Even though it’s been out for a good while now, the Convict Conditioning program remains a hotly debated topic.
It is worshipped by some to an almost religious degree. On the flipside, others hate it for its supposed shortcomings and the dubious claims made by its author.
The truth as always, likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Created by Paul “Coach” Wade, who claims to have spent 19 years behind prison bars, and to have been taught the approach by a 70-something inmate.
Prisons, for obvious reasons, don’t give inmates access to moving or heavier weights, so the prisoners are forced to compensate in whichever way they can. And when you’re in jail, fitness is not a luxury but a necessity.
We can spend the whole day arguing the plausibility of Mr. Wade’s story, or even whether or not he is a real person.
But you’re not here for that. You want our thoughts on the Convict Conditioning schedule, and that’s what we’re going to deliver.
If you’re interested in learning about our favorite calisthenics book, check out this article.
If you’re solely interested in Convict Conditioning, Read on!
The Convict Conditioning Workout
The system is actually very well thought-out and organized. Perhaps it is a bit rigid, but we’ll get there.
It’s made up of six exercises which are separated into ten levels of progression.
These are all classic, tried-and-true moves: push-ups, leg raises, squats, pull-ups, handstands, and bridges. A fine, no-frills selection that will cover pretty much your entire body. No complaints here.
You are to do all six exercises, at your current level of progression, two to three times a week. So you get a whole body workout.
Reps should be performed slowly in order to maximize time under tension.
No specialized arm or leg days; when you exercise, you exercise.
The progressions themselves start at very low level, so anyone (and we do mean anyone) can start the program and advance.
For such a brutally named system, it sure is accessible.
Convict conditioning’s progressions, or rather the sometimes strange way in which the Big Six are segmented into said progressions, are likely to make you grumble at some point.
Namely, the system is meant to be applied as is, with complete (or as close to complete) adherence to its laid-out structure.
You’re at the sixth push-up progression (close push-ups)? Better get used to doing those for a good while.
On the surface, this seems reasonable.
Anyone who has lost a month or two to the one-armed push-up while making next to no progress will see the value of measured progression.
You just don’t go straight from the regular push-ups to one-armers. You go in-between, and slowly up the game until you’re ready for the big push.
But here’s our problem with the program: some of these progressions simply don’t seem like the best possible choice, or even a good one.
And in order to be able to properly judge CC, you’re going to have to do the whole thing as is. Which will take months.
For an example of a poor choice in progression step, look no further than the basketball squat-thing.
Now a lot of these are excellent.
And if you stick to the program, you won’t be just likely to get stronger; you’ll be guaranteed to.
But for all that effort, you might do better with some modification. Which kind of runs contrary to the philosophy of CC: patience and perseverance.
See what we’re going at here?
Anyway, on to the progressions themselves!
This is great, all the way up to step 9.
Remember what we said about having trouble with one-armers due to skipped steps? Well here you’ll be likely to have trouble going from step 9 to 10 despite never having skipped a step.
Simply put, progression 9 (the lever push-up) can’t directly lead to progression 10 (the one-armed push-up). There should honestly be more in-between steps (incline straddle one-armed push-ups, straddle one-armed push-ups at least) before you can do a proper one-armer.
Aside from sprinting to the finish line though, the push-up part is great.
Pretty good, but with the opposite issue: you’ll be likely to hit the ceiling far too quickly and want for something more difficult.
Consider the possibility of adding more, like slow toes to bar, hanging L’s, L-sit, etc.
Easily the worst one, or if you want to nitpick, the least good one.
It starts well enough and the end goal (the pistol squat) is a great all-rounder, but the middle seems kind of aimless.
The close squats and the basketball thing (uneven squats) are two steps we find the most issue with.
If pistol squats are what you aim for (they should be) then we recommend using a different guide.
Possibly the best progression in the program.
Starts off at the perfect place, ups the difficulty perfectly, and culminates at the best possible place: the one arm pull-up.
Only praise for this.
Aside from the absurdly difficult step 10 (handstand one arm push-ups?), this one is pretty good.
If it lacks one thing, that would be a one arm handstand.
Don’t be discouraged by the final progression; it may in fact be impossible for the vast majority of people.
Some may disagree, but we’ve found Convict Conditioning’s bridge progressions to be excellent.
If you want, you could get some extra mileage by adding one-armed, one-legged bridges before step 10, but even without them, everything here will do wonders for both your flexibility and lower back.
The Convict Conditioning App
So now there is an app, and in keeping with the spirit of the program, it’s a no-nonsense, to-the-point piece of work. It’s free, installs quickly and simply, and after you run it, it shows you something like this:
The bars will be empty when you’re just starting out of course, but no matter. You’ll have plenty of time to fill them up! So what you do is go over the upper tabs (there is one for each of the six exercises) and check the progression you’re on at the moment. Like this:
Check it, and the bar at the start will fill up to that tier. A simple and effective way of keeping records.
A definite plus is the fact that pressing the name of a progression will open a set of pictures to help/remind you how to perform it.
It goes without saying that it won’t let you modify anything, so that takes custom progressions out of the picture right then and there. However that is perfectly in line with the CC program, so it can’t be used as an argument against the app.
It does what it set up to do, and does it well.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, there’s more good than bad here by a wide margin, but the program is not nearly what it’s made out to be by some.
So is Convict Conditioning worth reading, learning, and applying? Definitely. Should you take it as gospel? Most certainly not. Time is a precious resource, and we’ve found that a lot of its progressions have better alternatives.
On the other hand, if you feel like experimenting or can in fact spare the handful of months, nothing is stopping you from going full Convict.
Our Score: 4/5
Chris is an experienced Calisthenics practitioner focused on isometric exercises and street workout. He founded thehybridathlete.com in 2017, which was subsequently acquired by theyhybridathlete.com
He is based in Portland and has been working out using solely his own body weight and bars for the past 6 years.