A Book Summary and Review by Robert Drucker
Cover shot of Convict Conditioning. Photo used with permission from John Du Cane and Paul Wade.
Convict Conditioning is a book written by Paul Wade that teaches how to build an extreme level of functional strength. It is based on a type of bodyweight training that requires little or no special equipment, can be practiced virtually anywhere, and which stimulates health and athletic power throughout the entire body.
Consisting of over 300 pages, Convict Conditioning is a big book. But, it is not the size of the book that makes it worthy. Rather, it is Wade's unique treatment and clear presentation of progressive and productive exercise that make this book shine.
As its name implies, Convict Conditioning evolved within the confinement of the prison system, a place where the author was incarcerated for over 20 years. When Wade first entered prison, he was an average sized man, with just ordinary strength. Fearing for his well being, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about physical training and the development of functional strength. Wade also trained brutally hard, putting into practice what he learned. As a result of his efforts, Wade quickly transformed his body into a pillar of power, and he became well known for his strength and knowledge of productive exercise.
As Paul grew bigger and stronger, many other inmates sought training advice from him. Over time, he became known as "Coach", and he helped hundreds of prisoners rid themselves of weakness and fear. Training others gave Wade experience that his own training, alone, could not provide. This experience helped him to refine and improve his training methods into a flexible and powerful training system. This system is now known as Convict Conditioning, and it has helped hundreds of people to become stronger and more physically fit.
Analysis of Book
Wade's book opens with a Foreword written by John Du Cane, CEO of Dragon Door Publications. Du Cane gives an explanation of the book's chosen title, and he makes it clear his belief that nearly everybody interested in improving their health, strength, and fitness would benefit tremendously by reading Wade's book. I agree with him fully.
Following the Foreword, the rest of the book is divided into three main sections, each which presents a central theme. The first part, Preliminaries, presents the basic ideas and background behind the Convict Conditioning system. The second part, The Big Six: Power Moves, presents the theory, philosophy, exercises, and training programs that make up the Convict Conditioning system. And, the third part of the book, entitled Self Coaching, shows you how to structure a Convict-Conditioning workout program for optimal progress.
PART I: Preliminaries (Chapters 1 - 4)
Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the "forgotten art" of bodyweight training, or old-school calisthenics. In this type of training, you rely on just gravity and your own body to build greater strength and stamina.
Wade emphasizes that the "right" type of bodyweight training develops unparalleled athletic strength, the kind that is required to perform a pullup with one arm, do multiple handstand pushups, or bend over backwards and touch the floor. The key to training success, says the author, is knowing how to perform calisthenics progressively.
Progressive calisthenics, the author points out, was used by ancient warriors and athletes to build their powerful bodies. He says, however, that much of the old knowledge has been lost from public view, having been pushed aside by modern trends and commercialization. The result, according to the author, is a new generation of fitness buffs who lack the "genuine brawn and vitality" that the oldtimers possessed.
Wade explains that he "rediscovered" old school calisthenics in the one place where it still survives in great force - the penitentiary system. Addtionally, the author gives some convincing arguments why modern-day calisthenics and weight-training programs do not produce the same level of functional strength that can be acquired with the old-school methods.
In Chapter 2, Wade defines calisthenics as the "art of using the body's own weight and qualities of inertia as a means of physical development." He goes on to say, "Convict Conditioning is, essentially, an advanced form of calisthenics designed to maximize power and athletic ability."
The author then gives a brief history of old school calisthenics, and more detail is provided about how this training form was used by soldiers of years past to give them a strength advantage on the battle field. It is also pointed out that many oldtime bodybuilders performed old school calisthenics to enhance their strength and athletic ability. Among them were Eugen Sandow, Bert Assirati, Doug Hepburn, and John Grimek.
Wade reveals in Chapter 3 why he believes the world of physical culture has reached a low point in recent years. He argues that modern-day training programs are overrated, misrepresented by fitness scams and commercial interests, and poorly understood by the majority of people who practice them. He also observes, "Ninety percent of those who join a gym quit within two months due to lack of results."
As an alternative to gym-based training, Wade stresses that old school calisthenics offers six major benefits. Bodyweight training, he says, (1) requires very little equipment, (2) develops useful and functional athletic abilities, (3) maximizes strength, (4) protects the joints and makes them stronger,(5) develops the physique to perfection quickly, and (6) normalizes and regulates body fat levels.
