When you’re in prison, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, and a lot of inmates spend this time exercising. With little or no equipment and sometimes just the space available in their cells, prisoners are able to get incredibly big and strong. Learning how prisoners do these bodyweight workouts can be useful for those who aren’t in jail, but want to get fit and don’t have access to exercise equipment.
My guest today got the lowdown on the methods prisoners use to get strong by interviewing bodybuilders who also spent time in the slammer. His name is Josh Bryant, and he’s a powerlifter and powerlifting coach and the co-author of the book Jailhouse Strong. We begin our conversation discussing the mindset with which Josh approaches fitness training, including what he means by being “gas station ready.” We then discuss why being big and strong is oftentimes a matter of survival for prisoners and some of the famously fit former inmates Josh highlights in his book. We then dig into the specific bodyweight movements prisoners typically use, how they can be incorporated in your own workout routine, and the various ways you can modify and make the exercises harder. We discuss programs prisoners often use and how Josh has enhanced them with his powerlifting background. Josh then lays out a beginner’s three-day-a-week bodyweight program, explains the way prisoners incorporate “deloading” or taking a break from their workouts, and talks about his all-time favorite conditioning exercise.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What is “gas station ready”?
- The practicality of being strong in prison
- How prisoners get strong with no access to weights
- The primary bodyweight exercises you can do to get a great workout
- How to scale exercises up or down with bodyweight
- Push-up variations that work different muscle groups
- Increasing intensity on pull-ups
- Mistakes people make in programming bodyweight workouts
- Juarez Valley, Deck of Pain, and the Mountain Method workout methods
- How do you know when to change things up with your programming?
- Why burpees are awesome
- What is nutrition like in prison?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Prisoner Workout
- Becoming a Tactical Athlete
- The Eat, Sweat, Thrive Protocol for Tactical Athletes
- Everything You Need to Know About Creating a Home Gym
- The Garage Gym Athlete
- How to Build a Home Gym on the Cheap
- Why Every Man Should Be Strong
- Dorian Yates
- The Ultimate Push-Up Guide
- How to Break Through a Push-Up Plateau
- Do More Than One Stinking Pull-Up
- The Ultimate Squat Guide
- The Burpee: The One Exercise to Rule Them All
- The Great Gama
- Odd Object Training Primer
Connect With Josh
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When you’re in prison, you get a lot of time on your hands. A lot of inmates spend this time exercising. With little or no equipment and sometimes just the space available in their cells, prisoners are able to get incredibly big and strong. Learning how prisoners do these bodyweight workouts can be useful for those who aren’t in jail, who wanna get fit and don’t have access to exercise equipment. My guest today got the low down on the methods prisoners used to get strong by interviewing bodybuilders who also spent time in the slammer. His name is Josh Bryant. He is a powerlifter and powerlifting coach and the co-author of the book, Jailhouse Strong. We begin our conversation discussing the mindset with which Josh approaches fitness training, including what he means by being “gas station ready.” We then discuss why being big and strong is oftentimes a matter of survival for prisoners and some of the famously fit former inmates Josh highlights in his book.
We then dig into specific bodyweight movements prisoners typically use, how they can be incorporated in your own workout routine and the various ways you can modify and make the exercises harder. We discuss programs prisoners often use and how Josh has enhanced them with his powerlifting background. Josh, then lays out a beginners three-day-a-week body weight program, explains the way prisoners incorporate de-loading or taking a break from their workouts. And then, he talks about his-all time favorite conditioning exercise. After the show is over, check out our shownotes at aom.is/jailhousestrong.
Alright, Josh Bryant, welcome to the show.
Josh Bryant: I’m honored to be here. Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you are a powerlifter, powerlifting coach, and the author of several books, including the one we’re gonna talk about today, Jailhouse Strong. But before we do that, let’s talk a bit about your career and background. So tell us a bit about your career as a lifter yourself and also your career as a coach of lifters.
Josh Bryant: Sure. So I started off in more traditional regular sports, but I found my true love training for those sports in the weight room. And I became the youngest person to bench press 600 pounds by 22 years old. Since then, I’ve had one of my students actually go on to beat that, which was really cool. In 2005, I won Atlanta’s Strongest Man in America. And then I did some bodybuilding. I didn’t actually compete in bodybuilding, a lot of training in bodybuilding at the world famous Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas. So it was really cool. Since then I kinda moved all around the country to train with different people that were kinda the strongest people in the world. And since then, I’ve gone and trained athletes and some of the strongest, most muscular people in the world. I’ve all kinds of clients at a very high level. And I’ve gotten into lately more, myself, more kind of tactical training. So while I’m not in the military or law enforcement myself, that’s how I enjoy training. And I’ve gone on to obviously coach people in person. I have a successful online training business, and I do seminars all around the world. Obviously, that’s kind of at a halt right now, but recently I’ve been to India, China and Australia. And I’ve written some personal training courses for ISSA. I write books, and that’s where we’re at right now.
Brett McKay: So you said tactical training, what does tactical training look like?
Josh Bryant: So tactical training, I think could be almost like you could almost swap out the word “functional training.” It’s kind of being ready for any sort of situation. Almost when we talk about sort of “gas station ready” type training is tactical training.
Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about gas station… So I follow you on Instagram and for a while now, and one thing you see on your post, you always have this hashtag #gasstationready. What do you mean by gas station ready?
