How Do Prisoners Get So Big Without Weights? (EXPLAINED!)

January 9, 2024 |

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It can be confusing to see prisoners looking enormous while you struggle to put on weight, muscle, and strength. How do prisoners get so big without weights – and what can that teach you?

Today, we’re diving into the real world of prison lifting and what lessons you need to take to ensure you’re getting the best from your training.

We’ll focus on getting the best from your workouts – without doing 25-to-life just for some bigger delts!

Getting big: the basics

You get big when you do three things:

  • Train hard, pushing the muscles to increase their total output over time slowly
  • Eat lots, especially lots of carbs and protein
  • Sleep and recover enough to repeat step 1 as well and often as possible

These are the keys to getting big, whether you’re in prison, at the local YMCA, or you’re training in the world’s most cutting-edge athlete lab.

What matters is that you’re promoting this cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation by putting in hard work in training and then eating and sleeping your way into new muscle growth. This is important to keep in mind because being in prison doesn’t change how you get big.

It changes how you get into steps 1, 2, and 3 – and your priorities around them. If you don’t know how to get big, you can’t get big anywhere.

You can get big anywhere with the right resources if you know how to get big.

Keep in mind that prison isn’t a place where there are a lot of distractions, and the average prisoner will have a lot of downtimes during which they can rest and recover.

Some prisoners do have weights.

First, and importantly, many prisoners have access to weights. Many prisons maintain gyms that are available for prisoners, depending on their status and the general security level of the prison.

The average prisoner in a supermax won’t have access to weights, but some yards have the equipment to keep prisoners fit and healthy during their ‘stay.’ These are important to keeping mostly-sedentary people in decent shape and preventing health problems while locked up.

Prisoners with access to gym equipment get the best results. That might be plate-loaded machines, Nautilus machines, or good old-fashioned plates, bars, and a rack.

These can be found in a range of prisons, and they’re going to help prisoners get jacked – especially since there’s not a whole load of things you can do while you’re in prison (that’s the point, after all).

Prison gym

Gymnastics and calisthenics

The first thing that most prisoners do to get big without weights is bodyweight exercise.

Gymnastic and calisthenics workouts are an effective way to get big without access to weights and can be performed just about anywhere.

calisthenics workout
calisthenics workout

Even in a small cell with no real access to equipment, prisoners can exercise with a range of simple bodyweight movements:

  • Push-ups,
  • Core exercises,
  • Pike presses,
  • Dips,
  • Sometimes pull-ups or inverted rows,
  • Handstand push-ups,
  • Single leg squats.

These are easy to perform and can be overloaded simply with more reps or complexity. You can get jacked with just bodyweight, as humans have since the start of time. It just brings lots of training regularly and eating more than you use in calories.

The average prisoner has a steady diet and sleep schedule (routine is the one thing you’ll get plenty of in prison), and bodyweight training can use those simple resources to get jacked.

Innovative partner workouts

Some prison workouts get creative using partner workouts for resistance. These are difficult to master. It’s a great way for two people who know each other’s training and strengths to train without equipment.

Kali Muscle – a famous bodybuilder who spent time in San Quentin prison – has always talked about using plastic bags as handles for partner exercises. These open up options like rows, tricep extensions, bicep curls, presses, and other options that only require the other person to resist your movements.

Kali Muscle instagram
Source: Kali Muscle Instagram page

You can get even more creative with more items to improvise exercises. Things like lat pulldowns, squats, and other exercises can be performed with a partner.

Old high school wrestling programs have famously used partner workouts to brutal effect with lunging buddy carries and other exercises developing the core, legs, and hips.

With a good time and a partner around your strength levels, you can imagine that these workouts would build massive muscles. With time and an overload of workouts, you’d build a great physique with rudimentary equipment.

The dark truth: prison steroid use

How do prisoners get big without weights? Steroids.

The dark truth about jacked prisoners is that contraband substances like steroids exist and are widely available for people with the right connections.

Some anecdotes say it’s far easier to get steroids and other drugs in prison compared with the real world.

These are common problems in the prison system and account for many of the most jacked prisoners you may have seen. The regularity of these drugs makes it significantly easier to get big regardless of what you train with or how you train.

Steroid use drastically improves muscle growth and every kind of strength and recovery factor.

The rampant drug use that most people see in prison is definitely to blame for at least some of the reputation that prisoners have of being muscular.

The extra time dedicated to fitness is also important, but the big and muscular prisoners have more going for them than simply eating, sleeping, and doing push-ups!

Prisoner muscle: FAQ

How do prisoners get so big and muscular?

