Prison Muscle: taking cues from the incarcerated for building size and strength

Prison Muscle: taking cues from the incarcerated for building size and strength

…Despite terrible training conditions, terrible nutrition, despite being forced to use primitive tools and limited to antiquated modes, prison inmates nationwide are making spectacular gains; gains that the majority of mainstream personal trainers cannot seem to match – how is this possible?

Reality TV shows spotlighting prisons and prisoners have repeatedly demonstrated that getting locked up long-term can be incredibly beneficial for building a tremendous physique. Prison inmates nationwide have discovered how to build massive, lean, muscled-up bodybuilder bodies. From Angola to Rahway, from Jolliet to Jessup, the long term incarcerated are attaining incredible muscle and strength results on a widespread and consistent basis – this despite terrible training conditions, terrible nutrition, despite being forced to use primitive training tools and limited to antiquated and passé Old School modes and methods.

Prison inmates are making spectacular gains; gains that the majority of mainstream personal trainers cannot obtain for their high paying clients – how is this possible? The answer is counterintuitive: it is because they are locked up, it is because they are forced to make do with raw equipment, it is because they are forced by circumstance to use primal modes and methods that prisoners make these amazing gains.

There is a profound message hidden within the “prison fitness” protocol. If you are smart enough to study the lessons glean from the deprived prison lifter, it can radicalize a free man’s fitness efforts and optimize his (currently non-existent) training results.

The counterintuitive postulation is this: when it comes to radically transforming the human body, consistency and intensity trump any and all other bodybuilding considerations.

Add to this profundity the idea that not all progressive resistance tools are created equal. The inconvenient truth is that raw and primitive tools trump the hi-tech resistance machines that mimic classic free-weight movements. Physiologically the stone-age training tools prisoners are forced to use are demonstrably superior to the hi-tech progressive resistance machines that proliferate and dominate the landscape at any high-end fitness facility.

Super simple tools and super simple modes and methods powered by the titanic twin traits of consistency and intensity are why prisoners make the muscle and power gains so consistently and why these gains prove to be so elusive for civilians. This despite access to inarguably better nutrition, and access to the finest personal trainers and state-of-the-art training facilities.

The fact these men are limited to the ultra-basics, barbell and dumbbell exercises, the fact that they execute these core movements with great ferocity in short sessions, is actually, factually an advantage. When it comes to building muscle and mass, power and strength, it is a decided advantage to be deprived of all but the most basic and elemental of resistance training tools: nothing but barbells and dumbbells and a power rack if they have one. And further, it is of equal benefit to be confined to the most rudimentary of training regimens. You need be restricted to a small window of time each day in which to train – but you should train nearly everyday.

The prison muscle template could be reduced to a few key concepts: simplistic protocols are used in conjunction with crude tools; prisoners train often, in short sessions, over and over, they are consistent and ferocious and always strive to improve in every lift in every session.

Crude tools, barbells and dumbbells, amplify the resistance in resistance training. Silky-smooth resistance machines lessen the resistance in resistance training. Machines make more (poundage) seem like less. Primitive barbells used in primal exercises make less (poundage) seem like more. When it comes to building muscle and mass, nothing trumps full range-of-motion Old School exercises, squats, benches, deadlifts, overhead pressing, cleans, rows, curls, dips and pull-ups, done ferociously and often.

Another prison muscle lesson: we place way too much emphasis on nutrition and nutritional supplementation. Perhaps caloric regularity trumps our preoccupation with micronutrient quality. You would be hard put to create a worse nutritional environment than prison. The food is anaemic, pathetic and the opposite of nutrient dense. Nutritional supplements? Forget about it! Performance enhancing drugs – no way! We are told to expect wonderful, miraculous things from the expert use of cutting-edge nutrition and supplementation – so how come the guys eating pop tarts and 99-cent noodles are making all the gains?

This is a rhetorical question: the prisoners make the gains because savage strength training overcomes a whole host of obstacles, shortcomings and bad habits. According to mainstream conventional orthodox thinking, prison nutrition is so bad, that any gains should be impossible. You would be hard-pressed to create a more negative nutritional environment. The prison muscle phenomena points out that our reliance on nutritional supplements is overkill. Another prison nutritional lesson: while prison diet content is awful, the eating has a clocklike regularity.

