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

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