Prison Bodybuilding: The Lowdown On Getting HUGE On Lockdown

prison bodybuilding tips

You have seen inmates and ex-cons depicted in movies and television.  Men hardened by the cruelties and isolation of stone walls.  You have seen them in news footages and documentaries.  And though they come from different walks of life the majority of them have one common denominator.

They are big. Not just big, but huge! Sleeve-ripping, button-popping mass that looks like muscle piled upon muscle. Their shirts look too small to cover their melon-sized shoulders and biceps seem ready to rip through stretched sleeves.

All men are created equal but they sure do not go to prison that way.  Some are overweight or skinny or weak. Their physiques are shaped by years of neglect, abuse, and disuse.  I know.  I have seen it first hand. For seven years I ate at the same table with them.  I dealt cards, pitched washers and, yes, lifted weights with them. And the one thing I noticed, the one constant throughout the years was that men get big in prison and big men get bigger.

So how does it come to be that two almost identical gyms–the one in your hometown and the one surrounded by barbed wire–produces two distinctly different success ratios?  And don’t get me wrong, I have seen some big, big men in gyms all across this country. And I have seen some remarkable results right in my own back yard.  But just watch the membership of your local gym; how many of those that join actually get the results they are looking for?   Maybe ten percent of the membership puts on the size, or takes off the weight, that they desire.  That’s one in ten.

The results I saw in prison were closer to ninety percent!  That’s nine out of every ten men ending up reaching their goals–and usually in very short order.  It was not uncommon to see someone gain twenty, thirty, sometimes even forty pounds of rock-solid muscle in less than a year.  In fact, the results were so astonishing that the Missouri Department of Corrections replaced all free weights with machines because inmates were becoming too big and too strong in too short of a time.   Well, we soon found out that machines worked just as well. We got just as big and just as strong, just as fast.  All we needed was progressive resistance and desire.

The Mind Set

The first place visited by a new arrival is the weight room.  They come because of curiosity or pent-up frustration and energy.  On many occasions it is due to the drastic change of lifestyle; that lifestyle being dictated by circumstance rather than choice.  But the number one reason, so it seems to me, is because of fear.  Let’s face it, jail is the last place any of us wants to be.  Besides, when was the last time you heard a good story about what it was like behind ‘The Walls’.  There are lots of negative attitudes and plenty of apprehension and no one, I mean no one, escapes the feeling of being watched, of being marked as the next victim.  So the survival instinct takes over, leading the large and the small to desire more mass and strength.  Hey, everyone is already watching, might as well show them there is no free ride here.

With that attitude you can understand why heavy weights are used almost exclusively.  Sweat, guts and glory amount to absolutely nothing unless they are left on the gym floor.  Nothing is taken back to the cell block. Nothing.  If the man next to you cleans 300 pounds then you do your best to clean 305.  And everyone at ‘the iron pile’ is a competitor; they do not care what you lifted yesterday.  It’s all about what you do today.

I use that same mindset even today.  The competition may not be as intense in the local gym but if I can get just one more rep or one more pound then I am a better man than I was the day before.

A few favorites from ‘the inside’

Now that you know what goes on inside an inmates mind — twenty four hours a day! — you can probably imagine the level of intensity he uses to rip those poundage’s free from gravity.

And if you use that same intensity — that deep-down, raw instinct that refuses to give way to failure — then I guarantee you too will make terrific gains using one or all of these programs.

1 ) The full-body work out

I do not believe that I need to emphasize the importance of the full-body workout because just about every bodybuilder knows that you must have a solid foundation to build on.  I have always recommended this and I always will.

And the only reason I mention it now is that nearly every one who steps into ’the iron pile’ starts with the basics, i.e. bench press, squats, and military press.  That is because of: One, if they are intermediate or advanced lifters they know that is the best and fastest way to slam on some mass and to display their strength and, two, if they happen to be a beginner those are about the only exercises they know, other than a few different ways to do bicep curls.  Regardless of the reason, the results are equal: Muscle is built and strength is increased.

Most of those who attack the full-body workout in prison, workout no less than three days a week on non-consecutive days.  And the routines are basic, as follows:

Squats                  3 sets x 10-12 reps.

Bench Press          3 x 10-12

Military Press         3 x 10-12

Bent Rows             3 x 10-12

Dead lift                 3 x 10-12

And after a few months of the above routine you can add a serious twist to your workout by doing 20/20’s.