Consistency in eating and consistency in training are critical to success. For many of these men, coming from impoverished backgrounds, prison is the most regular and consistent eating they ever experience and for many a vast improvement on the diet (or lack of) that they existed on back in “the hood.”

What we perceive as detrimental (depravation) is actually an advantage; things we place great emphasis on are vastly overrated. We on the outside might want to consider mimicking the prisoner’s limited menu of choices; we could emulate their consistency and intensity. The prisoner is forced to do fewer things better. Prisoners are consistent: they don’t miss training sessions. Prisoners train with great intensity; they always give 100% in the primal exercises they are confined to. Their status within the prison community rises or falls, dependent on how well they perform and carry themselves.

  • Intensity: the prisoner is looking to equal or exceed his current capacity in some way in every session. There is no sub-maximal coasting in the yard.
  • Short sessions: no time for long leisurely sessions, training time using equipment is limited to 30-60 minutes per day. Train hard, heavy and fast.
  • Consistency: weight train 5-7 times per week – why not? What else is there to do? Lots of time to try new training approaches. Forced to be inventive.
  • Simplistic cardio: run the circumference of the yard, play vigorous games, handball, softball, touch football.
  • Legal high: strength training releases narcotic-like hormones, endorphin, adrenaline, and cortisol. A hormonal tsunami in direct proportion to the effort.
  • No missed meals: the quality of those meals might suck, but three times daily they get fed something. For many inmates, better fed than on the outside.

If a smart person would seek to replicate the prison template for success in the outside world, I think the lessons would be as follows: short weight training sessions done power training style; use barbells and dumbbells. Basic stuff. Heavy benches and curls, deadlifts, rows, inclines, squats, overhead presses, cleans…core stuff a man can do with a barbell. Add in a chin-up bar and a dip bar. Power train a lot; short, intense sessions; seek to beat some current best in every session. You give 105% in every session.

Basic cardio exercise, if done, is done to augment the lifting. Bias cardio towards burst or interval style. Eat with great consistency. I suspect the enforced trice-a-day eating, seven days a week, 365 days a year squares up the prisoner’s metabolism and this regularity elevates the BMR, particularly when nutritional regularity is combined with intense, consistent, daily exercise. A sort of bizzaro-world perfect storm forms. Those of us on the outside would do well to mimic the clockwork nutritional consistency of the incarcerated prisoner.

It seems we on the outside are confused and confounded by the curse of too many choices. It seems those deprived of choice are getting far better results than those allowed unlimited choice.

A free man is free to pick and choose; so he becomes choosey. We develop strong likes and dislikes, and like fat bumblebees, we bounce from fitness flower to flower, sampling all the different nectars, yet never attaining the depth of immersion a man confined to a single choice is forced to embrace. Being forced to use a single mode and single tool can be turned into an advantage. Bruce Lee has been attributed with saying “I do not fear the man that has practiced 10,000 different kicks one time; I fear the man that has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Prison forces that type and degree of singularity of purpose: the incarcerated are forced to focus on doing fewer things better. So should you.

We can learn valuable lessons from the astounding gains made on wholesale basis by prison lifters. Let us start with the obvious: when it comes to building muscle, intensity and consistency trump all other considerations. The only things the prisoner has going for him are he can be consistent and he can be intense. Prisoners are consistent because they are locked up with nothing better to do; prisoners train intensely because ferocity is a highly valued trait in prison society. There is no lack of training intensity in the communal weight yard of a serious prison.

This is an alpha male environment that places a high value on excelling. When you lift, you represent your clique or sect. Those of us on the outside need to push up to or past capacity – the inconvenient truth is only by extending and exceeding our current progressive resistance limits and capacities are we going to trip the hypertrophy tripwire: the adaptive response, the fight-or-flight syndrome onset that triggers the hormonal tsunami only occur when we are attacking our limits. Simplify, get consistent in eating and training, more free weight equipment, more core lifts done with ball-busting poundage, as if you we’re lifting in the yard in front of people that mattered.

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 numerous 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.