Book Review: Convict Conditioning

Let me begin by saying that I had been doing calisthenics for 11 years by the time I picked up this book. From my earliest days in the military, while I was training up for basic training in the summer of 2002 (good grief that seems so long ago now and I was such a kid!) I had been fed a steady diet of pushups, situps, air squats and pullups. I got quite good at them. at one point I was getting up in the morning, knocking out 5 sets of 50 in both pushups and situps… and then going outside to do PT (Physical Training) with the unit.

In more recent years I had drifted away from bodyweight exercises. I didn’t think that you could build real strength and power on nothing but bodyweight movements. I was right. As I had been taught, calisthenics were great for muscular endurance, and general total body conditioning, but not for much else. I was interested in skull crushing, bone snapping, casualty carrying, rock smashing strength! So I gravitated towards weight-lifting, concentrating on strength, power and work capacity (all of these terms will be defined in later posts). The only calisthenic exercise I regularly kept in my arsenal was the pullup.

Me at around 19ish (I think). What an Army Nerd! Look at me wearing my dog tags... in civilian clothes, no less! Me at around 19ish (I think). What an Army Nerd! Look at me wearing my dog tags… in civilian clothes, no less!

In the summer of 2013, while I was training in Nepal for 8 weeks and didn’t have access to weights, I read “Convict Conditioning” by Paul Wade, and I was intrigued. Or, to put it more accurately, my mind was blown.

Drawing on more than 20 years of experience in federal penitentiaries, “Coach” Wade shares his training secrets which he learned from older convicts and used to build his own strength and power during his incarcerations. He challenges the assumption that calisthenics are only for building stamina, but insists that their primary use is for building power and strength. He does this by breaking it down into what he calls “the Big 6” strength movements:

  • The One Arm Pushup
  • The One Arm Pullup
  • The One Arm Handstand Pushup
  • The One Legged Squat
  • The Hanging Leg Raise
  • The Stand-to-Stand Back Bridge

My mind was blown because, with more than a decade of weight training under my belt, I could not perform a single one of those movements!

Never fear, though, because the genius of Wade’s approach is not in the final “Master Step” but the progression that he offers to take you from zero to hero in each of the “Big 6.” For instance, with the pushup he starts with standing pushups, leaning against a wall and gently pushing away, slowly and steadily, pausing and lowering the chest back to the wall. From there he builds in gradual, easily assimilated steps, not even reaching a “full” regular pushup until step 5 of the 10 step progression.

His approach is marked by an emphasis on simplicity, consistency, and health awareness. He promotes building through the movements slowly rather than rushing through as quickly as possible in an effort to get to the Master Step. Instead, he insists that for optimum results the bodyweight athlete should move slowly, taking time to master each step fully and to allow the connective tissues (tendons, cartilage and ligaments) to adapt to the stress before increasing the intensity.

After reading Convict Conditioning, I began to implement the Big 6 into my workouts, slowly, a little bit at a time. I did not fully go fully bodyweight until this year after Evie was born. At that time I didn’t have time to go to the gym, so in the three months since her birth I have been doing bodyweight exercises at least four days a week. I can now do three of the Big 6 (One Armed Pushup, One-Legged Squat, and Hanging Leg Raise) although not nearly to elite standards yet. After not lifting for nearly four months I did deadlifts one day to see how much strength I had lost on that movement. To my surprise my lifting power had actually increased by more than 50 Lbs! My lower back feels 100% better than it did this time last year, and my knees are almost back to pre-Special-Forces resilience.

I highly recommend Convict Conditioning to anyone looking for a resource for a healthy, realistic, and effective program for building strength.

Some caveats to that: do not expect quick results. Slow and steady gains are the aim of this program. Also, do not expect a ready-made, “cookie-cutter” program. Wade gives out tools, but expects individual athletes to get smart about their own bodies and tailor their training to their own needs and health state. Finally, take him seriously when he says to give your body time to adjust to the strain. Muscles develop a good deal more quickly than connective tissue does, and it is very possible to “outlift your tendons.”

Happy Lifting!

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