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Improving Convict Conditioning With Gym Movement

I have been working on a variation of Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning program for the last several months as I have chased my ultimate strength training goal: the one-arm pullup. I’m getting closer and closer every single day. When people ask me if I am following the program to the letter, as outlined in the book, I say “Sort of. I’m making it a little better, I think.” I know how to improve Convict Conditioning with the Gym Movement protocol and biofeedback testing.

I wrote about it in this Convict Conditioning progress update.

Based on my own experience, I do not believe that linear, by the numbers programs can help me make the best possible progress. It’s not for want of trying.

This is not a bash on Wade’s program, which I love–it’s a knock on all programs. It’s a word of caution against anyone or any product that says “This is what is best for you.” That does not make them bad people or diminish them as human beings. Someone can be 100% sincere and well-meaning and still not know what’s best for you, even if they truly have your best interests at heart.

In charge of my own results and standards

Nobody but me is qualified to know what is best for my body. Since I attended the Grip and Rip 2.1 (that link goes to my review of the DVD) workshop in February of 2009 (and a few months before, as well), I have been in charge of my own programming.And since I quit expecting anyone else to know how I could make the best possible progress, I have, unsurprisingly, made the best possible progress.

I will be writing a series on how any program or system could be improved through the application of Gym Movement. Today’s focus is on the small (sometimes very small!) changes to the bodyweight book, if prison strength is what you’re looking for.

The progressions

Each of the six movements in the Convict Conditioning routines has an accompanying ten steps progression which will lead to mastery of the movement. Wade strongly urges the trainee to complete the steps in order, for the best possible progress.

I did that for a while. I have been focused on the one arm chin, as I mentioned. For a while, the progress was steady and reliable, but that is always how the beginning of a program is.

Then I hit the wall. For every other step forward, I was taking at least two back, and sometimes more. Now I was not racing through the progressions. I was not skipping steps yet. I was trying to be conservative with volume, and I’m convinced that I achieved that.

But still, the progress plateaued, even though I was only trying to add a rep or two to whatever step I was on for a given movement.

What I am doing now

Gym Movement is about testing movements to learn if they are beneficial or detrimental at any given time. This is done with range of motion tests. I have talked about biofeedback testing in my Grip and Rip 2.1 Review, and also have written a brief discussion of the Gym Movement protocol.

It is this simple:

  • I go to wherever I’m going to train
  • I do my baseline ROM test
  • I look at my training log and see which step of the progression I worked on most recently
  • I test that movement
  • If it tests poorly, I test the step above it (I rarely go farther than two steps up–if the first two don’t test well, so far it has been very rare that anything beyond that tests well)
  • Test variations (discussed below) of the same movement
  • Then I test the step or two below it
  • If the original test is positive (results in greater range of motion), I do that movement until it stops testing well

Hand variations

If the first test is bad, sometimes, depending on what I’m in the mood for, I will place my hands in different positions and retest. For the one arm chin, this means, whatever step of the progression I’m going to work on, I will experiment with a narrow vs. wide grip, or rotate my hips to varying degrees at the start of the pull.

And it works. It works so well that I am convinced I will be doing the one arm chin by early 2011, not a year or two from now as I had initially suspected.

Any system can be improved

If someone says their product or system is perfect, then that means they are done experimenting. If they are done experimenting, they’re not curious enough to be the one to make the next big breakthrough. If they are not actively looking for better because they just want to sell me stuff, I’m not interested.

Coach Wade spent a lot of time refining his methods. They evolved because he was curious and inquisitive and he experimented and valued progress in his strength training above all else, although his reasons for wanting greater strength were different that most of ours will be. And I have no doubt that if he had experienced something that worked better for bodyweight conditioning, that is what he would be doing. (Coach, feel free to jump in and disagree!).

I may yet manage to prove myself wrong. That’s always what I am trying to do–have the nerve to disprove my own theories, not anyone else’s.


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  • matt August 19, 2010, 9:52 pm

    Great write up. I really enjoyed Convict Conditioning. I haven’t started training with it but you have now pointed out what looked like soft spots when I was reading it. I would love to do the one arm chin and a real one arm push-up (not that Jack Palance bulls***).

    • Josh Hanagarne August 19, 2010, 10:09 pm

      Thanks Matt, if I can do what Jack was doing at his age, I’d be pretty happy!

  • Todd August 20, 2010, 9:08 am

    The evolution of a program. I did the same thing while using Stronglifts 5×5. I started off with what he outlined, but then it morphed into what worked best for me and my situation.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 20, 2010, 10:26 am

      Todd, just curious, what were the changes like?

  • Tomas August 20, 2010, 9:11 am

    I don’t like the book’s anti-free weight propaganda. Most of it has no basis in reality!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 20, 2010, 10:26 am

      Tomas, I wouldn’t call it propaganda. I quite like the book, and Coach Wade has been very kind to me. You can gain incredible strength without free weights. Some of the people I admire most in the strength world are bodyweight people.

