“In Convict Conditioning Paul Wade has laid out a logical and effective ‘zero to hero’ progression in key bodyweight strength exercises …” —Pavel Tsatsouline
Convict Conditioning is extrinsic to the mainstream fitness sphere; it is a religion though to a select, calisthenic loving, subculture—people who like Keanu Reeves, who prefer yellow workout clothes, and who are named Xanthe. Following, I offer a summary and my subjective evaluation of it, as well as a look at calisthenic exercises and why I like them.
Summary of Convict Conditioning
Convict Conditioning is a 304-page book written by Paul Wade, a purported ex-con who developed an adaptive calisthenic exercise methodology, ostensibly dubbed “convict conditioning,” while incarcerated at a number of the United States’ toughest prisons.
Wade begins his book with his personal background and an overview of calisthenics. He then segues to his workout program, a roadmap to becoming fluent in six brutish exercises he designates the “Big 6”: one-arm push-ups, one-leg squats, one-arm pull-ups, hanging straight leg raises, stand-to-stand bridges, and one-arm handstand push-ups. Finally, he ends with a number of workout schedules ranging from two-day-per-week to seven-day-per-week routines.
Wade’s program is a model of slow and controlled progression. He assigns each of his “Big 6” nine escalating preparatory exercises. In example, he asks you to first master wall-pushups, then bending chair push-ups, then kneeling push-ups, and so on before attempting one-arm push-ups. He suggests that it could take years for practitioners to reach a point of proficiency in all “Big 6” exercises.
My Subjective Evaluation of Convict Conditioning
There are really two things to evaluate—Convict Conditioning the book, and the “convict conditioning workout method” it propounds.
The book is substantial; it has quality photos, and its workout content is presented in an exceedingly easy to follow format. I think Wade is a decent writer; though in much the same way you should question whether the sultry voice and amatory words that make you conjure eidetic images of Eva Mendes to the tune of $4.99 per minute are in fact coming from a somewhat mustachioed woman wearing polyester in an Akron call center, I question his hardened ex-con persona. Little factual information can be found on Wade, so naturally theories run rampant. Some doubt he is an ex-con, instead believing he is a just a pseudonymous writer with a penchant for calisthenics and sensationalism. Reformed criminal or not, I can see the ambiguity that surrounds him possibly casting a shadow over his book. Other detractions are Wade’s overt negativity toward non-calisthenic exercises, his overly androcentric tone, and his “I am going to drive the same point home seven different ways” repetition at times. These criticisms notwithstanding, I think his book his quite exceptional. Its merits easily outweigh its faults.
After reading Convict Conditioning I eagerly began incorporating its exercise routines into my overall fitness program. I would do a WOD one day, a convict workout the next, etc. I really enjoyed my convict days … initially at least. It did not take long before that which conceptually seemed so brilliant became mind-numbing in practice though. Wade repeatedly makes the point that, for reasons of safety, adaptation, and mental preparedness, you should begin each of his “Big 6” from their first steps (regardless of how easy they may be). I strongly agree with the idea of easing into exercise, taking safety precautions, etc., so I heeded his advice. When it came down to it though, I quickly grew bored with wall-pushups and other such exercises seen on kindergarten playgrounds—boredom that ultimately pushed me to do more CrossFit workouts and less convict routines. Thankfully though, before letting it become anathema, I acquiesced and allowed myself to skip a few of its beginning steps (I am a horrible person riddled with hypocrisy). Had I not, I may have set the program aside, and that would have been a big mistake.
At the end of the day I think convict is one of the better calisthenic programs available; I definitely recommend it. While I find the first few steps of its “Big 6” decisively easy, I cannot negate the logic behind linear progression.
A Look at Calisthenic Exercises and Why I like Them
Calisthenic exercises are compound movements in which bodyweight is the only means of resistance (think push-ups and pull-ups). Some elitists deem them an anachronism, but for me they are refreshingly relevant. I like that they can be performed anywhere, at anytime, and for free. There is also anecdotal evidence that suggests calisthenics often lend to higher levels of “functional” strength than do concentrated weightlifting movements such as bicep curls and leg extensions. In example, most bodybuilders can curl and press more weight than gymnasts. However, gymnasts, who regularly do compound bodyweight exercises, can usually outperform bodybuilders in feats that require functional strength. They can do more pull-ups, they can climb rock walls with greater ease, they have better stabilizing balance, etc. While I am not suggesting that weightlifting does not improve functional strength (it does), nor that there are no other exercise methodologies that have a functional strength aim—CrossFit comes to mind—there is something appealing about the simplicity of calisthenics; hence, they will always be a part of my fitness program.