I’m a big fan of the Convict Conditioning books and I’ve been training based on their system for sufficient time to realize how to maximize my results. Convict Conditioning book’s purpose is to increase maximal strength utilizing 6 progressive calisthenics exercises broken into 10 steps of increasing difficulty. The training system starts with the easiest possible step (exercises like wall pushups) and progressively moves further to the hardest step, like the almighty one arm pullup.
Everybody knows that the training methods used in the Convict Conditioning books are meant to work the nervous system for strength gains rather than the muscular system for aesthetics. But from my experience I realized something else, and the truth is that the books teach us how to attain a brutally strong body as well as how to gain solid muscles – like the Greek Statues illustrate. The fact is that many of you have so little results with either, but the good part is that you have in your hands one of the most powerful tools to start to forge your body into something like the books want you to become. You only need to understand how to utilize them properly. And fear not! I will help you understand how to do it.
In this article I am going to break all the confusions about Convict Conditioning, so you can really start working on your dream physique and strength utilizing only C.C. Volume 1 schedules.
My name is Adorian Moldovan (check my Instagram profile), 26 years old, and I am a calisthenics athlete. What you saw in my picture above represents 2-3 years of bodyweight exercising. I am a completely natural athlete, since I only train and eat natural foods. My fitness knowledge/wisdom comes from my own experience and Paul Wade’s books: Convict Conditioning and C-Mass.
I am going to assume that you have read all of the books in Convict Conditioning series and have been training for a while utilizing their training systems. My methods (learn more about them here) of utilizing the Convict Conditioning books apply to all athletes regardless of their strength level and whether or not they are about High-Volume Training.
For the following exercises you should pay attention to your bodyweight, as it is better to be on the lighter side when trying to master basic calisthenics, especially as the Big Six from C.C. Volume 1 are all about overloading an exercise progressively until it becomes intense enough.
My goals have always been to be strong, muscular, functional and healthy. And the way to achieve these results is to by becoming an elite athlete.
Although Convict Conditioning is more about training smart, progressively and with less volume, it is also about putting in sufficient volume in order to achieve the master steps. In my opinion you can’t get one without the other. And a training system based on high volume workouts to master the most intense exercises while building great strength is the key to become an elite athlete. That is the way we do it here at Old School Calisthenic and you can learn more about my methods here: Benefits of Training with High Volume Calisthenics Workouts.
My methods can be easily combined with the BIG SIX methods to ensure that you are getting maximum results, as we have done. Now let’s begin…
How to Train with Convict Conditioning
If you analyze the progression standards mentioned in the book you will see that Coach Wade is actually inviting us to do more repetitions of a previous exercise so as to increase adaptability [strength-endurance] that will help us be more prepared for the upcoming intense steps.
This means that if you want to surpass the present step 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. This is exactly why I think Convict Conditioning is about doing volume training even though it may appear to be recommending to the contrary.
Now as you analyze the master steps, you will notice that the ultimate challenge is the elite standard. The elite standard contains an almost impossible amount of repetitions, because the difficulty level for the ultimate exercise is damn high. And doing lots of reps is the exact definition of what high-volume training means. Of course besides this, high volume also refers to frequency and total amount of repetitions of a single workout. What Paul Wade is also suggesting is a schedule of about 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 are not about volume workouts at all. And that, somehow it was especially 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 suggests the opposite methods in some cases as I have already shown to you. He actually states that he had trained a lot in the prison using high frequency and high repetitions.
If you were able to perform the elite standard for one-arm pushups for instance, then you would look much better than I look in the picture above. You cannot develop this amount of enormous and monstrous strength-endurance without being ripped as hell and simultaneously being as strong as an X-Men mutant.
At the end of the book Coach Wade is actually saying that he had done a lot of high volume workouts in the past and his book is not about such things. 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. If you have followed what I have said above then what Coach is saying looks kind of contradictory.
