Book Review: Convict Conditioning
Convict Conditioning, by Paul "Coach" Wade, Dragon Door Press, 2009.
published by Dragon Door Press, who also brought North America the Russian Kettlebell with Pavel in 1999, and has pioneered alternative weight training and modern body functioning systems such as Kb's, Indian Clubs, and Body Weight exercise, as well as kung fu and other publications.
The latest revolution to come from Dragon Door is Convict Conditioning. Everyone has glimpsed a prison workout on the news or in a documentary, and some know people that have served time who have offered some exercises. Few have been inside and learned what is really done constructively by lifters for exercise. Paul Wade has brought to the public the hard conditioning exercises using body weight, used in the prisons, and he has made it into a workout system for the public.
This is an article by the same author:
This is the Dragon Door website page for the book.
Hard men doing hard time, an old cliché true, but still one of the great icons of fighter mythology. A man alone, racking out body weight exercise sets in his Jail cell to prepare for a death match in the prison yard. But we know it is somewhat true, at least that there is a system of training in there, and shake downs or worse. In movies it reaches even farther, when hero characters of the 1980's and 90's cinema often did solo training sequences culminating is the idolized one arm push up reps. Even G.I. Jane produced this classic scene, and obviously Rocky.
But what about real convicts? What do they train? Paul “Coach” Wade did a total of 19 years as a 2 time recidivist. His first cell mate was an hardened 71 year old lifer, still fit and prime. This man had learned to lift in the early 1900's before the weight bench became so popular.He taught Wade the way to do body weight exercises for true strength, and Paul continued to develop it. As he put it, in jail you get fit to survive and get fit fast. He began to be called “Coach” and sold his skill for whatever they trade in there. Paul learned form other prisoners and offers a more sobering look at exercise in the pen. There are not many yards with weight sets, that is a movie myth, but the equipment in the cell serves the needed purpose. Inverted pull ups under a sink, feet elevated push ups on the bunch, to handstand walks up the wall to the top bunch. Wanna try it?, go into your apartment sized bathroom and get creative. Yes the toilet might serve as your decline bench in tiny cell. Deal with it, that guy in the yard wants you holding his belt loop. Coach Wade also did research on the outside as well, and culminated evidence to back up his observations. He taught many people on the inside, a personal trainer if you will. He has the experience to understand who succeeds at this and why.
If this were only a exercise book with Coach Wade's 10 step progressions for each exercise, and his motivational reasons why to follow the rep and set counts, it would still be a great booklet. However, Paul became an expert on these prison calisthenics and researched them every chance he got. What he discovered was very interesting and has changed my way of thinking about human physical fitness. As a Ranked Martial Artist and also as a Certified Personal Trainer (NASM), I have seen and experienced a variety of body conditioning methods, including free weights, machines, kettlebells, MMA cross training, sparring and wrestling, plyometrics, unstable environments, and many others. I also have seen all kinds of body types and fitness levels. I know that MMA warriors get the fitness levels that are among the best the world has seen in many decades. But what an MMA pro does I do not have the time or access. I don't have tractor tires to roll nor do I get the level of intense training and coached strength conditioning that they do.
Have you ever considered that weight plates were invented in 1900? or that the large “barbell” objects in many images from the 1800's were not training weights but instead were items made to look impressive when lifted at the circus? What were these guys doing for strength conditioning before 1900? or how about the village stones northerns had to lift to become men in the viking days? We read about archers pulling up trees, root and all, and we have evidence that the bow arm grew different then their draw arm! These are impressive feats and body developments. Paul goes back even to the Spartans, who Xersies spies reported were doing calisthenics to prepare for battle. Calisthenics's? We have reduced that to just some warm ups and cool downs in most recreational exercise programs. The Spartans were touching their toes and jogging in place to warm up? I don't think so! So we have lost touch then to what calisthenics really is. The weight bench and squat rack have changed the way our culture exercises, and with the new sedentary lifestyle, Westerns do not naturally develop the strong core our agrarian forefathers developed as part of their lifestyle. We need calisthenics more then ever, and here it is. Body weight exercise is proving to be a tool both the sedentary atrophied new person and also the long time heavy lifter can benefit from. What Paul Wades collects as evidence for his methods, and the history of human fitness that has lead us here is what really makes this book a must have read.
