May 30, 2023

No time? No equipment? Do a Prison Workout

By Liam Rogers
No time? No equipment? Do a Prison Workout

How fit could you possibly get if you had no distractions? 

If it was just you in a room with time stretching out ahead of you and nothing else to do?

Prison workouts start with this idea, and they make the most of it. They’re bodyweight workouts using no equipment, just effort. Today, we’re refining the prisoner workout for the normal person who needs a fast and effective workout, or the average Joe who wants to get into great shape.

Want to skip the reading? Check out our video instead:

What is a prison workout?

The prison workout is a concept as old as society. We’ve always had prisons, and prisoners have always had to occupy themselves. It wasn’t until recently that we realized how powerful it can be to just sit in a room and exercise for years at a time.

Prisoners’ lives are rigidly structured but they include a lot of down time – but no equipment (depending on the institution). So prisoners get creative building workouts that are efficient with their time and body weight. 

You could learn a thing or two from that proactive approach to exercise. We forget that all movement is exercise, and we can move whether we have an air conditioned gym with the latest equipment or not.

If you’re serious about building fitness, you get it in when, where, and how you can. Prison workouts use calisthenics to make your workouts more reliable, so you can always get something done. This is perfect when you’re in a pinch and life doesn’t make it easy to get your ‘favorite’ exercise done.

Why Are We Talking About Prison Workouts?

Without Prison, there would be no Fit Results. Our owner Lou Centeno talks about his own time incarcerated, and how workouts like those we’re discussing today helped:

“The only way to deal with hard times was to exercise: to take care of myself mentally and physically by staying active. So I was able to really, really focus.” - Coach Lou

It’s this approach that’s so powerful: being able to completely focus on your workout and ignore all the doubts, other options, and distractions that come with normal training. It's the singular focus on the task ahead of you that makes prison workouts so powerful.

Lou’s experience of incarceration – but also of stripping back the unnecessary ‘noise’ to focus on what really matters – is what goes into these workouts and bleeds into all of Fit Results’ Programs.

Why should you use prison workouts?

Use prison workouts because they’re versatile, don’t require equipment, and they work. Plus, it’s always a good idea to expand on your skillset and build some mental toughness along with your fitness!


Prison workouts push the pace because they use bodyweight. They’ll keep you on the edge of what you can do across circuits or intervals, cycling exercises, so you can get a lot done in 10-15 minutes. They’ll often teach you to push even when you’re tired, too, which is great for building time-efficiency.

Learning to mix your workouts so that you’re always working hard on a fresh muscle group is perfect for this. Prison workouts often combine pushing, pulling, squatting, and core so that you’re always working hard, but can minimize rest.

Plus, when you cut out the commuting and nonsense around your workout, you can streamline the whole process. If you’ve got 10-20 minutes spare between obligations, you’ve got time for a short, sweet, high-pace workout.


Prisoners don’t have access to equipment all the time – they make it happen with bodyweight alone. It’s a simple place to start and it’s always easier to add more exercises if and when you have it.

Bodyweight workouts can be performed anywhere with space. If you’ve got a bed, chair, or bars then even better – you can add more. But, at its core, you’re getting exercise done with nothing but your body and earth’s gravity itself.

This is a great way to either start working out (e.g. when you’re young or poor in time or money), between gym workouts, or when you’re traveling. There’s always something you can do with your body, and the main limitations are just your strength and creativity!


Tied to the last point, prison workouts are super versatile. You can build them around the exercises you know and each bodyweight exercise has a wide range of variations that you can tailor to your needs and access to equipment.

Just because they don’t use varied equipment, it doesn’t mean you don’t have options. Using prison workouts regularly will also prompt you to develop your own favorites and experiment with different options.

There’s no hard-and-fast rules to how you perform these workouts, the exercises they involve, or the rep schemes. If you want to add something in, do it. The whole point is not to overthink the details; it’s all about working hard at a high pace and owning the workout. Think less, work harder.


Prison workouts work. Whether your goals are endurance, strength, or body transformation, they’ve got something for you. Adding more time working hard is always a good thing, and you can tailor your prison workout to your schedule and goals.

Looking for more strength? More rest between sets and focusing on harder variations. Trying to burn fat? Do more reps, go faster, and maximize the amount of time you spend breaking a sweat.

Prisoners get into great shape during their time incarcerated. Some of the mass monsters have some ‘help’, but the average prisoner’s physique shows you that doing more exercise really is the most important factor, even without bars, dumbbells, or machines. 

