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Wed, Sep 24, 2014

[Icon][Icon]A year of Convict Conditioning

• Post categories: Omni, Health, Exercise, My Life, Helpful

In September last year, I began a new chapter in the gym. After six months of Starting Strength, followed by a few months of just working on mobility courtesy of Supple Leopard, I began a regime based on a new book. I don't remember where I first came across it - an Amazon recommendation seems likeliest. But wherever it came from, I quite liked a lot of what was in Convict Conditioning.

A brief segue into the book's name: The author claims he began to learn about calisthenics whilst in jail. Some people claim this is a myth just to hype up the book. I can't see their point, tbh: If it were "Convict Combat" I'd see where the macho "surviving high-security jail" image could help. But how many people looking for bodyweight workout info are going to be lured by the jail aspect? I tend to believe Wade has genuinely been in jail. If he hasn't, it's frankly irrelevant to the subject of the book - it neither glorifies jail nor really relies on it for its content.

So, for those who aren't familiar with it: CC is a series of progressions to take you from completely unfit to mastery of six bodyweight moves, namely:

  1. Pushups
  2. Pullups
  3. Squats
  4. Leg raises
  5. Back bridge
  6. Handstands

Typically, step 5 is the 'normal' step that people assume you mean by default: A two-handed pushup; a squat with feet shoulder-width apart; lying on the floor and lifting straight legs to 90 degrees, etc. Step 10 is a far harder version: A one-handed push-up; a one-legged squat; lifting your legs parallel to the floor whilst hanging from a bar. etc.

Because step 1 is intended to be easy enough that literally anyone can do it, you'll find a lot of people online asking if they can skip the early steps and get straight onto the harder ones. And no shortage of people replying "Sure you can. And do less reps than the book recommends, too." There is some validity to the claim that CC's advice will see you progress substantially slower than most other guides to building strength. However, it's also notable that despite the large number of people advocating skipping steps & reps; I've yet to encounter one of them that can actually do the master steps. The few people who you encounter online that demonstrably can tend to be fans of the CC approach. Such as the Kavadlo brothers, who are calisthenics teachers themselves and such fans of CC that they posed for a lot of the photos in the sequel.

My personal view is that, however certain you are that you could ace the early steps, don't just skip them: Even if you only do it once, to prove that you can, begin at step one and do the full reps & sets. And pay close attention as you do them, and be brutally honest with yourself. If you can do them easily, and perfectly, right up to the progression level, then good for you! Move onto the next step, and repeat the process.

But if you get aches or twinges, or sore muscles the next day, or you get tired before you meet the required volume, or if you just can't truthfully say "I am as good as it's possible to get with this step", then stick with it, however easy it may seem, until you can.

Myself, I began with step 1 across the board, and stayed with it for a month, as the book recommended. And yes, I found it hard to resist skipping ahead - On SS I'd been squatting with a 100kg barbell, FFS, and now I was supposed to do shoulderstand squats? That's not even a joke, it's an insult!

But funnily enough, doing those laughably easy steps for all those reps for all that time, I actually found & fixed a whole bunch of little problems with my form. And a lot of the little aches and pains (of which I had many, courtesy of my girlfriend's car losing a fight with a tree in 2011) began to fade.

So if I were to suddenly wake up and find myself a year or more in the past, knowing everything I do now, I would still do CC, and I'd still begin at step one. It's slow, often boring, and sometimes frustrating, to hold yourself back. But it has many benefits, that shouldn't be overlooked:

  • The average person, even the average gym-goer, is starved of motion, to the point it causes real problems with health and mobility. Kelly Starrett, Pete Egoscue, Ido Portal are three experts who go into far more depth on that subject than I can, there are plenty of others. Starting out with low-stress, high-rep workouts and progressing slowly begins to fix this.
  • It's well known that big muscles can grow faster than small ones: This is why SS, for example, tells you to expect the weight you can squat to go up a lot faster than your overhead press: Leg and back muscles are bigger and will adapt faster than the arm muscles. But it's often then ignored that in any movement, the bulk of the work is done by big muscles, but balance and stability is done by far smaller muscles which cannot adapt as fast.

