There are two methods I use:

  • Increasing reps over time
  • Linear periodization (my personal favorite)

Increasing reps over time

This is the most basic method of progressing, regardless of whether you are doing it with weightlifting or calisthenics, weighted or unweighted.

Let’s see how progressing with your pull-up may look like for the goal of building muscle.

As we remember from the table above, to build muscle you need to do between 3 and 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps. Let’s do the example with 4 sets just for ease of following it.

Training session

Load

Reps

Decision for next workout

1

none

12, 12, 12, 12

Add load

2

33lbs/15kg

6, 6, 5, 4

Decrease load

3

22lbs/10kg

8, 8, 8, 7

Increase reps

4

22lbs/10kg

9, 8, 8, 8

Increase reps

5

22lbs/10kg

9, 9, 9, 7

Increase reps

--omission--

10

22lbs/10kg

12, 12, 12, 12

Increase load

11

33lbs/15kg

8, 8, 8, 8

Increase reps

12

33lbs/15kg

9, 9, 8, 8

Increase reps

  • In the first session, the athlete completed 4 sets of 12 reps and decided that in the following workout session he was going to add weight.
  • In his second workout, he added too much weight and didn’t even come close to the 4 sets of 8 reps he was supposed to do. Therefore, he decided to decrease the weight for the next workout.
  • In his third workout, the athlete found the weight that will get him close enough to the 4 sets of 8 reps he needs to do. Therefore, he decides to stick to it until he reaches 4 sets of 12 reps with that particular weight.
  • By the time he reached his 10th workout, he increased the reps until he hit 4 sets of 12 reps. For the next workout, he decides to increase the weight and drop back to 4 sets of 8 reps.

Linear periodization

As I mentioned, linear periodization is my favorite way of progressing with weighted calisthenics.

This model was taken from powerlifting, so it can be applied to any type of weight training.

The way linear periodization is by increasing the intensity (weight) while dropping the volume (number of reps) over a period of time.

Let’s take the example with pull-ups, but this time for building strength.

As we remember from the table above, for strength training we should do 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps each. In this example, we’ll use 4 sets.

Training session

Load

Reps

1

11lbs / 5kg

5, 5, 5, 5

2

16.5lb / 7.5kg

4, 4, 4, 4

3

22lbs / 10kg

3, 3, 3, 3

4

11 lbs / 5kg

3, 3 (deload)

5

16.5lbs / 7.5kg

5, 5, 5, 5

6

22lbs / 10kg

4, 4, 4, 4

7

27.5lbs / 12.5kg

3, 3, 3, 3

8

16.5lbs / 7.5kg

3, 3 (deload)

9

22 lbs / 10kg

5, 5, 5, 5

  • In the first session, you choose a weight where you can complete 4 sets of 5 reps without hitting failure in the last set (i.e. you could do at least one more rep if you wanted)
  • In the second session, the following week, you increase the weight by 6.5lbs (2.5kg) and decrease the number of repetitions by 1 in each set.
  • In the third session, again, the following week, you increase the weight once more by 6.5lbs (2.5kg) and drop the number of repetitions by 1 in each set.
  • The fourth week is a deload week. In this week you will lower the weight to the weight you used in the starting point (11lbs/5kg in this example), keep the low repetitions, and do only two sets. This week is meant to facilitate your rest.
  • In the fifth session, which is the first after the deload, you return to 4 sets of 5 reps, but this time around with 16.5lbs / 7.5kg instead of 11lbs / 5kg.
  • Sixth and seventh session is an increase in weight, again, and a drop in reps by 1 for each workout in turn.
  • The eighth session is another deload, where you use the starting weight after your first deload, the low number of repetitions, and decrease the sets by 1.

How does weighted calisthenics translate to calisthenics skills

A lot of calisthenics athletes are focused on achieving the front lever, planche, and one arm pull-up.

Unfortunately, grinding the progressions of these skills alone is not efficient. In the best case scenario, it will take you a long time to get the skill. Worst case, you will not achieve it at all.

So how can weighted calisthenics help you achieve these skills?

Let’s look at them individually.

Front lever

Doing weighted chin-ups will have a good carryover towards the front lever.

If you add weight to your chin-ups you are strengthening the exact muscles and joint movement associated with the front lever. The more you can load the chin-up, the easier the front lever will become.

