Plateauing in your strenght gains? Here is what to do!

convict conditioning

We’ve all been there, and if you haven’t, you will. I’m talking about failure, or the inability to squeeze out just one more rep.

We might kid ourselves for a little bit and say, “OK, so my chin didn’t QUITE clear the bar on that last pull-up, or my chest was just an inch or two shy of the baseball on that last rep. But I can still count that as a rep, right?”

I found myself engaged is this same kind of in denial self-talk this past week when doing my s2 rows. I was cruising along adding one rep/set every week when I tackled this exercise only to find myself stopped dead in my tracks when I went for 3×15. Here I was on the bar, doing 1×15, then 1×13, then a dismal 1×10 on my last set.

Maybe it was my body being tired from the workout just two days ago. Maybe I didn’t give myself enough rest in between sets (I was doing barbell squats in between sets of bodyweight rows, maybe not the best idea for either my muscles or the more sensitive central nervous system that controls them). Either way, I hadn’t reached my goal of 3×15.

Was it a chance to get down on myself? You bet. A chance to kid myself about my progress and set a goal of 3×16 next workout? Of course. Were these the best choices, though? No way! Instead, let’s all look at “failures” as a chance to reevaluate our exercise program.

Reevaluate Your Pacing

Ordinarily, it’s best to just acknowledge a missed goal but shoot for it again next time. In the weight training program I do (Stronglifts 5×5), we’re taught to try the same weight we failed at three times before shedding 10% on our fourth workout. Convict Conditioning is a calisthenics program, but since the key principle of barbell weight training (adding resistance over time) applies, then similar approaches should too. Whether working out with weights or bodyweight, sometimes it is just a matter of having an off day or insufficient rest between workouts or sets, so trying the exercise again next session may prove valuable. Just make sure you’ve rested your body enough in between training sessions. Plenty of sleep, not training the same muscles for at least full day in between workouts, and allowing yourself up to five minutes of rest in between work sets can go a long way in helping you meet your goals.

Reevaluate Your Form

For my own s2 rowing session, I didn’t follow my own advice. Not because I haven’t done so before with success, but because I found myself reflecting on my rowing form the past few sessions before my “failure” workout. The exercises hadn’t been as “tight” as I’d hoped for, and I’d been kidding myself somewhat with at least the lest 2-3 reps of my last set, where my chest hadn’t quite reached as high up to the bar as it had on my earlier reps. So now I’m adapting the exercise with a knees-in variation (see next section) to work on my form and strength that way for the time being.

So – get hypercritical (without being negative) with yourself and reevaluate even past workouts. Has your form been super tight and picture perfect? If the Coach showed up at your house with a camera and asked you to model the exercise for the book, would you feel OK letting him do so? If not, it might be time to scale your program back and do some things over to perfection.

Reevalute Your Program

Let’s face it – Convict Conditioning is an amazing program that works to gently make your body phenomenally strong. But even the Coach himself advises you to be your own coach. Don’t get so caught up in feeling like you need to do the steps in exactly the same order/way he lays out. Instead, think back to his CC1 advice that there are many, many steps in between steps, and take advantage using even minor variations in leverage to help you bridge the gaps between exercises.

Since we’ve been talking about s2 rows, let me continue using these as an example. You don’t need to go from s1 wall pulls straight to s2 rows, in which you’re pulling from a hip-level object. Many people (myself included) find this transition to be too drastic, as you can see in the free CC Super FAQ. Rather, try working the s2 progression from objects that are gradually lower. Shoot for 3×30 on a chest-level bar, then once you meet that, another 3×30 on a stomach-level bar, then the final 3×30 on the actual s2 hip-level object. Alternatively, bend your knees in to form a 90 degree angle (see pictures below) and do your s2 rows normally otherwise – this will give you a minor assist from your lower body. Currently, my goal is to meet the 3×30 progression standard on this step (we’ll call it “s1.5”) before attempting the actual s2 rows again.

convict conditioning

convict conditioning


The same principle of modifying exercises works for squats. I’m almost through s6 close squats, but just for fun have been experimenting with s7 uneven squats. I already know I can’t go all the way down the way the step calls for, so instead, I’ve been finding progressively shorter objects around my house that I can go down to. I’ll use these as in-between markers to gauge my progress when the time comes to actually start s7. First, I’ll use the armrest on my couch (about hip high) to “sit” down into the uneven squat. Meeting progression here, I’ll then use the actual couch cushions (about 8 inches lower than the armrest), and so forth until I can actually master the uneven squat as laid out in the book.


You might consider assistance exercises as well as you go about your program. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so if you’re having trouble on pull-ups, is it really a problem with your back and biceps, or could your grip and forearms be more to blame? If you work through the steps in CC1, these smaller muscles will get bigger and stronger alongside the major muscle groups, but you may just benefit from some assistance work specifically targeting the minor groups if you still find yourself unable to progress. Now could be the time to add some of the CC2 progressions (such as bar and towel hangs for your grip) into your program. As your weak links get stronger, your overall exercise program will benefit.


So don’t be too rigid. Follow the Coach’s suggested progressions, but create and incorporate whatever in-between steps and assistance exercises you feel are necessary to help you move forward in your program. As long as you’re adding resistance over time (although not necessarily every single workout session) and are advancing in what your body can do, you’re making progress and getting stronger.


Be Patient


I’m not a patient person. I’m always working on something and thinking about something, feeling like these things help me move in a positive direction. So I don’t take too kindly to “failures” in my workout program. However, training over the course of several years has helped me shift my perspective some and recognize how consistent work pays off. Even when I thought I was at peak fitness during my time in the U.S. Marine Corps, I could never do more than 18 pull-ups back then. However, years later, I found myself prepping for my second degree black belt test. I hit my pull-ups hard, since this was one of the physical requirements we had to train for. When the test came around, I busted out 25+ pulls.


We can all get better, even if this means revisiting earlier exercises and getting them super tight. So long as you’re making progress over time, your training is not going to waste. Keep at it, and years down the road, your stronger body and mind will thank you for it.

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Mike Escobar

Mike Escobar is a teacher, fitness enthusiast, and martial artist. Exercise and nutrition are two of his biggest passions. He holds a second degree black belt in a mixed martial arts system and a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

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