With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Friday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in August 2015.
Besides a few brief stints of freedom, notorious British criminal and troublemaker Charles Salvador (better known as Charles Bronson) has been serving time since 1974. During these decades behind bars, and often confined to isolation, Bronson has become a fitness fanatic, creating workout programs that require only his bodyweight and a few odd objects. His extreme regimen has given him near-superhuman strength — he claims to be able to do 172 push-ups in 60 seconds, pick up a pool table by himself, and bend a steel prison cell door with his bare hands. He’s set many prison fitness records as well, including one for most push-ups in an hour: 1,727.
Now, it’d be easy to take Bronson’s claims with a grain of salt. The man is not only a convicted criminal, but his violent, loose-cannon behavior has earned him the label of “Britain’s most notorious prisoner.”
But Bronson is hardly the only inmate who’s managed to gain impressive strength without access to barbells, nutritious food, or supplements. Prisoners all over the world have created highly effective strength-building routines they can perform in the tiny space of their cell or with limited equipment in the jail yard. For men who are locked up, being strong and looking strong isn’t just about aesthetics and personal development; the appearance of size and prowess acts as a deterrent to attack and can be necessary for survival.
While most of us will thankfully never end up behind bars, I think we can all take a lesson from convicts on how to not let your circumstances be an excuse for your fitness goals. Below we highlight bodyweight exercises used by prisoners the world over to get strong and stay strong.
The Benefits of Bodyweight Workouts
You can do them anywhere. Don’t have time to make it to the gym? Travel a lot? Locked up for 5-10 years? Great! You can do the prisoner workout anywhere . . . bedroom, office, hotel room, or solitary confinement.
It’s free. Don’t have the money for a gym membership or purchasing your own equipment? That’s not an excuse for not exercising. With a few simple bodyweight exercises, you can create a full-body workout that’s completely free.
Strength+cardio in a single workout. By increasing the tempo and decreasing the rest between sets and exercises, you can turn a bodyweight workout into both a high-intensity cardio session and a strength workout. In 30 minutes, you’ll be done with your exercise for the day.
Below I’ve highlighted six main bodyweight exercises that work the entire body. However, with a little tweaking of each exercise, you can create over 50 different exercises from just these six basic movements. If you’re locked up for life, I’m sure you could come up with another 50 variations.
According to the book he wrote in prison, Solitary Fitness, Bronson performs 2,000 push-ups a day. If you start doing 10 push-ups a day and add 5 more each day, in a little over a year, you can get up to that level.
The push-up works multiple muscle groups including the chest, anterior deltoid, and triceps. And the great thing about it is that the exercise can be easily modified to increase difficultly and work different muscle groups.
Narrow/Wide Hand Placement. By simply adjusting the placement of your hands, you can emphasize different muscle groups. Narrow hand placement works the triceps, while a wider hand placement emphasizes the pecs.
Hindu Push-up. This is a dynamic full-body movement that will build strength and flexibility in your chest, shoulders, back, hips, and triceps.
Get in position by standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend down and place your hands on the floor while keeping your arms and legs straight. You should look like an upside down human “v” with your butt being the point of the “v” and your head pointing down to the ground.
To perform the Hindu push-up, you’re going to make sort of a swooping motion with your body. Bring your head down and forward by bending your elbows. When your head gets close to the ground, continue moving your torso forward by arching your back and lowering your hips. Your hips will now be near your hands. Make sure to get a good stretch in your back. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Handstand Push-up. If you want a killer shoulder workout, look no further than the handstand push-up. To perform the handstand push-up, assume a handstand position. Slowly bend your elbows and lower your inverted body towards the ground. In order to maintain balance, you’re going to have to call on your core and other smaller stabilizing muscles. If you can’t do a stand-alone handstand, use a wall to assist you.
One-Armed Push-up. You’ll have achieved top-dog, alpha-male-prisoner, beast-mode status when you can perform multiple one-handed push-ups.
Pull-ups are a highly effective exercise that works a whole host of muscle groups, including the latissimus dorsi (the “wing” muscles on your back), biceps, traps, pecs, and forearms.
Better still, they can be done anywhere there’s a place to hang from. You can buy a pull-up bar that fits in your doorframe for $30. If you don’t have access to that, monkey bars or even a tree limb at a park will work. What if you’re in a hotel? If the doorframe is wide enough, you could do some pull-ups from there — though, they’ll be more like finger pull-ups. Prison? I’m sure you can find a bar somewhere to use. There are lots of bars in there, I hear, though I guess more of the vertical than horizontal variety.
Just like the push-up, pull-ups can be modified to work different muscles groups or to make the exercise more difficult.