Most big prisoners are on steroids, while most use calisthenics and partner workouts to get bigger. These main training styles make sense when you don’t have regular and consistent access that a free person might have.

They’re effective in their way and have proof of this in other trainees.

For example, gymnasts are also jacked with relatively little experience in most weight training exercises. This is because not using weights is not a significant limitation to your muscular development if you know how to progress with calisthenics and balance increased training with more recovery.

Prisoners get big and muscular by doing a lot of calisthenics and potentially also partner workouts. This is the basis that is supplemented with drugs but is completely legitimate all by itself.

Can you get swole without weights?

Yes – you can use calisthenics and bodyweight exercise to get swole.

You can gain serious muscle mass using nothing but your body weight, though it does take more understanding and careful planning than it would require with weight training.

These are the basic movements that are part of how your body works and have other benefits like coordination, balance, proprioception, and simply getting better at the body’s natural movements.

This is why bodyweight training is popular. It will always be available and requires very little equipment for basic strength training. Prisoners use bodyweight training and partner workouts often, focusing on doing more reps or more complex exercises instead of just adding weight.

This produces great results – though you need to consider that anabolics are also common, making getting jacked easier for anyone and any training style!

What do prisoners use as weights?

Prisoners may access weights through prison gyms often set in less-violent institutions. This means total free weight access for some.

However, most prisoners will use bodyweight exercises and partner workouts when they lack equipment. These may take classic gymnastic strength training, buddy lunges or squats, or even buddy-assisted improvised resistance like you’d get from a partner tricep extension or bicep curl.

squat exercise
squat exercise

You’ll typically find most prisoners using these improvised means with more frequency and complexity.

Focusing on recovery from things like regular eating and sleep also helps, though prison food is not the most nutritious – perhaps better than the average American diet.

Why do prisoners lift weights?

Prisoners lift weights because they have a lot of time and not many options. Lifting weights is one of the most effective, productive, and reliable ways to work on yourself in prison – just as it is in the life of free people.

Why would prisoners not lift weights? There’s not a lot to do in prison.

Lifting weights is one of the most efficient and reliable ways that prisoners can stay healthy. It’s good to be a big strong person in prison, where antagonism can easily escalate, and respect for outward strength is important.

These are just the same as anywhere else in life but magnified by the nature of prison as a small place where you’re constantly in contact with other people of the same sex jostling for reputation.

Lifting weights is a good way to get big and strong, stay healthy, occupy your mind and pass the time. It is a character-building and developmental tool that also helps you look big and strong and can be another way to give life more meaning during long prison sentences.

Is prison food high in protein?

The nutrition of prison food varies by institution. But most prison food is designed to provide prisoners with nutritional needs. In this sense, it is not high in protein but does offer more nutritional value than the average American diet, which is more calorie-dense but lower in protein.

delicious foods

Prison food is specifically protein sufficient. You get enough to meet your daily requirements according to the FDA’s outlines.

These are good basics to continue with but will not offer the high-protein diet you see in elite athletes, bodybuilders, and gym enthusiasts looking to get big.

Prison food is enough to keep a person strong and healthy. But it isn’t designed to build muscle and get you bigger. Some additional items are available through commissary systems in some prisons but it’s typically not the best diet – just better than normal.

Why are prisoners so strong?

Prisoners are strong because they have a lot of time and routine that can be built around basic training – either with free weights or using bodyweight training.

These are typically augmented with prevalent steroids in prisons, letting some prisoners get very strong and muscular during their sentence.

These are all important factors, and it’s important to remember that there are prisoners who are not big, those who are big without steroids, and those who are incredibly muscular because they use all these methods.

If you think about the time, you could put into regular training, food, and sleep, prison does offer a chance to get big.

It’s a great way of doing this – since you could practice the discipline required for these tasks without going to prison – but a rigid sense of structure helps get bigger and stronger.


Prisoners get big and strong because they have time to practice bodyweight and partnered strength training. They also have surprisingly easy access to contraband steroids and a diet that is better on average than the usual American diet – producing more results than your average joe.

The environment has often been blamed for prisoners getting large – the rigidity and routine, as much as the importance of getting big and strong in aggressive environments.

The reality is that it’s one of the best things you can do in prison, as well as one that you can multiply by the months, years, or decades spent inside.

Going to prison isn’t a route to getting jacked and aesthetic. However, you can apply the discipline of schedule, routine, and diet/training to yourself in your apartment or home.

You don’t need to serve a prison sentence to put these variables in place for your own life.

Choose the right approach and take your recovery and training seriously, and you’ll be well on your way to looking like the biggest (natural) guy in the yard.

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