Barbells Behind Bars

10 Years of Prison Weightlifting

Here's what you need to know...

  1. Weightlifting is vital to the social structure of some prison yards. Just know your area or "court" and stick to it.
  2. Because of occasional fights, there aren't any dumbbells lighter than 35 pounds (it's hard to get any momentum going when you're trying to smash a guy with a 60-pound dumbbell). Instead, courts fight one another with shanks and fists.
  3. Sometimes guys come out of five years of solitary with a Sandow body. They obviously don't have equipment, so they train by manipulating gravity.
  4. Soy protein makes up a large component of the state-issued meals, so there's a whole underground economy in providing bodybuilders with meat and eggs.
  5. To say that prison weightlifting is good for self-esteem isn't enough. It also builds willpower and dedication, and gives men a sense of accomplishment. For many, it's the first time they've felt any sense of achievement.


I was addicted to heroin. I owed a bunch of money to some local Ukrainians, so I robbed a series of people at knifepoint in order to pay off the debt. One of the victims recognized me and later on I got pinned for the other robberies. I was sentenced to prison for ten years.

But I wasn't always "that guy." Before the heroin, I got a degree in history. Learned three languages. I worked in publishing and taught as well. I got married to a Hungarian woman who understood my Soviet background. (My parents only moved to the states in 1977). My father is a big deal writer in Russia and my mother a corporate warrior. Obviously, my addiction and subsequent incarceration came as a big surprise and disappointment. I worked out, too, before going to prison. I was a member of a health club and when I lived in Copenhagen I used to go to a boxing gym.

While waiting in county jail, there was nothing to do but eat pork rinds and cupcakes and deal with the stress. I put on 30 pounds while awaiting sentencing. I wasn't too pleased with this, and knew that I'd eventually get some trailer visits from my wife, so I felt that I had to drastically improve my body. But it wasn't only that. I was now in a hostile, dangerous and altogether foreign world, and I was going to be there for ten years, so I joined the weightlifting cult immediately. I eventually devolved into a shallow creature that wore ever-tighter shirts and tried to keep his vascularity up, even in the jailhouse mess hall. It was easy to revel in muscle, and many men in prison do just that.

Prison weightlifting is its own subculture, with a history, customs, heroes, myths, and as any proper subculture should have, its own vocabulary. As a result, there are several colorful terms for going out to the yard and lifting weights. One is "getting money," which oddly enough also refers to masturbation. "Pushing iron," "getting right," and "throwing steel" are also terms that mean weightlifting. There's also a sub-subculture that limits exercise to the pull-up bar, and the guys who practice this are "barmen." Their methods are rather ingenious as they manage to train pretty much every body part by manipulating their own bodies over, under, and around the pull-up bar, including legs, which is done by suspending oneself from the bar with two sturdy leather weight belts.

The barmen have no idea that they've essentially reproduced much of the gymnastics culture of Eastern European fitness without being able to find Romania on the map. Of course there's a rivalry between barmen and weightlifters. The barmen can never achieve the same mass, but have incredibly defined torsos on them which none of the weightlifters could replicate. The barmen stand in lines in front of the pull-up bar and make fun of the lumbering weightlifters, while the guys with rust on their hands from the pig iron tell the barmen to beware of the rising wind, which might blow them away.

The weight belts are a vital part of the culture as they're made to order by jailhouse leatherworkers. They usually express ethnicity or affiliation. Mine had the double-headed Imperial Russian eagle on it and cost fifty bucks, while others had images of gorillas, Hitler, tanks, bulls, and every flag one can think of.


Calling this simply exercise is a gross understatement. Weightlifting is popular enough and vital enough for the entire social structure of some prison yards to be arranged around it. A prison I spent four years in, Greenhaven Correctional Facility, had its yard divided into 15-foot "courts." Each one had an affiliation of sorts. Some were for members of a specific gang, like the Blood Court, while others, like the Italian Court focused on ethnicity. I was a member of the Irish, which took in all the ones with less clear categories.

However, to join a court one must have clean "papers," which meant no history of informing and no sex charges. There was, however, one court labeled as "Christian" that would allow men to exercise without showing paperwork. Every court had a duplicate set of rusty, awfully welded iron weights and dilapidated machinery. My court was run by John Gotti in the 1970's. As a result, we all used "John's weights."

