The Book: 

In 1979 Paul Wade was admitted into San Quentin State Prison, being locked up he discovered things lost to the outside world. Wade ended up despising most things preached about the industry from the outside, from the top level of media all the way down to to the laypersons' knowledge on the subject. After 23 years in prison he wrote this book to show how he survived all that time with his sanity intact, share the knowledge he gained, and correct the narratives that he sees as destroying people's ability to gain functional strength.

This is a strength training book, but one that might be different than most. In this book the prison system and his survival in it is a supporting character, to the main star that is calisthenic strength training. Paul Wade, or as he said he was known in prison, Paul “Coach” Wade, discovered “old school” calisthenics from the other older inmates he interacted with. Over time he learned to love strength training and the art of making one’s self stronger, passionate about the craft and the history of how humans were able to become strong throughout the ages. This was definitely influenced by him needing to survive in prison, where fights were explosive and only the strongest were to survive.

 “For more years than I dare to count, my training system has kept me physically tougher and head-and-shoulders stronger than the vast majority of psychos, veteranos, and other vicious nutjobs I’ve been forced to rub shoulders with for two decades” -Page 3

Wade goes on a fun few paragraph rant about how calisthenics as a word has been bastardized by the pubic school gym teachers and fitness media to mean “do a couple of pushups and squats” to paraphrase. He thinks that those are better than nothing but they are doing it all wrong. He thinks all of current strength based media is doing it all wrong. He’s pissed at the workout industry because, “The average gym junkie today is all about appearance, not ability”(page 2). Wade’s whole book is made off the thesis of training for strength and function, being able to have a shredded body and use it too. The “use it too” part is especially important, because in the latter part of the first chapter, he claims in prison that being perceived as weak could literally mean death for the individual.

”... other prisoners exploit weakness like they breath air; intimidation is the daily current in the holes I’ve wound up in.”(page 4)

The first three chapters are spent establishing his thesis. Attempting to get the reader to unlearn the bodily destructive methods that modern day gym culture has beat into them, and have the reader turn to progressive calisthenics as a way to build strength and function. Most of what is above is established in chapter one. There's a section in chapter two in which he talks about how the history of strength training was all done through progressive calisthenics up until the weights revolution. Commenting that body weight exercises were used by the Spartans and the Roman armies to become strong. That calisthenics as a word comes from combining the Greek words beauty “kallos” and strength “sthénos”. After doing a quick google search on Roman army training, it seems true that there were no typical barbells involved.

Chapter three is where he really dives down into the meat of how his system works, what the benefits are and why you should use it. The chapter starts off with him hating gyms and gym culture. How it seems to be plastered all over that going to the gym is the only way to get fit. Gym rats who are huge but abuse substances and weights which then sacrifice their long term body health for short term body appearance. The abysmal routines people do at a gym that they call a “workout”. That even those who do regularly train at the gym and don’t drop out within two months don’t see much improvement over time. Wade also claims weight training causes muscular and joint problems for people because the heavy weights cause too much unnatural body stress. He caps off this great rant with how inconvenient it is to even go to the gym in the first place, usually after school or work, with all the set up needed beforehand like gym bags and towels, and how usually the weights are in use when you get there. He feels bad for people because other people are telling them they need to do these things to get healthy or be attractive. He ends it by saying all you really need to be strong is fit is your body and knowledge. 

“I love the world of strength and fitness. But when I take a look at the direction training and athletics are headed in the outside world, it almost makes me want to head to San Quentin and bang on the main gate to go straight back inside” (page 20).

So what is his system going to do? Here are his benefits of bodyweight training listed out in the book, with the explanatory text beneath each gone.

