Prisoners Talk about Strength Training

Kali squatting with man on shoulders

Kali demonstrating squatting with man on shoulders. He was actually sent to solitary for doing this in prison.

There was an interesting discussion on Quora this week about bodybuilding in prisons. The questioned asked was, if prisoners have little time to workout, no real control over their diet and live a stressful life with disrupted sleep how can some of them develop such large physiques? The flip-side to this question therefore is, do we really so many protein shakes and supplements to get big, and is sleep and hours in the gym overrated?

The question also asked if the stressful all-male prison environment results in elevated testosterone levels and if prisoners are just consuming many calories and working out in their cells to supplement limited yard time.

The question was answered by some prisoners and ex-convicts and provided a very interesting insight into life inside an American prison.

Experience from San Quentin State Prison


The first reply came from Christopher Schuhmacher from San Quentin State Prison. He has been in prison since 2001 and explained how he instinctively felt the need to get himself in good shape due to the treacherous environment. He described it as of “Darwinistic importance” and a survival mechanism.

Christopher was actually looking forward to “hitting the weight pile” and “driving iron” to get big, but he soon discovered that all weight training equipment had been removed from the prison in 1998 due to a concern that the equipment could be used as weapons.

However, dedicated prisoners used their creative ingenuity to achieve muscular size and definition. The prison yard did still have fixed workout bars for push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and leg-lifts.

Prisoners would add weight by using each other’s body weight to add resistance. Push-ups are done with someone leaning against your back and squats can be done with somebody sitting on your shoulders.

Prisoners also fill pillowcases with sand to use as dumbbells. In cells people fill trash bags with water and placed inside a bucket with a handle for shoulder shrugs and lateral raises.

Christopher’s favorite solution is to stack 40 or 50 National Geographic magazines in a laundry bag for bicep curls and tricep extensions.

He also asked one of the more muscular guys on the yard. ‘Curly Joe’ said that the secret is lots of reps with shorter a smaller range of motion. He says: “You got to pump those muscles up like a balloon until they feel like their going to explode.”

Kenyatta Leal, “Aspiring entrepreneur”

Kenyatta said that when he first came to prison lifting weights was by far the most popular form of exercise.

“Every yard at every prison had an “iron pile” (weight lifting area), and every day every race would gather in their respective areas on the pile and buff (lift weights). Back then the iron pile was not only a place to release aggression and stay in shape it was also a place where guys could earn respect. The more weight you could lift the more respect you got. Because of this, there were a lot of guys who got “swole” (muscular).”

But in 1996 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation banned weight lifting at all California prisons and replaced the weights with dip and pull up bars.

Today guys stay in shape doing dips, push-ups and pull-ups. Bottom line; when you combine vigorous exercise with regular meals and adequate rest, the natural outcome will be a muscular body.

Michael Nelson, Inmate San Quentin State Prison

Michael Nelson explained that today “bar work” and body weight are really the best ways “buff.”

“I began working out at the age of 16 while I was in the California Youth Authority (CYA) awaiting my transfer to prison. Afraid of all the prison stories being true, I didn’t want to go to prison looking weak (as a bulky 150lbs) and as an easy target to prey on. So I started with the goal of 600 push-ups a day.

Once I began noticing results (and others noticing the results as well), my self-esteem was boosted and I began to incorporate dips, pull-ups, lunges and squats. Over the years, working out for me has become a lifestyle and in some ways my solace.

I enjoy the feeling that I get from working out, and, yes, I like the way I look to be perfectly honest. For those of us who are muscular in prison, I imagine the way it is out there; it takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

In my opinion, guys like me have to work even harder with no weights and crappy food; it takes even more commitment to reach the levels of guys out there with double or triple the work”.

You can follow the whole discussion on the Quara page: How do prisoners get so muscular?

Monster: The Kali Muscle Story

Kali talks about training in prison and when they discovered that the weight training equipment was going to be removed. “The weights were like our God.”

The video shows him using plastic bags as ropes, with two people working out together. One does the exercise like a curl or triceps extension while the other provides resistance. After leaving prison he entered bodybuilding competitions.

Caution: This video contains some swearing.

Lessons from the prison

What can we learn from these prisoners? Quite simply, you do not need gym memberships, supplements, precise protein timing, fitness gadgets or a personal trainer to get in shape. All you need is to workout daily, put in a lot of effort and eat well.

That is not to say that supplements, shakes and gyms are not without their merit. The difference really is a matter of optimisation.

Optimal workouts, optimal nutrition, optimal rest – this will get you bigger and stronger quicker, and possibly easier. But it is not essential. You can workout at home, fashion your own equipment and use your bodyweight for exercise. If you cannot do 100 push ups already, why pay money to use a chest press machine? If you cannot do 100 bodyweight squats, why pay to use a leg press machine?

Prisoners may not get ripped like a bodybuilder or a fitness model, but they get big, strong and powerful. And most importantly, they are healthier and more confident people for it.

It does seem a little odd for the prison service to remove weight training equipment when so many prisoners were using weight training to manage aggression and stress. It does seem very likely that the male environment and stress may actually help muscle growth. Testosterone levels rise under these conditions and this aids muscle growth.

Don’t complain about not having any equipment to train or no money for supplements. Just get training hard.

More like this in the Strength Training section

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