The only way to get better at a very intense exercise is to work at it often and also with some easier variations. Don’t get me wrong! If you want to master the archer pullup for instance, then in my opinion you should work with about 5-10 sets of max reps each time until the exercise becomes easier. And this can be only when you have already gained the strength-endurance to work with it like this. If not, then you must fill in up to 4-5 sets and then work with easier variations. My suggested method goes from the hardest exercises to the easiest ones. The other way around would be impossible because your energy will already be drained by the time you reach the most intense variation.
The reasoning for this is very simple: you always have to work at low-medium-high intensity with high-medium-low sets and reps. Use this mixture in each workout and your goal of becoming the ultimate unstoppable athlete will have more realistic chances of being realized.
- Archer pullups: 4 sets
- Wide pullups: 5 sets
- Regular pullups: 4 sets
- Chinups: 4 sets
- Horizontal pullups: 3 sets
- Australian pullups: 3 sets
- Uneven pushups: 5-7 sets
- Dips: 4 sers
- Diamond pushups: 3-4 sets
- Declined pushups: 3-4 sets
- Pushups: 4 sets
- Incline: 3-4 sets
This represents a single workout routine for upper body to build maximal strength and some muscular endurance. The mixture of these will trigger the hypertrophy response (muscle building response). Rest 1-2 minutes between sets and for about 4 minutes between exercises. Do a workout like this for at least 1 time a week, although twice is better for muscle gain.
When you plan to train your legs, use the same principle as the one I have offered you above. Or you can read my article: 5 Steps to Build Strong, Muscular Legs and Diamond Calves
If you are struggling to do the regular exercises, then do not set a goal like: one arm pullup in 6-12 months. You will only get disappointed. Be realistic and work hard to master the very basic moves from the book. In other words, if your current level does not permit you to do 100 pullups fast enough, then you will never reach the next step and even if you do, you’ll get stuck on it. Because you do not have the endurance to work on the basics, and there is no way you can work more reps of a more intense exercise at this level.
Doing a single assisted one-arm pullup is hard, but to build a workout upon it means doing a lot of volume workouts with easier variations. You need to build that level of muscular endurance if you want to be able to recover better and to be able to work other harder progressions. Coach Wade also said that when he struggled to learn a very hard exercise then he went back to his basic workouts and tried to increase the number of sets and reps until his body adapted and becomes even stronger.
I don’t use to train with archer pullups anymore as I did, or even with uneven pullups and assisted one arm pullups. Nowadays I train with the basic and regular pullups and sometimes put on a 10 kg vest and try to do the same routine with it (around 100-200 pullups in a single session and for 2-3 times a week). You can call this -weighted calisthenics. And you don’t need to add any weighted vest, if you overload progressively with some harder variations as I have presented in the previous workout.
If you ask yourself if I have the strength to work the next level, then the answer is YES. Once in a while I test myself for the master step and see if I can do it, so there is no need for me to start working on other variations. I just need to become better at these basic moves and everything will fall into place. If I would train exactly by the book, then I would start with assisted one-arm pullups, then uneven and only after I would aim for basic pullups. But my goals are not necessarily to do one arm pullups although I was once able to boost one repetition. My current strength level involves doing strict muscles-ups, levers and plyometric exercises. I’ve gained my fitness level from training with fundamentals only and not by doing specific training regimen as many of the Street Workout athletes do. I should also mention that my weight now hover around 89 kilos (196 lbs)-which makes it a bit harder for me to do one-arm chinups.
Paul Wade says that we need to mix and match. This means we need to personalize the BIG SIX as much as we can. We can’t and we shouldn’t follow strictly the routines exactly as they are presented, because they are not 100% according to your individual lifestyle, general athleticism and some other issues that you may not be aware of.
