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Convict Conditioning: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Trust The Coach

Convict Conditioning Vertical Pullup

After a wonky (but ultimately successful) first fortnight I’d hit my stride with the Convict Conditioning plan and so the next two-to-three weeks came fairly easily. I graduated from the first step of pushups and pullups whilst digging further into the tougher terrain of leg raises and squats. Along the way I met logistical challenges, got inventive in solving them and met my first Convict Conditioning nemesis, the crow stand.

Troubles With Tables

Moving between the first and second steps of the pullup progression caused unexpected problems. Step one wasn’t much of a challenge, I climbed and bouldered for around five years and kept up the pullup discipline afterwards. This meant I had a bar already set up in my living room door frame – essential for convict conditioning (hanging leg raises use it later too).

The first steps actually eschew the bar completely in favour of gentler vertices. Pullup one is vertical pulls, a standing exercise where the ‘convict’ stands close to a jutting wall and grips both sides of the exposed edge. Convicts lean back to take their body weight on their arms before pulling themselves back to vertical.

Similar to pushup one this isn’t a high impact manoeuvre so the standard for progression is fairly high – three sets of 40 reps. I’d hit progression standard on my first try but trusted The Coach and repeated the feat a few times before moving up to step two. I’ve not experienced much in the way of upper back problems but know that Convict Conditioning favours steady progress so I toed the line, for science!

Step two, horizontal pulls, turns things 90 degrees by asking the practitioner to hang under a bench or table whilst keeping the body straight and resting the heels at a long angle on the floor below. It’s noticeably harder than the previous step but the feet take part of the weight, hence it’s an effective bridge to the significantly tougher later steps.

I found myself struggling with a much more logistical problem here; I live in an apartment so there’s a distinct shortage of stable platforms to dangle beneath. My diminutive dining table can happily support dinner and drinks for two but asking it to take my weight was an entirely different proposition. The movement made the table rock alarmingly during work sets and I abandoned this approach for fear of flipping it and an unplanned table dentistry incident. After much head scratching and shuffling of furniture I ended up using my pullup bar and the table as a heel rest, close enough. In this case my environment dictated that I couldn’t perform the exercise as proscribed and I had to adapt it within the spirit of the exercise. Considering these movements were designed to be performed inside a prison cell, I’m happy that Coach Wade would understand.

Pulling Through

Once I’d got the setup right I was happily (well… safely) getting to grips with the shift to horizontal. It was a tougher proposition but the angle of arms to body and the heel leverage offered a little respite. I kept in mind the mantra of ‘PERFECT FORM’ so took my time, kept my chin above the bar for a count and hung at the bottom for another to deaden my momentum. The latter is essential, it would have been easy to bounce into the next rep using muscle elasticity, a staple source of momentum for martial artists, but I’d have been cheating myself. I focussed on my breathing, keeping my shoulders engaged or ‘tight’ and my core engaged lest I kipped myself up.

The progression standard is three sets of thirty reps, no small ask and to do it in good form meant that I was hanging for much longer than I was used to. My forearms began to ache from gripping the bar for so long and my core muttered about the effort (good!). By design or happy accident the slow progression of Convict Conditioning was preparing my wrists and forearms for later, more intense steps.

Pushing On

push convict conditioningThe other significant change was between the first and second steps of the pushup progression. The milder wall pushup (as detailed in my previous post) gave way to the somewhat tougher incline pushup – a similar position but performed leaning against a table edge with the body dropping to about 45 degrees at the lowest point.

The chief distinction of the Convict Conditioning school of pushups is hand position, when the body is lowered the fingertips lie directly below the shoulder joints. This is narrower than most traditional stances and I soon realised how much tougher it was. The hand position forces the elbows back, flush to the body and distributes the work equally between the triceps and pectorals. The upshot was by the third set my triceps were engaged and often burning with the effort. The other surprise was that the exercise put an unexpected degree of strain on my wrists from leaning on the table edge and the slow reps and pauses, very much like pullups.

Taking A Stand

Whilst pushups and pullups stepped up their intensity it was nothing compared to the unbridled horror of the crow stand. Well, maybe that’s laying it on a bit thick but the crow stand (step two of the handstand pushup progression) was a vastly bigger challenge than the previous two minutes of headstand. It’s a close to the ground hand balance with the knees tucked onto the outside of the elbows and a budding convict has to be able to hold this pose for a full minute before progressing.

crow stand convict conditioning“Easy” I thought, “I can butch it out for a minute.” I was very wrong, crow stands are hard. The exercise begs a big dollop of shoulder strength to support the body weight, a big ask for what are fairly minor muscles compared to the quads and glutes which usually do the job. Stir a good handful of balance work into the mix. Success depends on smoothing out wobbles, maintaining the position and avoiding face-planting the floor! Finally, garnish with a sprinkle of core work, you’re holding the body bent over your shoulders and your knees up off the ground; no mean feat.

My first few Bambi-like crow stands clocked in at a disappointing few seconds each time. Suddenly holding the pose for a minute felt like being asked to dribble and dunk the moon. I worked at it faithfully and managing to drag my times into the mid teens but it was dispiriting making such slow progress when I was notching up the achievements in other areas quickly. By the end of the 2–3 weeks I’d decided to break plan and practise the crow stand every second day. I reasoned I wasn’t holding it long enough to prejudice my other training and could use the practice!

By the end of my fifth week the kid gloves were off and the exercises were getting serious. Whilst they weren’t the herculean tasks at the end of the Convict Conditioning programme I could feel the positive effects of good form and higher reps. The most surprising learn was the benefit to my secondary muscles and joints, pullups were also building my forearms and core, pushups were strengthening my wrists. Shoulderstand squats were working my core whilst rehabilitating my creaky knees and their cumulative effect with the short bridges and knee tucks was starting to chip away at the squidgy band around my waist, probably the benefits of attacking it from both sides! My knees were feeling much less dangerous and I was feeling prepared to move into the tougher territories promised by future steps.

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About Steve Harvey

Steve Harvey is a lifelong fitness junkie who believes in working out smarter for the best quality of life. Besides being a total coffee nerd and budding minimalist, he is interested in productivity hacks, cinema and body-sympathetic eating.

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