It was quite embarrassing – for me, that is, not my old man. I eked out maybe two or three pull-ups, only the first of which was in perfect form. He did more than a half dozen without problems.
This I found to be strange, as I am not objectively a weak man. Until I stopped going to the gym – I can never be motivated enough to keep going at it for more than a few months without a break – I was doing 75 pound dumbbell bench presses and 50 pound dumbbell shoulder presses. This was significantly more than my dad could do though he doesn’t go the gym at all really. But he whooped my sorry ass at pullups, and even came close on pushups.
I recalled this episode when reading through Convict Conditioning, which had been recommended to me as a good intro to calisthenics. Paul Wade is an ex-con who, by his own admission, spent 19 of the past 23 years in some of America’s toughest prisons for various drug offences. (Some commentators have voiced skepticism as to whether the author is a real person. If I had to guess I’d say he is, but even if the whole jailbird thing was a marketing ploy, I honestly couldn’t care less; my interest is in effective information, not personalities). Most prisons don’t have much in the way of gyms. There are no free weights – for good reason, as you might imagine – while barbells only come in a very limited number of weight categories, which makes progressive training impossible. As such, the cons have to improvise and practice self-reliance to bulk up. And Paul Wade was one of the best at this.
His core argument is very simple. First off, it’s not like dudes weren’t getting ripped in the dark ages before we started “pumping iron.” The Ancient Greeks and the strongmen of the late 19th/early 20th centuries alike relied on bodyweight exercises to build up their strength and Davidian physiques. It is only in the past 50 years that weightlifting has displaced old-school calisthenics as the primarily means of building up strength. The old ways survive, of course, but they are now mostly constricted to fairly narrow groups such as gymnasts, wrestlers, rock climbers… and convicts. Which is a pity, argues Paul Wade, because barbells and dumbbells – not to mention weight machines – are highly artificial and unnatural constructs in the context of human evolution, and as such cause far more injuries, irritation, and stress on the joints than calisthenics. At the same time, while he acknowledges that you can get both strength and big muscles with modern bodybuilding, he points out that much of this strength is inflexible – because of the single-minded focus on brute heaving, as opposed to careful body manipulation and balance – and is unsustainably propped up by over-eating and steroid use.
In a sense, we are to believe, calisthenics is to exercise as the paleo-diet is to nutrition. I.e. work with evolution, don’t fight it. (Though it should be noted that Paul Wade doesn’t have a high opinion of the paleo-diet, dismissing it as a fad).
No denying that he has a bee up his bonnet about modern bodybuilding. He calls them “drugged up jerks” and compares them to “Brazilian rent boys” on one occasion. I don’t judge him for that rhetoric, as he’s entitled to his opinion and it is amusing to read besides; but still, I think it might be just a wee bit unfair on the “gym rats.” Still, one is hard pressed to deny the fundamental validity of his points. All I had to do was think back on my superiority to dad in the gym and how it did jack for my in actually useful activities like being able to pullup your way up a tree to escape predators. Chest pressing a 200lb barbell probably wouldn’t do me much good in that situation, whereas the strength my dad had developed decades before with mostly pure bodyweight exercises would stand him in good stead.
So I had to give his books a good hearing, and they did not disappoint.
The basis of Paul Wade’s system are the “Big Six” exercises: Pushups, squats, pullups, leg raises, bridges, and handstand pushups. They are, in turn, each subdivided into 10 steps, ranging from the very easy – which can be productively embarked on even by very weak or obese people, to the extremely difficult – which can only be attained after a year or more of dedicated conditioning. For example, the Pushup series ranges from the wall pushup, through the “normal” pushup at Stage 5 – that is, about the level of most healthy young males – to the insanely difficult 100 reps of one-arm pushup that signifies true mastery of this exercise.
All too many second books are written to ride the money waves generated by the first. One famous example is Pavel Tsatsouline, the guy promoted by Tim Ferriss, who hasn’t really written anything particularly noteworthy after his first book that introduced the Russian kettlebell to the West. Fortunately, this does not describe Paul Wade, whose second book is well worth buying too. In it he goes into a lot more detail on how to exercise other body areas and progression plans for developing grip strength, strong calves, a thick neck, and powerful lats. These exercises can all productively complement The Big Six. It also includes a long section on how to work the joints to keep them lithe, supply, and pain-free. It gets very detailed and I have not yet read those parts seriously. But it’s not a serious priority for now, as some degree of mastery over the Big Six is a prerequisite for many of the more advanced techniques in the second book anyway.
Perhaps the only really surprising (and questionable) advice I found in the book is to take it slow. This is in direct contradiction of the well-known CrossFit program, where you are expected to jump into the thick of things pretty much straight away. Now while perhaps CrossFit is too extreme in that regard – surely, if nothing else, it discourages some novices from even starting on it – I don’t know if the conservative CC approach is much better. Yes, I can understand rank novices with matchstick arms, or people suffering from obesity, beginning with wall pushups and vertical pulls and the like. But for basically fit people who can already hammer out 40 pressups?
I appreciate and take into account Wade’s words about overly arrogant Rambos pushing blithely ahead, running into a wall sooner rather than later, and getting discouraged from the entire program. But wasting a month doing wall pushups, as he seems to suggest everyone embarking on his program should do, sounds rather ridiculous too. I think a good middle-ground compromise for basically fit people here is to start with Stage 1 as he suggests, but to go through to Stage 4 or Stage 5 a lot quicker than his recommendation of three to four months; say, one month should be time aplenty. This will give you ample time to get into the groove of things and build up “training momentum”, while foregoing the apathy that might develop from having to repeat months of basically redundant exercises.
At least, that’s my current game plan. I’m not a professional coach, nor even a convict. You decide what’s best for you.
Now considering the generally positive nature of this review, you might be surprised why I gave the books four stars, not five. It’s not a matter of their cost (more than $20), just to clarify at the outset, though that does not mean that making them cheaper would not be appreciated. The rather banal reason is that I have grown rather cautious about giving such types of books perfect scores before being comprehensively assessing their performance in the real world, as opposed to just the ostensible lucidity and short-term persuasiveness of their theories and reasoning. (For instance, while I initiatially gave Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body a 5/5, I would today lower it to a 4/5 or even a 3/5). This way, I will not disappoint myself or prospective readers of this review. As Wade approvingly quotes the old masters, “The weights aren’t going anywhere.” Neither is the edit function for old reviews; this is a preliminary rating, and it might yet go up – or down – depending on whether I am still getting my ass whopped in pullups at that park in a few months time after I start following this program.