Let's get this straight right up front. This is not about glorifying felons, nor is it an endorsement of prison. It is not to even give credit to a felon for having the free time to train to a point they can do 45 minute long sets of push ups. This is about the methods they have preserved sand what it can do for you.
Convict Conditioning is very simple, 6 exercises. These are your assessment, are you this tough?
1)Single Arm Pull Up
2)Single Arm Push Up
3)Hand Stand to Hand to Stand Bridge
4)Hanging Leg Raises
5)Single Leg Squat
6)Single Arm Handstand Push Up
Failed everything? No, oh I see you did 6 hanging leg raises, but failed all the rest...great.
Let us change these then to goals instead. Just being able to do one rep of each of these would be a phenomenal feat, but how do I get there? and once I am there how do I stay that strong? This is were Paul has laid out the 10 step progression, each with a beginner, intermediate, and progression standard. Each step is detailed with photographs and with instructions. Areas that Paul feels are dysfunctional for mechanical reasons, but which many have been taught wrong due to body building techniques, he explains in greater detail. I want you to buy the book so I won't give you all the rep counts and sets, or his other aids, but I will outline the progression for one exercise so you have a perspective.
One Arm Push Up Goal
This is a true Single Arm Push Up, not the Movie style out to side with wide feet. On your toes, feet shoulder width apart, body plank straight, and arm is pushed straight down, from the flanks of the ribs to in front of the chest. He admits it may take some of us a lifetime to do it. The first progression is wall push ups, then decline, then knee push ups, then ½ push ups, followed by full push ups, all with the true push up technique form. Then you do ½ pushes with one arm, extend the uneven object laterally until the other arm is straight(no weight), but still offers a point of reference working the full one arm push up, and finally step 10 is the goal exercise itself. He recommends to do all ten steps. Do not try to jump in at step three or four, thinking that is were you fall out on the progression standards. You need to do wall push ups to develop the joints and the nervous system to work in that alignment. Most people are at plateaus for their bodyweight exercise reps and they have been there for years, or worse, they are hitting far lower now. You need to do a few months at each step and work your way up again. These develop the tendon, central nervous system, and smaller muscles endurance.
Paul has done this with clients as a personal trainer, he has seen the success and the burn out. After each progression he offers the “superfit” other challenges rewards, and variations. Pistol squats with added weights, higher one rep max in weighted assessments with only addition to training being these bodyweight exercises. His point is that when you lift weights or worse use a machine system, the external object is a solid. It does that work for you. When you are pushing yourself away, not only to you lift the weight, but you also have to lock the weight together and hold it steady, as you are the weight too! It is the weak links that causes the total failure of the system. If you want to hang i180 lbs or more under one arm, that poundage better be rock solid and not wiggling around. A side benefit he claims is that your body recognizes and sheds the pounds. As you work over the weeks, your body knows what it is in for and adjusts accordingly. To do the higher end of the progressions you need to lock all the muscles and joint not used for motion and only work a few joints of the body to complete the task. It sounds simple. It is about as simple as gymnastics. That is what a gymnast does, isolate slight joint movements while holding form everywhere else.
But back to the Spartans and calisthenics. I have no doubt that the ancient warriors had fitness levels we can not imagine. They walked, carried loads, pulled heavy roped weights, and chopped the earth with tools as a part of daily living, so ancients were far stronger then we are today. Add to that a warriors training and you would get fitness levels above what modern MMA fighters accomplish today.
When you come up to the Roman era, you see the methods of warrior fitness develop into something more with the Gladiators. The male models for the Gods and heroes of Roman Art were these Gladiators. They were the models for the Roman Art. Considered the most perfect forms in the Art world, these physiques are the result of warrior training. These slaves were schooled in their facilities and lived only to train and to fight. They had the time and confinement to develop beyond just normal bodyweight exercise basics and invented the bench or pummel horse, single bar, and double hanging rings. Military training continued to have these types of developmental tools to this day, including climbing ropes, walls, and push ups, etc. but not the time to focus on them as the gladiators did. The Gladiators were able to take conditioning to higher levels, and to perform ever more challenging feats to push themselves.
