Convict Conditioning and Horizontal Rows

A few thoughts on Convict Conditioning (CC) and horizontal rows:

For those of you who have Paul Wade’s excellent book, there may be a few thoughts here that can help you if you are struggling with the horizontal pulls or rows, plus some other things to think about.

If you don’t have this book and want to get into training with bodyweight, this is an excellent book to start off with.

So, continuing with our title:

Jumping from Step 1: vertical pulls (p. 122 in CC) on a door frame to:

Step 2: horizontal rows on p.124 (let’s call them horizontal pulls = HzP) is a massive jump.

Let’s break it down and see why:

I weigh 226lbs. The following is based on me, standing on a scale in the different positions of the exercises and may work out differently for you:

Vertical pull on door frame/stub wall:

My weight, with my arms extended leaning back, is 216 with my heels on the scale.

Body pulled up to near vertical (arms bent) chest to door/wall (as demoed in bottom pic p.123 in CC), scale reads 220.

So at the bottom position it is only 10 lbs of bodyweight or resistance I am pulling. At the top it drops off to only 6 lbs. of resistance. That is why the vertical pull is so easy.

Now for the horizontal pulls (HzP’s):

At the bottom position, arms fully extended my scale repeatedly showed a weight of 50lbs. So I am starting off trying to pull 176lbs of body weight (226-50 = 176) from the bottom. I used the same angle as he did in the picture in CC p. 125

At the top of the HzP the scale repeatedly reads 50 lbs, plus or minus a few pounds; so I am supporting 176lbs with my arms fully bent and fully straightened.


Going from vertical pull with only a resistance equivalent to about 10 lbs. to a HzP, where the weight is 176lbs, is an increase of 166lbs for me, all in one shot.

How many people can go from an nearly up-right bent-over row with a 10lb barbell to a much flatter- bent-over row with a 166lb. barbell?

Not gonna happen! I don’t care how many 10 pounds of resistance vertical pulls I do; it is not going to make me strong enough to pull 176 pounds the first time in a HzP.

So, guessing others may get a similar reading on the scale, if you weigh 150, transitioning from the vertical pull to the HzP will increase the weight you have to pull by about 90 lbs. Not as much as a heavier man, but still a huge jump.

Asking a beginning trainee to make this transition is way too much.

Here is how I would change things:

I would suggest doing vertical pulls, using adjustable gymnastic rings hooked on an overhead support, tree limb, etc, so a person could gradually lower the rings closer to the floor incrementally over a period of time. Paul Wade makes a point of this on page 124 right at the bottom of that page, but many people miss this.

He actually suggests using a higher object to pull from so you are at a less extreme angle and then when you can do 30 reps, try the much lower position. There is no transitional stage between the high pulling object and the much lower object. This may still be too hard, too big a jump for many people.

Thus, I think gradually working your way down from vertical pulling will work faster and smoother for many people.

Try working from the vertical pull down to the HzP over a progressively more inclined position from vertical. Thus the weight transfer will be more gradual, more akin to adding 5lb or 10 lb plates to a bar as you get stronger.

So, work up to a couple sets of 10 at a higher height, maybe with the rings or bar set at chest height, for example. Then gradually lower the rings or bar about 4-6 inches lower than it was before and gradually build back up to a couple sets of 10 reps. At each incline level it may take you several weeks to get your reps and drop to the next lowering of the rings.

Work your way down to the lowest position you can, with your back nearly touching the floor in the straight arm position. Then from that position work up your sets and reps as Paul outlines in his book.

Once you get to where you can do HzP’s with your body almost touching the floor at the bottom position, I would keep doing these. Excellent counter-point to the push-up and much easier on the back than standard bent rows with a barbell.

Now this next point is important:

Even when a person can do vertical pulls on a bar or rings (pull-ups and chin-ups) I would still do the HzP’s just because they do impact your body differently than pull-ups do. It is a perfect antagonistic exercise for the push-up.

The next step up in intensity for the HzP would be adding weight to your body, such as wearing a weight vest, or day pack with weight added and slung on the front of your body so it is on your chest. That is, if you want to use more than just bodyweight.

This would balance out harder pushups done with a weight vest, or clapping pushups or push-ups done with a stretch band going from one hand over the back to the other hand.

As you progress to one arm push-ups you could actually start working your way from vertical pulls back down to HzP’s using just one arm. You would need to keep the body squared up, locked flat like a plank, shoulders and back parallel to the floor as you did these. Eventually you would work down to your body being almost horizontal to the floor, pulling with one arm. Your entire torso, legs, glutes, etc, will take a major hit here as you try to keep your body flat like a plank as you do this one arm HzP.