Wade doesn't just state his opinion that bodyweight training offers big benefits. He explains his reasoning in great depth, and the author offers explanations that will really get you thinking.
Chapter 4 introduces the reader to the "The Big Six". These are the six exercises that form the core of the Convict Conditioning training system. They consist of the Pushup, the Squat, the Pullup, the Leg Raise, the Bridge, and the Handstand Pushup. Each of these Big Six movements consists of 10 variant exercises, ranging from the simplest form to the most difficult. Wade calls the 10th variant, or most difficult form, "The Master Step".
The key to building world-class strength, says the author, is to systematically progress from the simplest form of each Big Six exercise to The Master Step. In the Convict-Conditioning system, this is accomplished by following "The 10 Steps" progression method, also introduced in Chapter 4. The 10 Steps approach, says Wade, will allow nearly any student of physical culture to move up the strength ladder in progressive and manageable increments.
PART 2: The Big Six: Power Moves (Chapters 5 - 10)
Although the bench press is one of the most popular strength exercises, Wade argues in Chapter 5 that the Pushup is a superior movement for building the upper body. This claim may seem far fetched to some strength athletes, but the author thoroughly outlines his rationale, and he provides some important anatomical facts to support his case.
Wade then discusses how to perform the pushup for optimal results. The author covers proper exercise style, proper tempo and speed, whether to do the movement with the palms, knuckles, wrists, or fingers, and how to use objects, such as a basketball or a baseball, to enhance the effectiveness of the pushup. Convict-style Pushups, says the author, build a massive chest, huge triceps, and teach various muscles of the body to work together in harmony.
After a thorough discussion about proper exercise technique, the author presents The 10 Steps of the pushup, starting with the easiest version and progressively working up to the most difficult form. In order of increasing difficulty, these are (1) Wall Pushups, (2) Incline Pushups, (3) Kneeling Pushups, (4) Half Pushups, (5) Full Pushups, (6) Close Pushups, (7) Uneven Pushups, (8) 1/2 One-Arm Pushups, (9) Lever Pushups, and (10) One-Arm Pushups, or The Master Step. Each of these 10 steps is fully described and illustrated.
Wade calls the One-Arm Pushup "the gold standard of chest and elbow power." He says that very few athletes can perform this movement correctly. If you are looking for an exercise that can set you apart from the crowd, then you might want to set your sights on mastering this one. In Wade's words, "Without doubt, the true master of the one-arm pushup is a rare beast."
At the conclusion of Chapter 5, Wade provides additional variants of the Pushup to experiment with. These exercises can be used to provide variety in your routine, or be used to work around an injury. The Pushup variants discussed include Decline Pushups, Wide Pushups, Superman Pushups, Gecko Pushups, Plyometric Pushups, Stretch Pushups, Jackknife Pushups, Divebomber Pushups, Diagonal Pushups, The Plank, Incline Tiger Bends, and Maltese Pushups. Some of these variants are quite advanced and should not be practiced until a very high level of strength has been achieved through the 10 Steps.
In Chapter 6, you will learn why leg strength is critically important to athletes, including weightlifters. Additionally, the author will show you how to pack your lower body with rock hard muscle and an abundance of power. Don't neglect your legs! If you fail to make your legs strong, as Paul Wade points out, your overall body strength and power will remain weak, no matter how developed your upper body may become.
Award winning athlete Jim Bathurst demonstrating the Assisted One-Leg Squat. The Squat, says the author, is the best lower-body exercise you can do. Photo used with permission from John Du Cane and Paul Wade.
Like many other strength authorities, Wade considers the squat to be the most important exercise for building lower body strength. As such, he explains in detail how the squat benefits the trainee, which muscles are stimulated by the squat, why he believes that the squat is best practiced in bodyweight form, and how the squat should be performed to ensure safety and bring forth optimal results. Along the way, the author also shatters some common myths about about this exercise.
