When you hear the word “calisthenics,” you might think of jumping jacks, burpees and all those other warm-up exercises you did in gym class when you were a kid. And you wouldn’t be wrong for doing so; those certainly are bodyweight exercises in their own right.
But prior to the latter half of the 20th century, before local gyms became all the buzz, calisthenics were most widely renowned for their proven effectiveness in maximizing raw power and brute strength.
In fact, it is entirely possible to get incredibly strong and musclebound all over using nothing but old school calisthenics. However, this will come about if, and only if, you practice them in their traditional form.
Paul “Coach” Wade learned these classic techniques while spending over 20 years in one of the few places where such knowledge has been preserved: prison. Fortunately, we don’t have to go through what he did in order to absorb and apply such timeless knowledge. Wade has given us the opportunity to do so in his book: Convict Conditioning.
This 304 page masterpiece is the ultimate authority on why you should practice calisthenics, what techniques to use when doing so, and how to progress on to mastering some of the most incredible feats of holistic strength the human body is capable of.
It is divided into three parts, all of which are very well-written and highly entertaining. Wade’s writing style is so original, articulate and witty that, if you were so foolish as to not absorb any of his training advice, you’d still probably enjoy the process of reading through it. Nonetheless, this is first and foremost a detailed instruction manual and a must-have for anyone intent on taking their strength and fitness to the next level.
Part I: Preliminaries
The first few chapters of the book go over the how’s and why’s of everything that is to follow.
Wade puts forth a detailed historical account of physical culture, explaining how calisthenics long dominated the strength and muscle scene even as far back as the ancient Greeks and Spartans and all the way up to the early 1950’s.
Wade then goes on to explain how bodyweight exercises quickly lost their prominence throughout the latter half of the 20th century as new forms of training technology exploded onto the fitness scene. Nonetheless, he remains firm in his conviction that calisthenics produces the best results.
Part II: The Big Six: Power Moves
This is the meat of the book and essentially what makes it the greatest exercise manual out there.
All the exercise variants are rooted in “The Big 6” movements which collectively cover almost every muscle group of your body:
- Pushups: chest, front shoulder, triceps
- Squats: quadriceps, butt, hamstrings and inner thighs, hips, calves and feet
- Pull Ups: upper back, wings, rhomboid and trapezius, biceps, forearms and hands
- Leg Raises: abdominals, obliques, outer and inner rib muscles, diaphragm and transversus, grip muscles, quadriceps, the entire frontal hip complex
- Bridges: spine, lower back, rear deltoids, trapezius, rear hips, leg biceps, hamstrings
- Handstand Pushups: triceps, the entire shoulder girdle, trapezius muscles, hands, forearms
There are 10 exercises, or “steps,” for each of these categories. Once you reach the progression standard for one step, the next one will be slightly more difficult. This is most often done through subtle changes such as adjusting the angle of your body, moving your hands or feet closer together, or even taking an arm or leg completely out of the equation.
If you stick with this structure long enough, you’ll eventually work your way up to the highly coveted “Master Step” of each exercise. These include:
- One-arm pushup
- Full one-leg squat (aka “pistol squat”)
- Full one-arm pullup
- Hanging straight leg raise
- Stand-to-stand bridge
- One-arm handstand pushup
It is Paul Wade’s gradual, steady approach and meticulous attention to the ever-so-important details that makes Convict Conditioning such a perfect blueprint for building up to these awesome displays of athleticism.
Every exercise is accompanied by pictures and elaborate (nonetheless easy to comprehend) descriptions that leave no room for confusion whatsoever.
Part III: Self-Coaching
This is where you learn how to put all your newly acquired knowledge to good use.
Wade explains the importance of warming up and his ideal methods for doing so.
He then puts forth 5 different bodyweight training sample routines to either follow or help you customize your own program. All of them vary in difficulty and required dedication, so you can pick whatever best suits your schedule and fitness goals.
As an added bonus, he’s even got a couple Hybrid training programs for those who wish to mix calisthenics into their weight-training routines.
The (Potentially) Bad
Fair warning: There’s a moderate amount of profanity throughout this book, as seems fitting for the prison culture theme. This, along with Wade’s “in your face” writing style, could be perceived by some as arrogant and off-putting. He doesn’t hold anything back in touting how superior his methods are to those of “freaky, artificial ‘pumped up’ gorilla costume” wearing bodybuilders being duped by “the modern fitness scam.”
But as brazen and potentially offensive as this claim may seem, his preference for strength-based calisthenics over weightlifting is backed up by sound logic. Personally, having consistently practiced the former for over 2 years now and the latter for over a decade before then, I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment and have expressed similar sentiments as well.
A more common criticism I’ve read is that the author was never a convict, but just claimed so as a marketing gimmick. I’ve yet to see any evidence behind this accusation, but even if there was any, what difference would it make regarding how effective his training program is? Regardless of how true or false his background story may be, he clearly knows what he’s talking about concerning history, anatomy/kinesiology and, most importantly, how to get serious results without a gym.
At nearly $40 (or $20 in pdf form), Convict Conditioning is considerably more expensive than the average 300 page book. But make no mistake: once you have it, you’re set for life with the only workout instructions you’ll ever need. Whether you’re intent on maximizing your athletic potential and aesthetic appeal, or just looking to get in better shape through the simplest and most effective means possible, all the knowledge you’ll ever need is contained within this book.
It has certainly proven to be a worthwhile investment for me:
I absolutely love this book and can’t recommend it enough to anyone with an interest in fitness.
One of the greatest things about it is how applicable it is to every person at every level.
If you can’t do a pushup, that’s okay. Convict Conditioning contains an intricately detailed progression of beginner exercises that will build you up to that point in no time.
If you can’t do a one-armed pushup, following the advanced steps of the pushup progression series can get you there slowly but surely.
Whatever point you’re at and whatever your goals are, this is the greatest fitness resource out there.