Bodyweight training book review — Convict Conditioning

Convict conditioning.

Anyone interested in bodyweight training would have no doubt come across Convict Conditioning somewhere on the Internet. In this review, I’ll outline why I think the book is the best all round, tried and tested hardassed bodyweight training manifesto out there.

If there was one book that defined the bodyweight training ethos better than all the rest it would be Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade. Those who don’t know the back story, Paul Wade was an inmate for more than 20 years in notorious prisons like San Quentin, Angola Penitentiary. For obvious reasons, Wade keeps out of the limelight but has done interviews before and has corresponded with calisthenic legend Al Kavadlo. I say this because the veracity of the stories Wade tells in the book, indeed even his existence have been questioned by some.

Despite that side issue, the content of the book is exceptionally good. Enough to say his workout plan and progression is the best there is out there. If you buy one book on bodyweight training this is it. **The book used to be relatively expensive on the Kindle but has been recently reduced to a more reasonable Amazon price level. See for yourself.**

My favourite part of the book is the story Wade tells of old school calisthenics. The first chapters are devoted to hammering home an important fact: weights and machines are unnecessary to build mass and strength. This part of the book has received criticism for being too overly evangelical about calisthenics and that it isn’t a true reflection of prison training. However, I think he is really trying to counter the pervasive idea that athletic training and conditioning requires manual resistance like weights.

The Big six

Getting down to the business of eliminating weakness from our lives, Wade turns his attention to training like a convict. His focus is on 6 core movements he terms “the big six”. These are: Push ups, Squats, Pull ups, Leg raises, Bridges, Handstand push ups.

The focus here is not on pumping through a few half-hearted push ups and a few air squats like you’ll see a low rent aerobics studio. Instead, Wade lays out 10 steps, which takes a trainer from where they are to the step 10 — the “master step”.

Step 10 in each progression is an exercise very few people have the strength to perform. Be that 50 single leg squats or 20 one arm push ups — trainers who have the patience and passion to progress through the 10 steps will be richly rewarded with strength that will probably qualify them for a place in a circus act. That kind of strength will set you up for a much more able-bodied life, lowering the risk of insidious ailments like crook backs, pot bellies, hunch backs and many other maladies you see inflicting men and women post-40.

Even if you have no desire to pull up your own weight using one arm for multiple reps, the regular exercising of your body’s functional movement patterns will ensure your muscles, joints and soft tissue are well-oiled and ready for what life throws at you.

Bodyweight versus external resistance

Wade points out rather forcefully that there is a fundamental difference between moving your body through space rather than hoisting an external weight to create muscle tension, strength and growth.

The first and most important distinction is natural movement. A push up allows your body to move through a more natural, safer arc than does a bench press. With weights, you’re always constrained by the fact that the weight is pushing directly downwards while forcing your limbs into less optimal positions. Flaring out the elbows on a military press is a good example of an external resistance forcing you to adopt an injurious position.

With bodyweight only movements, you’re pushing or pulling your body through space which allows for an optimal, more comfortable movement pattern. In popular parlance we call this “functional” but really it is simply the ability to move yourself more efficiently.

Another important difference between weight training and bodyweight only movement can be seen in the fact that weight training can produce muscular imbalances and movement inhibition. This is a side effect of the “muscle group” training approach and the idea of muscle isolation. By isolating muscle groups the bodybuilder is taking the synergistic muscles out of the equation to produce a greater “burn” in the target muscle. This isn’t good or bad it just isn’t the way to train if strength and movement efficiency are your goals.

With calisthenic training your muscles will develop in size and strength in a natural way to produce better movement. Wade recalls images of bodybuilders unable to brush their teeth properly because their arms are so big that normal movement becomes impossible.

Here’s the important point here: Because calisthenics develops muscles by putting them through the very movements they will be used for in everyday life, muscles develop with respect to movement rather than overdeveloping to the point where movement is inhibited. Also, with only your bodyweight as resistance you’re getting a workout that is tailored to your current size. The increase of weights in muscle group focused training is a good way to overdevelop muscles relative to their function.

Conclusion — Hands Down the best book on the Calisthenics

As I alluded to in the introduction — Convict Conditioning is, in my opinion, the best book you’ll find on bodyweight resistance training. I’ve read all the reputedly best books in the field and no other tops this one for both training philosophy and programming. It has all the exercise progressions and training tips you’ll need to bust through weakness and it has a bunch of supplementary exercises to keep things fresh.

The Convict Conditioning program is how I structure my workout progressions, and while I take ideas from other books, this is the one I keep returning to in order to stay on track.

If you like the book, take a look at Convict Conditioning 2, where Wade goes in depth on the smaller muscles, including the neck and grip muscles, as well as extensive instruction on mastering variations of the Human Flag. Great stuff also!


