Note: The topic of prison training always leads to a heated debate. How do these guys get so big and cut on prison food and with limited training equipment? Sure, they have all day to train, but wouldn't that lead to overtraining?
It's an interesting subject, so instead of guessing about it T-Nation sent contributor and strength coach Zach Even-Esh to a New Jersey prison to find out. (Due to a request by prison officials, we can't tell you its name.) Here's what he learned while on the "inside."
Behind the Walls
I arrived at the prison at 8:30 on a mild February morning. The temperature was about 44 degrees and I was already wondering if I'd see a lot of guys training outside. I also wondered if the inmates were really as tough as everyone said they were. I was about to find out.
When I was a young kid, I remember my dad and I driving by the prison. I had no clue what went on behind the high fences and barbed wire. Things have changed at this New Jersey prison since then. There are now cement walls surrounding those high fences. How the hell anyone can scale those walls is beyond my imagination.
I won't lie; I was nervous just driving up to the place. Last thing I needed was a bunch of jacked inmates telling me how sweet I looked. After all, that's what happens on TV, right?
I pulled into the lot and found my way to the main entrance. I was greeted by a lieutenant who'd been working in the prison for several decades and knew all about its history and the happenings inside. The officers seemed relaxed and I felt less nervous. It was shocking to me how they seemed so easy going in such a hostile environment.
After passing through the metal detector, we waited at the entrance gate for about twenty minutes as inmates passed by heading to their jobs in the field or in the mess hall. There were plenty of big guys walking by. None of these men paid any mind to the officers that stood in the lobby. There didn't seem to be much respect in this instance, but maybe things are different at different times.
You could tell that the majority of the inmates were pumping serious iron. Big upper bodies were the norm. You could see that benching, pull-ups and curls were popular exercises in the jail. Every inmate had a hardened look to him. Their faces were tough, and although some of them were laughing or joking, I could tell they had an edge that the normal guy on the outside didn't have.
A good number stared at me as they passed, but no comments were made. They didn't give a shit what I was there to do or who I was there to see. They did stare at me though, and I understood their silent message: you are a guest in our house. I got the message loud and clear.
Training to Survive
It didn't matter how much wrestling, BJJ, Muay Thai, or any "training" I did. Sure, I go through hard-ass workouts. Sure, I bang heads with tough guys, but there are rules when we spar or compete.
When we're done, we go home and shower in the comfort of our own homes, have a good meal, and make sure we get adequate rest. We don't need to worry too much about someone shanking us on the way to lunch. To these inmates, those of us on the outside are no tougher than the Brady Bunch.
What I did was sport; what these guys did was much different. Referees and rules don't apply when these men go to war. As I was about to learn, lives were won and lost here. In prison, there's a natural food chain that helps keep things in order. This wasn't the movies, and your friends aren't your friends if you do someone wrong.
The lieutenant and I spoke as we waited. He seemed cold and hardened; nothing seemed to surprise or shock him. Murders, beatings, rapes, fighting, gangs, drugs, you name it, his voice remained monotone. It was no different than you and I chatting about sports over a cup of coffee. He said the inmates could easily take this jail over if they wanted to, but there were too many separated groups on the inside and they'd ultimately refuse to work together.
He pointed out the various wings of the prison and spoke about how some were more "upscale" than others. Some wings were viewed as the ghetto because of the smaller cells, lack of ventilation, and double bunks. When he said "smaller" cells, I had no clue what small really meant until I saw the size of them. My master bath was larger than some of these cells!
I asked how often these guys go outside to train. "If it's raining, they still go out," the lieutenant said. "If there's light snow, they still go out. Things like snowstorms, hurricanes, and temps well below freezing will keep them indoors, but not much else."
Once the inmates all passed by, we were allowed to pass through the security gates. I knew this was going to be an interesting experience and I was charged to see what goes on inside the prison.
The first thing I got a look at was the "weight pile." There was a large fan in the wall that I could look through and see the field. I wasn't allowed to head out there because I was told I'd be "fucking killed," even while walking with the lieutenant. I didn't know if they were trying to scare me or if they were serious.
The lieutenant told me that in the past they'd have officers walking out in the field amongst the inmates, but that ended a few years ago to improve safety for the guards. Now they have multiple cameras that are watched from an office, and officers scoping the field from a tower. I wasn't sure if they were armed or not, but I have a funny feeling they were.