After thoroughly covering his thoughts about squatting, the author presents The 10 Steps of the bodyweight squat, starting with the easiest version and progressively working up to the most difficult form. These include, in order of increasing difficulty, (1) Shoulderstand Squats, (2) Jackknife Squats, (3) Supported Squats, (4) Half Squats, (5) Full Squats, (6) Close Squats, (7) Uneven Squats, (8) 1/2 One-Leg Squats, (9) Assisted One-Leg Squats, and (10) One-Leg Squats, or The Master Step. Each of these 10 steps is fully described and illustrated.
Wade greatly stresses the value of the one-leg squat. He observes,
The one-leg squat is the king of all squatting movements - in fact, it is the ultimate lower body exercise, period. It increases strength in the spine, hips, thighs, lower legs and feet, maximizes stamina and vastly improves athleticism. Over time, this exercise will transform skinny legs into pillars of power, complete with steel cord quads, rock-hard glutes and thick, shapely calves. The master of this movement will never lose the "spring" in his legs, and will be protected from all kinds of hip ailments and knee injuries.
For those who reach the "expert" level of bodyweight squatting, Wade outlines and describes some additional variants. These exercises can add variety to the squatting formula and give the legs and hips even greater power. Variants discussed include Lunges, Leg Press Lunges, Sissy Squats, Hindu Squats, Plyometric Jumping, Stair/Hill Sprints, Car Pushing, and Fireman Sprints. These extra exercises, in addition to being superb power builders, are also are great for improving heart and lung functioning, and for developing an extraordinary level of stamina.
If you are looking to build a "barn door back and major guns", look no further than Chapter 7. This chapter is dedicated to the pullup, an exercise that Wade considers to be the safest and most productive upper-back and biceps builder in existence.
After explaining why he considers the pullup to be a superior back and arm builder, the author describes how to perform this exercise in the safest and most productive manner. Topics discussed include proper hand positioning, the ideal range of motion, how to protect the elbows and shoulders from injury, and how to perform the pullup to make optimal gains. Wade also discusses his belief that the pullup, if done as he outlines, helps to protect various joints of the body. He says, "If they are worked correctly, pullups generate healthy joints and result in hardly any injuries - a claim that cannot be made for other forms of back training!"
Jim Bathurst demonstrating the pullup exercise. Paul Wade considers the pullup to be a superior back and arm builder. Photo used with permission from John Du Cane and Paul Wade.
As with the other Big Six exercises, Wade presents The 10 Steps of the pullup exercise. In order of increasing difficulty, these are (1) Vertical Pulls, (2) Horizontal Pulls, (3) Jackknife Pulls, (4) Half Pullups, (5) Full Pullups, (6) Close Pullups, (7) Uneven Pullups, (8) 1/2 One-Arm Pullups, (9) Assisted One-Arm Pullups, and (10) One-Arm Pullups, or The Master Step. Each of these 10 steps is fully described and illustrated.
Wade places a big emphasis on working up to the one-arm pullup. He reflects,
One-arm pullups, performed deeply and without "kipping" are the greatest back and arm exercise possible. They confer mighty strength and size. The master of this exercise will earn lats that look like wings and his upper back will be sprouting muscles like coiled pythons. Plus, he'll own a grip, arms and forearms vastly more powerful than the average gym rat - in fact he could probably rip a bodybuilder's arm off in an arm wrestling match.
I don't doubt what Wade says about the one-arm pullup. In all my years of training at a public gym, I have never seen a single person manage a single rep of this exercise in good form. For those folks who follow Wade's advice and master this difficult movement, I can only bet that their back and arms will be completely transformed into thick fortresses of muscle. They will also earn the right to experiment with the variant back and arm exercises that the author describes in the final pages of Chapter 7. These variants include Sentry Pullups, Elbow Presses, Hulk Pulls, Bow Pulls, and Crucifix Pulls. One thing is for sure - If you master any of these advanced movements, then you will be one heck of a strong and well-muscled person.It doesn't take long once you start reading Chapter 8 to realize that Wade is not impressed with the modern-day approach to waist training. He argues that the newer styles of training favor appearance over ability, and that the "slim and weedy" waistline sought after by the majority of today's trainees is the wrong way to go if true strength and functional power are desired.
