prisoner
Photo credit: kyryll ushakov on Unsplash

Quarantine Fitness: ‘Prison-Style’ Exercises You Can Do Anywhere

No weights? No worries. If you feel like a prisoner in your own home, you may as well get ripped in the meantime.

Let’s be honest: This all sucks. Social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and home quarantines are all reasonable sacrifices in the face of this frightening new reality. But make no mistake, we’re social creatures, and if you’re like any other gear junkie, you’d rather be playing outside.

But, because we’ve got nothing but time on our hands (and sanitizer — use often), what better opportunity to focus on your fitness? We scoured the internet to find some honest-to-goodness prison-cell workouts — and there are quite a few!

We also have some great routines to mix things up (it could get boring otherwise). And we added in a few ideas from our time staying fit when we’re snowed in or stuck in hotel rooms.

“Home quarantine” may as well mean “home gym”; “shelter in place” may as well mean “run in place”; “social distancing” … is actually a good practice and should be followed. The point is, this time is an opportunity to ditch your idea of what a workout should look like.

Goodbye dumbbells, squat racks, and weird giant rubber bands. Hello, dining room chair, doorframe, and 6 x 8-foot floor space! Here are some routines you can do at home with minimal or no equipment. All you need is some grit and dedication, and you can emerge from this pandemic like a beast.

But before you get started, like any fitness routine, you have to be careful and listen to your body. As with any activity, there is the possibility of injury, so know the difference between good pain (feel the burn) and bad pain (did I just tear something?). And if in doubt, consult your physician before beginning an exercise routine.

Prison Exercises

Prison exercises rely mostly on bodyweight workouts. That means pushups, planks, pullups, squats, dips, lunges, and the like. We break those down later in the article if you need some advice, or inspiration, on how to do those.

But the real secret to a “prison workout” is how you put those bodyweight exercises together. This means reps, sets, and timing.

Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson Squats

For instance, one apocryphal tale suggests former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson devised a fiendish squat routine while incarcerated. It goes like this:

  • Lay down 10 playing cards on the ground, with 4-6 inches between each card (left-to-right, or forward-to-back).
  • Squat down and pick up the first card. Advance to the next card.
  • Squat down and place the first card on the second card.
  • Squat down again and pick up the top card. Then squat down a second time to pick up the second card. Advance to the next card.
  • Squat down and place one card down. Squat again and place the next card down.
  • Now repeat, squatting once per card before advancing on. And squatting once per card to set them down.

Deck of Pain

According to The Art of Manliness, a deck of cards is a common piece of fitness equipment. In this variant, it’s more what’s on the card than the card itself. The “Deck of Pain” routine goes as follows:

  • Assign a suit to each type of exercise (see below). For example: Spade = Pushup; Club = Pullup; Heart = Squat; Diamond = Abs
  • So, the suit gives you the exercise, and the number gives you the reps. Blackjack rules; face cards are 10 and Aces are 11.
  • Start flippin’ cards! Try and get through the entire deck for a full workout.

playing cards

Juarez Valley Pushup Challenge

You could do pushups until you’re red in the face, then try to beat that mark. Heck, it’s what “Britain’s most notorious prisoner,” Charles Bronson, does. And that’s a viable plan.

Bronson (who changed his last name to Salvador) has made no secret about how much he enjoys making use of his time in prison. He even claims to have, at his peak, exceeded 2,000 pushups a day. He was one of the early authors of prison exercise — see his book “Solitary Fitness” — and that, coupled with his reputation, even made him famous in a major motion picture (appropriately titled “Bronson”).

But most likely you’ll have to add in new and different sets to keep from becoming mentally and physically bored. Remember, muscles adapt to whatever stimulus you give them, so to keep gains going up, you’ll have to mix in new stimuli.