I watched as the inmates trained in the weight pile. The "pile" was packed with iron. I was surprised to see so much. It was like Muscle Beach from the Golden Age, only behind bars. There were benches, squat racks, parallel bars, pull-up bars, barbells, dumbbells, and a 400-meter track.
I saw guys benching, squatting, doing dips, pull-ups, and dumbbell military presses. I saw one guy doing seated dumbbell cleans, which were probably their version of heavy side laterals. I was impressed with the amount of equipment out there. I was later told by an inmate that the iron and benches have been there since he arrived, which was 1971!
I was shown the different wings of the prison while the inmates were away. Some small TVs were in a few cells, and some guys had word processors for typing letters. I saw one guy giving haircuts, a few others sweeping the floor, and a few guys carrying bags of food they'd picked up from the commissary. In these bags I saw cereals, soups, Doritos, and tea.
Many of the claustrophobic cells were double bunked and crammed from wall to wall. Some inmates were lucky enough to have a window; others had nothing but a brick wall on every side and a small window through their door. The windows for each wing were opened and the heat was still blasting through.
"Forget about comfort," the lieutenant said, "It's either hot as hell or cold as hell."
I told him what I'd heard from other correction officers about how some prisoners train with trash bags filled with water. He said that the bags weren't allowed in the cells, but some inmates would get them in one way or another and use the water-filled bags for curls. Exercises like handstand push-ups were the norm in the cells, pull-ups off the doorway, and dips using the toilet bowls.
The Big Guy
After touring the wings of the prison, I was introduced to a big fucking dude. They told him I was there to talk to him about training.
I was brought to a small room where an officer sat and watched security monitors. "Wait here," I was told. A few minutes later, that same big dude was brought to the security room and he introduced himself to me. They brought in a chair for him and we sat face to face. He was well respected by the officers and he had a calm demeanor. His size probably made life much easier in prison.
You could tell he didn't screw around with light weights or bodyweight-only training. He was a good six inches taller than me and twice as wide. His forearms were jacked like bowling pins and his arms were busting out of his sleeves. His neck and traps were stretching through his shirt and you could tell those muscles came from years of heavy iron.
I looked like a nerd next to this guy so I knew not to waste his time with stupid questions.
We got started right away by chatting about his daily and weekly routine in the prison. I asked him to tell me about his average day: what he eats, when he wakes up, how he trains each day. He gave me a puzzled look, as if these weren't interesting questions. I was already worried that I'd asked my first stupid question.
The officers stepped in and reiterated that I wanted to know about the "lifting programs" in the prison. He started telling me every detail of his training from Monday through Saturday. He memorized all the weights he used and the exact reps. He was more interested in talking training than nutrition, and I wasn't going to argue with this beast!
He told me he'd been training since age 14. When he got into prison he already weighed 250 pounds and was one of the biggest guys from day one. Currently, at age 42, he weighed in at 280 solid pounds. Looking at him I never would've guessed he was 42. I was told prison ages a person quickly, but I'd pegged him to be 35 or so.
And yes, he's the biggest guy and the strongest guy in the prison, which he stated with no hesitation. He told me how he came from the ghetto and was always into lifting, but all he really did was heavy benching and heavy curls while playing football. He lifted heavy weights from his very first day under the iron. "That's all I knew how to do to protect myself and gain respect," he said.
He told me he never eats in the mess hall where the rest of the inmates eat; instead he gets all his food from the commissary. It had been over eight years since he'd eaten with the rest of the prisoners. He didn't get too detailed about his specific foods, but he mentioned that he made a lot of it in his own cell. He mentioned soups, vegetables with every meal if possible, pasta, and meatballs.
He broke down his training week for me, with Sunday being his only day off. He emphasized how everything was about power, and he didn't decipher between strength and power. I also doubt he would've given two shits if a 225 pound outsider was going to explain it to him. I was there to learn, so I asked questions and listened. He enjoyed talking about training and I started feeling like he didn't chat much with the other guys about it, so this was refreshing for him.