  1. “Bodyweight Training Requires Very Little Equipment “
  2. “Bodyweight Training Develops Useful, Functional Athletic Abilities”
  3. “Bodyweight Training Maximizes Strength”
  4. “Bodyweight Training Protects the Joints and Makes Them Stronger--for Life.”
  5. “Bodyweight Training Quickly Develops the Physique to Perfection”
  6. “Bodyweight Training Normalizes and Regulates Your Body Fat Levels

All these are explained more in depth in the book, but if I had to sum it all up I’d say bodyweight training is about body harmony. Changes in one part makes many other parts better. Doing pushups strengthens according to page 42 of the book, the lats, chest and rib cage muscles, spinal muscles, abdomen and waist, hip muscles, glutes, quads, shin muscles and even the feet and toes little bit. This is much more comprehensive and better for somebody than doing isolation tricep pulldowns, especially since the body wasn't meant to work with weights isolating your triceps in that specific way.

It was a refreshing perspective to hear. Sometimes going to the gym seems more strenuous than it’s worth, and having to drive, change clothes, and wait for weights is enough reason not to go. The basic idea of training with weights and his bodyweight training routine is supposed to be similar. Pick up heavy things and put them down, growing strong as you pick up heavier things. Weight lifting relies on lifting heavy weights to lift even heavier weights, in body weight training exercises are done to change how your weight is shifted to mimic lifting heavier weight. 

From a conceptual perspective, I’m not sure why most people would go to the gym if they knew this offered a better workout with less hassle. I don’t know the propositional value of going to the gym other than the supposed benefit to health (or muscle mass) that weight lifting provides. There is definitely the identity of being a “gym goer” that some people like. I’ve seen people talk about home gyms as a way to elevate most of the problems Wade states above about the gym being a nuisance more than a helpful hobby. But most people can’t afford to buy home gym materials. Even with a home gym I assume Wade would still be again using weights as he thinks they are more destructive to the body as listed above. But maybe there is some intrinsic value in going to the physical gym location for some. Either way Wade’s body weight exercises are able to be done anywhere with or without equipment, so if somebody’s identity was based on going to a physical gym, they could still go and do a bodyweight routine not having to sacrifice anything but the weights.

The next part of the book is setting up for the rest of the 2/3rds of the book. It goes over what Wade believes to be the most important and fully comprehensive body exercises. Wade says that “there are thousands of exercises you can do to train your muscles; but actually, a really good routine only requires a handful of big, basic exercises.” 

Here are the big 6, from page 31:

Each of those Big 6 has ten steps. Step one basically anybody with little to no lifting experience their entire life could do. With step 10 being you will rarely find a person being able to do these things, no matter how long they have been lifting weights. An example of pushups being, step 1: wall push ups (just pushing off a wall), to step 10, the one arm push up. Step 10 is what he calls the master step for each exercise, the goal is to get all six exercises to their master step.

Not all these are readily available to a person just starting, mainly Bridges and Handstand pushups. Wade knows this and in his last chapters states to only start on those two after reaching step 6 of 10 in the other 4 exercises.

Wade then talks about how he will explain self coaching in the last two chapters. The six chapters in between before the last two chapters go over each of the big 6. The chapters are all very similar, starting with an introduction to the exercise and what to do and not do in general when doing the exercise. The start also sometimes shows why doing these exercises and working the muscle groups together in this way is healthier than weight lifting. The chapter is then broken down into each of the ten steps. Each step gets its own two pages, with an explanation of the exercise and training goals on the left, and visuals of how the form of your body should look like on the right.

The showing of the form is something I appreciated. When I worked with weights it was hard to think what might be the correct form sometimes, especially without a trainer. Youtube videos helped, but not as much for me as the descriptions on the left and the diagrams on the right in this book did.

Each chapter then ends with alternative exercises you can do to spice things up in that big 6 category and potential leads on where you can next train up to after the master step, which usually is refining the master step to be able to do more of them.

The last two chapters like Wade said go over self coaching, personal tips, and some routines you can use to implement these exercises yourself. Wade starts the last two chapters with the importance of warming up, which mainly involves getting your muscles primed for workout by going a few earlier steps in your training program and doing two warm up sets before your work set. Wade then goes on to talk about how the person implementing this program needs to trust the system, some reasons why people might not be progressing, and proper amount of work sets and rest time. 