Wade favors building what he calls a "Six-Pack From Hell". A six-pack, as he defines it, consists of "thick, scarily well-developed abdominal muscles that look more like bricks on a building than cute 'fitness model' abs." Paul also adds that the waistline should demonstrate complete development, make the whole body stronger, add athletic power to the spine and legs, and be thick and strong enough that "they will actually hurt an attacker to punch or kick."
If you think that crunches and other isolation movements will get you a "six-pack" like Wade describes, you might want to think again. The author makes his opinion clear that isolation exercises are next to worthless for building true core strength. Balanced and functional waistline development, he says, can only be achieved by training the body as an integrated unit. And, the author points out that athletic movements, such as throwing a punch, kicking a ball, or lifting a heavy weight, require that the waistline muscles work in perfect harmony with all other muscles of the body.
To build a "Six-Pack From Hell", Wade states that there is no better exercise than leg raises, and he explains his reasoning in great detail. He then gives the reader several training tips for strengthening and improving his or her midsection, and some common training mistakes and myths are also discussed.
Following training theory and tips, Paul details The 10 Steps of the the leg-raise exercise. In order of increasing difficulty, they are: (1) Knee Tucks, (2) Flat Knee Raises, (3) Flat Bent Leg Raises, (4) Flat Frog Raises, (5) Flat Straight Leg Raises, (6) Hanging Knee Raises, (7) Hanging Bent Leg Raises, (8) Hanging Frog Raises, (9) Partial Straight Leg Raises, and (10) Hanging Straight Leg Raises, or The Master Step. Each of these 10 steps is fully described and illustrated.
Paul's prescribed method of performing Hanging Straight Leg Raises may be your ticket to acquiring a superb waistline. He observes,
By the time you can execute even twenty perfect reps of this exercise, your waist will be powerful and flexible, your obliques, serratus, transversus and intercostals will be carved out of solid rock and your abdominal muscles will be like plate steel.
If having "plate steel" abs is not good enough for you, then you might want to consider practicing the V-Raise after you have mastered hanging work. Wade calls the V-Raise "the most powerful midsection exercise possible," and he explains how to perform this advanced and wicked exercise in detail. Along the way, the author gives a number of training tips and strategies for progressively building the strength, power, and skill required to become an "elite" performer of this movement.
Whether the student of Convict Conditioning elects to advance to the V-Raise or not, Wade concludes Chapter 8 with a number of alternate exercises that can be used to add variety to the standard waist-training routine. These variants include Sit-Ups, Janda Sit-Ups, Incline Sit-Ups, Roman Chair Sit-Ups, Twisting Sit-Ups, Russian Twists, L-Holds, Medicine Ball Work, Side Leg Raises, and Twisting Leg Raises. Wade discusses how to perform each of these exercises in full.
Chapter 9 begins with the following words from the author:
If I had to name the most important strength-building exercise in the world, it would be the bridge. Nothing else even comes close.
After uttering these words, Wade then goes on to provide one of the most comprehensive and thorough treatments of bridging that I have seen in any book. He explains in detail how bridging benefits the spine, helps to heal minor back injuries, improves functional strength, builds the neck, legs, and back to a remarkable degree, improves athletic ability, and teaches the muscles of the body to work together in perfect harmony. He also details how to perform the bridge correctly. And, numerous training tips are provided to ensure that the student achieves optimal results.
Wade cautions that inexperienced trainees should not jump into bridge training suddenly. Instead, he warns that a progressive "plan" is needed to build the fundamental strength required to perform even the simplest version of this movement safely and effectively. Such a plan is provided by the author, and after the student completes it, he or she will be ready to begin The 10 Bridge Steps.
The 10 Bridge Steps, in order of increasing difficulty, consist of (1) Short Bridges, (2) Straight Bridges, (3) Angled Bridges, (4) Head Bridges, (5) Half Bridges, (6) Full Bridges, (7) Wall Walking Bridges (Down), (8) Wall Walking Bridges (Up), (9) Closing Bridges, and (10) Stand-To-Stand Bridges, or The Master Step. Each of these 10 steps is fully described and illustrated.
The advanced forms of the Bridge that Wade presents in his book are not a joke. Very few fitness buffs, even elite athletes, can perform them properly. If you become proficient at these movements, then you will undoubtedly possess ENORMOUS strength and flexibility, far beyond the typical gym member.