Visiting from court to court is only done by invitation; doing so without an invitation is a challenge to a battle. Because of occasional fights, there aren't any dumbbells lighter than 35 pounds (it's hard to get any momentum going when you're trying to smash a guy with a 60-pound dumbbell). Instead, courts fight one another with shanks and fists.

So lifting weights in prison involves participating in a social structure not unlike a gang, at least in New York State. In many other states, the weights have been removed to combat this subculture and to satisfy public fears of bulked-up, American History X cons walking the streets after they get out of prison.

I was in 12 different prisons, and while they all had different recreation schedules, access to the yard and its rusty iron wasn't usually an issue. Likewise, in the winter, we all just worked out in the snow. In truth, it felt extra-hardcore.

One thing I must say is that most everyone in prison overtrains. When guys sometimes get certified as personal trainers later on, they laugh when they look back at the ridiculous hours they put in. But I'm just as guilty of overtraining myself. It's a competitive atmosphere, and everyone wants to "get right" as soon as possible, and there are racial overtones as well, since the black and white communities of weightlifters (who never, ever, share weights with each other) are in a constant battle for supremacy. Better a war of abs than shanks, I suppose, but in any case, I followed a six-day a week routine with several sessions of calisthenics added in during the afternoons. I also ran five miles every Sunday, so in essence I had no days off, which I now realize is counterproductive, but I wasn't the only one doing it and managed to get results anyway.

Not everyone overtrains. There are some men in there who have been exercising for so long that it takes very little maintenance for them to look cut and big all the time. After all, the average sentence for murder is 25 to life, so after two decades of lifting the weights in the yard, they gained quite a bit of muscle and they don't have to work that hard to continue looking good. But some of these older guys have an odd appearance. Their faces, topped by either heads of grey hair or baldness, are wrinkled, old and stressed, but they have these young men's bodies below. It's a strange contradiction, but often seen in men who have done serious time.

If I had to put together a "Prison Workout," it would look something like this:

  • Training: Go as hard as possible most of the time with whatever you can get your hands on; high volume, big exercises, and body part splits.
  • Preparatory activity: None.
  • Accessory/supplemental/active recovery: Absent.
  • Chance for injury: Significant.
  • Calories: Eat whatever you can find.
  • Supplementation: Whatever you can get.
  • Rest: Lots of it, enforced.

This was American prison, so the calories aren't as much the problem as the quality of them and the lack of protein. You can basically fill yourself with simple carbs at every meal through the endless bread, rice, potatoes, and noodles that make up most of the meals. Complex carbs are harder to come by, so oatmeal, yams, and wheat bread are actually trafficked in. And the protein is the biggest problem. The soy protein that makes up a large component of the state-issued meals is terrible for you. And it tastes bad.

So there's a whole underground economy in providing bodybuilders with whiting fillets and eggs and hamburger meat and hot dogs and meatballs and chicken legs from the warehouses. There is also commissary, in which tuna and mackerel are sold. The max I could spend on food was 50 bucks every two weeks, and most of it went to cans of fish. I can only imagine my mercury levels, but everyone did this. Jack Mack, which is the cheapest source of protein -- 72.5 grams in a can, for $1.09 -- brings up memories of bodybuilding to any ex-con.

Stretching was something pussies did. Preparatory work of any kind is considered effeminate. Unfortunately, we're dealing with a poorly educated population with a mass machismo complex, so there's hardly any work done of that nature. And of course it leads to injuries. Massages I witnessed only once. There was a chiropractor in for beating up his wife. He had no money coming in from his family, for obvious reasons, and decided to make some by setting up shop on a table in the yard. He had oil and seemed to know what he was doing. The Latin population lined up, but the guards soon put an end to it because of the rules against "homosexual contact." It was just that kind of world.

I suffered three slipped disks that I continue to live with, but that was purely my own fault since I followed the lead of a steroid using, over-enthused simpleton. He was massively strong and I was very enthusiastic. We put 550 pounds on a bar and tied our hands to it do shrugs. I was in a hospital two days later and I take medication to deal with it to this day, even though my wife is a yoga teacher and helps me with it. Every prison clinic is full of guys who were injured through weightlifting. Rust in the eyes, slippery weights in the rain, and squat falls are the most common. The weights are such crude objects, and left outside, they're even more of a hazard. However, there would be a riot if they were ever taken away.

