Prison Workouts – There’s a lot we can learn from men on the inside..

A prison workout is nothing new. Guys have been working out behind bars for hundreds of years, yet their techniques and exercises have somehow never made it into mainstream fitness. 

If you ask me, I think the world of mainstream fitness needs an injection of some prison workout ideas, and most gym-goers could really do with a change of scenery. 

Prison is full of buff, ripped and mean dudes, guys that would scare the sh*t out of most of your wannabe juiced-up, gym rat bad boys. 

Sure the convicts might not be as ‘big and puffy,’ but there is a look about guys forged by prison workouts – a sinewy, rock-hard, ‘tough as nails’ look.

Men forged by prison workouts look a lot more like MMA fighters and crossfitters than bodybuilders, it’s a look of functional strength, power and confidence, it’s not just ‘all show and no go’ like you see with many ‘puffy bodybuilders.’ 

I apologise if I’m offending any ‘puffy bodybuilders’ out there, but the truth is I’ve seen many guys who look big and strong, liftting big weights (but with terrible form and about a 1-inch range of motion.) Yet they can barely do 1 proper pull-up. Ask them to do 15 burpees and it looks like they’ll have a heart attack. 

I’m sure we’ve all seen those types in the gym. The truth is that, that is not functional strength and fitness. Functional strength and fitness means you’ll be able to handle yourself and conquer whatever you need to in a real-world situation.

Men in prison NEED to be able to handle a multitude of real-world situations, and therefore their workouts are designed to give them tons of FUNCTIONAL strength as well as ridiculous levels of cardiovascular conditioning.

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The amazing thing is, they don’t need a fully equipped gym with hundreds of pieces of equipment to achieve this. They achieve it using no more than 10 bodyweight exercises, all done is a very confined space. 

Most prisons do not have a full set of free-weight and benches etc, like you see in the movies. 

Do you really want to give a bunch of hardened criminals heavy pieces of forged iron to smash each other’s heads in with? I don’t think so.

They may have dipping bars and a pull-up bar, but other than that, most of the time they have no equipment and have to do everything using their own bodyweight, gravity and pure determination.

Here’s a cool video to give you an idea of what’s possible with a bit of creativity inside a prison cell:

So what can we on the outside learn from these men and their prison workouts? 

1. Focus on a few key bodyweight exercises and get really good at them 

As I mentioned above, they’ll probably only do around 5-10 exercises, but they’ve become extremely proficient at them. 

They’re able to do extremely advanced forms of your usual calisthenic exercises. One-arm push ups,  pistol squats, weighted pull-ups or even one-arm pull ups, handstand push-ups, pikes are the order of the day. 

One big misunderstanding when it comes to bodyweight training, is that people think it’s more of an endurance activity than a strength and muscle-building activity. They think the only way to progress with a push-up or bodyweight squat is to keep adding more reps, and if you go above the 20-rep mark, then yes, it does become a bit of an endurance activity. 

One thing very few people understand, is how to adjust the parameters of leverage and gravity in order to make a bodyweight exercise continously more difficult, keeping it in the 6-12 rep range, thereby making it a great muscle and strength-building exercise. 

The methods of adjusting and modifying exercises to make them more challenging is however well known in the prison community – they’ve become masters of building real, functional strength with only a handful of bodyweight exercises. 

The take-away for people on the outside:

Focus on getting REALLY GOOD at a few key exercises. 

Variety is overrated. For example, start with regular push ups, work hard and progress until you can do one-arm push ups comfortably. It’s essentially the same exercise, but you’ve become really good at it.

Get really good at a few exercises, don’t be mediocre at many.

As Bruce Lee said:

2. They use a bunch of different rep schemes and training techniques

Wait, didn’t I just say variety is overrated? Well yes, but I meant in terms of equipment and hundreds of different exercises. 

Variety in your rep schemes and training technique is important – both for continued progress, complete development and just to keep you motivated and interested. 