Josh Bryant: Gas station ready started off… Is my business partner and co-author Adam Benshea, he teaches Jiu-Jitsu, and he made a joke one time about it being sort of a scenario at a gas station at 3:00 AM. So I’m like, “Okay.” I’m like, “Let’s make this into a hashtag” ’cause that kind of explains what people want. It’s 3:00 AM, you pull to a gas station, some degenerate, wild-eyed, bourbon-bathed dude comes up and wants your car, wants your lady, your wallet, whatever. Are you ready to handle the situation? So gas station ready, it’s like a mindset, a training philosophy, essentially. To be ready for anything. That’s what tactical training is. You have to sprint fast enough to handle a situation. You have to be able to handle yourself. You have to have the strength, the endurance, all that different kind of stuff. So gas station ready is being ready for anything. It’s a mindset when conflict is inevitable. Strike first and protect what’s yours. And that doesn’t have to be just in a self-defense. It’s just how you handle life.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like your philosophy towards strength isn’t just to be strong to be strong, right? To show it on the platform, but it’s that you want to be strong also, so it transfers over to real life.
Josh Bryant: Absolutely. So, obviously, if you’re gonna be like a lot of people I train, like a guy I been working with just broke the world record for about the 10th time in the bench press. So someone training at that level, you have to make some of those sacrifices, you know what I mean? ‘Cause that you’re training… When you’re pursuing excellence to that degree, you’re gonna have to get rid of some stuff in the process. But for most people, and even people like that at that level, I’m gonna, so for powerlifting purposes, I’m gonna have a lot more work capacity stuff and movement capacity and strongman type of training in their off-season. So absolutely, even for the most extreme powerlifter, I would have more of this type of training, than most people that are into powerlifting for sure.
Brett McKay: And one thing I’ve noticed with the content you’ve put out, especially on your Instagram account, is that you’re often… You’re throwing back to the past. You’re looking at bodybuilders, strongmen from the past and showing what they did. What do you think those guys got right that a lot of people have forgotten today when it comes to training?
Josh Bryant: I think one huge thing is they stuck to the basics. So basics, that doesn’t mean elementary, it means fundamental. So I think that’s where a lot of people get it wrong, and I think the work ethic back then. You had, just a couple of weeks ago, the Garage Gym Review guy, and that was a great piece, sort of that kind of mentality of making the most of what you have in your current situation and the work ethic.
Brett McKay: All right. I think that leads nicely to our… The topic of conversation which is your book Jailhouse Strong. So these are…
Josh Bryant: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: So what led you down… So this is a book about the strength and conditioning routines of people in prison, dudes in prison. What led you down that path to explore how prisoners get strong?
Josh Bryant: Sure. So growing up, trained at the YMCA. And at 16 years old, I was actually a manager of a hardcore gym that’s called Santa Barbara Gym & Fitness ’cause I moved out to Texas later, so it was in Santa Barbara, California. So there would be all these really big, huge, strong guys. One of the main ones was a guy named Fed. He was a bouncer at the local strip club, and he had been in prison and all this stuff. And he was so strong and trained so hard and he was so big. And we noticed a lot of these guys were really big and really strong, were training really hard, really basic. And even the ones that were more bodybuilder types, did a lot of body weight training. So someone of this size, 250 pounds, very lean, wasn’t only doing push-ups to get that big. However, if he did a chest work out, he finished off with some nasty body weight finisher. So we, obviously, just observing how strong, how functional these guys were, even being young, 16 years old, how well they age. You see some of these bodybuilders would come in there when I’m working at 16 years old, talking about getting old. They’re 30 years old, got guys in their mid-40s that could move like pro-athletes ’cause they trained this way in prison. They did more movement type of stuff.
So philosophically, it also came down to… I think prison’s a low point for a lot of people, obviously, as it should be. It shouldn’t be the highlight of anybody’s life. It shouldn’t be something to be glorified. So what happens is they have all this time on their hands. So a lot of people just kinda wish away their time, and I think that is essentially shortening their life. And the ones that are smart, they use time as a resource. So what they do is in the situation they are, they maximize what they have. More time to recover, more time to train, all that different types. So that kind of philosophy. And then nothing to do with jail at all, just how you can train at home. You can get rid of that commute to the gym. I have a family, so I don’t wanna waste… I’m not training to set a world record in powerlifting at this point. So I can set an example of physical training at the house by training at home, doing these type of workouts. And then for other people, it just cultivates a higher probability of success. If something’s going on at your house, there’s less excuses to miss the workout or whatever else. And then you can even set your training area up in whether it’s a living room in your apartment or your garage gym or whatever, you can set it up exactly how you like it. Like certain posters, lighting a certain way, all that kind of stuff.
The next part would be, what’s the next best thing you can do? I had a freshman football coach that always talked about, “What’s the next best thing we could do?” And that’s exactly what we wanna do. We may not have access to all the best equipment, but what’s the next best thing we can do? Then philosophically looking at self-imprisonment. It exists in many different forms. It could be a job, whatever it is. Physical training for people behind bars, it served for a way to them, I guess, like free themselves from that sort of imprisonment. And that’s what we wanna do. That’s why we post so much stuff and have books about mindset because that’s huge. And in the process, which wasn’t the original goal just to kind of put out some books and stuff. What’s been cool, is we, Adam and I, have been able to establish a community of like-minded people online and stuff and met all these cool people, met people in person and all that stuff. So these workouts, they can be done anywhere. They can be done in a jail cell, basement, hotel room. They’re functional. They’re gonna have your body ready for anything. And they can all be done with minimal equipment, and oftentimes all you need is gonna be your body weight. And last but not least, they’re a lot of fun.