I was offered dianabol, in an unknown and powdered amount, for fifty bucks. More common was creatine smuggled in and sold for the same price, usually in a bottle of creamer. That made loading the stuff an expensive proposition. The same fellow I injured myself with had his grandfather bring two loaded syringes of something on a visit. He told me it was two months' worth of steroids in two intramuscular shots. He took them and lay in a cot sweating for a day afterwards, but in two weeks he had an extra 10 pounds of lean muscle. However, recreational drugs are more common in prison, as the bodybuilding guys are usually a fairly cautious and level-headed crew. No one wants to go to the box and not be able to lift for a year.

The ingenuity of the methods men use to exercise when they're locked in a small space with essentially nothing is a fascinating topic. I've seen many a curl done with a bag or bucket of water, but it's the callisthenic exercise that always impressed me. Sometimes a fellow will emerge out of five years of solitary with a Sandow body. He obviously didn't have access to equipment or even room, so he had to train by manipulating gravity. Much of this is done upside down, so a strange side effect of incarceration is that many prisoners develop the balance to walk on their hands. Usually there's nothing to hang from inside of cells, for obvious reasons, but most prisoners find a way to suspend themselves. I have seen sheets ripped up and tied into the fencing as a makeshift pull-up bar. American solitary terms are handed out in denominations of years at a time, so there's plenty of time to kill and think up things like this.

While recovery time isn't considered an important part of prison weightlifting, most prisoners end up fairly well rested because of security concerns. In maximum-security prisons, where each prisoner has his own cell, the guards look forward to the moment when all of the inmates are locked in. When all the prisoners are in, that's when the cops feel safe and truly feel like the joint is theirs. As a result, the more corruptly a prison is run, the earlier the yards close. I've been in a place where everyone was in by 7:30 PM. Supper was at 3 PM. Many prisoners, especially the ones for whom reading is not important, adjust to this odd schedule by going to sleep as soon as they get locked in. Prisoners are often like cats, able to sleep enormous amounts of time because they prefer their dreams to reality. In the end, the bodybuilders wind up locked in and rested just because of jailhouse security.

Inside prison are entire mythologies about the great lifts of yore. However, I'd prefer to speak on what I witnessed personally. My acme was a 315-pound bench press at the weight of 180 pounds, but there are some real monsters walking around. Eastern Correctional Facility at Napanoch, which hosts a bodybuilding contest ever year, had men walking around who weighed over 300 pounds and were in the over-1000 pound club, which meant a combined weight of over a thousand pounds lifted in flat bench, squat, and deadlift. I'll never forget one guy, Hassan Nelson, who had shot knees from years of squats but could still probably participate in those strongman shows on television. He had worked out five days out of seven until making his first parole board after 25 years.

Of course, not everyone can achieve such results. Prison interrupts workouts all the time, whether through lock-downs, riots, or other disciplinary issues. But I must add that in my experience, the bigger the guy, the nicer he was. My theory is that it was because they had confidence and didn't feel the need to behave aggressively.

Of course, there are plenty who give it up. I felt it myself; the time weighs on you. After half my time was done and there were still five years to go, I had this awful feeling of not wanting to do anything difficult anymore. It seems to hit everyone at some point. Usually the bodybuilders get through it because they have a passion.


Most men are in prison not because they're strong, but because they were weak. I ended up going at the absolute weakest point of my life when I was suddenly addicted to an expensive drug and without the funds to pay for it. I had just committed an idiotic crime and I didn't feel great about myself, especially because of the way I hurt my wife and family. My avenues of professional achievement were cut and I saw little chance of making anyone proud of me, but what I could do was work on my own body. I could watch myself grow and develop. And eventually even my disappointed family recognized the discipline and hard work I had put in.

The same goes for many of the men there. The ones that have killed have done so out of temperament problems and mental illness, or alcoholism and addiction. There are no super-villains in prison, just a bunch of sad cases. For the guys that could be termed "losers," bodybuilding is a path towards perhaps their only success in life. After all, most prisoners have not succeeded in education or employment. They haven't built families or bought homes. Many have never been on an airplane. Their life is entirely without any memory to be proud of.

To say that weightlifting in prison is good for self-esteem isn't enough. It also builds willpower and dedication. It also gives men a sense of accomplishment. Most of the guys aren't on juice; they truly have worked hard and long for what they have. That's why weightlifting in prison is popular, and perversely, why the administration isn't fond of it because they see it as the only activity a prisoner can do to make himself confident for the first time in his life.

Note: James Heathers assisted with this article.