11 responses to “Bodyweight training book review — Convict Conditioning

  1. Hey Fred, I hope all is well…
    I purchased Pushing the Limits! by Al Kavadlo. Very well presented and no equipment is needed. But he doesn’t focus on hypertrophy that much – i’d even say his body composition is 95% about diet – and advanced exercises are hard to perform because of skill, not load and muscular tension. I might have been guru’d but I see other than Drew Baye’s bodyweight programmes not as ineffective, but not well planned, rushed. Every book I come across I get this “If only he made a real effort to write effective, practical book”.

    • viewfromreality

      Hey Ondřej, yeah I like Pushing the Limits! And I see that book as more about athletic training rather than a pure strength program. He uses plenty of exercises I would advise sportspeople to do in order to improve performance. You can tell Al is not focused on hypertrophy, he’s more about strength and developing the body to perform incredible feats. Watch his YouTube vids – he’s becoming one of the best go-to guys for calisthenics training.

  2. We talked about whether explosive training and different speeds were necessary/good idea for training. Today I found these two interesting articles that provide some reasoning for my position.
    (Different authors)

    • viewfromreality

      Well if you keep going back to one source where you know the answer agrees with what you already think you’ll get what you seek. Drew has his opinions and on the topic of explosive training he is at odds with the majority of sports strength and conditioning coaches.

      The question, as you state it, is incomplete. What you should ask is “is training at different speeds necessary and good for the purpose of sports performance and explosiveness?” I have one study here for you, I can post you more when I have the time to dig them up.

      My commentary still stands – if explosive training is not essential in sports training programs, why are sled pulls, plyos and explosive weight training the bread and butter of the NHL, MLB, NBA and NFL among other sports like rugby?

      Remember, if you anchor your training to one part of the Strength-Speed continuum, you’ll develop adaptations for that specific portion. If that’s what you want then go for it. Powerlifters for example are interested in Strength and Strength-Speed so there training reflects that. Sprinters want Speed strength and absolute speed so train in a different way to powerlifters.

      Look, I don’t mean to demean Drew and his work, I like what he has to say, but he has his biases, as is obvious from the article you post. Restricting training to one way is a mistake. Beware of using only one source as your reference point.

      Also, this page has an excellent summary of what I’m talking about:

  3. I just think that most coaches really love to hear themselves talk. It is often the reader who suffers from this. Schoenfeld develops Max Muscle Plan that needs tons of different equipment and people cosntantly mail him they don’t even understand the instructions. Yet he forgets to put a warm-up in the book. Contreras talks about various studies etc. yet doesn’t offer a clear progression in his bodyweight book, defeats the purpose of bodyweight training by using unstable chairs, doors and partner assitance. I guess a program alternative that could be done when you’re alone with just the floor is too “boring” for this expert. Let’s do jump squats from the chair instead. Come on, progressions and no need for equipment are the key components of bodyweight training. Plus, lot of the progressions don’t load the muscles better, they’re just harder because of skill involved.

    By the way, could it just be the majority of coaches believes explosive training is necessary because they were tought so and they simply don’t have any significant data? And it looks nice in powerpoint presentations? Argument “most do this” is very weak even by standards of the gentlemen you refer to:

    • viewfromreality

      I disagree with the assessment the argument that it is a weak argument to point out pro coaches rely on explosive training. It is not an argument from popularity because pro coaches have the most at stake out of any coaches in the world – money, prestige and championships in American pro sports are everything. They make it their business to know the science inside out. It is a far weaker argument to quote one coach’s contrary opinion and believe that as the truth.

      As for Contreras’ bodyweight ideas using chairs and unstable tools, he says repeatedly that these should be tested for stability and there is nothing wrong with utilizing your environment to train in.

      I mean, Ondřej, what do you use for pull ups? You can’t do these with no equipment even if that equipment is a tree branch or a beam. The jumping exercises Contreras recommends is what makes his book better than most – it uses all forms of training modalities not just a selective few. The book is after all more of an encyclopedia of bodyweight exercises than most books. I’m not sure what you have against jump exercises – it is a fundamental human movement and therefore a must in athletic training.

      Speaking of significant data – show me what research Drew uses to rubbish the Power Clean as ineffective.

      If you doubt the veracity of explosive training check out the NSCA resources on the subject.

      Final word – email me what do you consider the best bodyweight program. What exercises you would use and what reps and sets. Progression? Program changes/variety? I have heard what you have a problem with, let’s hear you would/do train.

  4. By the way, my bodyweight book ranking:
    1) Project Kratos
    2) Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy
    3-5) Convict Conditioning, Pushing The Limits, You Are Your Own Gym

    I’d probably recommend the first two on the list. Overall I feel Kratos will offer the best hypertrophic development through great progressions focused on proper time under tension and metabolic stress. Bodyweight Anatomy is good but the user needs to already know what he is doing, and it´s quite demanding on time and vague at the same time. Also, It could have smoother progressions and no-equipment options for all exercises. Bonus points for being the best cookbook, though, and for graphic design and non-dogmatic approach.