Again, doing one arm horizontal pulls will stress your body differently than the stress your body deals with in a one-arm or one-arm-one-leg push-up.

Of course, alternate arms in the one arm HzP’s, just as you do in the one arm push-up.

Now for the Pull-ups:

I think the adjustable rings could be used to progress the pull-ups by having the trainee start with a lower pull-up position. Squat down until the arms (with hands grabbing the rings) are fully extended overhead. Then jump as you pull hard at the same time. Only jump enough to help yourself complete the pull-up. You should have the rings set so your arms are straight when you are in about a ¼ squat position, or slightly lower.

Once pulled up to the top, lower back down under control, don’t just drop down. Be sure to keep the shoulders tight and sucked in at all times, especially at the bottom. Be sure you understand what that means as pictured on page 117 of Paul Wade’s book.

Not too many sets or reps starting off, until you build up to it, or you will get very sore and cause elbow problems. Maybe start off with a couple of sets of 3 reps and build up to several sets of 10 reps. This should take you several weeks or months, depending on where you are at physically.


In all bodyweight exercises, the less body-fat you carry the easier the exercises will be and the faster progress you will make.

Gradually, over time, adjust the height of the rings so they are progressively higher. Thus your ability to jump gets progressively shortened, until you only have an inch or so to squat down to jump. Thus, more and more load is being transferred to the arms over time, with less help or momentum from the jump.

Choose a set and rep scheme that will get you to a set of 5 good strong strict pull-ups without any help from your legs, no swinging or kicking and kipping to complete the reps.  Then, to make further progress from there:

Get a copy of Pavel Tsatsouline’s excellent “The Fighter Pullup” program. You can even use this program for your push-ups.

That is just one way to skin this cat.

If you do not have access to rings and are doing pull-ups off a ledge or tree limb, etc, you can place nearly anything under you to get you closer to the bar so you can jump a little from there.


Your hands should already be grabbing the bar as you squat down a little to jump.

You could actually just set up several boxes or platforms or step aerobic blocks or stacks of short 2” by 6” planks under your feet to change the height you jump from.

Remove a plank, etc, after you can pull from that height strongly for a couple sets of 5 reps.  Gradually reducing how much depth you have to jump reduces the amount of leg drive you can use to complete the pull-up. And it gets the arms use to supporting and pulling your bodyweight.

Certainly you could jump up and grab a higher bar, so the momentum of your jump helped you reach the bar, grab it and complete the pull-up. But asking a new trainee to jump and grab a bar all at one time and start pulling as soon as they grab the bar is a little tough.

They worry about missing the bar and falling down on their knees. Better to have them closer to the bar, so they can grab it first and jump up a little from there. This eliminates the worry of missing the grab of the bar and falling on the knees. They can focus on what they need to do rather than focusing on a mental picture of missing the grab of the bar and hurting their knees.

As you work your pull-up from each height, gradually try to use less and less leg drive. You could even forgo the planks under your feet and just try to use less jumping momentum as you get stronger, if your bar is at a height where you can reach it while still standing in a semi-squat position.

However you do it, if you use something under your feet, be sure it is stable, so when you lower yourself back to the object, you can jump a little from it without losing your footing.

Some people have actually used stretch bands and placed a bent knee in them, with the other end attached to their pull-up bar. As they get stronger, they use lighter and lighter strength stretch bands, until they can do several strict pull-ups without them. This is how my wife worked up to a strict pull-up.

Some of these methods may work better for you than using the jackknife pull-up p.126-127 in CC.

Thus, pull-ups are a vertical pull and handstand push-ups are a vertical press. They compliment each other nicely.

So, for the purpose of this article: work up to full push-ups + HzP’s.


Then work on progressing to one arm push-ups and one arm HzP’s, but keep doing the regular push-ups and HzP’s with two arms as warm-ups or just too really push your numbers up, if that is your goal.

We need to remember:

Paul Wade developed this program within the confines of very limited equipment, plenty of time to train and even more importantly, plenty of time to recover. Things are more than a little different outside the “walls” for most people.

Never be afraid to modify things for your own body. You know you better than anyone else. So, just because you read something about how to progress in a given program from some expert does not mean it will absolutely be the best way for absolutely everybody without question. Be willing to tweak things a little to find what works best for you. Use your brain. Think. Examine. Experiment. Record the results and refer back to those results over the months and years so you really know what works for you.

Some guys thrive and progress very well on high reps, high volume. Others will do better with much lower reps and sets. Others will do even better on very low reps and many more sets.