You could try pyramids: Do two pushups, then four, then six, then eight until you top out. And then pyramid back down. Or, you could try a more sinister variant called the Jaurez Valley Pushup Challenge. This 20-set workout, featured in the book “Jailhouse Strong,” works this way:

  • 1st set: 20
  • 2nd set: 1
  • 3rd set: 19
  • 4th set: 2
  • 5th set: 18
  • 6th set: 3
  • 7th set: 17
  • 8th set: 4
  • 9th set: 16
  • 10th set: 5
  • 11th set: 15
  • 12th set: 6
  • 13th set: 14
  • 14th set: 7
  • 15th set: 13
  • 16th set: 8
  • 17th set: 12
  • 18th set: 9
  • 19th set: 11
  • 20th set: 10

And if you can’t hit 20 on the first set, do your own max and stagger them until the sets are equal. Plus, this workout will prove just as brutal for any other exercise as well.

Looking for more stuck-in-the-house ideas? Check out our guide to online and virtual fitness classes.

No-Weight Workouts at Home

So now that you know how to mix it up and challenge yourself, here are the fundamental exercises you can do just about anywhere.

Prison muscle fitness illustration

Pushups

You knew this was coming. Yes, it’s the most basic bodyweight exercise. But you know what? It’s also one of the best. Pushups have many variants so you don’t just target the same muscle groups over and over. And there are myriad ways to mix up routines so you’re not stuck just trying to beat your high mark.

Try different styles. You know how to do the basic pushup. But try moving your hands farther apart to target your pecs more than your arms. Conversely, move your hands closer together to target your triceps more than your pecs.

And don’t forget to kick your feet up. No, actually lift your feet. If you place your feet on a chair while your hands are on the ground, you’re targeting your upper pecs with an incline pushup. You could also switch that around — hands on a chair, feet on the ground — and you’re into a decline pushup. All this will target different muscle groups and keep your workouts fresh.

Pullups

What pushups do for your chest, shoulders, and tris, pullups do for your lats, back, and biceps. Admittedly, this will be a little more difficult to pull off at home (unless you invest in a hangable doorway pullup bar).

It fudges the rules a bit, but if you have a tree in your yard or nearby, you can always use a horizontal branch. And if you’re really up for a challenge, you can turn any doorframe into a hang board and do some fingertip “crimp” pullups.

Wide, narrow, backward — doing the same type of pullup over and over will get old. So, just as with pushups, mix things up a bit. If you’re doing regular overhand pullups all the time, try widening your grip. This will target your lats more. Or, flip your hands around and do some underhand pullups to really go after your biceps.

Squats

Don’t forget your lower body. You don’t need much space (or weight) to burn your thighs, hamstrings, and calves. There are a few options with squats besides the standard squat.

Wall sits. This should take you back to your phys-ed days. With your back against the wall, place your feet 12 inches from the wall and slide your butt down until your thighs are at a 90-degree angle from your torso. Hold this for one minute. Too easy? Tack on 15 seconds.

Squat jumps/lunges. Add more intensity to your routine by jumping. It takes more muscle to throw your body into the air than it does to simply lift it up. Jump squats and lunges (one leg forward, one leg back) are sure to tax your gams.

Core

Here’s where it all comes together. You can — and probably should — add ab workouts to any routine you’re doing. And there’s no shortage of ways to vary an abdominal exercise. Here are a handful of ideas to get you started.

Situps. The standard: Feet flat, butt flat, arms across your chest. Be careful of your lower back. If in doubt, leave these out and move on to the safer core workouts below.

Flutter kicks. Want to know how Marines get ripped? Well, a lot of work, all the time. But also — flutter kicks! Lay on your back, raise your feet about 6 inches, keep your legs straight, and lift one leg to about 45 degrees, keeping the other leg straight. Then alternate back and forth, like scissors.

Planks. It’s not just a YouTube sensation anymore. Now, planks are “core” to just about any fitness routine. Facedown with feet on the ground, prop yourself on your elbows with your arms at a 90-degree bend. Clench your abs (and butt) and hold for as long as you can.

Crunches. You can also tack a bunch of crunches onto any ab workout you’re doing. After a set of flutter kicks, for example, bend your knees to 90 degrees, cross your arms over your chest or put your hands behind your ears, and lift your shoulder blades off the ground.

Do these fast or slow. And for a real twist, twist! When you lift your shoulder blades, twist your trunk slightly. This will target your obliques — those cool-looking muscles that run alongside your abs.

Adam Ruggiero
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Adam Ruggiero is an all-sport activity junkie - from biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming. If it's outside, it's worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.

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