Welcome back to month four of my Convict Conditioning journey. This time round I learned that not everything goes to plan but that’s the best reason to get motivated and carry on. That’s not just me failing to deliver that fortnightly update I talked big about (sorry) but embracing a little bit of chaos and failure as a motivation to push myself harder. This theme of adversity and challenge ran through my journey in month four and I’m happy to say I came out of it feeling stronger, happier, more engaged and having nobbled my nemesis!
Crow Stand (handstand push up)
That’s right, this month that sticky little hand balance I’ve been muttering about so much met its match. Working on the very technical improvements I talked about last month, namely leaning further forward and a bunch of practice, paid off big time. I sailed past the magic 60-second mark in the second week and repeated it twice over the next ten or so days before I could accept that I’d finally slain the beast.
But what should step up in its place but something harder, because Convict Conditioning knows no one ever got strong by standing still. I moved on to step three, wall handstands, ready for business. The exercise is the familiar static hold with the heels resting lightly against the wall for balance. I was feeling pretty cocky, I was riding high on my victory over crow stands and I recalled girls doing handstands at primary school. So how bad could it be?
“I suppose little girls don’t weigh eleven stone and change,” I mulled, sliding head-first down the wall into a faintly indignant heap. The timer was smugly blinking 22-seconds and my shoulders felt leaden… the two=minute progression standard was a long way away. I realised that the program wasn’t going to be getting easier, ever. I had two choices, quit or accept the fact and do it anyway. Failure is a key part of growth, the body must be challenged to adapt so the stimulus has to keep changing and the work has to be difficult. Once I decided to look at it differently that resistance was motivating, as was each little gain in the face of it. It felt like progress, all the sweeter for being so very hard won.
By the end of the month, I’d added ten-seconds to my time and wasn’t slamming my heels into the wall with every kick-up. Baby steps, but I have all the time in the world and a new nemesis to butt heads with.
This month brought something of a perspective shift for the leg raise. I’d powered through two progressions the month before and my momentum didn’t seem to be slowing. I stepped up to the sixth, hanging knee raises. As the title suggests the exercise moves from the floor to a hanging grip – my trusty pullup bar – and re-introduces many of the principles of the previous floor work progressions in this new, tougher format. This one starts hanging straight down with the knees locked to a 90-degree bend, feet behind the body. A rep is bringing the knees up to waist height and holding them for a beat positioned as if sat, before a controlled reversal.
I didn’t have much trouble hitting the progression standard (2×15) on my first attempt. It wasn’t a horrifyingly laborious experience for me, in fact the biggest impact was on my forearms for holding me up for the duration of the reps. I repeated the progression and progressed to step seven, hanging bent leg raises. The exercise was the same as the previous step but with the legs locked to just 45 degrees. Partly straightening the legs puts extra strain on the core muscles during the lifting and lowering phase and there’s a whole new world of momentum to negate between reps. I still managed the progression standard (also 2×15) on my first attempt. That being said it was noticeably harder work and my core felt like I was pushing it again which was reassuring, also my forearms were holding up better from all the hanging. I repeated the progression the next week and finished the month about to move up again.
In contrast to leg raises, straight bridges were a slow plodding battle for progress. I pushed on through the exercise over the month and steadily clawed out little gains, three or four reps at a time. My upper arms and shoulders had adapted to the strain of that unusual body position but the depth of the back exercises often left me feeling nauseous. I rationalised I hadn’t specifically exercised those muscles before and after 35 years of easy ride they wanted to know why I suddenly hated them.
Oh and the stiffness, man I knew about my workout the next day! That being said, hammering my mid and lower back muscles was tightening up my body trunk and I hadn’t felt much in the way of an achy back for months. It was a price I was willing to pay.
By the end of the previous month I was well into half squats with a good head of steam built up, working towards the target of 100. As with all Convict Conditioning, execution is everything and The Coach is quite clear, if you hold any glancing interest in the survival of your knees then you put a pause in at the bottom of the rep. This was a hard discipline to embed for some reason, the temptation to ping out of the squat using muscle elasticity was always present so I took my time and was mindful of my movements. I hit the 100 on the second week and repeated it on the third always keeping a critical eye on my form.
Full squats (step four) were an education for me, the same as the previous exercise but travelling all the way down to the ground; they reach the parts that other exercises dare to tread. They’re tougher, not just in that you travel further but in that a lot more effort goes into the balance and form aspect. Holding a stable centre of gravity and a straight back at the bottom of the squat makes each rep more taxing, mercifully The Coach recognised this and set the progression standard at 60. I took it gently at first to feel out the shape of the exercise and get used to the new low position.
Progress had been steady with the kneeling push ups, the main challenge was getting to the end of the three sets with good form. The kneeling position hadn’t been as merciful on my triceps as I’d hoped and the previous month I’d caught my lower back trying to help out when I got tired. I adjusted and nailed it on the second week with good form and proper pauses. I confirmed the progression and moved up to half pushups on the fourth week.
Half pushups actually felt like a relief once I’d understood what Convict Conditioning wanted from me. The focus shifted from the high reps of the early stages to pure strength work and it felt like a more natural set of movements to my build. Half pushups, too, are the classic pushup exercise in plank position with the hands positioned just below the shoulders and the feet placed together, so the core is constantly engaged to stabilise that narrow foot stance. The range of movement is shallower compared to the previous step, the arms only bend 90-degrees. The exercise was harder due to the extra body weight I was pushing but the coach only wanted two sets of twenty-five to progress. I racked up two high teens on my first shot and finished the month feeling pretty confident.
A similar shift of ethos manifested itself in pullups this month, I finished off the last of the jackknife pulls (20×3) and began half pullups. Whereas jackknife pulls felt like an endurance exercise, step four felt like pure strength work. Once I’d shucked off the complicated balancing act of tables and heels, suddenly everything felt right and natural.
Half pullups are free hanging and start with a shoulder-width overhand grip and the arms already bent to 90 degrees, the shoulder blades squeeze together, the elbows come down and (hopefully) the chin moves over the bar, stops for a beat then descends again to the start position. Do this for two sets of fifteen and you’re done.
The fly in the ointment is that you have to pause at the bottom, too, which flattens out any momentum and effectively isolates every rep. When I was climbing I could fling out ten long arm pullups underhand then overhand without breathing heavily, now I look back at my form and cringe. I did everything wrong, bounced in and out of the exercise, depended on momentum and sometimes kipped up with my legs – it’s hardly surprising that I never really got any stronger that way.
Half pullups were harder that I expected but doing them clean felt right and like something I was able to, and wanted to build on every week.