Chin-up. Shift your hand into a chin-up position, and you’ll work your biceps more and train your lats in a different way.
Mixed Grip Pull-up. One hand grips the bar overhand and the other underhand.
Commando Pull-up. You may remember Rocky doing these babies during his epic training montage. Take an underhand grip with one hand and an overhand grip with the other. Pull your head to one side of the bar for one rep, and then to the other side of the bar on the next rep.
Narrow/Wide Grip. You can adjust your grip width to focus on different muscle groups. Try doing pull-ups with your hands right next to each other or as far apart from each other as you can.
Towel Pull-ups. Hang two towels from your bar and grip one in each hand. Pull yourself up. Great for grip strength.
Typewriter Pull-up. Grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up until your sternum is at the bar. Now, move your body toward one hand, taking some of the weight off the opposite hand. Keep your sternum at the bar. Return your body to the center and repeat on the opposite side. Return to the center and lower your body under control. That is one rep.
One-handed Pull-up. You’ll have achieved top-dog, alpha-male-prisoner, beast-mode status when you can perform multiple one-handed pull-ups.
If you can’t do more than one stinking pull-up, see our “do more than one pull-up” workout. It’ll have you cranking out pull-ups for reps in no time.
The squat is one of the most basic yet effective athletic movements. In just one exercise, you work your quads, hamstrings, glutes, hips, and inner thighs.
Prisoner Squat. The traditional prisoner bodyweight squat is performed by placing your hands behind your head. Squat down until your thighs are below parallel. Come up. That’s one rep.
Add Weight. While you might not have access to a barbell, you can find odd objects in your environment that you can hoist up on your shoulders or hold in front of your chest. Once you’ve got your desired weight, simply squat.
Squat Jumps. A plyometric version of the squat to build explosiveness. Perform a prisoner squat as you normally would, but when you reach the bottom of the squat explode up and jump off the ground as high as you can. When your feet are back on the ground, immediately sink into another squat and jump again. Great for HIIT.
Pistol Squat. You’ll have achieved top-dog, alpha-male-prisoner, beast-mode status when you can perform multiple pistol squats. A pistol squat is a one-legged full squat. The leg that you’re not squatting with sticks out right in front of you when you’re in the squat position. When you’re at the bottom of the squat, you sort of look like a pistol, hence the name. It’s a beast to do and will take months to work up to.
There are entire routines to help you accomplish this Herculean feat (and perhaps we’ll hit on it in the future), but one of the best exercises to help you segue into a pistol squat is to perform the assisted variety. Simply grab a pole or some other sturdy object in front of you and lower yourself into a one-legged squat position and use the pole to help pull yourself up. Eventually, you can take off these training wheels and do a freestanding one.
Dips work the triceps, pecs, shoulders, forearms, and core, and you don’t need a fancy dip rig to do them. Prisoners will put their hands on a chair with their feet on the floor or propped up on the bed. You can make them more difficult by placing weighted objects in your lap.
Hanging Leg Raises
This is a core blaster. Not only does it hit the abs, obliques, and rib muscles, but it also works your quads, hips, forearms, and shoulder muscles.
Hanging Leg Raise Variations
Straight Leg Raises. Grab and hang from a bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width overhand grip. Keeping your knees straight, raise legs by flexing hips until they are completely flexed, or knees are well above hips. Return until hips are extended downward.
Bent Knee Leg Raises. If you can’t do a straight leg raise, you can modify it by bending your knees and raising them into your chest.
Full Straight Leg Raise. Perform a straight leg raise as you normally would, but instead of stopping when your feet rise above your hips, keep going until your toes touch the bar.
Towel Straight Leg Raises. Place two towels over the bar and grip one in each hand. Perform a straight leg raise while holding onto the towels.
Hanging Windshield Wiper. Perform a straight leg raise, but when your feet come to the top positions, brace your abs and rotate your legs to one side as far as you can. Rotate to the other side. That’s one rep.
One-Arm Straight Leg Raise. You’ll have achieved top-dog, alpha-male-prisoner, beast-mode status when you can perform multiple one-armed straight leg raises and hold yourself in the top position for several seconds.
The burpee is the ultimate full-body exercise. There’s a reason football teams, CrossFit practitioners, and elite military forces use the burpee in their workouts. Just one simple movement tests both your strength and aerobic capacities.
Basic Burpee. To perform a basic burpee, just follow these instructions:
- Begin in a squat position with hands on the floor in front of you.
- Kick your feet back to a push-up position.
- Immediately return your feet to the squat position.
- Leap up as high as possible from the squat position.
Burpee With Push-up. Perform the burpee normally, but after you kick out your feet to a push-up position, go ahead and do a full push-up.