Brett McKay: Right. And in the book you talk about, one of the reasons why a lot of times prisoners get big and strong, like you said, time is the only thing they got. So it’s like getting that exercise time, they look forward to it.
Josh Bryant: Sure.
Brett McKay: But also, it’s for survival. They need to be big and strong to be, I guess you could say, jail-yard ready, ’cause that… I mean if you look weak, you’re gonna get picked on.
Josh Bryant: Well, funny talking about gas station ready. Someone at the seminars in Australia was asking about self-defense. I said, “Look, over 99% of situations can be just diffused by not being at bad places. If you avoid bad places that’s gonna take care of most of it.” But honestly, a lot of situations can be diffused just by a certain look. That’s huge. ‘Cause then you got to think of prisoners of higher testosterone levels. I’m not a sociologist really. I don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg. I don’t know if it even matters. If they’re in prison because they’ve higher testosterone levels and kinda leads to, I guess, some choices that would get you there, or if it’s a product of the environment. If you’re resolving petty grievances with brutal beat downs and knifings, that’s gonna be very tough for the average man to survive, but an alpha male is gonna thrive in that environment. So that would be a part of it. Exercise consistency, the body thrives on routine. So with all this time on your hand, if you’re disciplined, you can be very consistent in your routine. If you have a routine, you’re gonna active progression. So, you hear stories about people doing 1500 push-ups a day and all this kind of stuff ’cause they… Most of the state penitentiaries banned weights in 1992.
Some of the federal ones still have them, but they won’t buy new ones. So in there, they don’t take care of the stuff, but most people don’t have access to it. So you hear stuff about people doing 1500 push-ups a day. They didn’t come in there doing that, so there’s an active model of progressive overload there. Interval training, they’re confined to these small spaces. So that’s gonna… The traditional modes of long, slow cardio are not gonna apply ’cause even like a small exercise yard, it’s not that much room. But if you’re in a jail cell, you could do burpees till the cow come home. These were sort of service, like a think tank or like Napoleon Hill talked about like a mastermind group. People with similar goals that you can trade ideas with to help you in your pursuit, and I think that’s huge to bounce people off. There’s no agenda here, except to get better.
Brett McKay: So in the book, you and your co-author actually interview some famously fit prisoners. Who are some of these guys that you’ve interviewed for this book?
Josh Bryant: Okay, so I’ll give you three good ones. Dorian Yates.
Brett McKay: All right.
Josh Bryant: So he was the Mr. Olympia. And so, why that would apply here, you’re thinking, “Okay, bodybuilder, right?” What that applies to, is Dorian Yates actually started off in jail. It turned him around, but his base was built with bodyweight training, heavy barbell lifts and rope climbs and things like that. Cory Mathews, another IFBB Pro bodybuilder, he actually went to prison at 14-years-old in Nevada. He was in a grown-up prison, and he went on, turned his life around. Now he’s a pastor and a professional bodybuilder. And Garry Frank was a world record-setting powerlifting holder, but not so much for anything he did. He never went to jail or anything, but he was actually the athletic director at a prison called Angola in Louisiana. So he made a ton of observations and then would share. And then lot of different people, that like I mentioned that guy earlier, Fed. Him, different guards, different… A lot of people that aren’t famous, but those would be three famous ones you guys might know. We also talked to Jeff Thompson. Have you guys ever interviewed him? He’s a bouncer from over in England?
Brett McKay: No.
Josh Bryant: He’s written actually some best-selling books for some of the unarmed combat stuff ’cause a lot of the interval training is unarmed combat training. So instead of just doing a regular high-intensity interval training, it might be something like a elbow, knee, sprawl, repeat, 20 seconds on, Tabata type of thing.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about some of the programming that you highlight in this book and the exercises. So you mentioned for a long time, for a while, prisoners had access to weights, but they started taking that stuff out during the ’90s. I guess, that’s when that whole super criminal thing was going on. They’re afraid…
Josh Bryant: That’s exactly the term, yep.
Brett McKay: Right. They were afraid that people would go to prison, they’d come out and they’d be even worse. And it’s probably ’cause they’re lifting weights, so they took it out. And so a lot of prisoners use bodyweight exercises. What are some of the main bodyweight exercises you talk about in Jailhouse Strong that normal folks, who just don’t have access to exercise equipment, can do to get a good workout?
Josh Bryant: Okay, so the foundationals ones would be push-ups, then different variations of the push-ups. Those can be the nucleus pull-ups and different variations of the pull-ups, different variations of the squat, then burpee variations. So then we would go in to more advanced variations, so you could… A push-up could become push-ups with your feet up on a bench, or a Hindu push-up, or even in an extreme case, a one arm push-up, that kind of stuff. So and then obviously, we have for the flip side, because there’s a lot of people that talk about every program should begin with some sort of bodyweight type of programming. But in a country where a third of the people or whatever or more are obese, that’s not necessarily gonna be a practical thing. Or a powerlifter that weighs 400 pounds might be strong, but never done any kind of bodyweight training. You can’t just say, “Alright, we’re gonna bust out 10 sets of 25 push-ups.” You have to start off with something like the knee, push-ups in the knees, push-ups against the wall, and progress up from there.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned, okay, those are the main ones, like the push-ups, pull-ups, squats. And then you mentioned there’s variations, and I guess, all those different variations, that’s how you increase intensity for bodyweight exercises?