    E.g. when you squat, you use great big muscles like the quads and calves, attached to great big levers like the femur; but you're kept from falling flat on your face by the far smaller muscles in your feet, attached to the far smaller bones. Constantly pushing to the limits of the big strong muscles without giving the little ones time to catch up is a recipe for poor form and strain on the joints later - and if there's one thing I've noticed in conversations with people who lift regularly, it's that damn near all of them have joint pain and a record of nasty injuries. In the year I've been doing CC, most of my aches & pains have simply gone away - I'm feeling better than ever, I never have to ask if I should take a break from workouts to allow time to heal.
  • Many people have tried and failed to stick to an exercise program before. Many have despaired of ever being able to get fit. By placing the bar so low at the start, and encouraging a slow but steady approach to progressing, CC ensures that you build a habit of succeeding and progressing. It's better for somebody to take a year to build up to doing a pushup and then continue to progress than it is for them to do pushups for a month, get stuck on the next step, and give up completely within six weeks.
  • Insisting on getting a step perfect before you move on means you fix a lot of problems before you ever hit them. I spent MONTHS at the progression level for uneven squats (the one with the ball) because I wasn't happy with my form. When I finally nailed it and moved on, I immediately realized I'd have found the next steps impossible if I hadn't fixed my 'tiny' balance problems first: Without mastering the early step, I'd have stalled completely on the later.
  • What's the big damn rush anyway? Maybe you could reach all the master steps way quicker by skipping steps, but so what? Sooner or later, if you stick with training, you will eventually get as strong as you'll ever be. And from there, it'll be downhill all the way: At best, you'll stay static, at worst you'll get weaker and weaker as you age. Why rush through the best part, the stage where you get better every workout, just so you can spend more time hoping you won't be any worse than last time? Better to spend the rest of your life getting a little stronger every day than give up on training and spiral into decline because you peaked too soon and can't motivate yourself to keep training any more.

Rant over. But hey, this is supposed to be a post about my thoughts on CC after a year, and the rate of progression is something that gets raised often in discussions.

So, given the deliberately slow pace advocated by CC and taken to heart by me, where am I after a year?

Well, I can do sets of 20 pushups. I can do sets of 10 pullups. I can do pistol squats and bridge holds. I can do hanging bent leg raises and tucked L-sits. I can do a crow stand but I'm not as stable as I'd like at them yet. I'm still making steady progress on every move with every gym visit. I've lost a chunk of bodyfat, built a noticeable amount of muscle, increased my flexibility, and largely cured my chronic pain problems. My posture has improved significantly - my anterior pelvic tilt is almost gone, I don't get headaches from neck/shoulder tension any more, and sometimes I don't even snore at night any more!

[One year in]

The observant and knowledgeable amongst you will have noticed L-sits in that list, despite them not being in the CC book. They're in the sequel, CC2 (which is also an excellent book) as part of a set of three holds called the Trifecta. Which is a very worthwhile set to know about: I can do the master step for twists and bridges, L-sits are lagging but I'll get there.

In short, then, I've benefited a great deal from CC. For one thing, I've stuck with it and enjoyed it for over a year. I go to the gym every weekday morning before work and I resent the odd occasion when I'm not able to do so. I haven't stuck religiously to the CC progressions - half-moves in particular don't work for me: The half-pistols and half-pullups feel like they do more harm than good - and I've added in a few other moves, like horizontal pulls and dips. CC isn't the be-all and end-all, but it's a good place to start: It's simple, engaging, and even if you grow out of it, it's still liable to kindle an interest in calisthenics that will serve you well.

Wade's other books (CC2 and C-Mass) are also worthwhile reads, and if I can find the time and the money, I'd definitely be up for one of the rare UK PCC courses.

As for the DYEL brigade who much prefer barbells to bodyweight: I switched to CC from SS. It was a good choice for me, because my motorbike- and car-crash-ruined posture benefits significantly from calisthenics. That doesn't mean I have a downer on SS - I would (and do) cheerfully recommend it to anybody who wants to lift weights or build strength. I may well mix barbell work back into my workouts in future - I occasionally miss deadlifts in particular. I think a lot of lifters could benefit from mixing in some calisthenics, too. YMMV, but for me, CC is a better choice than SS.

I have every intention of sticking with it and reaching the master steps for the Big Six, along with a few others like the press flag. I should have a good year or two to go before I run out of moves from the CC stuff alone. God knows what I'll move onto after that. I'm sure I'll find something, tho :)


1 comment

Tines
Comment from: Tines [Visitor]
Well I'm impressed xxx
24/09/14 @ 19:39
 

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