Some people can make huge jumps in intensity or changes in body leverage, whereas others need things to be much more gradual. There are many, many reasons for this. It is not always contingent on just busting your gut on something. Age, injuries, old injuries, body type, ligament/tendon attachments, work, family, stress, diet, etc. impact things way more then some want to admit.

That is why, at times, one guy gets stronger/bigger or stronger/faster, way quicker than the next guy, even at times when he does not work as smart or hard as the guy seemingly lagging behind.

This is a fact of life that you need to accept otherwise you will become highly disappointed when things don’t work out as well for you as they did for someone else in your training life. This is true even with Paul Wades excellent book: “Convict Conditioning”.

First, are you doing things exactly as outlined?

Follow the program first, to the letter.

Did you honestly give it your best focused shot for a long enough period of time using the proper technique?

Second, how is everything else in your life?

Stress levels, recovery time/methods, work load, eating habits, etc.

Then, if that is all in order and things are not going as desired, ask:

“If after a reasonable amount of time this information in this book/DVD is not helping me as much as I was lead to believe (or mislead myself to believe I could achieve in blank amount of time), how can I adapt or change it to work better for ME?”

This might be just one small tweak here or there that can give you much faster results. But be aware:

when training: patient persistent practice is king.


Think, Adapt and Overcome,


7 thoughts on “Convict Conditioning and Horizontal Rows

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on CC - Dragon Door Forums

  2. You wrote: “Be sure to keep the shoulders tight and sucked in at all times, especially at the bottom”.
    I have read that doing pullups and not going the full rom (i.e., raising shoulders to the ears, at least at the bottom) can lead to shoulder problems,etc. CC doesn’t seem to deal with this issue, but in gymnastics, for example, full rom movement is generally a given.

    BTW, excellent article!

    Be well,


  3. Chaim,

    Glad to hear from you and thank you!

    I think part of the problem with people in general letting the shoulders sort of dislocate at the bottom of a pull-up is that a lot of the stress is then transferred to the ligaments, which can create problems.

    Also, those that go slack at the bottom have a tendency to try to bounce out of the bottom position, putting even more stress on the shoulder joint and ligaments, again, creating shoulder problems.

    Better to do the pull-up strict, without momentum, and build the strength in the joints and muscles without creating potential shoulder problems. A semi dislocated shoulder joint is loose and very prone to injury.

    OF course, following CC is different than training in gymnastics. Many movements are done dynamically in gymnastics. Although, it also contains static poses to demonstrate muscular control, balance, etc.

    For the average person looking to get stronger, keeping the shoulders packed is far safer than allowing the shoulder to come out of the socket just to create a little more ROM. Even in gymnastics, many skills require a packed shoulder.

    Usually if a person does not do a full range of motion pull-up, it is the elbows that are not straightened fully. A lot of people do chins and pull-ups and never fully straighten the arms at the bottom, doing half cheating reps as they get tired.

    When doing squats, for example, a full range of motion means going butt to calves. But at that point, a person does not relax the muscles and joints, trying to get as deep as they can. If they did, it would eventually create knee problems. They go deep, but keep the joints and muscles tight and solid.

    Same with pressing weights overhead. A full range of motion does not include shrugging the weight and shoulders up at the very top of the movement.

    Hope this makes more sense…

  4. I can do about 10 good CC (the slow timing) style pull ups.

    Yet can get nowhere near the progression level for the horizontal pulls, probably couldnt do one set of 30.

    I have shown people this in the past & it confuses them as the HP’s are seem as easier than pull ups.

    “Even when a person can do vertical pulls on a bar or rings (pull-ups and chin-ups) I would still do the HzP’s just because they do impact your body differently than pull-ups do. It is a perfect antagonistic exercise for the push-up.”

    would have to agree with this.

    i dont intend to start back on the HP’s in the pregression series in CC as i can do pull ups, but i use them as a warm up as i find them so difficult & they therefore annoy me.

    Interesting & helpfull article, added to my favourite.

  5. Pingback: CC - Vertical Pulls

  6. Good post. I have tried a broad variety of muscle building workouts over the years, but I think it is obvious for anybody that the basic compound strength exercises work best for real muscle growth. The more weight you can slap on the bar the more strength you shall gain and the more muscle you will produce, it’s quite simple really.

  7. The barbell Row.

    Well, yes, but it depends on what your goal is. If you want to pack on a lot of muscle, certain set/rep schemes are better for that. If you are after pure strength, well, those workouts would look different than workouts designed to build just muscular bulk (i.e. bodybuilding). And the look of the body would be different too.

    Definitely true that basic, compound exercises (those that involve the entire body and do not try to isolate a muscle) are far better for building strength or muscular bulk.

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