The Joys of Convict Conditioning: Bodyweight Exercising

I spent the vast majority of my life completely, utterly sedentary. Let’s put it this way: I was on the phone with my father yesterday and he said he went to some free senior citizen fitness program in a mall and ended up getting sweaty, and seemed concerned. I said, “I’m glad you got some good exercise!” In other words, I was raised to never get sweaty.

But when I neared age 30, and was getting heavier and heavier, and almost certainly going prediabetic, I decided to completely change my life. I took up running, karate, dancing, and weight lifting.

What I always ended up having trouble with was weight lifting. I’d go to the gym and mess around with the machines since they were there, but although I built up some muscle, the whole process was boring, I never felt like I was really accomplishing anything, and I felt out of whack. It took years of trial and error to come to some sort of strength training regimen that I actually enjoyed and felt really benefited me.

Probably my first step out of the confusing world of strength training was the book Core Performance. I still find the advice and exercises from the book tremendously useful, and highly recommend checking out the tips and videos free at the Core Performance web site. (I will blog more about Core Performance in the future.)

However, I found that when pressed for time, I would not necessarily be in the mood to get to my balance ball and free weights and do exactly what was in Core Performance.

Recently, I gravitated toward a whole philosophy of “exercise anywhere, anytime, with no equipment necessary” that removes all excuses and mental friction. Welcome to convict conditioning!

Convict Conditioning cover

My goals

First, let’s get straight what my goals are when it comes to strength training.

Not a goal: getting big muscles, getting ripped. I’m a bit surprised by how many of my male friends are obsessed with getting ripped. A while ago I saw an interesting article discussing this obsession. Anyway, I have no goal of getting ripped (maybe because of my Asian cultural heritage, as suggested in the article), plus it is not possible for me anyway without steroids or something.

Goal: to feel fit, feel strong, and be strong: i.e., so I can do reasonable things like lift and throw and punch and break a fall, etc.

What is convict conditioning?

Convict conditioning basically refers to what one can do if, say, one were in jail and had no access to any particular equipment and wanted to get functionally strong, to do what is necessary to survive in such an environment.

OK, I don’t plan on being in such a grim survival environment, but I like the minimalist idea of making do with what one has, and not being dependent on any gadgets.

Also, I found that once I started trying to really do pushups, pullups, and squats, they are amazingly hard. I mean, it’s one thing just mechanically choosing weights at a gym and going through fixed motions with them, but it’s another thing being faced with your own body weight and realizing that you are naked, asking, “What can I do with my very body?”

I hate to sound mystical or something, but it’s like the distinction between subject and object blurs, and also the whole “isolating muscles” mentality disappears (which Core Performance started me on the path out of). I believe our bodies and minds are whole, and should work entirely in concert, not in isolation. So taking up bodyweight exercises seriously is, in the end, even a philosophical statement.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t also take advantage of machines and gadgets (in fact, I still find balance balls, medicine balls, rowing machines, etc. to be useful). I’m just saying that I really enjoy exercise when away from all that.

A detour concerning inactivity and exercise

I’ve come to believe that it is totally unnatural to compartmentalize one’s life the way I once did: sitting down working much of the day and then allocating some discrete block of time for exercise in some special location (home or gym).

Reading Tim Ferriss and his long-running blog and his recent book The 4-Hour Body, as well as sources from the whole broad paleo/primal diet and lifestyle, and hearing about the research showing how bad it is to be sitting for an extended period at all, I’ve made sure to take frequent breaks away from my computer.

When taking a break, I might just walk to get some water or stretch, but now that I know of the benefits of intermittent sprints of intense activity, convict conditioning becomes even more relevant.

Practical advantages of bodyweight exercising

From a practical point of view, pushups, pullups, and squats are great because I can do them almost anywhere, anytime.

I will often just get down on the floor at work or at home, and do various forms of pushups, or squats. That gets the blood flowing.

Pullups are trickier, because although I have tried doing them by grasping onto the top of my office door frame at work, it’s painful and unreliable. However, at home, I have on the frame of one entryway a Door Gym pullup bar, which I use at random times when passing through.

Needless to say, bodyweight exercising comes in handy also when traveling, or attending some all-day conference or other such event. It’s easy to go hide somewhere momentarily and do a bunch of pushups.

Finally, I have found in the past year that just doing a few seconds of intense activity to boost my metabolism before eating has a noticeable effect in decreasing my fat percentage. This stuff works!


Pullups have always been really hard for me, but as of today, to my surprise, I’m finally up to eight reps from a dead hang.

I still am nowhere near doing a single one-arm pullup or pushup. I love a challenge. We’ll see when I get there.

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