Josh Bryant: Absolutely. There’s all sorts of things. That’s how you can do, go unilateral. You can add different tempos where you accentuate the negative, accelerate the positive. Like in powerlifting, we talk about compensatory acceleration training where you’re putting maximum force, full range of motion into that, and you can do the same concept with the bodyweight training. You can make it like a plyometric bodyweight, all sorts of different stuff. Just thinking about it, even if you’re doing a lunge, if you put your hands above your head, it’s gonna be harder than if you put them by your side.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I know that. My coach has been programming lunges at the end.
Josh Bryant: Awesome.
Brett McKay: And he wants like on the head. As soon as I’m putting my hands on the head, I’m like, “This sucks. I don’t wanna do this anymore.” So okay, you mentioned some different types of push-ups. The explosive one like a plyometric, is that like a clapping push-up type thing?
Josh Bryant: You can do that, or you can just go straight up in the air and get like basically push-up and instead of stopping and locking on the top, become airborne, get as high as you can.
Brett McKay: And a Hindu push-up, what’s that?
Josh Bryant: Hindu push-ups, I’ve heard people call them a bomber push-up before. You start with your feet wider, butt up in the air, and you come down. You almost scrape your chest against the ground, come back up, and then you almost get like in a bridging sort of position up, and then come back in a circular motion. It’s very like a rhythm type of deal to it, and those got popularized by some guy named Matt Furey. And before that, they were like a mainstay in the programming of a famous wrestler named The Great Gama from India. Have you heard of him before?
Brett McKay: I have heard of The Great Gama, yeah.
Josh Bryant: Yep, and that’s the guy that used them, and he was something like 5’9″, 255 pounds with a 58-inch chest, 80 years ago or something. And apparently, Bruce Lee used a lot of the teachings of The Great Gama, which I did not know till more recently.
Brett McKay: So, yeah, I’ve done the dive bomber or the Hindu push-up, and it works different parts of your upper body in the different parts of the movement. I feel like it’s very shoulder… And then there’s like when you get to a certain part, it turns into your triceps, and then into your chest. It’s a really dynamic movement, and I like it. It’s a fun push-up to do.
Josh Bryant: Do you feel them in your upper chest? See, I feel those a lot in my upper chest, too, much more than a regular… Almost like… Incline versus bench pressing is where you can kind of feel those a little bit. And then you also feel them a lot in your upper back too, compared to a regular push-up.
Brett McKay: No, for sure. And then, another way you talk about how prisoners add intensity is, with push-ups at least, is you put your feet up on the bed or a stool or whatever, and now you got like a decline push-up almost.
Josh Bryant: Absolutely. Another one people don’t think of a lot of times is… I’ve already mentioned going unilateral, but just increasing range of motion. So if you’re doing push-ups, you go between, if you have two boxes, you can stretch down a little bit deeper. You can pause the reps at the bottom of the movement. So, all this different stuff you can do. And I know we’re here talking about body weight training, but you can also… There’s different things you can add to yourself, too. You might have some bands. There was one study that, in the NACA Journal, talking about people used band resistance push-ups versus bench pressing, and their strength in bench pressing increased nearly as much as it did when doing band resistance push-up. So even for powerlifting and stuff, I’ll use that kind of stuff with my clients just to get them to do different type of movements, absolutely.
Brett McKay: What I like about this body move… ’cause I do powerlifting. What I like about body weight exercises, like a push-up or a squat is that I feel like it’s good for my joints. It just feels good from my tendons and my joint strength. ‘Cause you get a range of motion that you typically don’t get with a barbell.
Josh Bryant: Absolutely. And it just sort of hits a muscle a bit different, too. I do a body weight squat, I feel it more on my quads. If I was gonna take it to a point of failure than I would with a barbell squat, I feel it a little more in the posterior chain, so absolutely.
Brett McKay: We’re talking about ways you can increase intensity on a push-up. And this is basically the equivalent of adding weight to a body weight exercise, making it harder. Let’s talk about pull-ups. So, there’s the typical pull-up, which is hard for a lot of people. Some people can’t even do a pull-up or a chin-up. Right now’s a great time to get up on that. But, let’s say you’ve mastered the pull-up. What are some things that prisoners have done to increase the intensity on pull-ups?
Josh Bryant: Well, the most obvious way is gonna be to add some sort of resistance, be it another person, some sort of object, weights, whatever. And then another one is actually changing the… Obviously, you can go unilateral, one arm type of thing. Even if you grab your wrist or something, like Rocky does, it’s gonna be harder than just doing a regular chin-up. And then another one is a sternum pull-up. So, that’s sort of almost like a row… It’s like you’re doing a pull-up, but you come up and almost touch your sternum to the bar. That’s what you shoot for. So you kinda lean back as you do that. So you get a lot of the feeling of it’s almost like a hybrid between a horizontal and vertical pull and you feel it in a point, in the mid-point of your back like you do a row. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before.
Brett McKay: And another movement, pull-up variation, that I’ve seen, that just works something differently. I think it’s called like a commando pull-up. It’s like where you hold the bar like you’re crossing a rope commando style…
Josh Bryant: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: And then you just pull yourself up and alternate shoulders and that just… It hits different.
Josh Bryant: That’s another… Yeah, absolutely. Commando pull-ups are great, yep.