Burpee With Hindu Push-up. Instead of just doing a full push-up, make it a Hindu push-up.
Burpee+Pull-up. Stand underneath a pull-up bar or tree branch that is high enough that you have to leap to reach it. Perform a burpee normally, but when you leap up grab the bar and perform a pull-up. Repeat. Did you hear that? That was the sound of your soul dying.
Putting It Together: Possible Prisoner Workouts
As you can see above, you’ve got a lot of choices when it comes to exercises to create a bodyweight workout. Mix and match the exercises to your liking along with a set and rep scheme to create your bodyweight workout.
If you’re looking for a little guidance, though, here are a few suggestions:
Deck of Pain
This is supposedly a favorite workout routine amongst prisoners because they usually have a deck of cards handy.
Take a standard deck of 52 cards. Assign one of the above exercises (or one of their variations) to each of the four suits. So you could have something like:
- Clubs: Push-ups
- Spades: Pull-ups
- Diamonds: Squats
- Hearts: Hanging Leg Raises
Start drawing cards from the top. The suit tells you what exercise you’re doing; the number tells you the reps. Face cards count as ten rep; aces 11. So if you drew the 5 of diamonds you would do five squats; if you drew the king of clubs, you do ten push-ups. Draw the cards and perform the corresponding exercise and reps until all the cards have been drawn.
Finish it off with ten burpees for good measure
Juarez Valley Method
According to the book Jailhouse Strong, the convicts inside Mexico’s Juarez Valley Prison — one of the world’s most dangerous prisons — use the following rep scheme for their bodyweight workout.
Pick an exercise. You’re only going to be doing one during this circuit. Let’s say for this example, you’re going to do push-ups.
This circuit consists of 20 sets. The rep scheme looks like this:
- Set 1: 20 Reps
- Set 2: 1 Rep
- Set 3: 19 Reps
- Set 4: 2 Reps
- Set 5: 18 Reps
- Set 6: 3 Reps
- Set 7: 17 Reps
- Set 8: 4 Reps
- Set 9: 16 Reps
- Set 10: 5 Reps
- Set 11: 15 Reps
- Set 12: 6 Reps
- Set 13: 14 Reps
- Set 14: 7 Reps
- Set 15: 13 Reps
- Set 16: 8 Reps
- Set 17: 12 Reps
- Set 18: 9 Reps
- Set 19: 11 Reps
- Set 20: 10 Reps
So on the odd sets, you’re starting from 20 reps, going down a rep every odd set, and on the even sets, you’re starting from 1 rep and going up a rep every even set. When it’s all said and done, you’ll have completed 210 reps.
Between each set, walk 5-10 steps for a rest and then get back into it. The goal is to complete this circuit as fast as you can.
Mike Tyson Squat Workout
Tyson did this body squat routine while in prison; it doesn’t sound too hard but it’s a real killer:
- Line up ten cards facedown in a straight line on the ground with 4″ between each card.
- Begin by standing over the first card and squatting down to pick it up.
- Holding the first card, take a step forward to the second card. Squat down and place the card you just picked up on top of the second card. At this point, you’ll have no cards in your hand, and 2 cards will be one on top of the other on the ground below you.
- Squat once and pick up the first card.
- Squat once and pick up the second card.
- Take a step forward to the third card, squat down, and place one of the two cards in your hand on top of the card on the ground. Now squat down and place the other card on top of the cards on the ground.
- Squat one time each to pick up the three cards one by one.
- Take a step forward to the fourth card, and repeat this process until you’ve made it through all ten cards.
To learn how Tyson trained his body (and mind) before he was in the slammer, pick up a copy of The Warrior Monk Philosophy of Trainer Cus D’Amato: The 5 Strategic Principles That Turned Mike Tyson Into a World Champion.
Instead of having a set time period where you try to crank out as many reps as you can, with greasing the groove, you’re performing reps throughout the day. You might set up a system where every half hour, you perform 10 push-ups. Assuming you’re up for 12 hours a day, that’s 240 push-ups every day.
Exercise to Failure
For hypertrophy and endurance, simply do one set of each exercise for as many reps as you can.
One Exercise a Day
When Ryan Ferguson was locked up in a Missouri jail from 2004 to 2013 after being wrongly convicted of murder, he started a routine where he focused on just one exercise a day. The goal is to work your way up so that you can complete 500 reps in an hour. It doesn’t matter how many sets you break this up into, just try to get to that 500 rep count before 60 minutes is up.
Listen to our podcast with Josh Bryant about how to get jailhouse strong:
Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade
Jailhouse Strong by Josh Bryant
Solitary Fitness by Charles Bronson