    • viewfromreality

      Convict Conditioning has the best progressions and overall program than all of them. The emphasis in CC is strength with hypertrophy second, same with Kavadlo’s work. I’d pur Kratos 4th because it’s not really all that groundbreaking, but I did like the tension stuff. Like all HIT stuff, it is unnecessarily restrictive, given the variety of exercises and approaches and training goals.

  5. My CC copy is on the way, I might reconsider this. But I briefly read through it already. To be fair, it should be 3rd, because Pushing The Limits is simply too oriented on pushing:-)
    Why is Kratos the best for me: I still think it has the most natural and effective progressions, especially for legs. Where CC uses basketballs and lying against the wall, he simply manipulates the variables important for muscle building rather than choosing exercise that is harder to perform mostly because of skill. Also, its truly no-equipment if you want. It is the best organised book of all those. His writing style is the best, no fluff. And CC “program”? I just saw like three sample choices not very different from what Contreras offers. ? Maybe there is more.
    Btw if you look at the Article where Contreras describes his training and results, there is his brother who trains like twice a week with little structure and looks very similar. This indicates that Bret’s method migh offer only slight hypertrophic advantage over the simplest programmes. And if you think about it further, every training is varied even though on paper it’s rigid. The TUL varies significantly in HIT, rep speed was recently “proven” by otherr than HIT authors to have very little effect on results, as well as load when sets are taken to failure etc. Even someone like Nia Shanks who loves and promotes Bret trains in very simple, almost HIT-like fashion. And even Bret’s girlfriend trained HIT 3x week when busy with school…Paul Wade also recommends rather low reps, short workouts and training to failure for hypertrophy. I like this interview because it shows why Kratos is different. I agree that for very specific athletic training goals HIT is not optimal, but for example fat loss, hypertrophy, strength, conditioning, I don’t see why not.

    Click to access baye-interview.pdf

    Also check out this vid (not HIT, but kinda proves the point that simple doesn’t mean inferior and that traditional approaches might be kind of unnecessary)

    • viewfromreality

      You need to read CC before judging it. It is more structured and systematic than Kratos. Also, remember Al Kavadlo has another book on the pull up alone. His YouTube vids are where his best stuff is tho.

      CC is truly little to no equipment as well – it’s based on routines inmates can do. They use their cell bars, beds, bunks and whatever they can find to expand the number of exercises they can perform. This is just smart use of leverage and makes use of envitonments that everyone has access to.

      We’ll have to disagree on the HIT. I agree with most of what it stands for but I don’t agree it should be held up as the best thing ever in fitness. There is certainly some good principles there, but it can’t achieve all the goals you mention alone. Conditioning is multifaceted, and therefore requires more than just slow, deliberate resistance training, which is why it isn’t used in athletic conditioning phases. I tend to take that approach to fitness – look at what people who are achieving amazing feats with their bodies and replicating their approaches. Kavadlo and CC for muscle and strength, Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos for hockey conditioning.

      Anyway, I get where you are coming from, we know where we differ in opinion so let’s leave it at that. Veselé velikonoce.

  6. Ok, just one last comment I found on marksdailyapple forum:
    “I’ve had a quick look at the Convict program and although anything such as that will work to a degree for so long I don’t think it is anywhere near optimal for the best results.

    Drew Baye will probably disagree with me here as he promotes a bodyweight workout. In my opinion where routines such as this fall down is in their inability to effectively provide progressive resistance. Most rely on varying the angle with which you do the exercises or by making them less stable. For optimal results you want to work a muscle in it’s strongest, most direct plane of motion and provide progressive resistance within that plane.

    Lets say you are doing push ups and wish to make them harder, most free weight routines have you doing one of two things.

    A) Raising the legs-ultimately ending up in a handstand push up.
    B) Doing them in a way that puts more emphasis on one arm- Ultimately ending up in a one arm push up.

    The slight decline position is the optimal angle for working the chest so technique A is the total opposite of what you really want to be doing, the higher you raise your legs the less resistance is on the chest and more transferred to the shoulders and triceps.
    Just because you are putting a muscle into a weaker position doesn’t make the exercise a better progression, if this was the case then the tricep kick back would be one of the top tricep builders !”

    This particular point is the key. Progressions in CC and sometimes even BSTA:-) are slightly inferior because their increased difficulty doesn’t translate well to the increased difficulty for the targeted muscles. For the record, I passed anatomy, physiology, biology, biochemistry, physics, immunology etc. and did about 50 autopsies at the best medschool in the country…I had to correctly point out origin, insertion, innervation and function of every muscle in human body and I think only Bret and Drew have deep understanding of those medical subjects I mentioned from authors we talked about. This immensely helps their books. There is simply at least one big red flag in other books, no matter how spectacular the photos or prison stories are. But even Bret sadly wasn’t able to avoid these types of exercises the guy above talks about – rows, push ups etc. are progressed this way.
    Veselé Velikonoce, I’m stuffed with eggs and candy:-)

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