The central question behind any workout plan is this: What do you want out of your training? Is your goal to gain muscle mass and definition? Perhaps you’re mainly looking to lose some stubborn body fat and hope Convict Conditioning routine is the way to get you there? Or maybe you’re not even thinking too much about your looks and are just working out to get stronger or recover from some old injuries?
The beauty of calisthenics training is that you can accomplish any and all of these goals with nothing but a wall, a floor, a surface to hang from, and the occasional chair or table. What exercises you train, how often you train, and your general lifestyle – rather than some fancy, overpriced workout gadget – will largely determine what results you see from this program.
That said, there are two main approaches people take in their training: a plan to develop strength or a plan to develop endurance. Without getting too technical, we’ll define calisthenic strength as the total amount of force a muscle can exert against resistance during a short period of time. On the other hand, endurance has to do with how long a muscle or group of muscles can perform a given activity. Under these definitions, a person who can perform a full pull-up is stronger than someone who can only do one jackknife pull, and the person who can perform 50 half squats has better endurance than someone who has to stop at 30.
Ideally, your training should develop both of these components. But as the old Bible verse goes, “No man can serve two masters.” So forget about whether you’re religious or not – the saying applies to any exercises program, including a calisthenics routine. This means that while you work out and simultaneously develop both of these areas, your training should really only focus on one thing primarily if you hope to make serious progress.
Neither an approach toward strength or an approach toward endurance is necessarily “better” than the other – it really all just depends on what your goals are! So, let’s examine what a journey down each path might look like and discuss some potential pros and cons of each method.
Option #1: The Strength Route
Simply put, strength development means high intensity, low reps. Someone interested in developing strength needs to train for short periods of time (no more than about an hour of thrashing your body) and with exercises that are challenging. You must further keep in mind that muscles only grow while your body is resting, not while it’s working out (this is when you’re tearing them down to be rebuilt into bigger, stronger muscles after your workout). So, someone looking to gain strength should allow their body plenty of rest, meaning at least one full day of recovery between working out the same muscles groups, plenty of sleep, and enough healthy, whole food to keep your body properly fueled.
So what does this mean in terms of training specifics? If you’re a newbie, stick to plans like “New Blood” and “Good Behavior” as laid out in the book. If you’re a more experienced athlete who has been training consistently in the strength or calisthenics, then you can skip to more advanced routines like “Good Behavior 2.0” (found in the free, downloadable CC Super FAQ) or “Veterano.” Just be sure to not incorporate more advanced exercises like the spinal bridge or handstand pushup progression until you’ve mastered step 6 squats, pushups, and leg raises, like the Coach says.
Train using any of these four basic plans and you’ll see strength gains as the months go by. As the Coach says, you’re progressively adding reps and moving up the steps, thereby constantly challenging your muscles to grow. At the same time, you’re also giving yourself enough time to rest in between routines and allow your body a chance to rebuild itself after each workout.
If you’re brave and want to take things one step further, incorporate some cardio routines into your workouts as well following your resistance training. Just like your main muscle-building routines, these “finishers” should be quick and intense. A solid 10 – 15 minutes of jump rope intervals (30-60 seconds on, 30 second break, repeat) will get your heart pumping post-workout. Or, head outside after your Convict Conditioning routine (make sure your legs are already warmed up if you attempt this!) and run a series of sprint intervals around your neighborhood. That is, jog slowly down the street once for about 30-45 seconds just to finish getting warm, then sprint FULL OUT back to the house. Repeat this routine 3-5 times, and try to build up to intervals of 8-10 sprint reps. Twice per week should be enough for most individuals.
Not only will these sorts of intervals help keep your cardiovascular system in good shape, but they’ll complement your muscle-building goals perfectly. As with calisthenics training, high intensity exercises like sprints condition your muscles for strength gains (if you’re interested in the science behind this, bodybuilding.com offers a much more detailed scientific explanation on this topic).
The end result of following a strength training program: increased muscle size and power, like that which you would see on a champion sprinter.
What is your convict conditioning goal
Usain Bolt. Notice the impressive muscular development not only in the legs, but also upper body. The same can be said of the other sprinters in the background.
Option #2: The Endurance Route
Then, there are those folks who are interested in things like running marathons and setting push-up records. While no small amount of calisthenic strength is required to complete these impressive feats, these athletes’ training programs must vary substantially from those whose goal is primarily strength.
Many of the OPPOSITE principles apply to endurance athletes. These individuals should train more frequently than the strength athlete. For example, an endurance runner (as opposed to a sprinter), will run more frequently than the above recommended two times per week. Accordingly, a sample marathon training plan might suggest running 3-4 times/week, with one long weekend run consisting of a 15-20 mile stretch.
The calisthenics equivalents of this are routines that emphasize high sets and reps, such as the Convict Conditioning routine “Supermax” with its 10-50 work sets. As the Coach recommends, though, this sort of ultra high rep routine should be reserved for individuals who have already established a certain level of strength and conditioning and can take the beating. Even then, someone embarking on such a daring routine would do well to concentrate on slightly easier exercises than those they can perform. For example, rather than doing s5 full pull-ups (my current step) for 25 sets, I’d scale back and do jackknife pulls (s3 pull-ups) were I training for endurance. The higher amount of total reps I’d crank out would offset the fact that it was an easier exercise, so I’d still definitely still get a solid workout in!
The bottom line with endurance training is that it takes its toll on your body, more so than strength training alone. The constant punishment you put your body through produces high amounts of cortisol (a hormone your body produces when under stress), and the frequent training sessions often do not allow the muscles adequate time to repair and rebuild themselves. I’ve seen this in my own martial arts training when I was working out for 10-12 hours/week in preparation for a black belt exam. Five to six days per week, I’d be at my dojo, wrestling, sparring, and performing calisthenics nonstop for 1-3 hours per training session. Although my run times went down and the total amount of push-ups I could do in one set went up, I couldn’t keep much muscle mass on me. I looked lean, although I’m not too sure I looked mean!
Ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes (left) and Kenyan marathon runner Eric Kibet (right). Although both muscular and lean, note how much less muscle mass these individuals carry on their bodies when compared with the above sprinters. This difference is a result of the long, grueling training sessions they regularly put their body through.
The bottom line is both a paths – strength and endurance – come with their own rewards. Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide what you want out of your training. My own bias is toward strength training, because I like the mass gaining and time saving elements that come from short but intense training sessions. However, two of my co workers – one a marathon runner, the other an avid cyclist – favor the endurance route. In the end, picking a training plan should be somewhat like choosing a career path: do what makes you happy and what you feel you can be successful at.
Which route do you prefer: strength or endurance? What other pros and cons do you see with each path?
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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.