Prisoners have come up with a bunch of creative ways for working out. 

Deck of Cards

Often they’ll take a deck of cards, shuffle it up and then assign a specific exercise to a suite or a color. They’ll then flip a card over and do that exercise for the specified number of reps (the number of reps is the number on the card, picture cards are 10, aces are 11.) 

For example, Spades = Push-ups, Clubs = Squats, Hearts = Hanging leg raises and Diamonds = Pull-ups. 

That’s 95 reps per exercise! 

Any workout that has you doing 95 pull-ups is a tough day at the office in my books. 

An even more difficult version is to flip the card over and toss it in a waste-paper bin located a few feet away. If you get in it, you do what was prescribed on the card. If you miss, you have to do what was on the card and then do it again for the miss. You’ll keep doing what was on the card and then tossing it at the bin until you get it in. 

If you suck and have no aim, you’re in for a very long day.

Descending Sets/Ladders

Another particularly unpleasant way of training.

Usually you’ll start with a set of 20 for a given exercise, likely push-ups, squats or burpees (more on these later.) After the set of 20, the prisoner would walk across their cell to get in a short rest period, then do a set of 19, walk across the cell, do a set of 18 and keep repeating until they got all the way down to 1.

It equates to 210 repetitions once you’re through the whole descending ladder. Not pleasant.

There are even more sadistic versions where you do a descending and an ascending set simultaneously. For example, you’d do 20 push-ups and 1 burpee, then 19 push-ups and 2 burpees, 18 push-ups and 3 burpees until you get to 1 push-ups and 20 burpees. The idea is to time it and get through it as fast as possible. 

The take-away for people on the outside: 

Get creative with your rep schemes and workout patterns.

Don’t get stuck in the usual rut of 4 sets of 10 for each exercise and chest on Mondays, Back on Tuesdays etc. Get creative, not only will it shock your body into new levels of growth and development, but it’ll keep things interesting and keep you motivated.

3. Overtraining is over-hyped.

Assuming you’re getting enough sleep, don’t have excessive stress and get enough food at regular intervals, overtraining is not as likely as everyone would have us believe.

Prisoners tick most of the above boxes, they have plenty of time for sleep, they’re in a highly controlled environment, so other than getting raped or shanked in the showers, they’re exposed to fewer stressors than most of us on the outside.

Mealtimes are also on a strict schedule, so they hardly ever miss a meal and their muscles get fed regularly.

This kind of environment is highly conducive to recovery and optimal muscle building.

The unfortunate fact is most of us do not tick any of those boxes – we don’t get enough sleep, we’re stressed as hell and we skip meals and eat all of the wrong foods.

No wonder we can’t make the progress we want.

The workloads of some prisoners seem almost guaranteed to send one into a state of overtraining, yet they defy what all the exercise physiologists tell us and continue to make gains.

If you don’t believe me, check out this Prison Workout post on Reddit.

The dude’s workload was insane, most of us would have been overtrained very, very quickly if we attempted something like that, but he continued to make gains.

His before and after photos (after a year in prison) are really impressive. You can also check out his original blog post here.





The take-away for people on the outside: 

Make sure you get plenty of sleep, minimize stress, eat on a regular schedule and eat the right foods.

If you can check all of those boxes, you can work a hell of a lot harder than you think without the risk of over-training. 

4. The Burpee is the king of all exercises.

No prison workout is complete without the burpee.

No other exercise gives you as complete a workout as the burpee. It has the ability to give you amazing cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning, and if done right (especially with some of the more advanced forms) it can build amazing explosive power.

Great conditioning and explosive power are very important traits in prison if you’re not to be messed with, so it’s no wonder the burpee forms the cornerstone of most prison workouts.

Many versions of the burpee can be performed, ranging from the standard, 4-count burpee (no push-up) to the 6-count burpee (with a push-up) all the way to a 1-legged, 1-armed 6 count burpee.

