Several years passed, but Convict Conditioning [CC] still challenges minds of fitness enthusiasts all over the world. Despite the fact that it was written and published at perfect time to become a bestseller, CC is as evergreen now, as it was at release date. If you haven’t read this book yet, I’m really jealous. You haven’t got those sleepless nights of obsessive reading yet. You haven’t experienced that feeling of exploration and touching the history of physical training. You might not have that “A-ha!” moment regarding heavy calisthenics yet (if you are reading Rough Strength regularly, then you probably had). Anyway, I think, I gave you enough reasons at least to take a look at this piece. You can find it here.
As for today’s article, what is its goal? Although CC is a full, all-sufficient training system, I just can’t leave it ‘as is’. My aim is to show you how to make it better and perhaps more suitable for your training. But first of all, let’s talk about CC system at its purest.
The Big Six?
The core of Convict Conditioning training system is so-called Big Six: Push-Ups, Pull-Ups, Squats, Handstand Push-Ups, Leg Raises and Bridges. The whole trick is to progress from the easiest moves to the hardest. The book explains in detail how to do it. To boost your interest, here is just a highlight of so-called Master Steps for each of the Big Six exercises: One-Arm Push-Up, One-Arm Chin-Up, Pistol, One-Arm Handstand Push-Up, Straight Leg Raises and Stand-to-Stand Bridges. You can see that I’ve included links to some of them. If you want to get better understanding of those skills or just to read some thoughts on them, I encourage you to explore the articles.
The Big Six system makes perfect sense. 2 pushing exercises (1 horizontal, 1 vertical), 1 pulling exercise, 1 exercise for legs, 1 for your core and 1 for the lower back – everything is reasonable. Then what is the problem? There is no actual problem. There are possible adjustments to make it better.
4 Ways to Improve CC Training System
1. There is no dynamic movement for lower back
This is probably the biggest problem of any strictly bodyweight training program. Sooner or later you’ll feel it. You can argue with me all day, but it won’t change the fact that to make our lower back stronger and healthier we need to lift heavy stuff off the floor. Bridges are not the same, even Stand-to-Stand ones. Those who tried both Deadlift and Bridging will tell you the difference right away. Bridge is:
- mobility/flexibility exercise
- mobility/flexibility test
- cool party trick
Yes, you can put it into “strength training mode”, use progressive resistance, move to more advanced variations. Still it won’t give you the same training effect as simple lifting heavy stuff off the ground.
Is Bridge useless? No. It should be a staple in your program if you need to improve your lower back flexibility. However, adding direct dynamic strength-building exercise for those muscles will be a huge step forward. The only problem is that you can’t do it with your bodyweight. Despite the fact that weights are mandatory for this type of training, you have plenty of options (I’ll give you barbell examples too):
- Sandbag Shouldering
- Sandbag Bear Hug Good Morning
- Sandbag Zercher Good Morning
- Kettlebell Swing
- Kettlebell Snatch
- Kettlebell Clean
- Kettlebell High Pull
- Barbell Deadlift
- Barbell Power Clean
- Barbell Snatch
You can easily come up with more exercises. If you do, write them in comments.
My personal preference would be Double Kettlebell Snatch. It is hard when performed with heavy weights, and looks awesome.
Practical application: pick one exercise from the list above and add it to your current CC program. It can be performed on “Leg” or “Back” day. If you are still in doubt, you can put it on separate day. Use 3 x 5 set/rep protocol. There is no need to go very heavy, use 7-8 RM.
2. Leg work is limited
Let’s face it. Pistol is quite easy, if you are training for reasonable amount of time. I was able to do 15 reps per leg the first time I tried it (of course, at that time I worked on Barbell Squat a lot). Paul Wade writes that there is no need in increasing intensity for leg work past the Pistol level. I should disagree with this statement. In my experience, the more reps I did – the more my knees hurt. Excessive training volume can lead to annoying pain in joints. So what’s the solution?
My answer would be to increase intensity. There are two ways:
- If you want to follow CC protocol as close as possible, then add weight to Pistol. You can use kettlebell (one or two), sandbag or barbell. If you want to increase your awesomeness, you can use real person on your shoulders.
- If you don’t have the urge to train One-Legged Squat, then stick to other weighted variations. For example, Sandbag Zercher Squat, Sandbag Shoulder Squat, Double Kettlebell Squat, Double Kettlebell Lunge etc. They all are reasonable replacements.
Another good addition would be Glute-Ham Raise. This exercise is very hard, when performed properly. For you to understand better, perfect rep in Glute-Ham Raise roughly equals Leg Curl with bodyweight. How awesome is that?
Practical application: instead of doing endless One-Legged Squats, pick either Weighted Pistol, or some other sort of weighted squat. Use reasonable strength-oriented set/rep scheme like 5 x 5. Read this article for more insights. Add Glute-Ham Raise right after the Squat. Set/rep prescription is the same as it is also strength work.
3. There is only 1 Pulling exercise
While this may be enough, you’ll feel at some point that system lacks pulling work. You can either add another Pull-Up session with different parameters (more endurance-oriented), or add Horizontal Pulling movement. I found that regular Horizontal Rows are useful only if you suck at Pull-Ups and have weight to lose. If you are not in this category, then you need to add weight or use One-Arm Horizontal Row. These would be beneficial additions to your CC regimen.
Horizontal Rows aside, I would concentrate on developing the Front Lever. In my opinion, this position/move is much more effective. However, it requires decent initial strength. Your possible solution can be to develop strength in Horizontal Rows and then move to Front Lever.
Another good exercise is Inverted Hang Pull-Up. You will need a set of rings to perform them without pain in the ass. This can be another good addition to your CC program.
Practical application: pick one of the exercises above. If you train one skill per day, then read this article on how to implement this into your program. If you use some sort of split, then you need to train them on “Back” day after the Pull-Ups. If you use full-body routine, then read this article on implementation. Use set/rep scheme for strength.
4. I would add Handstand
Although HS is not purely strength exercise, it would be awesome idea to add it to your regimen. It will help in building robust shoulders and arms. It will increase your body awareness. It will help even with better blood circulation. Benefits of Handstand are limitless and they are far wider than bigger muscles or more strength. I’ve seen instant increase in pressing power of my clients after adding consistent Handstand training to their programs. In addition, it can be practices anywhere.
Practical application: start with 3 sessions per week. Perform 2 sets of Back to Wall Handstand and 2 sets of Face to Wall version. Once you will be able to hit 30+ seconds in both versions regularly, move to Wall Spotted variation. Also, add Kick Ups when you reach that goal. You’ll be able to hold free-standing HS really soon after that. For more tips check out this article.
I believe that information in this article will help you to improve your Convict Conditioning journey. Of course, it is only my take on the theme. You may agree or disagree. Anyway, thanks for reading.
If you have a friend, obsessed with Convict Conditioning, do a good thing and share this article with him.
Do you have any thoughts? Do you think that adding something to CC is sacrilege? Do you want to feed me with tasty steak for sharing this information? Let’s chat in comments.
Alex “Improve Everything” Zinchenko
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