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Dragon Door Interviews Paul “Coach” Wade

April 18, 2012 05:00 PM

**Almost reluctantly, Paul Wade agreed to be interviewed via email. Normally he doesn't grant interviews, but made an exception this once. We had a great email conversation, most of which is represented below.
Dragon Door:   What originally inspired you to write Convict Conditioning?

Paul Wade:   Back when I was incarcerated, I was nuts about training my body. Several people told me I should write some kind of book on training. I mention one of these guys, Ronnie, in Convict Conditioning. I didn't want to write about how inmates train now, I was always more interested in how former generations of cons trained. They had a very different mindset, and a very different approach to training their bodies than people have today. There were no weights or equipment, just the body as its own gymnasium. I didn't want this approach—or the techniques that comprise it—to be lost. When I got out, and with a lot of help, I put the book together.
Dragon Door:   How would you sum up the mindset or approach of the old style prison training?
Paul Wade:   In Convict Conditioning I talk about "old school" calisthenics as opposed to "new school." New school calisthenics are about adding more and more reps of the same old exercises. This boosts stamina, but nothing else. Old school calisthenics are about mastering basic movements and finding technical variations to make them harder and harder over time. Athletes who train like this can become very strong and much more muscular very quickly. This method also saves the joints. It sounds simple, and it is, but only if you're trained correctly. Only a handful of modern coaches really understand it fully. The Kavadlo brothers and Zach Even-Esh spring to mind, but these men are one in a hundred thousand trainers. Most athletes won't be lucky enough to train with a coach at that level.
Dragon Door:   Do you feel like the focus/discipline required by the training helped you to cope with being incarcerated?
Paul Wade:   When I was locked up, training became everything to me. Training has a lot of benefits, but in jail it contracts time. There's no five years, no seven years to think about, there's only focusing on today's workout and tomorrow's goals. That helps inmates more than you might imagine. I'm also convinced that training eventually helped me come off drugs. I'm an addictive person, I just swapped the chemicals for the training. I have no doubt that I would be dead without calisthenics.
Dragon Door:   All of the exercises in Convict Conditioning 1and 2 are extremely powerful. If you had to pick one as absolutely essential, which would it be and why?
Paul Wade:   No other exercise or method comes close to bridging for strengthening the muscles and tendons of the entire body. Bridging also increases lung power and flexibility. The second book is meant to be advanced, but I think the twist progressions will be very powerful for most people. Twists make the body feel younger, cure shoulder pain and kick backache to the curb. Third would be flags, athletes can gain a lot of total body and side strength from flags.
Dragon Door:   What do modern coaches miss when using old school calisthenics?
Paul Wade:   For a long time, I think coaches have seen calisthenics as endurance work, or just a warm up. There are hundreds of great calisthenics techniques, but only pushups, situps, or worse, crunches seem popular. A lot of this comes down to money—few people see the value of training in an empty room.
Dragon Door:   In jail, how did you keep from training too much?
Paul Wade:   I trained way too much in jail! Particularly back in Angola, where I had my thousand pushup days. But after a while I had to ask what I was getting out of putting in all that time. I'm as guilty as any prison athlete of really pushing endurance calisthenics. But, it's just like an endless treadmill, the body adapts very quickly, and it's easy to end up training for hours. Training that way kills time, but all it gives is the ability to train for hours and hours. It doesn't increase strength, speed, power, size, or any other important qualities. It can also irritate the joints. Eventually my training and thinking came full circle, and I became an advocate of the old school methods I learned in San Quentin. Bodyweight work should be like working with weights—keep it tough, brief, and keep making it harder.
Dragon Door:   What sort of mental strengths can we develop from old school calisthenics? Overcoming addiction is a HUGE accomplishment—can you tell me more about that?
Paul Wade:   Thank you. This is such a big topic, especially talking about addiction. I don't want to sound like I have answers that I don't really have. We use words like "overcoming" but no one ever really overcomes drug addiction. Addiction is a patient lover, she'll be waiting at the grave. I think that's true whether the addiction is amphetamines, sugar, booze, bad relationships or whatever. There's an x-factor about coming off drugs that's hard to talk about logically. It just happens for some people or it doesn't. The twelve steps begin with admitting no one can actually quit their addictions. Even after years, I still think of myself as an addict—I just replaced drugs with training.
Dragon Door:   If someone is stuck on one step in the Convict Conditioning program, what should they do?