He offers us the wisdom to know which exercises to pick and how to generally organize them in a workout plan, progressively, to reach the master-elite standard. That is his vision about how things should be. And I fully agree with him. I just have some different views that may help you reach your goals, especially if you are the kind of Convict Conditioning follower that didn’t get anywhere. My alternative is worth trying because it might bring you some great improvements. If you have trained really hard for at least a year and didn’t see results then you need to change the way you train or even start considering to follow a better diet as well. Here are some nutrition articles I published:
- The Basics of Nutrition
- Choose the Best Carbohydrates
- About Your Required Calorific Intake
- Everything About a Balanced Breakfast
I have mentioned about basic exercises before, here they are:
- Pushups: regular pushups, closed/diamonds, decline pushups, incline pushups, wide grip and dips (on rings, parallel bars or even straight-bar dips)
- Squats: regular squats, assisted squats, plyometric jumping squats, assisted one leg squats, pistols, box jumps
- Pull-ups: regulars, closed grip chin and pull, horizontal pullups, wide pullups, Australians and even archers or assisted one-arm pullups
- Leg raises: floor leg raises, knee raises, hanging leg raises, V raises, toes-to-bar
- Bridges: full bridges, short bridges
- Handstand Pushups (H.S.P.U.): wall handstands, wall assisted HSPU, pike pushups, half-range wall-assisted HSPU
These exercises are not at all presented in the BIG SIX. But he mentions them in the book as good alternatives! They are not there only to fill the book with more pages. You need to work with them too in order to fulfill your goals even if your major goal is to achieve the great one-arm pushup or chin-up.
As a beginner each variation is hard, because you only have basic strength to do a couple of regular pullups and pushups. Of course, at this level you will not be able to train for handstand pushups and uneven pullups yet. It’s way too soon for that!
First you need to develop really good strength-endurance with the basic exercises like the ones mentioned above. Let’s assume that you can’t yet work on your handstand pushups. This means that you need to work exercises like diamonds, wall-assisted handstand, normal pushups, incline pushups, wide pushups and dips. Become better at these ones and then try the half-range wall-assisted HSPU.
After a good period of time your body will get stronger and you will be able to start working on your full-range handstand pushups. When this moment arrives you can integrate your handstand pushups as your first exercise in the routine. Finish a couple of sets and then move to lighter exercises like dips, diamonds, decline, levers etc. My methods go exactly in an opposite order than the Convict Conditioning system. After a very good warm-up I start with the hardest variation because I need to be fresh for it. To do 5-10 sets of HSPU as I usually do is not easy. If I would start with pushups, then I would have no energy left in the tank to work my HSPU at the end:
Let’s now take the pullup routine for instance. If you are struggling with close grip pullups, then you should start working with it. Include some other variations in your workout such as regular pullups, chinups, wide and horizontal pullups. I would not start doing useless jackknife pullups or vertical pulls if I find them real easy! Those exercises are good only to strengthen your body for the next variations I mentioned here or for warming up properly. Do at least 4 sets for each variation and you will get a lot of endurance, strength and hypertrophy response from your body:
My tip for the very beginners is to start making a weekly training plan based on the easiest exercises like jackknife pullups and kneeling pushups. Respect and follow this method:
- at least 4-5 variations for the same movement
- train using 4-7 sets of the same exercise
- always do the maximum of repetitions
- rest 60-90 seconds between sets
- rest 3-4 minutes between variations
- train 4-5 times a week and completely rest on the others. Another alternative over the resting days is to jump rope, do sprints and maybe even jog for long distances
- use some rubber and elastic bands to help you do some harder variations if needed. Check out my free beginner program into calisthenics if wanted.
- Strength is a skill. The more often you train, the better you get. Workout the same muscle groups at least 2 times a week. This helps you build muscle too
- Do not be afraid to push yourself for higher sets and reps. You can’t become real strong and have an awesome 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 maximum 2 minutes if you want to gain endurance and muscles
- My method is a mixture between Convict Conditioning, C-Mass maybe and definitely my own ones. I like doing all types of workouts for better results, especially the beast mode routines
- You should train at least 4 times a week. But if your goals are truly big, then 5-6 times is better
- Keep a training journal and track your strength or workouts there. You must know how to track your progress
- Take a before picture of yourself and put it somewhere nobody can see it until you achieve greatness
- Stay consistent with a training plan for at least 4-6 months. But during this period, try to always adjust: form, performance, eating habits, sleep etc.