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!