This knowledge of exercise was continued to be passed on man to man in both the incarceration facilities and in the military. However, in the 1800's the invention of firearms and cannon were changing the needs of soldiery. The horse too was losing its importance. Foot soldiers no longer needed super strong shoulders for sword and shield work nor did they need to hop onto a horse. We know though that that the 1800's was also a time of great work and pioneering efforts in both health and exercise. One pioneer was a famous military commander in Prussia, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, that was witnessing the disappearance of the military calisthenics. He minimized the required apparatus down to the vaulting horse, balance beam, the single and double bars, and we have the sport of gymnastics. Other pioneers developed the Strongman shows. These guys used parallel bars to develop upper body strength. Even after the weight plate was invented, the ability to do pull ups and other body weight drills was a requirement BEFORE weight training. Charles Atlas, the advertisement from the back of the comic books of the 1950's and 60's was one of the last hero's of the bodyweight exercise movement. Over the 1970's, 80's, and 90's our culture discover exercise and we ran with it! This is a great thing but much of what we have done has been wild guesses and anecdotal. Eventually much of the old school methods were lost under the onslaught of the newest “better” and “quicker” methods.
“Thats the biggest guy here, ask him what he did...” is how most of us started. The big guy was either genetically lucky to be that way or taking some kind of supplement, but we copied the techniques he taught us anyway. Paul points out that the evolution of Body Building, as the exercises are designed to pump the muscle to take advantage of the supplements and steroids, has had a negative effect on performance and true strength conditioning. They are not designed to produce a stronger person, only a person who looks strong. Unfortunately many bodybuilding tools are still in use for strength and athletic performance.
Today we are lucky to be on the edge of a new environment for personal fitness. Methods and training are very diverse and cutting edge research is dramatically changing the methods used in the gym. That is if you higher a trainer, or read several muscle and health magazines. We have awesome potential for nutrition and calorie loads, dynamic training using weights, bodyweight, foam rollers, and many other technical tools. So it is not as bad as Paul describes it, if you are up to date on modern research, but most people are not. But Paul is making a point to the extreme in order for you to reflect, “I don't need any of that stuff!” I am all that I need. Or more important, I need to have a strong core before I try to build upon it.
As the world moved into the electronic age, and as many required manhood skills such as sailing a fully rigged schooner, or wrestling another armored samurai into a disarm/joint lock and throw, had now become merely sports such as the America's Cup race or Judo, one place remained the same. It is an educational institution that has taught it's curriculum man to man for thousands of years. It is a place as hard as any ancient mariner suffered or armored feudal warrior faced, a place which pits you into a survival game every day, and it has not yet become a sport. Yes, I am talking about incarceration. Prison is a college that overlaps going all the way back. It is a method of information, both communication and storage, and it has preserved something here for us to try and resurrect.
In his forward, John Du Cane reflects on his struggle with the title, Convict Conditioning. It seems that all of his advisors were against it, as it seems to be improper somehow. This is great stuff but many of the Dragon Door Publication clientèle are military and police. How would they react to this idea? I am glad that he choose to stick with it, because it reminds the reader of something else. This type of workout system is from a place with long hours and years of it. You the reader, out here in the world with a family, with a job, with hobbies and other time constraints, you are not going to be able to keep up. The level of effort these guys on the inside get to put forth is a high bar to set up to. But your 60 hour work week is it's own type of jail isn't it? You may love your job, but those are lost hours. Same with Family, or anything else that prevents us from hitting the heavy bag or racking up some 45's and pumping out some sets. So flip it! You can do these exercises anywhere, and do them quickly! You carry that isolation cell with you everywhere you go. So do some Convict Style set counts today! Drop to the corner of your desk and pump out a quick set of 40 ½ decline push ups.
