The prison yard gym is well-known Hollywood trope – the place where ne’er-do-wells congregate to bench rusty dumbbells and stare down meek fresh meat. The reality is very different. For many prisoners, fitness is both a physical and mental escape that, rather than on a sprawling film-set gym, happens in the confines of a cell.
It was a claustrophobic backdrop that inspired ex-Pentonville prison inmate LJ Flanders to get creative. According to him, there are only so many press-ups and sit-ups you can do in an 8×6 foot cell. Especially when you’re in there 23 hours a day. And so started his decision to write the Cell Workout book, which, since his release from prison, has developed from a programme designed out of restrictive necessity to become a burgeoning men’s fitness trend.
The prison workout’s ethos centres on the need for minimal space and zero kit. As a result, it has become the go-to training plan for men short on time and who therefore regularly renege on their well-intentioned gym plans. Instead, armed with Flanders’ expertise, they are well-positioned to build muscle and burn man boobs from the relative discomfort of their living room.
The principles that guarantee its success are a focus on compound movements (those that use multiple muscle groups) to ensure maximum muscle-gain from each rep, and explosive plyometric movements to spike your heart rate and melt through more calories than more pedestrian exercises. It’s this combination that guarantees Flanders’ Cell Workout success in your quest for a better, healthier body.
So how can you take the prison workout and freely deploy it in your own living room? We collared Flanders and asked him to detail the ten moves you need to unlock the training plan’s full potential, as well as how to stitch them together to create the perfect workout that will stimulate muscle growth faster than a fistful of protein powder. Take note.
The Prison Workout
“The workout should be done as a descending pyramid circuit, for five rounds in total,” says Flanders.
That means you should start by doing each of the exercises for 12 reps back-to-back. Rest for two minutes. Then, for the second round, do each exercise for ten reps back-to-back and rest for two minutes. Work down until you reach four reps. That final round may not sound like a lot, but the volume you will have already got through will make the reps burn. But pain in this instance means progress, so push on until the end.
Plyo Star Jump
How: Bend at the knees to lower yourself into a narrow squat, until your thighs are parallel to the floor and hands by your feet. Explosively jump up, raising your arms and legs outwards diagonally to form a star shape. Continue the movement, decelerating with soft knees as you lower into a squat while returning your hands to your feet. Go again.
Why: The first exercise is crucial. This incorporates every major muscle group at high intensity to activate muscle fibre and prime you for the rest of the workout. The squat hits your lower body while the extended arms target your shoulders. Once your muscles are switched on they will more effectively power you through the rest of the workout, which will come in handy in round five. Start strong.
Pike Shoulder Press
How: Assume a standard press-up position, with your arms straight, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and with your feet hip-width apart and toes tucked under. Raise your hips up high and lift on to your toes to form a pike. Maintaining the position with your body, bend your elbows outwards to lower your head to the floor. Stop an inch from the floor and press back up to return to the start position.
Why: Your shoulders are a large muscle group that have an immediate impact on the way you look. Add inches to them and your silhouette will broaden to help you look bigger, faster with minimum work. The extension of your arms also works your triceps, the larger muscles of your arms, so that you fill out your shirt sleeves more quickly, too.
Plyo Staggered Hand Press Up
How: Assume a standard press-up position. Place your hands facing forwards, one slightly in front and one slightly behind your shoulders. Slowly bend your elbows, pointing them outwards, as you lower your body towards the floor. Explosively pressing up with enough force so that your hands come up off the floor. Switch your hand positions mid-air, landing with the opposite hand in front. As your hands touch back down onto the floor, decelerate to lower your body down in a controlled movement. Repeat, alternating hand positions as they land.
Why: Much like your shoulders, working your chest with a press-up also serves to bulk up your upper body and help you to look bigger in fewer reps. The reason for exploding off the floor, rather than sticking to standard press-ups is that it incorporates more muscle fibres and develops power. This power will then transfer to your gym sessions and help to add extra kilos to your bench press. Expect a new PB and new bragging rights very soon.
Down Dog Up Dog
How: Revert to a standard press-up position. Push your hips up and backwards, bringing your chest towards thighs. Straighten your legs and flatten your heels to the floor. Relax your head between your shoulders. Lower your body, bending your arms, keeping elbows close to your sides. Push through your arms, lifting your body up and forwards, coming onto your toes. Raise your head and chest to look upwards, stretching your neck and arching your back. Reverse the movement and push your hips back up to the start position.
