A Completely Criminal Exercise Program
by Ken Andes
When I studied social work at Rutgers University I spent a considerable amount of time studying the prison system and the people in it. First of all, let me tell you that you can learn a tremendous amount about human nature, our capacity for hate and evil, what makes people resort to evil, and how we handle guilt by studying inmates. Most of all I was shocked to find out that deep inside of our psyches there's very little difference between the average law-abiding citizen, and most hardened criminals. Sometimes by looking at the darkest part of society you further appreciate the light. And perhaps come away from the experience with more understanding.... and more compassion.
Anyway, all that is for another time.
Another cool thing I learned from studying the prison system is a neat workout that you can do at home without any equipment at all, just your own bodyweight. I can't remember the name of the prison where this exercise program came from, but it was one of the worst maximum security prisons in the country, similar to the way Alcatraz used to be. This was a place where they sent the most hardened murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and other people that society no longer wanted. These men were considered to be so dangerous that they were not allowed outside of their cells except for meals, exercise, and twice-per-week showers. And even then, their arms and legs were shackled with chains when they were out of their cells.
These men had no access to weight lifting equipment or any kind of exercise gear whatsoever. They were considered dangerous to the point that any exercise equipment given to them would be turned into a deadly weapon. Their "workout room" consisted of a small bare room with concrete walls and a cement floor with less than four or five inmates allowed inside at any time.
To these inmates, being strong and in good physical condition was vital to their survival due to the constant threat and occurrence of prison violence such as beatings, muggings, intimidation, and rape. To this end, most of the inmates at this prison practiced a workout called the "burpee workout". This workout consisted of a single exercise known as the burpee (AKA squat thrust) done for many reps in a certain fashion.
The burpee workout was designed to develop strength, endurance, speed, agility, and balance. This workout wasn't designed to make you "pretty" or "buff" (why on earth would you want to look good in this environment?!) although it did produce gains in muscle and losses in bodyfat. It was made to give someone the type of functional fitness needed to fight, run, and move with speed and explosiveness whether you're standing on your feet or lying on the ground. As it was meant to give you an edge in surviving violent encounters, this workout will also give you plenty of stamina.
So let's start by explaining how to do the one exercise you'll need, the Burpee.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your hands raised over your head. Now squat down and place your palms on the floor by your feet.
Kick both of your legs back so that you're now in position to do a pushup.
Bend your elbows and lower your body until it's about one inch off of the floor.
Now push yourself back up and at the end of the pushup quickly pull both knees into your chest while keeping your hands on the floor. You're basically jumping back into the squat position found in the first step.
Stand straight up by straightening your legs and throwing your hands in the air over your head. You're now in the position that you started in, repeat as needed.
If you want to make the burpee more advanced by increasing the explosive power in your legs, jump about 3-4 inches into the air as you stand up in step 5.
So that's a burpee. That one movement works pretty much the entire body from head to toe by combining a squat with a pushup. Because you're constantly switching from squats to pushups you're teaching your body to use the arms and legs simultaneously, like in a fight. Because you're moving the body from a vertical plane to a horizontal plane continuously, you're learning balance, agility, and the ability to maneuver while lying on the ground and on your feet. Because of the constant alternating use of the arms and legs, your heart has to work twice as hard as if you just did continuous squats or pushups. This movement will give you great endurance as well as upper and lower body strength. You'll notice that you use jumping movements with the legs, back, abs, and arms in this exercise. This will give you speed and explosiveness throughout the whole body.
For a workout, an inmate would stand on one side of the room and do 20 burpees without stopping. Then he would walk to the other side of the room and do 19 burpees without stopping. Then walk to the other side and do 18 burpees. Then walk to the other side and do 17. He would continue in this fashion until he got down to a final set of 1 burpee. Then he's done and it's back to the cell for him. I'm not sure if the ankle and wrist chains were kept on while he exercised, but it's a very good possibility that they were left on due to the nature of this particular prison. Nevertheless, you can still do this workout even with your hands and feet shackled.
Hey, you know what I just thought? Having your hands and feet chained together would greatly add to the aerobic and strengthening aspects of this workout. The extra weight would make you even faster and more explosive. Why the hell not? You could get two lengths of heavy chain at Home Depot, loop them around your ankles and wrists and then fasten it with some bungee cord. Make sure to have about 2-3 feet of chain between your ankles and wrists. Then you could put on your "federal issue" orange body suit (available at K-Mart), go down to your local health club, and start your burpees. You'll have a great workout while the other spandex-clad yuppies use the "pec deck" or that stupid piece of equipment where you open and close your legs as if flashing your genitalia. That would be kewl.
Now for most people, 20 sets in the above fashion may be too much to handle. So start with a lower number of sets like 15 or 10. Then gradually and slowly add sets one at a time as you become stronger and better conditioned. You might want to think about using a watch to time how long it takes you to do a certain number of sets, and then decrease that time as you get stronger. If you want to use this workout as the core of your fitness program, try to do it every day. Remember, a little bit done every day is much better than a whole lot done once or twice a week. If you're doing other exercises in addition to this, you can do your burpee workout 2-3 times per week on the days when you want to build your endurance. If I remember correctly, the prisoners who used this program were only allowed access to their workout room three times per week for 30 minutes at a time. So if you did this workout three times per week, you would be in pretty good shape.
Some goals to shoot for:
At this prison, you weren't considered to be a "man" unless you could do 20 descending sets without stopping. To be able to do 20 descending sets without stopping was sort of a rite of passage or initiation into someone who deserves some respect from the other inmates. If you could do 25 sets you were considered to be pretty tough and people though twice about messing with you. And if you could do 30 sets you were labeled a bona fide stud and given much respect.
So I guess if any of you guys plan on going to maximum security prison for a while you better work up to those 20 sets, lest you rely on protection from your new boyfriend who can easily pump out 30 sets.