After you become a master of the Bridge, Wade can still make you tougher. For those seeking to move from the elite to the super-elite level of strength, the author prescribes a type of "strength gymnastics" movement that incorporates both the Bridge and the handstand pushup into a single integrated movement. And, you can bet that this is a very advanced exercise. Only the strongest members of the human race should even think about trying this exercise. As an alternative, he also describes Platform Bridging, which is a little known way to make stand-to-stand bridges even harder and more explosive.
Wade emphasizes in his book that there are virtually no other exercises that can act as a substitute for the Bridge. However, for those who want to add variety to their training routine, or who can't perform the Bridge due to an injury or other reason, the author describes several alternative exercises. These include the Bow Hold, the Camel Hold, Geko Bridges, Hyperextensions, Reverse Hyperextensions, and Prone Hyperextensions. The author also describes how to perform Back Handsprings and the Backflip. These two exercises are quite advanced, and tremendous athletic skill is required to perform them properly. Fortunately, Wade provides some good tips to help you gain the skill that you will need to master them.
Since time immemorial, powerful shoulders have been the mark of a true strongman. But, as Wade points out in Chapter 10, big shoulders are not always healthy ones. The problem is, the author states, many exercises strain or damage the relatively delicate rotator cuff, the group of muscles which stabilize the humerus, or arm bone, in the shoulder socket. Weight training exercises, both in barbell and in machine form, can fall into this category warns Wade, if special precautions are not taken to ensure that natural movement is not restricted.
To gain a better understanding of how shoulder injuries often occur in the gym, either suddenly or over a period of time, Wade provides a short and easy-to-understand anatomy lesson about the shoulder structure. He explains how the shoulder is designed to function, and why injuries to the rotator cuff are relatively common among weight trainers, especially among those who favor presses and bench presses.
As an alternative to barbell or machine presses, Wade introduces the Handstand Pushup, an exercise which he believes is inherently safer and more productive. His logic is presented in a clear and concise manner, and you may want to pay special attention to what he has to say if you want to protect your shoulders and have a long-lived training career.
If you prefer to keep lifting weights (as I do), Wade offers some suggestions to minimize the risk of developing or aggravating shoulder troubles. But, he makes clear his opinion that the best course of action is to drop the barbell and focus on the handstand pushup.
Handstand pushups can be a difficult movement to learn and master, so Wade provides many excellent training tips to get you off to a good start. He then details The 10 Steps of the the Handstand Pushup. In order of increasing difficulty, they are: (1) Wall Headstands, (2) Crow Stands, (3) Wall Handstands, (4) Half Handstand Pushups, (5) Handstand Pushups, (6) Close Handstand Pushups, (7) Uneven Handstand Pushups, (8) 1/2 One-Arm Handstand Pushups, (9) Lever Handstand Pushups, and (10) One-Arm Pushups, or The Master Step. Each of these 10 steps is fully described and illustrated.
Jim Bathurst demonstrating the Uneven Handstand Pushup. Photo used with permission from the publisher.
Five additional exercises are also presented to provide the trainee with a alternatives choices. They are (1) Marion Pushups, (2) Isometric Presses, (3) Windmills, (4) Hand Walking, and (5) Tiger Bends. Wade states that these five exercises "are truly excellent for shoulder health."
Some trainees may debate Wade's arguments about barbell training. This is fine, but I have no intention of getting into this argument here. What is not debatable, however, is the fact that handstand pushups can pack the body with slabs of muscle and athletic power. This exercise is not only a fine shoulder builder, it is one of the best triceps developers you can possibly do. And, it greatly stimulates the core muscles, the forearms, and the upper back. Anybody who works hard enough to master the handstand pushup will inevitably possess awesome strength and fantastic muscular development.
PART 3: Self Coaching (Chapters 11 and 12)
In the second part of Wade's book, the theory and the exercises behind the Convict Conditioning system are discussed in detail. Sets and reps schemes, along with progression strategies are also outlined for each of the Big Six movements. In addition, a handy progression chart is provided for each Big Six. Each chart provides a compact summary of The 10 Steps and targeted training goals.
In the third and final section of his book, Wade provides the principles and guidelines that will allow the student of Convict Conditioning to structure a productive training program, and one based on personal needs. This is basically a section devoted to the art of self coaching.