      • Tomas August 20, 2010, 1:22 pm

        I like it too, I have my copy and train by combining it and Biofeedback. I know great strength can be build without free weights. I’m just saying the book contains false information about how free weights will break you, among other things.

    • John September 30, 2011, 5:02 pm

      No basis in reality? I gained 15 pounds of lean muscle (based on caliper testing) after devoted myself to the progressions over the past several months, and I didn’t touch a single weight. You need to MASTER each step before moving on to the next, otherwise you will not see gains!

  • Roland August 24, 2010, 3:05 am

    I have been doing Convict Conditioning with Biofeedback since the end of march (my progress: pushups 3, squats 7, pullups 2, hlr 1, bridge 2). I am using the following method:

    1. Test baseline (toe touch, mark range with pen)
    2. Test each movement (not doing the handstand progression yet)
    3. Sometimes I also test variations of the movement that tested best
    4a. Do the first step of the movement as a warmup, if it tests well
    4b. Do the movement
    5. Given time I test all other movements again and do another one

    I think, I am going to give your method a try. Do you still test movements you met the progression standard for?

  • Paul Wade September 1, 2010, 12:42 pm


    I know for a fact that the method I set out in Convict Conditioning works–I tested it on myself and a great number of other prison athletes! It’s simple, objective, and gradual. It allows your body (including the hormonal system, joints and soft tissues) to respond at its own pace.

    Sure the system requires a lot of dedication, time, and pain…but if you can suck all that up, Convict Conditioning dishes out amazing, permanent, healthy rewards in strength, endurance and athleticism.

    I don’t know enough about the Gym Movement to appraise it in depth, but I do know this: If your training is progressing (you are increasing reps, your form is better, or you are moving to more difficult steps), and your joints feel good then guess what…you are doing something right.

    You are winning the game!

    If your training is progressing, you are bound to be stoked. You’re gonna be motivated. That relates to more training energy.

    The bottom line: If you are using the Gym Movement, biofeedback, or any other technique, and it’s producing real world results in relation to your bodyweight strength, more power to you guys. I approve.

    This goes to everyone out there using Convict Conditioning programs, techniques, methods and ideas. Whether they follow the book in its entirety, or scavenge little parts that suit them. I totally respect and admire all athletes who sincerely want to improve. My thoughts are with you all.

    Keep doing those pushups!

    • Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2010, 12:48 pm

      Thanks for dropping by Coach. Always a pleasure.

  • Bernie May 17, 2011, 10:39 pm

    Josh, I’ve been on CC for over a year, progressing well in some of the exercises but have hit a very hard plateau in others, even backsliding slightly. I just stumbled on Gym Movement, and I’m intrigued about combining it with CC like you have.

    I’ve got a couple of nagging questions though, before spending $197 for the discs, and you seem like just the man who could give me informed, constructive, straight-up answers. Here goes:

    1. I can’t help wondering whether GM’s *variety* alone is creating strength gains. We all know it helps to shake things up: instead of working a certain muscle group the exact same way every time, we get more by hitting it from different angles, using different grips, varying intensities, etc. Could it be that the ROM test is a red herring? Maybe it doesn’t matter which exercise you perform today, as long as it’s not the same one you’ve been grinding at, twelve workouts in a row. Have you seen anything in your own training to validate the ROM test, above and beyond the effect of variety?

    2. To the point of testing #1, what happens if you ROM-test a movement, then test it again, then test it a third time (perhaps testing other movements in between)? Do you get the same result each time? In other words, can we validate that the ROM test is really measuring something objective and consistent?

    I just tried it, although I am not formally trained in the test. For what it is worth, I did five tests (toe touch ROM) of three exercises. Calling them A, B, and C, I tested ABACA. The first A tested better than baseline, then the following BAC each got better and better, and honestly I felt like my hamstrings were merely stretching slightly in process of doing the tests, but then (surprisingly) the final A lost significant ROM, returning almost back to the baseline level.

    So this makes me wonder: if A was a good exercise for me for that workout, why did it set me back on the third test? Shouldn’t it test well every time? The whole sequence took only a minute or two. On the other hand, the sudden loss of ROM is intriguing. Had I not heard of GM, I’d never have expected to lose ROM on a 5th toe touch after gaining four in a row.

    I am torn: I *want* to believe that all I have to do is buy the GM discs to make tons of progress—believe me, I am *dying* to get my CC pullup moving again—but my skeptical science-ish side wonders if I could skip the testing and just roll a die to pick random pulling moves. All this time, I have stuck strictly to the CC progression and have yet to try plain ol’ variety.

    What do you think?

    Thanks for your help and patience! If I do decide to buy the Grip & Rip discs, I will click through from your affiliate links at this site.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 18, 2011, 10:29 am

      Hi Bernie, I’ll send you an email shortly.

      • Bernie May 21, 2011, 11:41 pm

        Josh, thanks for your helpful reply. I am glad to hear that your GM results were above and beyond the standard benefits of variety.
        I guess I will experiment a bit and keep looking at my budget. If you come across a way to offer just the core GM principles more economically, without the additional Grip & Rip material, please let me know.