How do prisoners get so freaking big?!
It’s a big question that a lot of people have and there are all sorts of theories as to how people can replicate their success. While nobody is envious of their life situation,
Changing My Approach to Training
For the first two years of my weight lifting career, I focused on lifting heavy heavy heavy to get as strong as I possibly could. During this period of time, I was also wrestling competitively and keeping my weight low (120 - 135 lbs) year-round.
Even though I was getting a lot stronger, I was hardly putting on any weight. From a wrestling perspective, it worked to my advantage as I was stronger than a lot of the guys in my weight class. By the time I quit wrestling, I knew that I didn't really care about being strong anymore. Sure it feels great to be stronger, but it has limited real world value.
I had reached a point where I just wanted to look as good as I could. The way I accomplished that was by switching up my training to higher volume "pump" style with medium weight, using bodybuilding splits.
I would go into the gym without any super specific gameplan and picked which muscle group to work based on instinct. By doing away with the traditional mainstream advice of trying to lift as heavy as possible, I coincidentally adopted the same approach that prisoners use to this day all over the world to get huge.
Example Chest Routine:
4 sets of 50 pushups
Flatbench Dumbell Press Superset:
40lbs x 50 reps
20 lbs x 30 reps
10 lbs x 25 reps
Done back to back for 4 cycles
Dips: 15 x 3
That was more or less the essence of a typical chest workout, with a little bit of variation in between.
No 1 rep maxes.
Not having any clear rep range or routine to follow walking into the gym. I followed my instinct and found a couple of different exercises that hit my chest really well, and focused entirely on putting my muscles under as much pain as possible.
Understanding the Basic Principle behind Muscle Growth
It wasn't until I switched my goal from trying to lift as much weight as possible to trying to put on as much muscle mass as possible did the results really start pouring in!
Your muscles grow in response to stress. They don't have a mind of their own so they are blind as to where the stress is coming from. It could come from swinging an ax, lifting a bag full of bricks, doing a push up, or it could come from lifting sexy, pretty colored, hexagonal-shaped weights made out of iron.
Just think about it logically. Large, fully muscled men have existed long before corporate gyms and barbells have ever been around. How did they manage to get jacked without a gym membership?
They most likely did some strenuous form of labor with consistent sized loads (weight) over and over for a long period of time (reps). As their metabolisms and appetite increased with their high stress work load, they ate as much food as they could. It very rarely would have ever included 200 grams of steak, chicken, and protein powder. They would eat as much of whatever they could find (probably most carbs), and their muscles would grow with whatever they gave it.
It's the exact same reason why prisoners in jail get huge on crappy diets and no sexy, laminated barbells. Some people say it has to do with increased testosterone. While that may have a little bit to do with it, it can't be THE REASON. No one's testosterone doubles simply by being placed in a jail cell or war like environment. While it likely will increase a bit, the difference wouldn't be enough to account for why these guys are putting on mounds of size.
When you're spending all day lying around, what are you going to do? Endless sets of push ups, pull ups, squats, and sit-ups. What about when you got out on the yard and were allowed to lift weights? While the local culture might vary from region to region, penitentiaries are well known to employ high rep workouts with an emphasis on putting your muscles under as much stress as possible. They eat whatever they get for free 2 or 3 times a day, and buy additional food from the commissary with whatever money they get from the outside, or earn doing prison job. It would most likely be cheap, processed, high calorie simple carbs like cinnamon buns or ramen noodles. Protein sources would also be of low quality, but expensive regardless. If they're hustlers, maybe they can get some extra canned chicken or fish.
The Penitentiary Style Approach to Training
The typical penitentiary style approach to getting huge is by training with whatever you have available to put as much stress on the muscle group as possible, with an emphasis on high reps. In addition to the brutal workout, one would also eat as many calories as possible, without being overly concerned about the quality of the calories. High protein would have rarely been an option. It would most likely have been filled with carbs and a days worth of food may be anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 calories.
Contrary to popular belief, your muscles do not rebel against you and incinerate themselves when they are burdened with abnormal amounts of high stress. As long as they are provided food and time to recover, they will build back bigger and stronger.
Understanding this is the key to getting jacked. Understand this and you'll be able to make gains no matter what situation you are put in.
It doesn't require fancy supplements or a PhD to understand the formula.
You have to stop thinking in terms of "lifting weight" and start thinking of it as "applying stress". The weights are just a tool used to apply stress on the muscle in a controlled, repetitive manner. The reason you think you get better results solely from lifting a barbell as opposed to doing a pushup is because a barbell puts a lot more stress on you in the same period of time.
A great litmus test as to whether a movement is getting you good results is measuring
- How well you can feel the contractions in the particular muscle group that you are trying to work.
- The amount of pain you can endure before the end of a set
A question a lot of people have is
Well if "weight doesn't matter", why don't you get better results from bodyweight exercises?
First off, you CAN get better results with bodyweight exercises. The only problem is, it would take more time and considerably more reps, since the amount of stress that you can apply with a single push up is relatively small.
Surely you would get better results from doing 5 reps on a barbell bench press than doing 5 pushups.
But what if you were to do 100 push ups with perfect form in one set?
That could easily supersede the stress you would have gotten off of a set of barbell bench press. On top of that, your chest would be thundering with blood and you would feel slight muscle spasms. If you were to do another set on top of that, your chest would be in more pain than its ever seen in its entire life.
The reason you lift weights with high reps and pyramid down with lighter weight, as opposed to doing strictly bodyweight exercises is because it generates a lot of targeted stress in a relatively short period of time. In order to make up with it in bodyweight exercises, you would have to do a whole lot more in a single set in order to generate an equivalent amount of stress. On top of that, your rest time would significantly shoot up, making it a less ideal choice in terms of time.
In addition to that, certain machines target certain bodyparts much better than any compound movement or free weight ever could.
Since I don't like to spend any more than an hour in the gym, it's the best choice for me in terms of time efficiency.
The Keys to Getting Jacked
Step 1: Apply a high amount of cumulative stress to a muscle in a fixed period of time.
Step 2: Eat A LOT of calories. Ideally from healthy sources, but not necessarily.
If you're predisposed to gaining fat easily, drop your carbs to a low amount, and avoid high sugar simple carb sources.
If you hold water weight and get bloated easily, reduce your sodium as much as possible (less than 2,000 mg/day is a good starting point. Lower sodium = less water bloat). A lot of what people commonly mistake as "fat gain" is nothing more than water under the skin. Once you drop your sodium intake considerably, your body will let go of that water and you'll look considerably more ripped at the exact same bodyfat.
If you're a hardgainer, eating 3,000 calories of what you consider "highly nutritious food" + 3000 calories of "substandard calories/junk food" will get you way faster results than only eating 3,000 clean calories.
Just like supplementing your zinc with pills as opposed to eating high quality oysters is way better than not getting enough zinc to begin with.
The more you eat, the bigger you're going to grow (provided you're training effectively). If you want to keep fat/water gain to an absolute minimum, eat cleaner, keep sodium to a minimum, throw in plenty of veggies, and add in cardio.
Finding alternate ways to effectively adding stress when a fully furnished gym isn't available takes only a little big of creativity. The real limiting factor is your ability to afford groceries, how consistently you're willing to eat and train, and how much effort you feel like putting into it.
You may reach a point where you say to yourself, "I'm pretty happy at this size. I'm going to cruise on eating every 2 or 3 hours and get other things done." Maintaining muscle mass forged through sweat and food is very easy in comparison to getting in in the first place.
There you have it. Now get to work!