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When people think of working out in prison what immediately comes to mind is the weight pile, some old rusty cracked barbells and a bunch of tatted muscular cons pushing iron. That’s the Shawshank version and in some prisons, it’s still like that. But more often than not, the weights have been taken away and working out is frowned upon. It can even be illicit and not allowed, dependent on what prison you’re doing time in.

During my 21 years of straight incarceration, I worked out on the regular, both clandestine and out in the open. The first joint I was at, FCI Manchester, in the foothills of Kentucky, had free weights, pull up bars, and even machines. I got into a powerlifting routine doing mostly bench-press, squats and deadlifts.

We would put as much weight on the bar as we could and lift it, or die trying. We were going hard in the penitentiary. I would hit bench on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and do squats on Tuesday and deadlifts on Thursday. It was mostly 5 sets of 5 as I tried to build my strength and put on some muscle. I didn’t want to be seen as a little skinny guy. I came in at 165 pounds soaking wet, so it was definitely time to get my swoll’ on.

That went hard on the iron for a couple of years and I got my weight up to about 185 pounds. But then I was transferred to FCI Beckley, a brand new federal prison in the mountains of West Virginia. This was in 1996 and the government had just implemented this new policy, the No Frills Prison Act, which banned weights, and other recreational equipment at any new prisons that were coming online.

At the older prisons, whatever they had was grandfathered in, but the new prisons, like FCI Beckley, were in compliance with the No Frills Prison Act. The bill was passed by Congress because of all the hype in the media about the so-called super criminals, coming out of prison jacked up like football players or WWF wrestlers, too strong for the cops to handle. Due to the criminal exploits of a couple of ex-cons, the weights were taken away.

At FCI Beckley I got into push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. All body weight exercises, I did a lot of jogging and played sports also. “When they took the weights away it was time to figure out a new workout routine,” Wood, one of my homies from Virginia, said. “The weights were good, but three months off them and you started to lose your size. With calisthenics you kept your muscle a little more.”

It made me a lot leaner too. I stayed 185 pounds, but got a lot stronger and in way better shape overall. But again, in 1999, I was transferred to another prison. This one was in New Jersey, FCI Fort Dix, and they had a weight pile. Some cons swore by the weight pile and couldn’t do time without one, but I was good either way. If the weights were there I took advantage of them, if not, I didn’t cry about it. I didn’t go back to power lifting, though.

I was still running and doing calisthenics a lot, but I added some weighted pull-ups, bench-presses, arm exercises like curls and squats to my routine. I worked out with this Cuban American cocaine dealer who did business in Miami. We used to start off every workout at 6 am in the morning by running at least 5 miles, after that we would do 500 pushups, 100 pull-ups and 250 sit-ups.

After that monster session, I would break with him and go to the weight pile for some weighted pull-ups, bench-press and an arm routine. “In prison you got to hit the bench and arms, because it’s all about having that upper body strength and guns,” Wood said. “You don’t want a caved in chest and 13 inch arms, you know what I mean. Motherfucker will try you, if you looking like that.”

PrisonBenchPress

Image: A.Danling

If you’re getting ready to put in work and split someone’s dome, you need to look like you can do it. Having some size and some guns (as in biceps) can be an intimidating factor. I like to look strong and be in good physical shape. I wasn’t trying to be an MMA fighter, I wasn’t looking for any problems, but it paid to be prepared at all times. I got up to about 205 pounds working out at Fort Dix, I was what they called, “Cock Diesel.”

In prison, the ultimate goal for those that worked out with weights was a 315 bench press, 315 squat and 405 deadlift. For powerlifter’s, that put you in the 1000 pound club, pretty nice company. I can say that I got my deadlift up to 405 and my squat up to 315, but I never got to the magic bench-press number of 315. I maxed out at around 275, just short of the 1000-pound club.

Good numbers, but by no means elite. I saw dudes deadlifting 600 pounds or more, so many wheels were on the bar that it would bend as they lifted it, the same with bench-press. Cons would bench like 405 or 495, The 45 pound bar bell wheels making the bar bend like plastic. The weight pile looked like a version of Dante’s Hell.

“I remember Big Turk who used to lift the whole fucking gym,” Wood said. “You would go out to the weight pile and he would have all the weights, doing his power lifting routine. And don’t ask him for any iron before he’s done, he would just give you that look like, are you fucking serious?”

I hit a couple of more joints after that. At some they didn’t even have pull up bars so we had to do pull ups off the stairs in the unit, one guy would watch for the cops as we got our sets in. A lot of the prisons I was at didn’t have any weights, either, so we would make our own weight bags using water or magazines. It was always a constant battle with the guards who were confiscating the homemade weights, that were technically illegal. We used to steal sand from the volleyball court on the rec yard, and smuggle it back to the unit to fill our weight bags. We went to all extremes to work out.

At the last prison I was at in Arkansas, FCC Forrest City, there were no weights, at least no legal ones. Cons had the sand and magazine filled weight bags in their units, they would use a broomstick as a bar and fasten the weight bags on each end to lift. We also did pull-ups in the showers. The shower bars were sturdy and we did pull up routines, slurpees (which are a combination of a burpee and a pull up) and leg-raises. Every time you went to the shower, there’d be a rack of dudes working out.

I got more into more cardio based workouts, like Tabata and high intensity circuits, that involved constant motion with sprints, ball slams, step ups, box jumps and jump rope stuff. Almost like cross fit type of workouts, but with no weights, it was very grueling. One thing I can say is that, I worked out steadily over my incarceration and came out healthy and in good shape.

Prison can be boring and monotonous, but if you find a good workout routine and some good cons to work out with everyday, it helps your time go by faster and provides a little relief to the tension and stress that being locked up can bring. I always said it was better to exhaust myself and channel my anger through a vicious workout routine, than go the other route and get violent and bash someone’s skull in.

“You got to workout in prison,” Wood said. “It’s mandatory.”

“First off no one is trying to look like a wussy, and second it helps get rid of the negative energy. Third, if someone try you, you can back it up.”

That’s why at every prison there are dudes going hard and working out, either with weights, burpees, other calisthenics or running routines. It’s the best way to channel your anger and frustration at being locked up, and the powerless about your situation.

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