Each achievement goal is really a target with ten progressive steps to get there. Some of the many reasons to hit these early steps and continuing with the push-up example; the wall push offs work the ligaments in the hands and elbows, the knee push ups with a solid core work the trunk and shoulders, and the ½ push up works the bodies ability to hold together for the entire set range. Each of these helps the rest of the body build weak it's links to catch up with the average bench pressers arm strength. Coach Wade also uses a diminishing stabilizer to get you onto a single limb. When I started this program, I myself was working as a security type job, so I had many “alone” hours walking the halls and grounds. The facility was covered in benches, railings, overhead grips, and steel I beam pillars so I was able to work in sets all through my rounds. I used variations on decline push up and wall pull ups, as well as squats and regular pull ups. The Steel I beams made for great wall pull up tools, and there was also a elementary school playground (unused), so I had access to horizontal and parrell bars, as well as a chain rope wall for incline pull ups. I used the exercise program plus extra sets of “Greasing the Groove(GtG)”. I was rewarded with a near doubling of both my push up and pull up max reps after a few months.
I know that Convict Conditioning has been criticized for being an over simplification, but I feel this is part of it's benefit. You can customize the approach to the work and modify accordingly. You can see that several steps on different exercises are not the perfect drill and are a fix to match the pattern.. Each 10 step program follows the same pattern of progression. One arm Hand Stand Push Up has been criticized as one example. It is said to be impossible without a slight support from a wall. Te squat and pistol squat go all the way to sitting on the calf, which some people may never feel capable of achieving. But with-in this simplified 10 step progression there are many degrees of variation.
It is advised that you do each step and do each for a period of months before moving up. You still continue to use them as warm ups or for GtG, and eventually you may do them again as a single limb exercise. For example: I myself do many of the early steps single arm now, like single arm wall push offs. This is not a specific step in the series, but the series sometimes have big jumps. I am working my single arm progression the same way I did the first half of the series double-armed. Another area I found a modification for was the single leg squat. Steve Maxwell, RKC and renowned strength and BW exercise master, recommends some pistol squat work from the ground up, which is in contrast to Convict Conditionings ½ pistol progression with a balancing aid. So what is my point? I still do the Convict Conditioning sets and progression standards for a few months, even if another method helped me speed up my accomplishment. Perfect form and perfect ease is the standard, so this takes a few months of work to develop even once you can hit the rep numbers cleanly. This type of body weight strength and balance work gives a lasting change and will carry you into the higher progressions.
Remember, it is Convict Conditioning. They thought long and hard about that title and they keep it for several reasons. It is to remind you to harden up. It is to remind you that it will be a long term commitment, a sentence of several years to life. You will be doing this a long time so what is the rush? The title is to remind you that it is solo work, that this is internal conditioning, you are in the isolation cell my friend. You may have a partner to motivate you on training days, but the challenge is your solo output. The man on the inside is ignoring the fool locked in his cell with him so he can focus and get his reps in, he is doing his work all day because he has nothing else to do. You need to get this into your head, to ignore distractions or embarrassment and crunch out those reps and sets. It is to remind you that it is not about fancy supplements or protein loading, as a Prisoner is eating whatever they serve. Just eat right. And its only a few minutes a day really, so it is not even that much to ask for.
Bullshido forum member Southpaw once famous addressed that kung fu people needed to “find hard men to train with, and to train hard with them!!” While a book is not a training partner, I think that for a skinny Martial Artist looking to beef up, Convict Conditioning is the best place to start. Jack Rusher once commented about Kettlebells, another Dragon Door Product, that the Russian KB crowd approaches things from a tough perspective. It was not that the KB was that much different then a dumbbell of the same weight, but that the culture of KB's hardens people up. It is an attitude as well as a mere exercise. Convict Conditioning, with it's intro about the warriors and the chiseled physiques of Ancient Gladiators, and how that training remains today as gymnastics and here, as a prison workout, conveys that attitude. The thick, solid slabs of muscle you will strap on with this program will empower real attitude and strength.