How to Train with Convict Conditioning. Breaking Through The Confusion!

Hi! I am the author and founder of Old School Calisthenics

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Convict Conditioning is unquestionably one of the best selling books out there about calisthenics. Newcomers into bodyweight fitness start utilizing it and its BIG 6 system with the promise of real growth. I admit that the book is well written, organized, and polished, so many get inspired by the convict Paul Wade and his tale.

While so many consistently train and put in the work ethic, only a few I came across found their way to might and muscle. Because of that, I want to break through the confusion around Convict Conditioning, coach Wade, and how to make this system work to your advantage.

Everybody knows that the training methods from Convict Conditioning are meant to work the nervous system for strength gains rather than the muscular system. But the books also teach us how to attain a brutally strong body as well as solid muscles as the Greek Statues illustrate.

I assume you have read it and have been training for a while utilizing its training systems. Based on the Big Six, I want to give you a different perspective and training approach that I find more practical.

Before I dive into specifics, I want to say that lifting your body weight against gravity is more challenging when you carry around more pounds. And more so considering that coach Paul Wade wants you to master the one-arm pull-up. Being lighter is always an advantage.

You Are Not Working Enough!

Although Convict Conditioning is more about training smart, progressively and with less volume, it is also about putting in sufficient volume to achieve the master steps. In my opinion, you can’t get one without the other. And a training system based on high volume training is the key to become an elite athlete.

If you analyze the progression standards, Coach Wade is inviting us to do more repetitions of a previous exercise to increase adaptability [strength-endurance] that will help us be more prepared for the upcoming intense steps. If you want to surpass the current level, you need to go beyond the recommended 20 reps, or you may even want to add some exercise variations -which are not included in the system but are mentioned immediately after the MASTER STEP for a sufficient time until you get stronger for the next step. It is precisely why I think Convict Conditioning is about doing volume training even though it may appear to recommend the contrary.

The elite standard suggests an absurd amount of repetitions. Firstly, I don’t think there is someone on the planet Earth who can master One-Arm Handstand Pushups against a wall. It’s unachievable, and coach Wade never put out any video to support the claim. Secondly, I never saw anyone doing 100 repetitions of One-Arm Pushups.

Lights Out!

How can someone achieve such an extreme strength and endurance level by training two sets for each step/variation? How do you think it’s possible to do over 20 one-arm pushups?

I have more than 15 years of experience. I master calisthenics, swimming, and run dozens of kilometers on rough trails. My strength level is way beyond ordinary, so is my muscular endurance. Every time I wanted to do more of a challenging exercise, I had to increase the volume. Therefore, I either do more of that exercise or work more with easier variations belonging underneath the same family.

Whoever tells me that he achieved an exceptional level of strength and power without a tremendous amount of work, is lying!?

I grew up among athletes. The best were always the harder workers in the room. If you train 5 variations with 2 working sets, that doesn’t strike me as hard work.

To achieve such strength, you need a lot more volume. Stick with the BIG 6 if you want. If Paul does exist (many doubt that), and his claims are real, then he’d tell you this too.

In my effort to get stronger:

  • I train more frequently because strength is a skill, and it needs constant practice
  • I extend a little the pause between sets so I can start fresher. For strength gains, it is always best to rest more
  • But I don’t pause too much because muscles respond to strenuous and constant pressure. It’s contradictory but necessary. Once the muscles develop, you get stronger as a consequence of the functional and compound exercises
  • And I add not only more workouts, but more sets, or reps.

Paul Wade is also suggesting 4-5 training sessions a week, which is pretty frequent in my opinion. I see a lot of people who are of the understanding that the BIG SIX isn’t about volume at all. And that, somehow it was specially designed for lazy athletes to work for their big dreams with only 2-3 sets of maximum 10-20 repetitions and with 3-4 exercise variations with a frequency maximum of 2 days a week on the same routine.

I am reluctant to burst their bubble, but one will in all probability never reach the master steps this way!!! Even Paul Wade states that he had trained a lot in prison using high frequency and high repetitions even though its book isn’t about such a thing. I am not surprised you got all so confused!