Chapter 11 begins the journey into the world of self coaching. Here, Wade presents rules of thumb for warming up effectively, and he offers some guidelines to ensure that training progress is long lived, rather than hurried and ultimately short circuited. Wade also discusses how intensely an individual should train, and how to progress most efficiently from step to step, along the 10 steps. Helpful ideas for overcoming the most common roadblocks to progress are also presented.
In the second half of Chapter 11, Wade covers his version of consolidation training. This form of training is rather unusual, but the author recommends it for trainees who are struggling to move up to the advanced Steps of a Big Six movement.
The author completes Chapter 11 be covering how many work sets a trainee should do, how long a trainee should rest between sets, what benefits are realized by documenting training sessions, and how to write an effective training journal.
In Chapter 12, the last in the book, the author outlines five training programs. In order of advancement, these five programs are referred to as: New Blood, Good Behavior, Veterano, Solitary Confinement, and Supermax.
New Blood is a recommended training program for anybody new to old-school calisthenics, or for anybody who is new to physical training. It involves only four exercises, and it requires just two short workout sessions a week. However, despite its simplicity, it provides a good foundation for the more advanced routines to come.
Good Behavior is an intermediate training routine, although the author also says that it is effective for more advanced athletes as well. This routine involves all of the Big Six movements, and it requires just three short workouts per week. Don't be fooled by its compact nature. Wade says, "This is perhaps the best basic bodyweight training program that exists." He also says, "This program can (and should) be used by any athlete to achieve solid strength gains - no matter how advanced they are."
For anybody who has practiced the Convict Conditioning system for several months, Wade offers an alternative routine he calls the Veterano. This workout involves training six days a week, but only one exercise is done per session. Wade says that an individual session can often be completed in six or seven minutes! It is therefore recommended for advanced students who have limited time for training.
For the super dedicated and more advanced student of Convict Conditioning, the Solitary Confinement routine can be used. This workout plan involves performing three exercises per session and training six days per week. It is designed to provide additional conditioning and fitness benefits, and to provide extra work for the grip, neck, and calves. It is a very advanced routine, and Wade stresses that it should be attempted only by experienced folks who have a very good recovery ability.
If you are looking for "inhuman" endurance and stamina, and if you have more than a few years of training behind you, then the Supermax routine may be just what you need. This workout program involves performing two exercises per session, and it is based on long endurance-driven workouts. It also involves training six days per week.
Paul Wade makes it clear in Convict Conditioning that he considers old school calisthenics to be the most effective form of strength training there is. However, he understands that there are people like me out there who are faithfully committed to training with heavy iron. Since us iron folks will not give up our barbells, the author provides three example hybrid programs near the end of the book. These hybrid programs combine bodyweight exercises with weight work, and they allow weight-training enthusiasts to experiment with old school calisthenics without giving up their chosen discipline of training.
Convict Conditioning is a book that I believe all members of physical culture can benefit from. It is one of those rare works that lights up the sky when you read it. It was written without fear, with a keen sense of purpose, and with the aim of delivering a powerful message. It is truly a book of significant impact.
Author, Paul Wade, presents a colorful palette of training ideas and concepts in Convict Conditioning. Some of these ideas you may agree with, and some of them you may not. Regardless of your stance, however, Wade will challenge your assumptions, and this is the mark of a great writer.
When I first started reading Wade's book, I was somewhat taken aback by his criticism of weight training in general, and bodybuilding more specifically. However, in due time, I realized that the author provided logical and sensible arguments that could increase my understanding of productive exercise. Once I opened my mind to his ideas, I was surprised to learn how much useful information came from my reading. The author had me thinking about training in ways I never considered before.
I am a weightlifter, and I will continue to lift weights. Nonetheless, the ideas and techniques put forth in Convict Conditioning will undoubtedly help me to improve my training. The message here is that regardless of what type of physical training you prefer to engage in, whether it be bodyweight training, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, or some other field of strength, Convict Conditioning can help you reach your goals. It is a remarkable book, and it is one that I strongly recommend you read.
Convict Conditioning can be ordered from Dragon Door via http://www.dragondoor.com/b41.html#order. The cost of the book is $39.95.