Most people believe that pull-ups and, in consequence, weighted pull-ups are better suited as a carryover to the front lever. This is true to some extent, given that the pull-up and front lever engage pretty much the same muscles and the grip is virtually the same.

However, when we take a look at the shoulder position, you will notice that weighted chin-ups are better suited for accessory work with the front lever.

With pull-ups, you are doing a shoulder adduction movement.

In this type of movement, you are bringing your arms down to the sides.

With chin-ups, you are moving your shoulders from a flexed to an extended position, that is from the front of your body towards the back, which better mimics the position of a front lever.

Planche

If you want to be stronger in the planche, you should train weighted dips and weighted push-ups.

The weighted dip is a good choice as an accessory exercise for the planche because it targets and strengthens the anterior deltoid muscle. The weighted push-up will help you achieve a base level of pressing strength, to have a foundation to build your planche from.

The anterior deltoid, which is the muscle in the front part of your shoulder, is the one doing most of the “heavy lifting” during the planche. If you have a weak anterior deltoid, you will not be able to lean forward enough to do a planche.

And the best way to train this muscle is with weighted dips, weighted push-ups, and handstand push-ups.

The heavier you dip, the stronger your anterior deltoid will be.

One arm pull-up

This one is self explanatory.

If you want faster progress with the one arm pull-up, you need to be able to do a very heavy weighted pull-up.

For optimal results, you should be able to add your bodyweight to the dipping belt.

Think about it, exercises where you only train pull-ups with one arm are efficient when there are no weights available. However, a more efficient and fast way of training is through adding weight to your body, leading to an overload in your muscles, increasing your strength.

And then you can use the unilateral exercises or one arm pull-up progressions only to nail the technique.

Necessary equipment

In this section, we will have a more in-depth look at the equipment needed for weighted calisthenics, starting from the assumption that you don’t want to train with a dumbbell in between your feet.

The equipment options you can choose from are:

  • Dipping belt
  • Weighted vest
  • Ankle weights

Dipping belt

Advantages:

  • Can be loaded heavily, even up to 440lbs (200kg)
  • Very comfortable with dips. pull-ups, and even push-ups
  • Compact and easy to carry around

Disadvantages

  • Requires extra investment in weight plates (unless training in a gym)
  • Can help with leg training but the setup is pretty weird

The dipping belt I recommend is:

DMoose Fitness Dip Belt
The dipping belt from DMoose Fitness will provide the sturdiness necessary to lift heavy weights, while being compact enough to be easy to carry around.

Weighted vest

Advantages:

  • Can be used for cardio and to train legs
  • Easy to take to a calisthenics park
  • One of the best ways to add weight to push-ups

Disadvantages

  • Limited by its maximum load, usually 33-66lbs / 15-30kg
  • Uncomfortable during pull-ups

The weighted vest I recommend is:

RunFast Weighted Vest
The weighted vest from RunFast is my choice because it can be loaded to up to 140lbs/64kg

Ankle weights

Advantages:

  • Compact and easy to carry around
  • Ideal to add weight to abs training

Disadvantages

  • Can’t add any significant load to big movements like dips
  • Doesn’t help much with leg training

The ankle weights I recommend are:

Sportneer Ankle Weights
Having removable sandbags in each ankle weight, these weights from Sportneer are my personal favorite.

As you can see, they all have their own pros and cons. In an ideal situation, you would have access to all of these. However, if that is not an option, the equipment that will most help with your calisthenics transformation is the dipping belt.

Common mistakes with weighted calisthenics

Let’s look at the most common mistakes you should avoid if you want optimal progress.

In this part of the article, we will take a look at the three basic exercises you can do weighted and the compensations people do when they go too heavy.

Weighted dip

If you want to learn more about this exercise, read our article on weighted dips where we explain the proper form, benefits, mistakes, and more.

Here, we will brush over the common mistakes:

  • Flexed upper back
  • Lack of scapula depression
  • Decreased range of motion

Flexing the upper back, where you go into a hunched position, is usually combined with a lack of scapula depression.

Unfortunately, this is not a stable position and can lead to injury in the shoulder.

To fix these two mistakes, keep a proud chest posture and shrug your shoulders away from your ears. You will most likely have to decrease the weight to do that.

