Book Review: Convict Conditioning

July 28, 2017

A client that comes to me for Fascial Stretch Therapy has been experimenting with some very difficult bodyweight exercise progressions with his trainer and kept telling me how they were in pursuit of the mighty one-arm pull-up and the pistol squat. They are both impressive feats of strength to say the least and take a dedicated training regimen to achieve. He mentioned they were inspired to do these from reading the book, Convict Conditioning. At first I dismissed the concept because of the name, and the idea of bodyweight-only training seemed like a waste of time. Over the weeks he kept going on and on about it, while slowly hacking away at the one-arm pull-up and pistol squat. After watching him progress I got a little curious and eventually caved and purchased the book. I was impressed by how useful the training concepts were and was able to apply some of these to help my clients. 



Convict Conditioning was written by Paul Davis, who has now become synonymous with intense bodyweight training. In the book, he describes how while in various penitentiaries, training equipment was not available, so he learned how to train using only what he had in his cell. If you can look past the prison stuff, this book contains some amazing information when it comes to training.


Paul describes 6 master exercises that each have 10 levels of progressions. Each progression has an achievable goal to move on to the next. The 6 master exercises are as follows:


1. One-arm push-up

2. Full one-leg squat

3. Full one-arm pull-up

4. Hanging straight leg raise

5. Stand-to-stand bridge

6. One-arm handstand push-up


Some of these seem impossible but they are attainable if you're willing to dedicate months or even years or practice. However, the beauty of this system is in the progressions. Most of the people who begin to train with me are in pretty rough shape from a strength and pain perspective. Years of bad habits and/or poor lifting techniques have caused some serious damage to their connective tissues, making traditional lifting methods challenging.




Two of my favorite exercises in the level 1 progression are the push-up and pull-up. They have been a game changer for these clients who need to get back to the basics. Since the load is so light, it teaches them how to really brace their core and glutes, keep shoulders down and back, and keep their neck stacked while moving through space. 


Here's how they work:

These level 1 exercises can be done by anyone! On the surface they look simple but for the level 1 progression, you need to be able to do 3 sets of 50 with correct form before moving on to level 2. For both exercises remember to keep your body in a straight line the entire time.  


Level 1 Pull-Up

  • Grab a fixed structure, like a door jam, a rig, or I use the cable rack.  

  • Stand about 2 inches from the structure

  • Place feet together

  • Grab the structure at about rib height, with arms bent

  • Inhale and slowly lower yourself until arms are straight

  • Pause

  • Exhale and slowly bring yourself back to the starting position


Pip's Tips:

  • Make sure you're glutes and abs are braced

  • Keep your shoulders down and back

  • Stack your neck over your spine

  • Keep elbows tight to your sides

  • Rotate the inside of your elbows towards the ceiling - when you do this you'll feel your lats turn on



Level 1 Push-Up

  • Find an open wall space

  • Stand arms length away from the wall

  • Place feet together 

  • With your arms extended, place hands on the wall at about shoulder height, with fingers pointing up

  • Inhale and slowly lower your forehead toward the wall until it barely touches

  • Pause

  • Exhaling and slowly press yourself away from the wall until arms are straight


Pip's Tips: 

  • Make sure your glutes and abs are braced

  • Keep your shoulders down and back

  • Stack your neck over your spine

  • Keep your elbows pointing down towards the floor during the entire movement. Don't let them fly out to the side


Do yourself a favor and check this book out. Taking a trip into the bodyweight calisthenics world will be a definite eye opener for the traditional lifter. Push yourself to learn some of these concepts and you will probably start to see an impact in other aspects of your training. There's also second book, Convict Conditioning 2, that starts to dive into recovery and mobility. Keep an eye out for that review coming soon. In the meantime, check out my YouTube channel, Instagram and Facebook pages for more training and mobility tips.




Matt is a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Level 3 Fascial Stretch Therapist with over 15 years experience in his field. After years of playing sports as a child, Matt gained an interest in health and wellness and decided to pursue a career in strength and conditioning. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in Exercise Science in 2005.  During college Matt played rugby and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with the football team.  

Post graduation, he worked with professional athletes as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for NFL Europe's Berlin Thunder. For 8 years, Matt worked in Chicago, IL at the East Bank Club as a Master Personal Trainer, Performance Coach and Fascial Stretch Therapist helping athletes and weekend warriors achieve their personal goals.  Inspired by the overall quality and active lifestyle that California is known for, Matt and his wife Jennifer moved to San Diego in the summer of 2014 and haven’t looked back!



  • NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

  • Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist

  • Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach

  • Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)



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