Brett McKay: And then on the squat, I guess the way you can add intensity to them, the ultimate way to add intensity to that would be like a pistol squat, like a one-legged squat.
Josh Bryant: And I think that’s true with any kind of body weight stuff is when you go unilateral, that’s gonna obviously make it a lot tougher. So yeah, absolutely. And then I think another one is pause squats. Not that a lot of people are, you know, a lot of the stronger people assume that big deal, no problem, but that’s another one. I think jump squats are a big one. So that’s another big one. Like a prison jump squat, where you put your hands behind your head, land in the squat position, do those in a rapid-fire succession. That’s a great way to increase intensity there.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah, one thing that I’ve done, I don’t… I remember this when I was in elementary school, I read some book on how to be a ninja, Shaolin monk or whatever.
Josh Bryant: Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: And one of the exercises they talked about was… They’d have the monks like in a half squat position, like a ready fight position and you just hold it for as long as you can. And I remember in my bedroom, when I was 11 years old, doing that until I basically just all the lactic acid built up. I thought I was getting… It must have done something for me. That’s one way you can add intensity. You just hold a position for a long time.
Josh Bryant: Sure. And have you ever done things like, sissy squats and stuff like that, or Hindu squats?
Brett McKay: I have not. What are those?
Josh Bryant: Okay, so the Hindu squats is similar to like a Hindu… It’s, I guess similar but you wanna get a rhythm going like a Hindu push-up. You kinda swing your arms over your head and then you let your air out as you go down, sort of like… Obviously when you’re squatting heavy weight, you don’t wanna let your air out or it’s gonna crush you. But here you just let it out to kinda let yourself get really deep in a circular motion, and you come up on your toes as you go down again, something you wouldn’t do with weight on your back. And that was another big one. If you go on… You guys go online, just Google a picture of The Great Gama, there are some cool pictures of him doing Hindu squats. So you can see that bottom position I’m talking about. If you’ve knee problems or something, this could be an issue. But for high reps in circuits and stuff, it’s gonna really burn your quads like crazy. And then a sissy squat, kinda similar to that type of movement, but you hold on to something and you really… You get up on your toes, and really let your knees travel forward and get a huge stretch in your quad. It wouldn’t be something you’d load up with a bunch of weight.
Brett McKay: And one that came to my mind that you’d possibly do, too, in a confined space like prison is a Bulgarian split squat. Just put your foot up on a bed and then just squat.
Josh Bryant: And that would lend to the point we made earlier about going unilateral. That would be an easier way of going unilateral, rather than having to do a full out pistol squat.
Brett McKay: And the way you can make these harder too, even for a squat, is put something in your body, hold something. Could be a rock, a chair, a kid, I don’t know, and do the movement and you can add some weight that way.
Josh Bryant: I used to do that. That’s how I used to put my son to sleep when he was about a year and a half. I’d just start doing squats with him and he’d be asleep in about 30 seconds, just holding him while I squat.
Brett McKay: How old is your son now?
Josh Bryant: I have a seven-year-old and a five-year-old.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Have you tried that on them lately? [laughter] Just pick him up and…
Josh Bryant: No, last night I wanted to go to sleep, and… ‘Cause our sleeping schedule is a little off right now because I just did the seminar in Australia right before all hell broke loose with what’s going on right now. So we got back early. And then what I did is I took my family over with me. We did like a vacation for a week, then I had a seminar for three days. And then we got back, school’s canceled. So no one’s… Sleeping’s been… ‘Cause the Australian trip, I guess, as an excuse a few weeks ago now, but we hadn’t really got on our normal routine as much as we would just because of everything that’s been going on. Last night they’re in there just telling me to make them do different kinds of burpees. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Tire them out.
Josh Bryant: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about the basic movements you can do. Push-ups, pull-ups, squats and then the variations you can do to make those a bit harder. But let’s talk about programming body weight exercises, particularly how prisoners have done it. So when you’ve talked to these guys, what are some typical body weight programming you’re seeing in prisons? And then also let’s talk about what your power-lifting experience, what insights you’ve brought to that on programming body weight exercises.
Josh Bryant: Sure. So I think smart prisoners are avoiding some of the common mistakes. Some of the common mistakes are just people getting so endurance-happy. They just make this… They view body-weight training as, some prisoners avoid it altogether, but a lot of people view it as just totally for endurance. When with the right application, it can be used for strength and explosive power even for people with high relative strength, that’s your strength to body weight ratio. So keeping that in mind, some of the things I’ve seen is gonna vary a lot. I’ve seen just how, in strength training, you can see somebody using something where they’re squatting a couple times a week and then you have some Bulgarian type of methodology where you’re squatting twice a day, and they’re both getting good results. There is variation there. But the most successful programs I’ve seen have come up with a few different things. I’ve seen people that are basically structuring their workouts around a desired training effect. So they might be focusing one workout on explosive strength, one workout on strength, one workout on endurance, that type of thing.
