Prison Fitness Redux - Muscle and Strength

Prison Fitness Redux - Muscle and Strength

Prison Fitness - The only legal high in the joint is the endorphin rush that accompanies savage training.

Incarcerated prisoners can teach us many profound lessons about how best to build muscle, power and strength and how best to make truly spectacular improvements in physique and performance, using nothing and next to nothing in their prison fitness regime.

As an identifiable demographic, this group consistently makes sensational gains. So universally successful is the prison fitness approach to progressive resistance training, to muscle building and strength enhancement, that it has its own fearsome cliché, “prison muscle.”

How is it that men with the least (terrible gym equipment, terrible nutrition, stressful environment) make the most gains? How is that possible? This flies in the face of everything conventional. What about nutrition? How can these men grow massive and powerful on bologna sandwiches and ramen noodles? How can these men make gains with no nutritional supplements, no personal trainers, no coaches to guide them? This all seems so counterintuitive.

Prisoners are limited to the most primitive of equipment: a barbell, maybe some dumbbells, a chin/pull-up bar, perhaps a dip apparatus, an exercise bench or two, maybe a squat rack. That’s it. Prisoners are forced to make-due with the most basic of resistance tools. On the surface, this would seem an insurmountable obstacle.

As it turns out, when it comes to building muscle and power, primitive gym equipment is the Gold Standard. Free-weights trump smooth and efficient resistance machines by a country mile. Most commercial fitness establishment trainees are seduced by machines and dazzled by the curse of too many choices.

Midwest Power Bar for Squats, Deadlifts and Bench Press Midwest Power Bar for Squats, Deadlifts and Bench Press


Commercial gyms are littered with progressive resistance machines that are factually inferior to free weights. Resistance machines are way too smooth for their own good and the comfort and ease of use that makes them so enjoyable it eviscerates results. Resistance machines eliminate the need for muscle stabilizers to fire. When using a resistance machine, the user need only push and pull, no need to control side-to-side movement. Being consigned to free-weights is a muscle-building advantage.

Cardio? Seven days a week, prisoners can power walk, trot, jog, run, sprint or engage in a game or team sports in the Yard. No stationary bikes, no treadmills, no NordicTrack. For cardio they have their feet. You can’t get any simpler. With all that is working against them, what is it that is working in their favor? They must be doing something right?

Prison Fitness:

  • Consistency
  • Intensity
  • Short sessions
  • Confined to fundamentals
  • Forced to be creative

These prison fitness bullet points are self-explanatory. Obviously, prisoners can be consistent for years on end. Intensity naturally surfaces when alpha males train in a group environment. Recreation time is limited, keeping prison fitness training sessions short and focused. By being confined to the few tools they have, prisoners create creative variations of the core fundamental lifts.

As it turns out, being confined to free-weights and bodyweight exercises turns out to be an absolute advantage, a blessing in disguise.  The amount of muscle built by prisoners nationwide points out that intense, consistent, progressive resistance training is so powerful and so potent that it can even overcome terrible nutrition. Prisoners build mounds of muscle despite living on the worst nutrition imaginable.

I noted the same phenomena when I was competing against Russian powerlifters in the 1990s.  These men were muscle monsters and setting world records, this despite training in unheated cellars in Siberia and living on cabbage, potatoes and occasionally some rancid pork. This is not to say that results would not improve with good nutrition – rather that our emphasis on nutrition as a prerequisite for success is overblown.

Another profound prison fitness lesson: a man can turn himself into a muscle monster with just a barbell. Nothing else. Yes, other gym equipment is great, however too few trainees have ever truly gotten into barbell-only training.

Machines are so seductive, so comfortable and safe that, when strolling around the carnival ground that is a modern commercial gym, trainees will naturally gravitate towards the seated overhead press machine instead of the awkward barbell clean and overhead press. If results were equal, I would be machine pressing myself – but results are not equal: when it comes to muscle-building, free-weights are indisputably superior to machines.

The number of exercise possibilities/ for someone in possession of just a barbell is mind-blowing. Here is a partial list…again – just a barbell and the plates that come with it – nothing else…

Front squat                                            overhead press            cheat curl

Romanian deadlift for hamstrings   Olympic press              strict drag curl

Power clean                                           press behind neck       wall or post curl

Upright row                                          push press                     lying (on floor) tricep press

Bent over row                                       jerk                                 overhead tricep press

Reverse grip 70-degree row              floor press                     Russian ab twists

Power snatch                                       pullover on floor           stiff-leg deadlifts

Deadlift                                                front raise                       deadlifts off a plate or box

Real results occur for any determined man who has time and access to a barbell. Men have built themselves into powerhouse muscle monsters with nothing more than a barbell - and consistent, barebones, low-rep hardcore power training. If I had lots of time on my hands, like an incarcerated prisoner, I would spread out my barbell training (why not??) using what pros call, a slow-rolling training split, to wit…

Monday           legs      barbell front squat, calf raise on stairstep, Romanian Dead for hamstrings

Tuesday          chest    barbell floor press, three grip widths, weighted push-ups, plate flyes

Wednesday     back    power clean, deadlift, 70-degree reverse grip row

Thursday         delts    barbell front press, press-behind-the-neck, plate side and front lateral raise

Friday              arms    cheat curl, overhead tri press, strict curl, nose-breaker, wall curl, chair dips

Saturday          abs       crunch, knee-ups, leg raise off floor, leg raise off stair-step

Sunday            off

#no single session should last for more than 30-minutes

Urethane Weight Plates with Grips Urethane Weight Plates with Grips


*barbell plates are used to augment the barbell: hold a single plate for front raises, two smaller plates for side laterals. Weight plate flyes done lying on the floor. A single plate is used for tricep extensions, both overhead and lying on floor. Have someone position a plate on your back for controlled push-ups.

*sets and reps: the classical hardcore prescription is three sets per exercise:

set #1 handle 50% of today’s top poundage for 5-8 perfect reps

set #2 handle 75% of today’s top poundage for 1-2 reps, no more

set #3 handle 100% of today’s top poundage for the proscribed reps

After the top set in each exercise, move onto the next exercise and log results.

If you have a barbell and time on your hands, why not take a clue from the incarcerated and build some real muscle using the rawest of tools. Work through the barbell exercise possibilities. Use full and complete range of motion and a variety of rep speeds.

Why not expropriate the prison fitness progressive resistance model? Why not confine your training to a barbell and bodyweight? Coming to grips with (purposefully) awkward, on-your-feet barbell-only barbell training is a surefire way to take your current strength and muscle game to the next level.  Best of all, you won’t have to eat bologna sandwiches or rancid pork.

Prison Redux Peer pressure personified Prison Redux - Peer pressure personified


RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast


About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.