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Prison Workout :: The Art of Improvisation

June 30, 2009

prisonworkoutOne truism about prison is that when you’re there you’re there alone. No matter how many people you’re locked up with. No one is going to do your time for you. No one is going to hold your hand.

Well, some of them might want to hold your hand, but trust me when I say that that’s comfort best avoided.

In my tenure as a ward of the state I spent time on many different facilities. Some had weight piles. Some even had nautical equipment. But many did not. And you didn’t always have access to it on the ones that did.

Enter innovation. Inmates, by necessity, are some of the most innovative people on the planet. I once saw a guy light a smuggled cigarette (it was a no smoking facility) using a 3″ piece of pencil lead (pried from the wood) wrapped in toilet paper. He climbed the bars and stretched through to where the wall fan was plugged in, wiggled the plug loose a little, and dropped the exposed ends of graphite across the tines of the plug. The toilet paper whooshed into flame and he was able to light his cigarette.

If anything, inmates are even more innovative when it comes to working out.


Of course, the most used piece of improvised exercise equipment was the floor. Good for push ups, squats, lunges, any number of bodyweight exercises.

Chairs and benches were also employed, as were bunks, for doing dips and inclined/declined push ups. And when there were shower curtains, the rods were always steel pipe bolted into the wall. Sturdy enough for pull ups.

Stairs and low concrete bunks were used for box work (calf raises, plyometrics, etc).

So a quick look around your house/apartment/yard/playground will probably reveal a host of sturdy surfaces upon which you can execute a total-body workout.

I won’t go over the individual exercises. Mark’s Daily Apple already has a great article covering those basics HERE.

I’m more interested in discussing isolated tools that you can cobble together on the fly. Being a heavy guy I had to work up to bodyweight exercises (I’m still working up to real pull-ups), so I know it’s important sometimes to have some tools at your disposal.

Try these on for size:

Another Person: Work out against each other’s body resistance. There’s a great example HERE and HERE.

Milk Jugs: Okay, so we didn’t have milk jugs, but we often had 2-liter soda bottles from the commisary. You want the gallon sized ones with the screw caps (pop-caps . . . well . . . you don’t want them to pop during your workout). By varying the amount of water in them you can get a fair range of light weights for curls, presses, rows, swings, extensions, etc.

Need More Weight?

Pillow Cases: Drop two or even three milk jugs in a single pillow case and grab the open end. Fill one with books. You can use a book bag, laundry bag, even a suitcase in the same manner. If it is something with straps you can wear it to increase your body weight for push ups and other exercises.

Cinder Blocks: I just got done doing a workout with my son wherein we each carried a cinder block down the hill behind our house and then went up the hill again throwing the cinder block ahead of us and running to grab them before they rolled back to us – lather, rinse, repeat (as needed) until we got to the top of the hill. Then it was back down the hill to start all over.

Cinder blocks generally weigh just a little less than thirty pounds and can also be used for presses, rows, whatever you can use a dumbbell or even a kettlebell for. And since you have to use a pinch-grip they end up giving you amazing hand strength.

Don’t have a cinder block? Find a rock – or use your car jack if it’s heavy enough.

Furniture: In prison we used our bunks. At home you might use an easy chair, a coffee table, or an ottoman. Just be sure it’s sturdy enough to handle it. Prison bunks are generally made out of angle-iron after all. Most regular furniture isn’t made to handle a lot of non-standard use.

Picnic tables and benches are better than most for this sort of thing.

Log: Got some woods nearby? Then you can probably find a suitablly heavy and awkward bit of deadwook to lug around, topple end over end up a hill, drag behind you, etc. No woods? Got a wood pile? Or a stack of lumber for a project you haven’t started?

And no, we didn’t have logs in prison (usually), and on most camps they frowned upon us heaving cinder blocks around, but we did have steel steamer trunks to heave about. The point is not to exactly duplicate a prison workout so much as it is to train yourself not to make excuses, to use what you have on hand and get the workout done.

So what about things we definitely didn’t have in prison? Lets take a look.

Spare Tire: It’s waiting right there in the trunk of your car. Great for presses or as a short box for plyos.

Sledge Hammer: These make great workout tools if you have one. This guy has a series of videos devoted to workouts that use nothing but a sledgehammer wrapped in an old sweater.

Tool Box: Are you the handy type? You probably have a few heavy tools in there for light work and the whole box can be used for a heavier workout.

Propane Tank: These are bloody handy for improvised lifting as well.

In short, just about anything heavy will work if you take the time (and a little bit of ingenuity) to put it to use.

What odd bits of non-standard equipment have you slotted into your workout routine?


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