Paul Wade:   Ultimately, all progress is about body wisdom—awareness of movements and behaviors. When progress suddenly stops there's always a reason: stress, overtraining, not enough rest, weight gain, not enough calories, or an unbalanced diet. If these issues can be checked off the problems list, then take a slight jump back in the training as a small break. If there's trouble leveling up from one exercise to the next one, get creative and use the "hidden steps" between the exercises. That's something I touch on in the books, but is explored in greater depth on the DVDs.
Dragon Door:   Speaking of the DVDs, on the two I've seen so far, there are a lot of variants including plyometrics (tuck jumps and sentry pull ups for example). What's a good rule of thumb for adding these to a training program?
Paul Wade:   People who've read Convict Conditioning know that I believe in working hard with the "Big Six" exercises. These are the six most basic ways the body moves. Each of these six basic calisthenics movements also have a corresponding explosive movement. Squats are a great muscle building strength movement, and the corresponding plyo move would be a tuck jump. The explosive version of a bridge would be a back handspring. Just like strength calisthenics, athletes should build up their explosive power progressively by dedicating themselves to a chain of increasingly harder moves. The area of progressive calisthenics, speed, power, and reflex training will be the subject of Convict Conditioning 3. You heard it here first!
As a rule of thumb, I keep explosive power training fairly low volume, just like strength work. If someone wants to increase their power, explosive exercises should come first in a workout, or have their own workout—but this isn't universal. I've met combat athletes who swear by putting their explosive work after they work the same muscle groups. For example, box jumps after exhausting squats. They claim this helps keep them explosive even after they're tired in a hard fight. In Convict Conditioning 3 I'll give all kinds of workouts and programming tactics—the approach to power depends on the desired goal. A footballer or Parkour athlete will play by different rules and have more interest in explosive work than someone who trains for increased strength and muscle alone.
Dragon Door: There's a lot of discussion in the fitness world about intensity versus volume for strength and sports performance. Many athletes and coaches are still stuck on the idea of near constant training to failure or exhaustion for nearly every workout. What kind of advice would you give to someone who is uncomfortable "only" doing the amount of work suggested in the programs in Convict Conditioning 1 and 2?
Paul Wade: You might be too young to know, but it seems to me as an old geezer, the fitness world has always been obsessed with the idea of intensity versus volume! Back in the 50's weightlifters were talking about how much volume the Soviets were supposedly doing, which was rumored to be very high volume. In the 60's the new-school, Arnold-type high volume bodybuilding hit the muscle rags—which clashed with the Peary Rader style of abbreviated old school work. Then, in the 70's Nautilus and Arthur Jones exploded onto the scene with controversial HIIT programs. In the 80's the "pumping style" three day splits and double splits were all the rage, until Mike Mentzer came along with the Heavy Duty one-set-to-failure approach. In the 90's many guys in gyms were taking high volume to the limit, then along came Dorian Yates who won the Olympia and made everybody go back to Heavy Duty again. Today you have pioneers like Pavel and Dan John talking about "greasing the groove" and the ideas in Easy Strength, where the frequency of training is increased, but the intensity is dropped back a bit. All of this has made people look at training in a new way, which is good. The debate will still be going on for another fifty years, no doubt.
My attitude is old and pretty simple, a bit like me. The reality is that building real strength and muscle mass is how the body adapts to stress. The adaptation is proportionate to the stressor—there's no getting around it. The harder someone trains, the better results they'll get. When it comes to building muscle, the stressor's effects aren't cumulative. The body judges it over a short span of time. If someone does a 500lb bench press, then five minutes later, a 50lb bench, the body doesn't register it as a 550lb bench! There's a limited window to stress the body, before the chosen adaptation ceases to be muscle growth and becomes stamina instead. For muscle growth and strength, there's no point thrashing away to exhaustion—it's just a waste of energy, like the 50lb bench press.
I generally dislike the idea of training to failure for safety reasons—always leave some energy in your body for control. Or, what if someone jumps you on the way out of the gym, or another survival situation? You never know! I usually advise bodyweight athletes to warm up, then work hard for two or three sets while avoiding total failure. This is the way to go for most folks.
Dragon Door:  What's next for you?
Paul Wade:   Right now? An early night, I need the rest. Tomorrow is inverse work and bodyweight grip work. This summer I'll be working on Convict Conditioning 3. I have massive hopes for that book. I'm getting excited thinking about it right now! Other than that, I just take one day at a time, stay healthy, and see what life brings. I still train hard, and I still train a select handful of personal students. I also seem to be answering hundreds of emails from the Dragon Door audience. That brings me more fun and pleasure than I ever imagined. Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me!