Wrong. You can build muscle with nearly any sensible program that you stick to for an extended period of time. Aside from the bosu-confuse-your-muscle/get a six pack in six minutes gimmicks, if you have persistence and tenacity when it comes to your workouts, you are likely to make great progress. Progress can be achieved in many different ways, as long as we remember that a sub-par workout executed with perfect effort is superior to the “perfect” workout executed with sub-par effort. Therefore, if you find something you truly enjoy doing, can stick to for months or years, and can perform each workout with dedication and maximum effort, you’ll be successful eventually.
It’s funny that there’s a certain stigma about bodyweight training, because being able to have total control and efficiently move the body you live in would be beneficial to the entire population. Perhaps it’s Crossfit’s fault, as they often give “functional movement” a bad name, but developing your control, spatial awareness, flexibility, and strength with your own body can be more beneficial and have more carryover than several machines at the gym.
The notion that you can’t build muscle with bodyweight exercise is just not true. In fact, one can build a significant amount of muscle mass with bodyweight exercise while keeping a few basic principles in mind. As with any other training program, progressive overload is of utmost importance for continual progress. We know that over time the stimulus must become more difficult in order to continue to make those beloved gains. With bodyweight exercise, progressive overload can be applied in several ways. To make exercises more difficult, weight can be added, such as to pull-ups, push-ups, and dips. One can continue to add more and more weight, just like with bodybuilding or powerlifting styles of training.
Another way to apply progressive overload is to work on a more difficult progression of that exercise. Once the basics become “too easy,” harder variations can be selected. For example, gradually decreasing the use of one hand will place more of a demand on the muscles unilaterally. Working towards one arm push-ups, pull-ups, rows, hand-stands, and single leg squats will allow an individual to continue to make progress in the bodyweight realm. Try asking those who suggest that you cannot build muscle from bodyweight training if they are capable of doing these more difficult progressions with good form. Then ask them how an iron cross, maltese, or planche is achieved, if not through years of hard work with one’s own bodyweight.
In addition, leverage can be manipulated in order to make exercises more difficult, and consequently build more muscle. For example, placing one’s feet on an elevated surface while doing push-ups will place more demand on the shoulders, triceps, and chest than a traditional push-up with feet on the floor. The surface can continue to be elevated over time until one is completely vertical, at which time the individual has transitioned from doing elevated push-ups to handstand push-ups. In this case, a more difficult progression has been achieved by continuing to decrease the leverage of the exercise.
The opposite is also true and can be beneficial for those who are new to training. Leverage and easier progressions can be used to make exercises more accessible. Individuals can place their hands on an elevated surface if they are unable to perform a regular push-up. If unable to do a pull-up, a row can be performed, and the height from which one pulls can be elevated higher and higher to make the exercise easier. Making the exercise easier or more challenging can be achieved simply by changing the position of the body. In other words, pushing and pulling movements can be made easier by moving the exercise horizontally, or more difficult by moving it vertically.
Another way to make bodyweight exercise more challenging is to increase the time under tension by controlling the isometric and eccentric portions of the movement. Holding oneself at the top of a pull-up with a forceful contraction and slowly lowering oneself down will certainly make the exercise more challenging. This technique is similar to pausing at the bottom of a squat or bench press, and the same principles apply.
The point is do something that you love, and you’ll be able to stick with it and eventually make progress. I fell in love with bodyweight training, and still find myself in awe of people who have perfect form on muscle-ups, can do levers and human flags with ease, or who can rep out handstand push-ups better than I can do regular push-ups. As a result, I’ve developed a program that I love, and don’t see myself changing any time soon. I only squat and deadlift once per week, and basketball is my only cardio. At the end of the day, that’s okay though, because I’m happy with it, and because no one really cares. Moreover, it’s a program that I can stick to and execute with all my effort…and can build muscle with.