Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
23 Jul

The Prison Workout

PrisonerThe Prison Workout. New idea? Nah. It’s been around as long as there has been anyone locked up that is looking to stay in shape. Still compelling? Absolutely. Here is MDA’s take on why we think it is worth another look, along with our own variations on this classic routine.

Why We Can Appreciate the Prison Workout:

1. Unlimited time

You have no excuses. You can’t fall back on the most often used excuse to not get in shape.

2. Limited space

You don’t get to decide whether you should go to the basketball court, to the gym, to the tennis court, to the park, ride your bike, play ultimate Frisbee with friends etc. etc. because you don’t have a choice. Your options are limited. But this is a good thing. You don’t get bogged down with endless decision-making. You’ll be working out while Joe Schmo is still deciding what to do.

No specialized equipment, no gimmicks, no late-night infomercial tchotchkes, no gym membership. You don’t even have dumbbells. It’s just you. In a room. With endless potential. The only thing stopping you from getting fit is your resolve to do so.

4. Lone soldier mentality

There is something about being on your own. There are no support groups or personal trainers. No buddy system, and no lazy spouse to drag you down. The results you achieve are all a result of your hard work. It is you against everyone else in prison, so you better get in shape.

How is this Primal, you ask?

It’s intense, it builds muscle, it requires that you use your local environment and resources to get fit, and there is a survival-of-the-fittest aspect here. Prison isn’t a fun place to be (so we’ve heard…). You have to constantly be on guard, watching your back and ready to protect yourself at any moment. If you aren’t prepared you’re going to pay the price. With this in mind you need to build functional strength. The kind that allows you to sprint and move quickly, and fight when it is called for. On the outside it isn’t everyday that we are put into survival-of-the-fittest or literal fight-or-flight situations, but it is always better to be prepared than to be a victim.

Prison Workout? Really? This isn’t for me…

We hear you, but you don’t have to get yourself locked up to take part in the Prison Workout. There are plenty of real-world applications. Do it in your apartment when winter snow or spring rain keeps you indoors. Do it when you are away on business and you only have a few minutes to spare in your dinky hotel room. Do it at home so you don’t have to pay for a gym membership.

Enough talking. Let’s get to the Prison Workout:

PrisonAt the core of any self-respecting prisoner’s workout regimen is THE BURPEE. If you have never done one you are in for a world of hurt – especially if you are to attempt the holy grail of 20 descending sets. Here’s how:

The Burpee

From a standing position squat down, drop your hands to the ground and jump your feet back to assume a push-up position. Do a push-up. Jump your legs forward to between your hands then jump up into the air bringing your knees to your chest and your hands into the air over your head. Repeat 20 times. Doing this at any speed 20 times is enough to get anyone’s heart rate up. Now comes the really tough part. Catch your breath before going into another set. This time completing 19 burpees. Catch your breath. Now do 18 burpees. Repeat until you have done all descending sets.

Variations include not starting with 20. Do a descending set starting from 10 or some other number. Or don’t do descending sets at all. Instead do as many burpees as you can before you get to the pass-out/throw-up stage. Also, you don’t have to bring your knees to your chest. This lowers the intensity considerably. (Check out this video for a visualization of the possibilities, and this video that ups the ante by combining burpees with pull-ups.)

This is a full body workout and covers your bases for most muscle groups. In fact, you could almost whip your body into shape by mastering this workout alone. But if you want to take it to the next level here are some additional options when all you have is a 10×10 cell and an iron will.

Upper Body Muscle

Upper Body

Play Cards

We don’t mean solitaire. Get a deck of cards and some sort of receptacle – trash bin, cup, shoe, doesn’t matter. Sitting some distance from the target toss a card attempting to land it in the hole. If the card doesn’t make it and lands face up this is how many push-ups you will be doing. (Face cards equal 10.) Do the whole deck. Repeat if you’re a tough guy or gal (or if you are aces at tossing cards).

Everyone knows what a push-up is so I won’t explain the basics. The important thing is to remember to keep your body level (no sticking your butt up in the air… especially if you are actually in prison) and to do the many variations on this old favorite – incline, decline, military, staggered hands etc. Mix it up and watch your chest and triceps get shredded. Watch this 19 Push-Up Variations video plus Jack Lalanne’s crazy fingertip push-ups for ideas.

Tricep Dips

Put your hands on your prison chair or bed and dip your body toward the ground. Variations (from easiest to hardest) include: feet on the ground with bent knees, feet on the ground with straight legs, feet up off of the ground on another piece of furniture (toilet? sink?), and one foot on another piece of furniture while the other leg is raised in the air, alternating legs.


