There’s a sense among the general population that a minimum amount of equipment is required to get stronger or increase performance. For all of the reasons that people procrastinate when it comes to getting to their workouts, not having enough time, equipment or resources ranks at the top of the list. I’ve always had a certain fascination with people that were able to make improvements in disadvantaged scenarios and prison inmates are perfect example of that.
Let me start by responding to the two points that made up half of the almost 1,000 comments on this YouTube video; 1.) the prisoners aren’t really that jacked to begin with and it’s just a myth and 2.) because steroids. Yes the average prison inmate is probably not that much stronger than anyone you would find at any gym anywhere else but every correctional officer can will recall one or two inmates that they had dealt with who were much larger, much stronger and much more fit than even the ‘strong guys’ in the general population. My main interest is on them, how they managed to accomplish that with, what anybody would agree, is a minimum amount of equipment and nutrition. As to the steroid comment, of course steroids are a factor as are any other drug or contraband substance that finds its way into prisons. But steroid use is ubiquitous in general gym culture and is certainly not more prevalent inside prison than it is outside.
I mentioned in the video and I’ll repeat it here; Josh Bryant has made a successful brand (Jailhouse Strong) off of this very phenomenon. An educated man who mentored under Dr. Squat, Fred Hatfield, Josh does an excellent job of marrying the formal science of strength training with the cultural realities around it. Simply put, strength is necessary to those who want to be useful. Being strong and conditioned can benefit you and your day-to-day life but it can also insulate you from circumstances that might otherwise pose a risk to yourself or your loved ones. For this reason, he often includes the hashtag #gasstationready which is a reminder that something as simple as gassing up your car can lead to a face-to-face encounter with someone who might wish you harm.
So it’s obviously of key importance in a vicious environment like prisons to be able to insulate yourself from harm as much as possible. Anyone who can leverage their circumstances to build a more formidable physique along with exceptional strength and conditioning will make potential assailant think twice before antagonizing them. The real question is how did they accomplish this when the minimum amount of equipment to build strength is completely absent?
The simple answer is that, as long as you have an open floor space and your body weight to use as resistance, you can create enough stimulus to force an adaptive response from your body. While plyometrics and body weight exercises might not be enough to get you to a 500 lb bench and an 800 lb squat, they can surely be used to develop explosive ability and endurance consistent with any capable fighter. Staples like push-ups, sit-ups and bodyweight squats can be varied to make them more challenging, so much so that mastering them will undoubtedly lead to increased muscle mass that would make your average gym goer rethink their plan.
The big equalizer here is effort and consistency. Obviously, all things created equal, a barbell is going to be your safe is bet when it comes to these goals; we don’t look at gymnasts with large biceps and think that mastering gymnastics is the most obvious way to grow your arms. But when you are out of options and you have plenty of free time on your hands, running through simple bodyweight exercises and progressing them and difficulty over time is just as valid a way of increasing physical ability as anything else. The key is to find ways of consistently increasing stress so as to avoid stagnation.
Once you’ve mastered something like a basic push-up or bodyweight squat, you can add resistance using a partner. You can move to single leg/arm variations. You can do them explosively by leaving the floor and then catching yourself with each rep. You can increase or decrease tempo. You can increase density by shortening rest periods. You can increase volume by jacking up your total number of daily sessions. You can pre fatigue yourself by arranging these exercises in a circuit.
As neat as it is to say you can increase strength and conditioning and a bit of muscle mass using bodyweight exercises and plyometrics, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with you. After all, you have access to a gym, you can use barbells and you might even be in the middle of any one of the popular ebook programs that exist today. The important lesson to take away from this is that you don’t need to put yourself in a box or limit the tools you use to get to your goal. It’s common to become so focused on our preferred method of training that any disruptive circumstance leads us to stop altogether, as if not being able to get our hands on a barbell means we might as well not even try in the first place. Whether gyms are closed down, you are on vacation or traveling or you find yourself locked up, there is always something you can do to maintain strength and prevent your body from atrophying.
There’s also something to be said for these types of movements for general physical preparedness. As you get stronger you’ll find that you need to keep conditioning in general ability high but you won’t have enough time or recovery ability to center your regular workouts around those qualities. One of the reasons bodyweight exercises are so good is because they create enough stress for growth but they’re extraordinarily easy to recover from relative to weighted movements. The benefit is that you increase your weekly volume of work while sparing joints from excess wear and providing a restorative benefit by increasing blood flow. Any bench presser worth his salt is only going to benefit from sprinkling in push-ups throughout the week. And it turns out that they go really nicely with things like sled drags and box jumps when it comes to keeping conditioning high and maintaining utility. And remember utility is what strength should be all about.