Why: After targeting growth in specific areas, this moves taps into the trend of mobility. The fluid reps help to open up your chest and your shoulders, as well as build strength. Extra mobility in your upper body will reverse the inevitable hunch that comes as a side-effect of your desk job and, by pulling your shoulders back, will also broaden them. You’ll look better without actually getting that much stronger. For those exercising to look better with minimum effort, it’s the perfect cheat move.
Vertical Toe Reach
How: Lie on your back with your legs extended straight up towards the ceiling and feet flexed. Extend your arms straight up. Engage your abdominals and slowly raise your shoulders off the floor and reach your hands towards your feet. Continue the movement, slowly lowering back down to the start position.
Why: This is the first of three core-specific exercises as the circuit works its way down your body. By lifting your arms and legs in the air, this exercise removes your ability to use momentum and cheat the reps. The crunch movement also targets your rectus abdominis muscles (that’s your six-pack) rather than your core as a whole. It won’t make you much stronger, but, when you’re sat poolside this summer, you won’t mind.
Side Plank With Opposite Oblique Crunch
How: Lie on your side resting on the forearm of your lower arm on the floor, with your elbow directly under your shoulder and place the hand of your upper arm by your temple. Engage your abdominals and lift up your hips to maintain a straight line from your head to your toes. Bend the knee of your lower leg and bring it up towards your chest. At the same time, bend your upper elbow down to touch the knee. Continue the movement, returning to the start position. Repeat with the opposite side.
Why: This second abs move combines the six-pack-friendly crunch with the instability of a plank. As your core struggles to stop you from falling over it switches into overdrive to build strength in your mid-section, but it’s the twist of this move that’s most important. Working from side-to-side targets the muscles down the side of your abs called the obliques. Work them until they pop and it’s what can turn your six-pack into the impossible 24-pack of a magazine cover model. Really.
Full Side Plank With Leg Lift
How: Assume a full side plank with straight arm position. Lift the upper leg up in line with your hips, keeping the rest of your body still. Hold for three seconds, release the tension slowly and lower to the start. Repeat with the opposite side.
Why: Take out the crunch and this move is all about instability and finishing off your core. Focusing on your mid-section will give you the transferable power when you move from bodyweight to squat rack. While the press-up powered up your bench press, a strong core is the difference between you and a champion barbell squat. If you’re struggling to keep your hips off the ground, clench your glutes to reset your pelvis and power through the final few reps.
How: Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and point your toes slightly outwards. Place your hands behind your head. Pull your elbows and shoulders back. Maintain a straight back and engage your abdominals. Sit your hips back until your thighs are level with your knees, parallel to the floor. Reverse the movement, slowly raising back up to the start position. That’s one rep.
Why: As you hit your lower body, the intensity will start to ramp up. Working your larger muscle groups will spike your heart rate and send your calorie burn soaring. Which is important if you want to maximise the six-pack benefits you were working on in the previous rounds. There’s no point having strong abs if they’re swaddled in a spare tyre. Burn through the blubber with lower body squats like this and you’ll earn the Instagram-ready definition that makes the sweat worth it.
Glute Bridge With Calf Raise Toe Tap
How: Lie on your back with your arms by your sides. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Engage your glutes as you push through your heels to raise your pelvis upwards to form a straight line with your knees. Lift both heels up off the floor. With heels raised, lift one foot off the floor and then the other, in a marching action. Lower and reverse the movement to complete the rep. Complete 11 more and that’s your first round. Only four more to go.
Why: As you raise your hips up off the floor contract your butt to maximise the benefit of each rep and build power that will win your new PBs in all squats and deadlifts from here on out. They’re also the biggest muscles in your body and so will keep your calorie burn well and truly ticking over. And finally your calves. They may seem unimportant, but they’re also the muscles that men often struggle to develop. Bulk up yours and wear shorts with pride this season.
Wall Sit With Bent Knee Lift
How: Stand with your back to a wall and sink down until your legs are parallel with the floor. Position your feet shoulder width apart and far enough out that your shins are perpendicular. Press the small of your back into the wall to engage your abs. Slowly and under control to maintain balance, lift your right foot six inches from the floor and lower. Repeat on the other side and alternate. Lots.
Why: The plyometric elements of this circuit will get your heart rate up, so use this move to catch your breath. But more than that, a static isometric hold like this will light up your lower body and is an excellent change of stimulus to build leg strength. Lifting one leg will for the grounded one to work twice as hard, while also adding a level of instability to tax your abs. This one is going to burn.