(for people that read the post by Scott on bodybuilders and rest time, Paul Wade in this book, which came in 2012, says “if you are training for strength and muscle, you must rest as long as it takes for you to get ready to tackle the next set and give it your all.”(page 269). He then goes on to say there is no official guidelines for this, but if you need longer than 5 minutes walk around to keep your body from getting cold)

The two most important parts of the ending section I thought were his talks about journaling every workout, and his workout routines. Wade recommended writing down every workout, what you did during them, and how you felt. He says this to help with retaining memory of your workouts, but also so you know next week what you felt needed work, ideas for improvement, and better knowledge of your own body. The book ends with the routines and how to implement them.

Wade gives a basic beginner routine, intermediate routines, and then a brutal routine for people who really really want to push themselves. He stresses the importance of having a set time to do these workouts and keeping yourself in a routine around your workout routine. He talks about how in prison life is lived in a regime with little left to your control, and they find their little segments of time to fit their routines into. He’s sympathetic to the chaotic nature of outside life and the responsibilities and shifting time tables people have so he forwarns to put serious thought into where to put your workout time so you can be present and put your full self forward into the workout.

I was surprised to see at the very end, after a lot of talk about how much bodyweight routines are the obviously superior choice, Paul Wade begrudgingly added in a hybrid workout with weight training and bodyweight training people can do each week because he knew people liked weight training.

 

Reflection:

I’m going to make no attempt to be impartial, I like the ideas in this book. This book came at a much needed time for me when the pandemic came and all the gyms around me closed, I wasn't itching to get back even with the trends of higher vaccinations. This was a much needed savior from all the variables keeping me from working out. No drives, no equipment, no wait times, no risk due to interaction / building space. Plus it could also be healthier for you and get you stronger than traditional weight training? No hurt in trying it. I was hooked on the idea by the end of the first 3 chapters.

I implemented the beginner routine 4 months ago. Each workout takes me roughly 30 minutes warmup to finish. I have gone up a step in push ups, pull ups, and squats. The exercises starting on step one are very easy as Paul Wade expects, but as you add more reps these deceptively easy exercises even on step one start to burn you in ways you didn’t feel before. I have definitely got stronger, and trusting the system, even going up to a higher step it felt manageable because my muscles and tendons were getting acclimated to lifting myself. It doesn’t ever feel like I am doing too much yet, which I definitely felt many times with weight lifting. Going up by 5 pounds was sometimes more than I could manage which made me feel like I hit weird plateaus. The progressions laid out in the book do feel smooth from the one to the next, mostly. 

This book isn’t totally perfect, the biggest problems I found with it were the first squat step seems unnecessary and dangerous to a beginner. It has you do a shoulder hand squat which looks like this. 

 

It’s meant to keep pressure off your joints as you learn to get into the motion of squatting, but I fear the weight combined with a hard to control form could put you more at risk for injuring yourself. So I decided to skip to step two, if you get this book I would advise the same. Also you will need space to put a pull up bar or you will need to do the alternative workouts in the book or find a sturdy tree.

The master step of the handstand pushup exercise is a one armed handstand pushup. As far as I have looked into it, this is literally impossible. An amazon review described how Paul Wade denied this when called on it, telling the people they just weren’t strong enough. There is also hearsay on the legitimacy of some of Paul Wades prison stories or prison times. While this does mean the book isn’t flawless, to me Paul Wade's life has no impact on the core thesis of progressive strength training, and the rest of the exercises are not literally impossible, so I think it still is a good book for strength workouts. 

I don’t know how this book relates to an actual prison workout routine. I found this book on a forum as a recommendation for somebody who was going into prison, so that legitimizes it in some way for me. I hopefully never go to prison, but if I do I will report back on its accuracy.