So I’m gonna say undulated periodization model where each workout’s gonna have a purpose. Another thing I’ve seen very successfully used is people using the total repetition method. So what all that means is, for instance, if somebody sets out they’re gonna do a pull-up workout, they say they’re gonna do 100 pull-ups. The way they get to 100 pull-ups is they do as many reps as possible, say rest 30 seconds, for example, and repeat that sequence until they reach 100 reps. So that could be… You could do this for 10 reps, you could do it for 1000, it doesn’t matter. But that’s the methodology right there, the total repetition method. Obviously, if you’re like your straight sets, and that’s just 10 sets of 10 whatever. But then another one we’ve seen and we brought to the forefront here was the Juarez Valley method. And I saw you had written an article or mentioned that in one of your articles, too.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Josh Bryant: So a lot of people don’t know what that is. So what that is, is let’s just say a Juarez Valley 10. The object of this workout is to keep the intensity steady. So what you do is, say you start off with 10 pull-ups. This would be really hard, but you do 10 pull-ups. You would walk eight feet away, walk eight feet back, then you do one. You do the same walk again, then you go nine, same walk again, you go two. You basically go back and forth eight then three, seven, four, six and five until every number between 1 and 10 is covered. You could do that for 20, you could do that for whatever, 15, doesn’t matter. But that’s the idea. The deck of pain. This is most popular for push-ups. You basically flip a card over on a… You have a deck of cards. You flip a card over and you do however many push-ups or whatever movement you wanna do that’s on that card. And then you have the, what I call the Mountain Method. It’s based off of what Chuck Sipes used to do. He used to have a thing called the 1-10-1. Have you ever heard of that before?
Brett McKay: I have not.
Josh Bryant: Okay. So what Chuck Sipes would do is… He’s a famous bodybuilder, old-school heyday early ’60s type of guy. And what he would do is he would pick… He would go really heavy, but he’d also do pump training. When he did the pump training, what he would do is he’d go one rep, two rep, three, four, all the way up to 10 like that. Then he’d go back down 10, nine, eight, seven, six… All the way down to one. But it’d only take 10 seconds between sets. And you can do this for a more of a muscle endurance or high perch speed type of training with body weight. The Tyson squat workout is another popular one. Time under tension training is simply just doing sets for a prescribed amount of time. And so let’s say I’m gonna do 15 reps. You just do push-ups, pull-ups, whatever, squats with perfect form for 30 seconds. Cluster sets where you do… I’m gonna do… You focus on doing more sets, less reps, but you do a ton of sets. And then other ones that are… We call limited yard time circuits. Say you go 20 minutes. You would do push-ups for 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds, do squats for 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds. Do a variety of different body weight type of training exercises.
Brett McKay: That last one, that’s kind of how my conditioning is at the end of a barbell session is that, it’s okay. There’s three different bodyweight movements you’re gonna do, 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. So it’s almost kinda like a CrossFit WOD.
Josh Bryant: Absolutely. Yeah, I think it’s… I think, yeah, it sounds like you’re in a good program. So I like what I’m hearing from you. So yeah, absolutely. That’s a great way to do it.
Brett McKay: And that cluster set, so I just learned about this ’cause I was listening to an interview where you were talking about this concept. So that’d be, instead of doing two sets of 10, you would do 10 sets of two.
Josh Bryant: That’s how I always… It’s funny, I always said it’s similar. I go, “There’s no working definition of cluster sets.” I use that exact example you give, because I don’t know, maybe there is. No one’s corrected me yet and said, “Well, actually, there is a definition now.” It’s basically that. More sets, less reps.
Brett McKay: And that’d be good for pull… So someone who can’t do a lot of pull-ups, that’d be a great way to get more pull-ups into a session. So if you can only do two, well, instead of trying to do 10 in a set, do 10 sets of two.
Josh Bryant: Yeah, it’s a better way also for the, for building explosive strength there. You can produce more force that way, and it’s better for the acquisition of skill, if you’re trying to actually master a movement, grease the groove, if you will, then the cluster sets are more effective. And that’s something I’ve definitely picked up, because I feel like… You asked earlier about the power of the influence. I don’t think I did a very good job of answering that. It kinda skipped over to start talking about other things, but that would be where this would apply. Is that cluster sets is huge. I didn’t even have a name for it when I first started working with people, I just knew that powerlifting, we’re a one rep sport. We need more first reps to practice technique. But this is gonna be a better way to master technique and pull-ups or whatever, and then the other influence of powerlifting there would be progressive overload, of course.
Brett McKay: So, progressive overload, for those who don’t know just means you’re making your workout harder. So how do you implement progressive overload in bodyweight workouts?
Josh Bryant: I think this is a big mistake people make. So most people are just gonna add reps which obviously, adding reps is a great way, but so have you heard in bodybuilding people use the term “cheating?” Like, you know…
Brett McKay: Yes.
Josh Bryant: Okay. So cheating…
Brett McKay: But maybe explain that for our listeners who aren’t familiar with it.
Josh Bryant: Sure. So cheating would be, let’s… Envision yourself doing a set of curls. The set of curls becomes too difficult to complete with perfect form, so what you do is you add a little hip bump to get a little swing, and if you’re doing it correctly you would use just enough to get past your sticking point, which means where you’d normally be stuck at, and go right past there. That’s how most people do cheating.
The other way to do cheating is, when I’m doing a high perch speed training for people, what I call variable range of motion. So, let’s say for example, somebody’s doing time and attention training, doing incline dumbbell press for 30 seconds. When they can no longer complete full reps, they would go to partial reps, so it’s a variable range of motion. And that’s what you gotta be careful on when you are… Which is good for that type of training ’cause you’re just going for a period of time, but if you’re actually trying to execute reps, the wisdom I used to get in powerlifting was, old school guys when I was like 13, 14 years old at the gym would say, “If you squat… Every inch of depth you cheat, you’re basically cheating yourself of 40 pounds or making it 40 pounds easier.” So, if we go with that logic in here, if you start doing the bodyweight exercises, and you keep decreasing with a variable range of motion, it’s no longer the same lift. That’s a problem with if you only look at that.