He broke down his weekly program for me with detail. He didn't have a journal; he just remembered it from routine:
Monday: Legs, abs
Tuesday: Chest, tri's, bi's (no direct forearm work)
Wednesday: Deadlifting and back
Friday: High rep training for legs and chest
Saturday: Bodyweight-only day plus abs
I took notes sparingly and kept eye contact the entire time. Everything was off the cuff. I just let the conversation flow. He remembered all the weights he used, the exact sets and reps, everything was a system to him now as opposed to his younger days of training with primarily the bench and curls.
He was in favor of doing 4-5 sets of seven reps for most exercises, unless it was one of the three powerlifts. If he was squatting or deadlifting, he was doing sets with rep ranges from 1-7.
Since he competed for the prison powerlifting team as a powerlifter, his goals were to get as strong as possible, period. His lifts were all done with heavy weights. Anything above seven reps to him was a waste of time. Anything that wasn't a basic move was a waste of time.
It was all about heavy squats (front and back), heavy deads from the ground or the rack, seated military presses, heavy shrugs, heavy curls with bars and dumbbells, heavy lying extensions with the straight bar, and heavy rowing. Even his lateral raises were done with 50-80 pounds for sets of seven.
He did reserve Friday for moderate reps and weights in the 8-15 range though. This got me talking about max effort training, repeated effort, dynamic effort, etc. but he didn't know what any of that meant. He looked at me funny and said, "No man, just go heavy." He was a simple man, no complications, no changing rep tempo, and no bullshit.
Countless guys try to train with him he said, but he blows them all away. They hang for two or three weeks and then drop. His workouts are a way of life. He enjoys helping others get strong as well. He wanted to share his knowledge with other inmates if they were up for it, but he mentioned most of them stray away quickly due to the difficulty of his program.
I'd heard about inmates doing Zercher squats and I asked him about it. "No, man," he said, "just squat heavy. There's no reason to do that stuff." He had a Powerlifting USA magazine so I asked him if he ever heard about Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell. He said, "Yeah, I think so."
I asked about box squatting and he ranted about how unsafe it is to sit on a bench when squatting with 600 or 700 pounds. He talked about crashing down on the bench and herniating discs – same reasons he had for not doing seated military presses. He told me about using 405 on military press for singles and doubles. Was I gonna try and tell this 850 pound squatter how to box squat? No way!
This guy had the run of the weight pile. If he wanted to use a bench, rack, or a pair of dumbbells, he never waited. People went out of their way to help him.
This guy was set in his ways when it came to lifting. He reiterated the use of basics, heavy weights all the time, very little bodyweight training, and training six days a week. If he was helping guys get strong to get them on the powerlifting team, they also trained six days a week. He'd teach them how to squat with only 95 pounds, making sure they went down all the way. He taught them how to breathe and had them do all basic lifts.
He said he preferred to help the shorter guys because they got stronger so much faster than the taller guys. He also mentioned that the shorter guys were more motivated to bulk up to defend themselves in prison.
Even though there was a weightroom indoors, he said he preferred training outside all the time, no matter the weather. The intense heat or freezing weather toughened his mind, and the gym inside didn't have a power rack which is where he spends most of his time.
The benches weren't padded out in the weight pile either. They were made of steel or brick, so having a strong and big back was key to benching out there. He mentioned how the skinny guys were always hurting their backs benching on the brick benches.
When they did decline benching they'd lie upside down on the incline bench and someone would deadlift the bar off the ground to hand it to them each time. He told me how he'd have two guys lifting the weights to him since he would "play" with 500 pounds on the bench.
He said he never went over 500 pounds on the bench for fear of injury. Years ago he felt a slight tear in his chest when he was benching, using weights over 500 pounds for reps. If he benched 515 in a meet he knew he'd always total over 2,100 because of his squat and deadlift being over 800 pounds. He'd also do lying triceps extensions using 225-275 pounds. Again, he'd have a guy deadlift the weight to him each time.
His best lifts in competition meets are:
After we chatted for about an hour, my time was up. As big as this guy was, as tough as he was, you could tell he enjoyed helping others. He liked helping the powerlifting team members get better so the team could win. He'd already established himself as the biggest and strongest man to walk that prison. Now his goal seemed to be to maintain that status.
When we left, I asked the lieutenant if any of the inmates ever tried fucking with him. He said a few years ago several guys did and the big powerlifter practically ripped their heads off. He said it was almost as if they were testing him to see if he was as tough as he looked.
In the next installment, Zach meets a group of lifers with a very different style of training.