Doing more physical work is the point. Take it to heart!

Adding a new dimension to your existing results

One of the best things about prison workouts when you’re not in prison is that they add something new to your toolkit.

They make you better at the things that you’re probably neglecting right now; how’s your muscular endurance? What about your core strength? How’s your lunging strength?

Prison workouts fill all of these gaps, especially when you’re already experienced with training. It’s great to add things like pull up, core, and lunging exercises to your program if you come from a barbell- or machine-focused approach to fitness.

Mix it up. Get outside of your comfort zone.

Building some mental grit

The final – and maybe most important – factor is that you build mental grit with these kinds of workouts.

They’re hard and dirty, and most of the people we see in the gym need more of that. We need to learn that exercise isn’t always on our terms, and it’s good to get better at working hard even in suboptimal settings.

You don’t need the planets to align to get your workout in. You don’t need a $1000 barbell and plates set, and you certainly don’t need whatever the Smith machine is trying to do. Your fitness goals are not about equipment, they’re about your mentality and work ethic.

Prison workouts force you to confront the real challenge: just working as hard as possible for as long as possible!

How to build a good prison workout

Push ups and variations

You knew we had to start with the push up – it’s how you build your triceps, chest, and delts with no equipment! It also has some of the best and most flexible variations of any exercise: 

Incline Push Ups: an easier variation, using a raised surface to put more weight into the legs and less on the arms and chest. Great for higher reps.

Decline Push Ups: a harder variation that lets you build more muscle with a stretch in the chest, and longer push.

Diamond Push Ups: emphasize your triceps with an all-arm push up. More challenge = more results.

Maltese Push Ups: a powerful upper back and chest exercise to force both sides of your shoulders to work together.

Pike Press: it’s halfway towards a handstand push up and builds huge arm, shoulder, and upper back strength – with no equipment.

Handstand Push Up: the hardest option. Support yourself on a wall if you need to, and you’re off to building great delts with bodyweight.

Push ups are going to form the core of your pushing exercises. Try to rotate through variations regularly to make sure you’re building all the upper body muscles and movements you need.

You can always add pauses, inclines, and declines depending on your home layout. Simply putting your feet on a raised surface makes any push up more challenging and effective. On the other hand, putting your hands on a raised surface lets you blast out more reps as you get tired – or try new challenging variations.

Bench/chair dips

Bench dips or chair dips are a great way to target full-range chest growth. It’s a fantastic addition to the normal schedule of push ups, rounding out your upper body strength training and building your lower pecs.

These are easy to access since you only need a raised surface (though ideally two). The full stretch in the pecs lets you build more muscle mass, accelerating your development and ensuring you’re not weak at the end of shoulder extension.

Pull ups? Variations on the bars or anything else that’s nailed down

If you can get your hands on any form of pull up bar, rings, or any kind of overhead bar, you can build a ridiculous back. Pull ups and chin ups are the very best bodyweight exercises, and nothing in the world replaces the benefits of being strong in vertical pulling exercises.

Pulling yourself is a fundamental movement and you need it to balance out your physique. 

Floor slides: prison workouts are about making the best of the situation – and this is the best of any situation where you don’t have a pull up bar!

Inverted Rows (or ‘Aussie push ups’: an easier pull with a reclined position so you can build strength without pull ups (or after them!)

Chin Up: the slightly-easier, bicep-intensive pull up for building big arms with bodyweight.

Pull ups: a perfect upper back exercise for building lats and lower traps – more challenging, but more effective.

Building these skills in your prison workouts is a huge boost. If you can’t get access to these items, however, it’s not over. You can use towel rows, door rows, and inverted rows – depending on what you have access to.

These can be a bit harder to get your hands on, but you can also perform lying slider pulldowns to build the lats. This isn’t quite as good, but it is still great for the whole shoulder, and sliders cost almost nothing to completely revolutionize your prison workouts. Great investment.

Squatting, lunging, etc.

Building your legs without weight is harder but it’s not impossible. You just need to be willing to try harder and use some of the variations that go beyond normal squats. Squats turn into an endurance challenge early on since two legs are strong together

You need something harder – you need to use 1 leg!

Lunge: the best place to start with leg training, you’ll build mass and strength, and keep your legs up with your growing upper body.

Bulgarian Split Squat: a huge boost to leg and glute training, building power off one leg, and offering a step up on the lunge.

Single Leg Stands: make it harder with one leg, but you don’t need to go all the way down just yet. 