The holy grail of a burpee workout is a descending set of 20 burpees (with a push-up and proper jump at the end.)

Ideally it should be completed in under 20 minutes if you want to be considered a true bad-ass.

If you’re looking for a killer training program and want to burn fat, build muscle, get strong and look great, go here

Other sick burpee workouts include, 100 burpees as fast as possible, or burpees where 10 push-ups are done in the movement instead of the usual 1. I’ve even seen burpee pull-ups and for the truly insane there is even the burpee muscle-up (see video below).

The takeaway for people on the outside: 

DO BURPEES, and lots of them!

The burpee really is the most effective exercise on the planet and will get  you into shape faster than anything else. Start small and work your way up, but no matter what. DO BURPEES! 

Some Prison Workouts you can try at home.

For Fat-Burning:

1.       Deck of Cards (Burpees and Mountain Climbers)

As mentioned above, you shuffle a deck of cards.

Red = Burpees, Black = Mountain Climbers.

Flip a card over and do the exercise for the specified number of reps. 

Aces = 11, all picture cards = 10.

Depending on your fitness level, this workout should take you anywhere from 20-40 minutes.

2.       Burpee interval circuit.

Warm-up: 5 x 45 seconds Jumping Jacks. 30 seconds rest between sets.

Main workout:

 – 1 minute of burpees.

 –  Immediately follow that with 25 push-ups (do them from your knees if you cannot manage 25 regular push-ups)

    Rest 1 minute


 – 1 minute of burpees

 – Immediately follow with 10 Pull-ups

   Rest 1 minute


 – 1 minute of burpees

 – Immediately follow with 25 squats

   Rest 1 minute and repeat the circuit 2-4 times depending on your fitness level.

   These workouts can be done on the ‘non-strength training’ days.

For Strength and Muscle Building:

Upper Body:

Superset of 10 push-ups immediately followed by 10 pull-ups.

Rest 2 minutes between supersets. Complete a total of 10 supersets.

Choose a push-up variant and pull-up variant that you can typically do a maximum of 15 reps for in a single set.

The first couple of supersets might seem fairly easy, but as the volume builds you will fatigue and getting to 10 reps might seem very challenging in the last couple of supersets.

When you’re able to get to 10 reps in each of the 10 supersets then it’s time to graduate to a more advanced version of the exercise.

For example, lets say you started with regular push-ups and assisted or jumping pull-ups, once you can get through all 10 supersets, doing 10 reps for each of these exercises, you could switch to decline push-ups and regular pull-ups.


Very similar concept to the upper-body workout. Start out by choosing a squat variant that you can do about 15 reps for.

You’ll also want to choose an exercise that works your glutes and hamstrings, like a hip bridge or stability ball leg-curl.

Because of the strength of our legs, you’ll likely need to choose a single leg version of both of these exercises. Our legs are proportionally much stronger than our upper bodies, so unless you’re really out of shape, you’ll not tire within 15 reps using both legs.

Good examples of single-leg squatting movements are: (in order of increasing difficulty) Bulgarian Split Squats, Single leg squats onto a bench, pistol squats.

Once you’ve selected your appropriate leg exercises, it’s again 10 supersets – first 10 reps of your squatting move and then 10 reps of your glute or ham exercise (elevated single leg hip bridges or single leg stability ball curls.)

Once you can do 10 reps in each of the 10 supersets, graduate to the next hardest move.

These fat-burning and muscle-building workouts will build a phenomenal physique. You don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment or an expensive gym membership.

In Conclusion:

  • Guys in prison have nothing, but they’re in better shape than 99% of your gym rats.
  • Don’t make excuses
  • Keep it simple,
  • Work your a$$ off
If you’re looking for a killer training program and want to burn fat, build muscle, get strong and look great, go here


Article by: Bryan Hamann.

Bryan is a personal trainer, certified bootcamp instructor, Ironman Triathlete and author of THE PRISON WORKOUT.

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