It seems that he has found a way to train for maximal strength only, considering that the high volume workouts have nothing to do with pure-raw strength. It makes no sense at all!

For instance, I use to run the mountain trails. Rough terrain, extreme weather and elevation, and my legs got more prominent and powerful than ever. During this journey, I always tried to push more and run long mileage without fearing that I gain stamina and endurance only. Take a look at my legs below. Also, notice that I am not that skinny either from too much running:

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Yesterday I ran on a mountain trail for 2 hours with an elevation gain of 1 km (0.62 miles). I covered 12,6 km (7,82 miles), almost all of it on rocky terrain and also had to run in complete darkness through the forest on the last 2 miles . Along with calisthenics, I incorporated this activity too, starting at the end of April. So far, I’ve not only dropped in weight aggressively, but I increased my lean muscle mass at the same time. I’ve built a rock-solid body. Most importantly though, my legs have developed enormously . Current weight: 81 kg (179 lbs) . #onnit #naturerun #hillsprints #uphillrunning #trailrun #calisthenicsbody #calisthenicsmotivation #frankmedrano #barbrothers #bodyweightfitness #fitnessmotivation #fitnessprogress #fitness

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The only way to get better is to work more often with both light and difficult exercises. Don’t get me wrong! If you want to master the archer pull-up for instance, then, in my opinion, you should work with about 5-10 sets of max reps each time until the exercise becomes more manageable. And you can’t train so much on it without the required strength-endurance which built with lighter pull-up variations.

convict conditioning training

The Training Method Might Be Wrong!

I agree that there is a lot to benefit from, starting light and finishing heavy. But why not doing the other way around? After a proper warm-up, inverse the system and work in a pyramid. Begin with the hardest progression that you can master already and move towards the easiest ones. Of course, you can’t do uneven pull-ups at the end of your training. You have more energy and feel fresh at the beginning, right? Don’t limit at the option offered by the book.

You always have to work at the low-medium-high intensity with high-medium-low sets and reps. The same exercises can be done in a circuit, in a pyramid, or split into sets and reps. All of them are good for strength and muscle gains! I do them all.

Workout Example 1:

  1. Archer Pull-Ups: 4 sets
  2. Wide Pull-Ups: 5 sets
  3. Regular Pull-Ups: 4 sets
  4. Chinups: 4 sets
  5. Body Rows: 4-10 sets

Workout Example 2:

  1. Uneven pushups: 5-7 sets
  2. Dips: 5 sets
  3. Diamond Pushups: 4-5 sets
  4. Declined Pushups: 4 sets
  5. Pushups: 4 sets
  6. Incline: 4 sets

Workout Example 3: Circuit

(5 Lever Pull-Ups -> 5 Body Rows -> 15 Dips -> 15 Pushups) x 10 sets

You can add leg and abs exercises too and build a full-body workout. These routines are best for strength, muscles, and endurance gains -all at the same time! If they seem too harsh, change with other light exercises.

You need to train muscular endurance to recover better and be able to work other harder progressions. Coach Wade also said that when he struggled to learn a tough exercise, then he went back to his basic workouts and increased the sets and reps until his body adapted.

Personalize the BIG SIX as much as you can. You can’t and shouldn’t follow the routines strictly as presented in the book.

My easy-to-follow tips:

  • Include 4-5 exercises of the same family
  • Train using 4-7 sets per variation
  • Go beyond the recommended reps
  • Rest 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Rest 3-4 minutes between variations
  • Train 4-5 times a week
  • Add more variety: cardio, cycling, full-body training.

Final Thoughts

  • Strength is a skill. The more often you train, the better you get. Work the same muscle groups at least two times a week. It helps you build muscles
  • Do not be afraid to push yourself for higher sets and reps. You can’t become really strong and have an impressive physique the other way around. Lie to yourself as much as you want to, but hard work always pays off
  • Forget about 3-5 minutes of rest time between sets. You need to rest at a maximum of 2 minutes if you want to gain endurance and muscles too. For maximal strength though, it might be okay.

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