So, adding reps is awesome. But you have to make sure you’re using the same reps if you’re actually progressively overloading the movement. So then the other ways are the ones that we just talked about of, eventually you would put your feet up on a push-up, or go unilateral on a squat, or whatever the case may be. You would look at those parameters. You’d also look at adding reps, and then I think a huge one is decreasing rest intervals. So if we can get the same amount of work done in less time, we’ve progressively overloaded your training. It’s just with a density factor. Because you can keep doing more work if you drag these workouts out for three hours, but that’s not what people are after. If we can get the same amount of work done in less time, we’ve increased density, hence overloaded the training. So, there’s tons of different ways we can overload it.
Brett McKay: So you’ve talked about different programs that you see in the Juarez Valley method, the Deck of Pain, but let’s say there’s a person who’s just starting out. They want just a basic, bodyweight program that gets… It’s a full body program. What would that look like for someone starting out with the exercise and also the reps and sets you’d recommend.
Josh Bryant: Sure. So, okay, I got an example. So here would be a three day a week program. So you have full body three days a week. You would go say five sets of 10 to 20 reps on a push-up, five sets of 15 to 20 reps on a squat, a prisoner squat, then five sets of leg raises, and some planks would be one day. Another day you’d have burpees. And what we’d do is start off with basically just one or two reps, walk away like a Juarez Valley, walk back and repeat that for 10 minutes. We would do some sort of unarmed combat drill. This is using the Jailhouse Strong stuff, so keep that in mind. If you’re not into this stuff, you could do something else, but some sort of unarmed combat interval drill next, walking lunges, then some inverted rows. And then on Friday, we’d do some Hindu squats, chin-ups, and if somebody’s unable to do chin-ups, we’d work with some variations that are easier to do. You might even do inverted rows, might do… There’s all sorts of different ways. You could band-assisted push-ups, all sorts of different… Even if you had a partner that could spot you, all sorts of different things we could do. And then some push-ups and then some jack knife sit-ups. So that would be a pretty beginner level, not somebody that’s never done anything before, but someone kind of new to bodyweight training.
Brett McKay: That sounds like it’ll only takes about 30-45 minutes to do.
Josh Bryant: Yeah, if you’re not training right now, you have some sort of athletic background, I think 30 minutes three times a week, you can definitely change your physique, your health, and feel a lot better. Absolutely.
Brett McKay: And how do you know when to start adding variables and start changing things up with your programming, to add intensity, or reps?
Josh Bryant: Okay, so if I’m working with somebody one-on-one, I’m gonna change it weekly. It could be very, very, very small changes, though. But if that’s not the case, you’re just following one of these programs, it’s gonna… In Jailhouse Strong, on this particular program, it’d be every three weeks.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Do prisoners… Have you found do they ever follow a deloading scheme? So they decide, “Okay, I’ve done three weeks of this, time for a deload. And then I’ll work… ” Do they do things like that, or they just keep going up and adding progressive overload?
Josh Bryant: Well, they definitely do so. What they use is the same way I train a lot now, too. I call these our natural deloads. So what that means is for them it’s like… A lot of people say, “Well, Arnold never deloaded.” Well, yeah, he actually did. In his Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, he talked about how he’d walk into the gym, not feel it a certain day, and leave. That was his deload. He may not had it planned out, but he said he did that. So a lot of people did deload without them knowing it. Or they felt off that day, they used lighter weight. It just wasn’t planned.
What a lot of these guys do is… That’s what they’re gonna do. If they’re not feeling it… “They don’t feel it, they kill it” type of deal. That’s what I personally do now, so I’m gonna… If we’re taking a vacation every few months or something or doing this or that, this is a perfect time for… When we were in Australia, I’d take the kids to the beach in the morning and run some, not even sprints, more like tempo runs, do some push-ups, things like that. And it wasn’t very structured, it wasn’t very hard, but it was enough to keep me active recovery.
Most of them are doing stuff like that. But in my programs, I definitely worked those in. And then if I was working with someone individually and we got to that point, they could be trusted to make this kind of decision, I’d say, “Okay, just let me know when you need a natural deload ’cause you’re gonna take vacation or whatever.” But definitely, just for these kind of programs, we do them less often. So it might be, instead of… I would say the average in most programs with barbells is we say every four weeks is a safe average.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah.
Josh Bryant: Okay, this would be more like every eight weeks or so.
Brett McKay: Okay, that makes sense. And I think also just… I like that idea of keeping in mind how are you feeling, look… That’s where something like rated perceived effort might come in handy. It’s like, “If things are feeling like an eight or a nine, when it should feel like a seven, maybe I just need a break today.”
Josh Bryant: Sure. And that’s what most of the prisoners and… When you talk to ’em and that’s, we say, “What do you ever do to deload?” And they’re like, “What’s that?” And you tell them. “No, if I just didn’t feel it that day, I’d stop.”
Brett McKay: Right. We’ve been talking about strength. In a lot of this stuff, the body weight can be used as conditioning, but in Jailhouse Strong you talk about the burpee as being the go-to conditioning exercise for convicts. What’s so great about burpees?