Another mistake is decreasing the range of motion. When the weight gets too heavy, you may no longer be able to complete the entirety of the movement. If that is the case, decrease the weight.

There is no point in training heavier if you don’t train the entire range of the muscle.

Weighted pull-up/chin-up

With weighted pull-ups, the most common mistakes are:

  • Kicking for assistance
  • Decreasing the range of motion
  • Shrugging the shoulders
  • Pulling in a semi-circle motion

The first mistake is kicking for assistance.

It is usually done in the last portion of the range of motion, at the top of the pull-up. The reason for this is simple: that is the most difficult part of the exercise.

However, when you are kicking up you are robbing yourself of the strength and muscle gains you could be making by keeping a strict form. If the weight is too hard for you to close the exercise, decrease it to a bearable amount and work with perfect form.

The second mistake is similar to this one.

However, instead of kicking, you are trying to keep a strict form.

Since the weight is too heavy though, you can’t close the movement and the range of motion ends up being limited. Again, a decrease in weight will fix this issue.

For optimal range of motion, make sure your chin clears the bar.

Ideally, your chest touches the bar - that is considered full range.

The third mistake is bad because it strengthens a suboptimal shoulder position.

When you can’t keep your shoulder blades down and your shoulders are shrugging to your ears, you are pulling in a suboptimal pattern and strengthening it. Drop the ego, decrease the weights, and train optimally to avoid injury.

Lastly, pulling in a semi-circle motion is a sign of lack of strength.

When the load is too heavy during a pull-up or a chin-up, you will see this common compensation: the athlete lurches away and then towards the bar.

Again, decrease the weight so you can use a strict vertical motion.

Weighted push-up

As far as weighted push-ups are concerned, the mistake doesn’t have to do with form. Rather, it has to do with the way people are loading the push-up.

The common ways they are doing it are:

  • Putting plates on their backs
  • Having someone sit on them or push them down

However, there is a better way of doing things.

Doing weighted push-ups this way is safer, more stable, and can help you overload the exercise quite heavily. Always focusing on form and safety is what brings results with weighted calisthenics.

FAQs

Is weighted calisthenics necessary?

The answer to this question is, it depends on your goals.

Weighted calisthenics is by no means necessary. However, it will help you achieve calisthenics skills way faster and easier, will help you build muscle, and also gain strength.

After a certain point in your journey, building muscle will become increasingly difficult.

Adding weight to calisthenics basics is a good way to keep building muscle, gaining strength, and developing a strong foundation on which to build your skills.

Does weighted calisthenics stunt growth?

A lot of calisthenics athletes are pretty short. So this begs the above question.

There is no correlation between weighted calisthenics and stunt growth. In fact, a study looking at resistance training in youth concluded that resistance training does not in fact stunt growth.

The reason why most calisthenics athletes are short is something called selection bias.

For instance, not all people who are tall excel at basketball, but the overwhelming majority of people who excel at basketball are tall.

On the same token, not all calisthenics athletes are short, but people who usually excel at calisthenics are short.

How much weight do you need for weighted calisthenics?

If you refer to the above section on how much weight you should add, you will find that the answer is not that easy.

The weight needed for weighted calisthenics is the smallest (or largest) weight you can lift to make an exercise challenging for the selected rep range. Here is what I mean:

Let’s say you want to do 4 sets of 8-12 pull-ups.

You will choose a weight that allows you to do at least 4 sets of 8 pull-ups and at most 4 sets of 12 pull-ups. For strength, choose a weight that allows you to do 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps.

How do you get big with weighted calisthenics?

You get big by lifting enough weight to stimulate muscle growth.

Ideally, with weighted calisthenics and any other sort of resistance training you want to train with a weight that allows you to do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, leaving around 1-3 reps in the tank after each set.

Leaving no more than 1-3 reps in the tank assures that you are training close enough to failure to elicit a muscle growth response.

Conclusion

In this article we had a look at how to get started with weighted calisthenics, how to progress, and what are the most common mistakes to avoid when doing each one of the major exercises.

We also had a look at the methods to add weight and their respective pros and cons.

It is now time for you to start adding weight to your calisthenics journey.

Remember that the most important thing is to do the weighted exercises with the same form you use for the unweighted version.

Over to you.