I was thinking about the latter two chapters in this book after reading it and decided to apply some of the lessons in it generally to my life. For workout journaling I also now try to journal as I get done studying to recap the day and think about what I could do better next time. When I am not lazy and actually do it, I think it does a great job and helps my future studying. Progressions was another thing that I thought was really cool, and I could start to see patterns in things using progressions after reading this book. I structure the online courses I’m taking as a progression now, like everything it starts with what I know then extends off what I am comfortable with onto a more difficult subject matter. I think with any academic or personal pursuit here after I will try to make a progression out of what I am attempting to achieve. Be it fashion, financials, hobbies. Thinking where I am, and how to take the best step that lets me improve without overloading me. 

Something I am thinking about more lately is the idea Paul Wade sometimes talks about during the book about ‘leaving some left in the tank’, aka not burning yourself out on workouts so you can recover better for tomorrow. Leaving enough so you can still function and do other things is important in everything. Sometimes when I study I study to burn out but then see decreased performance the next couple of days. I wonder if I stop just about 30 minutes before I think my normal breaking point would be, if I would feel mentally better at the start of the next day. I think I will try out generalizing and refining the idea of “leaving something left in the tank” to my other areas of life as well.

One last thought about the book is if progressive calisthenics is the optimal way to build functional strength, and it is kept alive in prisons from person to person. Why has it not left the prisons and helped the layperson become stronger at home? Progressive Calisthenics is also something gymnasts seem to use often, they are training strength by throwing themselves around. An ex elite gymnast Mark Reifkind gave good praise to the book in the little front page reviews, I don’t think many guys would have a problem with having the body of a fit male gymnast. So why didn’t I hear about progressive calisthenics and resistance training until now? 

Why is our culture only promoting weight training as the standard for healthy muscle building? Is it like Paul Wade said and it’s all just charlatans trying to sell products based on the misguided belief that weight training is the modern, most efficient way to build muscle? Is the weight lifting community not allowing progressive bodyweight exercise to propagate, seeing it as backwards? Are gymnasts not promoting their body weight training system enough to create a network effect? Is the good feeling of picking up heavy weights and putting them down too much of a trade off to lose for only picking yourself up? Is it because public opinion got it wrong and then self reinforced the idea that only weights make you big, while also making calisthenics look like a joke through P.E class? 

Or maybe I’m just wrong, and everybody knew about progressive calisthenics and scientific literature said weight lifting is better. Regardless, I thought this book was worth reviewing here because if it is true that bodyweight exercises are better for strength and body cohesion but nobody was doing them because cultural evolution went awry or there is intense competitive pressure by companies to sell the exercise equipment, then it would be good to put that point of view out in a community where it can flourish from being seen with an open mind or shot down because it doesn’t stand up to intellectual scrutiny.

If you are interested in muscle strength training and exercise I would recommend giving this book a read and creating a routine from it. This book, like my review, is very short. You could read it in a day or two I’m guessing, then you could easily at home start working out and getting stronger, healthier muscles no matter what your starting point. 

https://www.amazon.com/Convict-Conditioning-Weakness-Using-Survival-Strength/dp/0938045768

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11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:55 AM
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I've read this book and many other calisthenics and weightlifting focused fitness books. I like Convict Conditioning. It was pretty influential in the online fitness community when it came out, and remains so to some extent. That said, the information and programs in the book are somewhat out-of-date compared to more modern thinking.

I would recommend anyone interested in calisthenics to start with the reddit /r/bodyweightfitness FAQ. They have easy defaults (e.g. the Recommended Routine, or the Primer) which come with more battle-tested explanations and progression schemes. Additionally, having a community you can participate in for motivation or asking questions will make it more likely that you'll stick with a program.

Sticking to the program is by far the hardest part of any workout program, though, so the most important thing is to find something that you can fully commit to regularly, especially if it's something you find intrinsically fun or interesting.

There are certainly some good aspects to the book.