20/20’s should only be done if your are absolutely sure of your form and are completely confident with doing a one-rep max.  A lifting partner and a power cage are a definite plus as well.  These are not for the weak of heart.

The first thing you want to do, naturally, is find your one-rep max (or for someone like me who rarely does a max, find the weight that brings you to complete muscular failure after three reps).

Then, after determining your one-rep or three-rep max, subtract twenty pounds and do twenty reps.  It doesn’t matter if it takes you four sets, six sets, or twenty sets the goal is do twenty reps.  Chances are, if you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, you will get your twenty reps in relatively few sets.  That’s good.  That’s okay.  Because next week you are going to add five pounds to the bar.  And the week after that, five more pounds.

This method works extremely well with squats, push presses, bench presses, dead lifts or any other compound movement.  And you can continue this routine for several weeks but be sure to hit only one body part once a week with twenty reps.

The rest of the week use light to moderate weights.  20/20’s can be used with any work out but a sample of what I have seen used is as follows:


Squats                                  20 reps

Bench Press                        3 sets x 10-12 reps

Military Press                     3 sets x 10-12 reps

Bent Rows                          3 sets x 10-12 reps

Dead lift                             3 sets x 10-12 reps


Dead Lift                           20 reps

Bench Press                     20 reps

Squats                              3 sets x 10-12 reps

Bent Rows                       3 sets x 10-12 reps

Military press                 3 sets x 10-12 reps


Push Press                      20 reps

Bench Press                  3 sets x 10-12 reps

Squats                            3 sets x 10-12 reps

Bent Rows                     3 sets x 10-12 reps

Dead Lift                        3 sets x 10-12 reps

Of course the set and rep schemes can be adjusted to fit each individual need.

The Fast Blast

The above routines have put slabs of mass on countless inmates.  But the most remarkable transformations seemed to come about by accident.  Let me explain.

It seems that the majority of men who arrive at ’lock-up’ know nothing of weight training other than “you gotta lift ’em if you want to get big.”  And with that thought in mind they go about doing what few exercises they know, and they do them every other day!

Now I know what you are thinking: Sounds like sheer lunacy.  And I would have to agree with you if I had not seen the end result myself.  Everyone, and I do mean everyone, that used this routine gained incredible mass in, not months, but weeks!

Remember when I told you earlier that most newcomers know only a few basic exercises?  Well let’s use the two most common, the bench press and the bicep curl, because those are the ones that I saw used most often.

The formula from here on out is very simple: Lift heavy and lift every other day.  No excuses, no pain, no wimping out.  Just keep the pressure on for three to four weeks then move on to two other body parts – such as back and triceps. Then after three or four weeks, move on to squats and dead lifts.  Then back to bench presses and bicep curls.

The pattern usually looks like this:

Weeks 1-3:

Mon., Wed., Fri.

Bench Press                 5 sets X 6-10 reps

Bicep curls                   5 sets X 6-10 reps

Weeks 4-6:

Mon., Wed., Fri.

Bent Rows                    5 sets x 6-10 reps

Close-grip Bench        5 sets x 6-10 reps

Weeks 7-9

Mon., Wed., Fri.

Squats                          5 sets x 6-10 reps

Dead Lifts                   5 sets x 6-10 reps

Weeks 10-12 you will start over with Bench Presses and Bicep Curls.

The consecutive weeks that body parts are worked can be varied in accordance with how each body part responds and recovers.  If your chest starts growing to the point of ripping your t-shirt or you feel that your recovery is starting to lag (excessive soreness, weakness, joint pain) then move on to the next three week cycle.  And don’t worry that your biceps are not as far along as you think they should be because they are going to get plenty of indirect work from bent rows.  The same goes for just about every body part in this routine; no body part is left idle for very long.

Those are just a few of the basic work outs used in the jailhouse gym.  Of course there are many who start off with these routines and then move on to more traditional set and rep schemes, such as five day splits and double splits.  But eventually they all return to the routines that produced the best and fastest results – the full body workout, 20/20’s and fast blast.

Understand that I am not suggesting that the above routines are the only way to make great gains in size and strength.  Each individual is different and each individual must tailor their workout to their specific needs.  But in prison every day in the gym will either work for you or against you, therefore, you lift like your life depends on it – because that may very well be the case.