All you need is something overhead to grab onto. Variations include overhand grip, underhand grip, wide grip, and narrow all with varying speeds. Watch this CrossFit video for inspiration.

Lower Body

Lower Body Muscle

Squat Jump

This is basically the burpee without the push-up part. Squat from a standing position until your fingertips touch the floor and then explode upwards, leaving the floor and raising your arms into the air. Repeat. Your quads will start burning quicker than you probably expect.

Jump Lunge

From a lunge position jump upward bringing both feet off the ground at the same time and switch your stance ending in a lunge position with your other foot now in the front. The speed and number of reps are up to you. We recommend fast and max. (Video example.)


Core Muscle


Try holding a plank for 3 minutes straight. Sounds easy, right? Think again. But, if you were a hardcore caged animal you could do it. Do standard and side planks holding the position as long as you can. Read this for more on planks.


Mark told us all about isometrics for abs in his post Washboard Abs on a High-Fat Diet, No Ab Workouts and No Cardio? So check it out for more info.


Hardcore Additions

Muscle Arm

Handstand Push-Ups

Do a handstand with your back facing and feet against a wall. Once in the position lower your head towards the ground and then explode upward. (Handstand Push-Up video example) If you don’t have the strength to do a Handstand Push-Up work your way up by doing the Pike Press (video – FYI: You don’t need a fancy swiss ball) to build shoulder and tricep strength. If you are really hardcore don’t use the wall (video).

Wall Squats

All you need is a wall for this simple move. Put your back up against the wall and lower it until there is a 90 degree angle between your upper and lower legs. Hold this position as long as you can. Doesn’t sound hardcore, you say? Try holding the position for 1, 2, 3 or even 5 minutes and then tell us it isn’t hardcore. Just like with planks after a minute or two you’ll be begging for mercy. Check out this CrossFit tutorial for video instruction.

That’s two Hardcore Additions added to our Prison Workout routine. We’ll leave the rest up to you, fellow Apples.

CrossFitters, too! We know you’re out there and have something to add. So hit us up with a comment and tell us what your favorite tight-quarters exercise regimen includes and how ours could be even more extreme.

Note: This routine may not be for everyone, but there is plenty to be learned here by anyone that wants to stay in shape and has limited space and resources.

Abdallah Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Primal Plyos for the Upper Body

Primal Plyos for the Lower Body

Mark’s Beach Sprints

Video Proof You Can Exercise Outdoors

Mike Rowe From “Dirty Jobs” Does Burpees

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great post for prisoners and civilians alike. I’ve seen variations on “The Prison Workout” before but this one takes the cake. High intensity, body weight only, no special equipment… i luv the simplicity. I’ll be adding the burpees into my routine. I’ve done them before. As you imply, they are killer!

    How about that video you included of the guy doing 100 burpees PLUS pull-ups. That’s pretty insane.

    Thanks for the great post and keep up the inspiring work!

    32Simon wrote on July 23rd, 2008
    • pushups and situps like the navy marines army

      tayyy wrote on July 31st, 2009
  2. I find that my core is ostensibly the toughest part of my body to firm and shape up!!! It has been a frustrating venture for me as I have had 3 children and it unfortunately shows in the areas of my person that I do not want this to show. I don’t know if I can do it, by I will try to “hold the plank”. Thanks for the advice MDA!

    Jen wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  3. Your site has quickly become my favorite site on the internet. Thank you for all you do and the effort you put into providing so much great information, along with the super-helpful links to videos and more info. THANK YOU!

    GSB wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  4. I’ve been working on “the plank” recently. It took me almost a week to reach the 1-minute mark! (3? Fuhgettaboutit).

    One really simple piece of equipment you could add to boost up the routine is a jump rope. Fits in a handbag and really whips up a good sweat. Though, if you’re an actual prisoner, I guess a jump rope would be forbidden, to easy to hang yourself or your un-submissive cell mate.

    So Prisoners pump it with Primal power. Now, if we could just get prisons to implement some of the stuff you talk about in your preceding post, we might have some truly healthy prisoners!

    Chaz wrote on July 23rd, 2008
    • Yes, gotta watch out for all those suisidal prisoners! What an awful comment. Geez.

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  5. Crossfit = dumbbell thrusters. You need something with weight, doesn’t have to be dumbbells. Squat with the DB’s at your shoulders and explode up – as you do, “thrust” the DB’s into the air, overhead pressing. You will get tired – fast.

    And box jumps. Ouch.

    Alex wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  6. Great call on the box jumps, Alex.