Josh Bryant: Sure. Leaning on your point right there on strength, though, and I think this is also important for the heavier people listening that are into barbell training and stuff. If right now, if you’re training with mostly your body weight, you probably won’t really notice much of a drop-off if you’re heavier. But, anyways back to the burpees. Burpees are awesome. You know how they kinda came about and got popular?
Brett McKay: No. No, tell me.
Josh Bryant: Okay, they were conditioning tests for World War II. And that doesn’t… I guess that doesn’t mean it’s gonna help you if you’re listening, but just a piece of history right there. I think they’re very similar to any kind of sprawling-type of deal for unarmed combat scenario, for MMA type of stuff. They’re very effective for interval training and they also force your body to work together as an integrated unit. And there are, like anything else, there are different ways to increase intensity here. You can do an eight-count burpee, you can do push-ups.
One of the guys was saying, even someone wrote me the other day, told me in one of the prisons in California, they would do it where they do a regular burpee with a push-up, jump-up, do a knee, and then you take your fist and you hit yourself in the… If you do a right knee, you hit yourself on your left side with a hammer fist to your stomach. Then you alternate sides, so there’s tons of different ways. I think it’s very good for real world scenario. It’s very good for interval training and it forces your body to work together as an integrated unit. I did a bunch of them last night just knowing we were gonna talk about them today ’cause I haven’t done any in a while and it feels really good. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: No, I think I’ve got bad memories of them from football. As soon as the coach that said, “Get your feet moving,” you knew what was gonna… You knew what was about to come, was burpees. Another way, another thing that I’ve done before, or have done in the past, with burpees to add intensity to it, it’s burpee and then when you jump up, you do a pull-up, and then burpee, pull-up…
Josh Bryant: That’s hard. Yeah, for sure.
Brett McKay: That’s hard. That’s not fun, but if you’re a glutton for punishment, that could work. And then another way you’d mentioned that you can do conditioning is the combative training, so like shadowboxing-type stuff.
Josh Bryant: Absolutely. And then yeah, you can do… ‘Cause we got to think about thrown knees, it’s almost like a leg raise or something, there’s a ton of different ways. Basically if… We can also look at the burpee as a Swiss army knife. It may not be the best at one particular thing, but it’s good at a lot of different things.
Brett McKay: Speaking of shadowboxing, there’s this guy here in Tulsa, this old guy, who goes down by the Arkansas River on the trail and there’s this statue of an eagle on the river. And he’s old guy, big white beard. He always has his shirts off and at like 5 o’clock in the evening, he’s always there shadowboxing, and just there. And I’m like, “That guy… That guy’s gas station ready.” [chuckle]
Josh Bryant: Does he look pretty good doing it?
Brett McKay: No, he does. He looks like he… I wouldn’t wanna mess with him.
Josh Bryant: Gotcha.
Brett McKay: No. So he’s…
Josh Bryant: That’s it right there.
Brett McKay: He might have been in the clink and I just don’t know it and he’s just… That’s where he picked that stuff up. Besides this stuff, have you noticed… Do prisoners focus on other things besides the big movements because it’s important to have in prison or they just decided that’s what they wanna do? Do they do grip training or things like that?
Josh Bryant: Well, it’s gonna be a case-by-case basis, so absolutely some of them are getting it by default. One more thing I wanna mention here about the burpee is, if you guys haven’t tried, another good one is burpee box jumps, if you haven’t tried that, where you burpee then you immediately jump up onto a box. Not to change the subject, but wanna get that in real quick. But, yeah. Definitely some do and some of the things guys are doing a really innovative. So they might do… Have you guys ever seen the videos of people doing curls with trash bags full of water and stuff like that?
Brett McKay: I have not seen that, but I’m gonna search for it now.
Josh Bryant: Yeah, yeah. You have to grip the trash bags, so pull-ups… That’s gonna give you some grip work. So a lot of them, are they training specifically for grip? No. But when you’re having to do things outside of your body weight that are very functional in nature because you have odd objects, you are gonna build your forearms. There’s not a professional strongman in the world with small forearms and very few of them actually are doing any, what you’d classify as grip training beyond the events.
Brett McKay: And with nutrition in prison, are they eating eggs like Cool Hand Luke? Is that what they…
Josh Bryant: Yeah. [chuckle] They have… Well, it’s funny. You talk to a lot of guys and a lot of them have made friends with guards and stuff that would turn a blind eye to them getting protein powder and stuff like that. I think there’s definitely that type of deal, too. If you’re good socially, you might be able to get in some extra protein bars and things like that.
Brett McKay: Well, Josh. This has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the books you’ve written and your work?
Josh Bryant: Sure. So you can go to my website, it’s joshstrength.com. You can go to my company and subscribe, Jailhouse Strong, or my Facebook is The Josh Strength Method. And if you go to my website, you go to joshstrength.com and sign-up for my newsletter, you get a free hill sprint program and a free 8-week deadlift program. And I should say YouTube, too. We got a bunch of these tutorials and things like that on YouTube.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Josh Bryant. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Josh Bryant: Thank you so much, Brett. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Josh Strength. He’s the co-author of the book, Jailhouse Strong. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can find out more information about his work at the website jailhousestrong.com, also joshstrength.com. And you can also check out our show notes at aom.is/jailhousestrong, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast. Check out our website at ArtOfManliness.com where you can you find our podcast archives, holds thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. Got an article on there about prisoner workouts, go check it out. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to StitcherPremium.com, sign-up, use code MANLINESS at check-out to get a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast.
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