Prison Wisdom: Building Strength Slowly and Safely

I just returned from a Florida vacation where I lightened up my beach reading with a 300 page book on prison recreation.

“Convict Conditioning: How to Bust Free of All Weakness – Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength”

The book came recommended to me by, Malcolm Balk, an excellent Alexander teacher who coaches runners in Canada. This is not standard reading for an Alexander Technique person. In our work, we often use words like “release”, “lengthen”, and “ease.”

So what’s up with this guy?


Exercise from Convict Conditioning 2.

For years during the worst of my injury, I tried to avoid all strain. I opened doors with my feet and asked my girlfriend to carry bags for me. By avoiding strain, I’ve come to realize that I’ve also avoided strength. One of my goals was to undo much of the tension and spinal compression that I had accumulated over years. Now that I’ve done much of that, I’ve got to do more to protect my joints.

Let me explain: I’m tall and lanky with hypermobile joints (like many people who swam frequently as kids). My wrists, shoulders, and knees can bend at angles past where it is healthy. Tendons, ligaments, and muscles are easily overstretched. Whether it’s picking up my daughter or a barbell, if I exercise in a hypermobile position injury is likely to occur.

I’m a runner, swimmer, and cyclist but I’ve never read a bodybuilding book in my life. Convict Conditioning seems way out of my league. The fruition of its push-up training sequence, for example, is 50 one armed push-ups!

one armed push-ups

The first step of the progression however is a short set of wall push-ups, 2 days a week until one’s form is perfect. The idea is that too often we attempt an exercise regimen without enough preparation. Haven’t run in 6 months? Maybe you try and bang out a 4 miler. Haven’t been to the gym since Labor Day? It’s tempting to return to the gym and try and pick up where you left off.

Unless you’re a spry teenager, those supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments generally don’t have enough time to build strength to bear the load. That’s why we incur “soft tissue injuries” when beginning or scaling up a workout regimen. With Convict Conditioning, the author, Paul Wade (a former inmate at San Quentin prison), strongly recommends that you wait longer than you think you should at each step.

This leads to the obvious conclusion that I may never arrive at the 10th or even the 5th step (although I’d like to do a couple one armed pull-ups to prove my wife wrong). And that’s okay with me. What I appreciate is a thoughtful approach to strengthening which isn’t built on a “slash and burn” model where you get cut abs but a compressed spine or stooped shoulders in the process. You see so many weightlifters with big biceps who have to limp around the gym or grimace as they get in and out of a chair.

I like the long, un-sensational road of Convict Conditioning. It reminds me of some advice I was once given, “We overestimate what we can accomplish in the short term and underestimate what we can accomplish in the long-term.”

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