Skater squats: like a pistol squat but just slightly less brutal. Great for a leg pump.

Pistol squats: the king of bodyweight leg exercises. The perfect prison workout for legs.

Training legs gives your upper body a rest and is key to rounding out your physique. You’re always using your legs and hips, so get them strong. It’ll burn tons of calories, too, if you’re looking to trim down and get leaner.

Core: plank, side plank, sit up, and more

You’d probably use bodyweight exercise to build your core, even if you were at the gym. This makes core exercise a perfect choice during your prison workout as a way to build muscular endurance.

Core muscles need to be high-durability to support your spine. Building them with prison workouts – in all 3 planes and with plenty of variety – is a perfect fit. Everyone from sprinters to elite special forces operators say you need a surplus of core strength.

Sit ups: a classic choice to build core strength – even for beginners.

Mountain climbers: core and hip flexor training with a one-leg challenge and long hold. Perfect for circuits.

Heel touches: lateral flexion for a strong core, and perfect in nasty core supersets or circuits.

Russian Twists: a rotational core exercise that will leave you stronger in every direction.

V-up: like a sit up, but much harder, so you can keep progressing once you’re experienced

Prison workouts make that easy and prioritize the core. Every prison workout should have a core exercise in the circuit or use a core finisher to push pace in low-impact, low-intensity training.

This also starts to feel hard very quickly, great for building work ethic!

The X - Y Method

If you’re not pushed for time, then one of the best ways to get your workouts in is the X - Y method. The basic principle is to do X reps of an exercise in Y time. This is an overlap between the prison workout and military conditioning. What do they have in common? You need to build muscular endurance and you can do that with any spare time.

Instead of packing your work into a short amount of time, you go long: “every 20 minutes I’m going to do 20 push ups and 20 sit ups”. Then you just stretch that out for whatever time you can afford in the day. 

You can change the time interval, the exercise(s), the reps, and more. This makes it super easy to get better at anything. Remember: your body wasn’t designed for ‘workouts’, it was designed to move. You don’t have to follow the traditional pattern if you don’t want to. For most people, adding up time on a weekend (e.g.) is easier than fitting in hours of exercise before/after long working days.


One of the best ways to set a good pace for your workout and improve your progression is to work out to the beep. Set a metronome or beep and focus on hitting your reps on the beep until you can’t anymore. We like this app on the iphone and this one for android. Alternatively, you can buy a physical one online.

You’ll build muscular endurance and have a better sense of when you’re progressing compared to ‘free’ reps. This also helps you set and keep intensity between exercises and across your circuits.

Minimal kit; resistance bands? Kettlebell? DB? Sandbag? Whatever works!

If you do have some equipment at home, you can completely revolutionize these workouts. Something as simple as a resistance band (or better, a set) can level up your prison workout by adding new resistance options, supersets, circuits, and more.

Perhaps you’ve got a single dumbbell, or a Bulgarian bag. Whatever you add to a prison workout, the point is to keep the same principle: work hard and push the pace on the basics. Things like resistance band push ups and Bulgarian bag lunges are the same as the bodyweight movements, but offer another way to progress.

It’s simple; always look for a way to make things more difficult and harder for yourself.

HIIT: Push the pace!

Finally, make sure you’re really giving your all.

It’s not a proper high-intensity circuit if you’re not actually pushing above 90% effort at all times. You want to come out of a prison workout with a serious lack of breath and burning muscles.

If you’re not getting to that point, you need more than 15 minutes. You need to make sure that – if you want to perform a workout that’s ¼ the duration, you’re working 4 times harder. Prison workouts are not the easy way out: they’re fast and flexible, but they rely on you pushing yourself.

You can’t give 50% effort and expect 100% results.


If you just had your body and a small room, with no distractions, you’d be a lot fitter. Even with worse food and the mental challenge, you’d be as physically fit as possible.

If you’re stuck on time and equipment - and you need to get in better shape - then you’ve got no excuses. Prison workouts offer a way of building mental and physical strength wherever you are, and whatever you have.

You’re never too good for bodyweight; it’s not glamorous, but it costs nothing and it makes you stronger, fitter, and tougher. Try it at home and you’ll be shocked at just how effective these short, brutal workouts can be.

P.S. If you're in the Chicago area and looking for more guidance on your fitness journey, change your life for the better, and finally stay consistent on your health journey, our expert coaches are ready to help you at Fit Results! Click here to learn more.

By Liam Rogers