The exercise selection for example covers all major muscle groups, and the progressions go from easy enough for the most unfit, to hard enough for most mere mortals. (As noted, the easiest squat progression is ridiculous, clearly just added so all exercises had the same number of steps).

The book is also entertaining, as are all the dragondoor books (same publisher as Pavel Tsatouline's books, just switch the Russian goulag schtick for US prison...).

It's about as far from rational/evidence based as you can get though.

That's not to say it's not a decent program. I am a fan of calisthenics for the convenience and safety. The debate about reps, sets and rest periods is far from settled. No firm evidence to either confirm or contradict the recommendations in the book.

My biggest gripe is the dogmatic "this is the best way to train, all other ways are stupid" type attitude which is the scourge of the fitness world.

Nb definitely the one arm handstand press up is very aspirational. There are some freaky beasts out there that can do it though.

Check-out simonster on YouTube for the limits of calisthenics if you want some inspiration.

The thing this book reminded me of, when I read it, was barefoot running. They both seem to be of the form: there's this thing we do naturally, and it's fine. Then we invented technology to make it easier to do, and that seems good at first, but over the long term it causes us damage".

I don't really know if this is backed up, in either case. I do remember vibrams got successfully sued for making claims they couldn't defend.

I read this book about 10 years ago and began working on the six progressions. At some point, when when I passed level 6 in one progressions, I would spice it up a bit with other exercises I found in books about gymnastics (eg. l-sits, dips, etc.). Nowadays, I still do the program with some modifications as a way to maintain fitness. I credit it with keeping me healthy and in good shape despite spending hours per day in front of the computer.

I've found that while the CC program is great for building strength, it's good to add in some yoga and cardio. Especially yoga, if you sit around a lot like me.

I've also thought about why I don't see more people doing calisthenics this way and came up with a few ideas:

  1. For most people calisthenics reminds them of gym class. This entails doing as many poor-form squats, pushups, and situps as possible. The idea of "progressions" is not widely known.
  2. Calisthenics are mostly done at home. In contrast, lifting weights in the gym provides not only a ritual (time, place, people), but also a community that can help motivate you to come in regularly, to measure progress against others, to make friends etc. This seems to have some improved with things like r/bodyweightfitness and more pull-up bars/dip-bars in parks, but there's very little of bodyweight fitness culture.
  3. Calisthenics, even gymnastics, doesn't reward the user with social-obvious signals like larger muscles or the ability to say "I lifted X pounds last weekend!". Few people know about pistol squats, diamond pushups, even fewer about planches or muscle ups.

not impossible per se though you'll note none of these people do a full range of motion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DEQhjiaNL4

I dabble in getting more fit from time to time, and bodyweight work always seems to call to me, but...

*Why* does Wade think lifting weights are bad and calisthenics are good?  It seems like he just asserts that as the case and then goes on to demonstrate the benefits of calisthenics.

(Forgive me if this was covered more than I thought...I read this over two separate days, but I don't recall much discussion of this.)

It's brushed over in the book but he believes weights put unnatural stress on the body causing it to deteriorate quicker. Little evidence other than his anecdotal experiences is given for this. It is mostly the assert and move on.

One benefit is that you can do calisthenics everywhere (even in prison), no need for special equipment.

On the shoulder squat; I agree with you. I can do that no problem, since I was a kid, but many people can't. I know several yoga teachers who have completely removed shoulder pose from their routines for that reason.

I like push-ups and pull-ups, they're my main thing now that the office gym is closed. But I kinda miss the deadlift, there seems to be no bodyweight exercise that approximates it.

Regarding the "why is this so popular in prison and not outside", I think calisthenics are great if you have lots of free time and limited access to specialized equipment, but outside of prison, people are mostly looking for aesthetics with minimum time needed. At least in my experience, getting big muscles is much faster and easier with weights, probably for exactly the reasons this person doesn't like them (for example, you can specifically target your pecs without having to strengthen every other muscle in your body first).