    Check this out for prison weights…

    Aaron wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  7. The pistol is a great exercise for lower body strength :

    Also, if you’re interested in hardcore bodyweight training you really, really, REALLY want Ross Enamait’s Never Gymless ( Seriously, I can’t emphasize enough how good this is. No bullshit, just a large amount of informative content written in a clear, concise way. Truly outstanding.

    plume wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  8. I use a lot of these in my bodyweight workouts, and of course whenever I’m incarcerated. :)

    Burpees are serious business!

    I used to hold planks for as long as possible and worked my way up to over 2 minutes, but then I read it’s better to do more reps for shorter duration.

    For example, I usually do 3 sets of 30-45 second holds now.

    Admittedly, I haven’t done much more research on the topic, but I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

    Geek2Freak Brandon wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  9. Ooh, burpees with a chin-up at the top of the leap? That’s hardcore! I’m going to start doing those tonight, they look like a seriously challenging workout.

    Kevan wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  10. Great post and exceptional site. Burpees are the love to hate excersize with me. A good full body blast. Add some pull ups and your done.

    MikeB wrote on July 23rd, 2008
  11. 20 descending sets of burpees are hell… I call it ‘Alcatraz workout’ :)
    What is everybodys time on this one ? It took a looong time – 21:18.

    Petr R. wrote on July 24th, 2008
    • I did it today with a new PR of 15 minutes 49 seconds

      David Hydock wrote on May 14th, 2015
  12. Prison? Being a fulltime SAHM to a toddler while writing fulltime?
    methinks it’s the same.



    MizFit wrote on July 24th, 2008
    • What?

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  13. Burpees with pull-ups (pull-a-burps) are da bomb. I did 20 this morning. No descending sets, though! Besides the physical benefits, they’re also wonderful for the ego; people tend to come from all over the gym to ooh-and-ahh at you.

    I’m always fairly astounded when someone blows off a workout because he/she couldn’t get to the gym. I go to the gym because I like being with people and having access to equipment, but it’s definitely not necessary for a good workout. I can totally exhaust myself on my 4 x 6 foot living room rug with no equipment.

    dragonmamma wrote on July 24th, 2008
  14. Like you said, this can be applied outside the prison cell. These workouts should be the building block for anyone that wants to get in shape and have functional strength.

    I know someone that went to prison flabby and out of shape. He used to smoke and eat horribly. A couple of years in the joint and he came out looking like a body building. He had the body to compete in competitions. It was an amazing turnaround. All that time in there, and he used it to his advantage.

    Israel wrote on July 25th, 2008
  15. Great post Mark. Bodyweight training is tough and your workout is one of the toughest I’ve seen. When I was younger I used to do handstand pushups and that alone was enough to tire me out.

    My problem is that if I do not make myself go to the gym to work out I more often than not end up skipping the exercise. Therefore, if I stopped my gym membership and did the ‘Prison Workout’ instead, I doubt I would be able to make myself do it. I’m quite easily destracted so working out at home is not really an option for me. I find I can only really focus at the gym.

    Tom Parker wrote on July 26th, 2008
  16. great site.
    check out my site sometime.

    pass along to your subscribers. it is free too.

    harvey wrote on July 30th, 2008
  17. hi, andar here, i just read your post. i like very much. agree to you, sir.

    andar909 wrote on August 10th, 2008
  18. great list for a great workout. for the true prison crowd, butt clenches are probably a good idea…

    bison04 wrote on August 15th, 2008
    • Useless comment.

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
      • Some people like to laugh once in a while. Get over yourself.

        Mike wrote on September 15th, 2012
      • And another…

        TylarDerdin wrote on January 29th, 2013
  19. hey, not a prisoner here, but just wanted to say that i think a lot of these basic moves are the best You don’t need much. When I get bored I’ve been checking out Fitness magazine. September issue has a get lean workout that’s pretty decent.

    emmyalex wrote on August 22nd, 2008
  20. Some pretty good workouts here i never realised how effective planks were. I’ve always thought that machines and weights are a waste of time and money when there’s so much you can do with just your own body weight and a bit of floor. Another exercise not mentioned here is a kind of reverse plank, lie on your back and keeping your legs straight lift your feet slightly off the ground, and hold. The closer your feet are to the ground (without touching of course) the harder it is. I found this harder than planks but i did the exercise after the planks so that may be why 😛

    Mario97 wrote on September 15th, 2008
  21. hey everybody, lets all go to prison!

    leavesareply wrote on November 3rd, 2008
  22. This is an awsome article. Very basic but extermely effective movements to build a great body.

    Paul wrote on November 20th, 2008
  23. Awesome Article!

    Personal Trainer wrote on December 11th, 2008
  24. Sounds interesting.But you forgot one important bit of info;how many times a week do you do for optimal results?

    gaaack2003 wrote on December 31st, 2008
  25. Inhumane!

    ____(______ wrote on January 8th, 2009

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