"Well I'm goin to the place where the tough guys goThis trope is when people use time in prison as a way to get in shape, or even Take a Level in Badass. Prison is a brutal environment, where "survival of the fittest" is in full effect. The generally violent nature of prison life also gives inmates a major incentive to stay in as good a shape as possible; their lives might very well depend on it. In Real Life, Prisons, even the Maximum Security ones, feature gymnasiums, and sports fields such as basketball courts. However, this trope usually involves the prisoners working out in their own cells, often in secret - especially if it's preparing for busting out. Since feeding prisoners costs money and prisoners are considered the scum of society, they are often given a diet which is barely enough to sustain life, especially in stories set in ancient times or in societies with a harsh government. This means it can sometimes require Willing Suspension of Disbelief if a character actually manages to physically bulk up in prison. Though as some prison reality shows and documentaries will point out, inmates often trade and bargain with other inmates to get more food to get around this, and even if that's not shown to be the case, it's believable if all they're doing is cutting the flab, exercising the muscles they've already got, and getting some very interactive lessons in learning how to fight dirty. Characters who're already tough as nails might use the time to read a lot of books. So the lesson is, however you go in, fictional prison is a Badass Bookworm factory. Compare/Contrast Training Montage and Prison Riot.
And come out even tougher."
And come out even tougher."
— Social Distortion, "Prison Bound"
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- One Direct TV commercial has a lawyer going into work, and failing to defend his client. The client has a long time to think on his hatred of the lawyer and can be seen working out. Later, he blows the lawyer's house up.
Anime and Manga
- The whole plot of Oldboy is based on this.
- Marco Owen from King of Thorn. Lampshaded numerous times in the manga , where several people are unable to believe he was the same computer nerd hacker from before. He definitely beefed up a lot while in prison.
- Ryo from Shamo learned karate and got in shape during his time in a high security juvenile detention center.
- A Gamespot article about one of the Dragon Ball games once noted that in the franchise "Death is like prison" because "You go there, you get really buff, and sometimes you get out early for good behavior."
- Seen in the first episode of Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers for Adlet, who's stuck in a solitary cell. However, Nashetania busts him out using her blades.
- The Punisher has wound up in prison on occasion. Inevitably, he spent half his time working out to keep in shape, and the other half killing other inmates with his bare hands.
- Batman villain Bane got himself deliberately placed in solitary confinement in Blackgate prison so he could kick his drug habit. He spent his time exercising and emerged with natural strength equal to what his drug-fueled strength used to be.
- His origin is this. Born and raised in prison, Bane took the opportunity to develop himself both physically and mentally, before he ended up hooked on super-steroids. Blackgate was a chance to get back to basics.
- Mr Zsasz is a particularly odd example. While in Arkham Asylum he's kept completely immobilised, except when he's sleeping. Despite this he manages to spend his time practicing isometrics, surprising Batman with his newfound strength (and resultant speed) when they finally fight.
- Kurt Busiek's The Power Company featured Carl Bork, a guy who messed with tribal magic before he was put away and came out looking like the Hulk and lifting tons with one hand.
- Although that was largely the result of a delayed effect of the magic.
- Realworlds: Superman featured a scrawny nobody with a Superman tattoo on his chest who bulked up ridiculously big after just two years in the joint.
- Just Imagine... Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe has this as part of Batman's backstory. Before he became Batman, he was Wayne Williams, a nobody who ran afoul of a local mob boss and was framed for a crime he didn't commit. Once in prison, an older inmate advised him to make the most of his time there by building his body in the exercise yard and his mind in the library. By the time he got out, he was practically twice his original size.
- Subverted in Hard Time. Ethan Harrow spends a lot of his sentence exercising, but not in a way that turns him into a bodybuilder or a power lifter — more like a triathlete. He's in excellent shape when he's released at age 65. This is partially because he petitioned for, and got, treadmills and elliptical machines in the exercise yard.
- Travis Clevenger in Bloodhound is an example of the fairly rare "fat man loses a lot of weight" type. He was obese before his sentence, and by the events of the comic (about two and a half years later) he's lost nearly 150 pounds (68 kilos) while also building his muscles.
- There's an exercise room in Kaijumax, with Kaiju-scale equipment: a treadmill with cars and people to stomp, weigh machines with skyscrapers that can be pushed over, etc.
- Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She was in an asylum, not a prison, but it ended up the same. She may have done the bulking-up before she was arrested, and only had to maintain her muscle mass while incarcerated rather than build it. Lampshaded by Dr. Silverman, who tells the orderly to bolt her bed to the floor so she couldn't over turn it and use it as a pull-up bar: as she is one of the more violent patients, the last thing he wants is for her to get any stronger.
- Cape Fear has Robert De Niro's character spend his time working out to get revenge.
- The film Con Air featured Nicolas Cage's character doing this while in prison, although being a US Army Ranger he would have been in good shape already.
- Oh Dae-su in Oldboy (2003) keeps himself in shape and grows some impressive extra skin on his knuckles by boxing against the wall. It pays off.
- David Belle's character in Banlieue 13 has nothing in his cell except iron bars. So he mostly does vertical situps on those.
- Billy Costigan in The Departed spends his prison sentence working out. Granted, he's an undercover cop, so he was probably in good shape to start with.
- Hancock: Random inmates are seeing doing this. Hancock himself is beyond that.
- In Conan the Barbarian (1982), Conan is taken as a young boy and tied to a grist mill along with several other slaves. Time passes. Eventually, all the other slaves have died while, as a result of many years of toil, effort, and hard work, the boy Conan has turned into "Ahnold"!!
- In Bronson, early shots of Bronson show him to be fairly muscular, but after a few years in prison he becomes a behemoth of muscle.
- In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne hasn't been Batman in eight years and is out of shape. Bane easily defeats him and traps him in a Hellhole Prison. By the time Bruce escapes, he's back in fighting shape.
- The first film of the Rambo franchise, First Blood, ends with John Rambo going to prison after embarking on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against a small town sheriff who pushed him too far. At the beginning of the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo is released from prison and he's even more muscular than he was in the first film.
- There's a very funny, albeit dark, scene in the movie Romeo Must Die where Jet Li's character Romeo gets out of prison to reunite with his criminal buddy. Said friend tests his skill with an impromptu fight and after Romeo easily matches him, said friend makes the comment, "I was worried prison had made you soft". Romeo give him a look that screams, "Are you fucking kidding me?!" and then calmly states that, "You don't get soft in prison".
- In the scene in Malcolm X where a prison Chaplain talks to Malcolm in solitary, a prisoner can be spotted in the background doing sit-ups in his cell.
- Les Misérables has the prisoners of the galleys stronger than average men, because they are given physical labor punishments like pulling large ships into port.
- Zoolander 2: Parodied. Mugatu appears to have turned into a muscle-bound, tattooed hulk during his time in prison, but it's just a bodysuit.
- In The Pendragon Adventure, Bobby spends about a month in a festering underground prison cell. He does a whole lot of exercise to keep in relatively good shape, but it's a bit more realistic than other examples - he only gets rotten food that he has to share with the other prisoners, and remarks when he gets out that although he looks more muscular than he ever has, he feels like shit.
- In American Gods, Shadow was pretty buff before going to prison, and came out even fitter. His best friend owned an actual gymnasium and planned to hire Shadow to work there when he got out, figuring it would be good for the gym's image.
- Porno (the sequel to Trainspotting): Begbie comes out of prison after doing 8 years for manslaughter looking "like he'd been at a health farm".
- Charles Bronson's Solitary Fitness is just how to work out in a cell (see Real Life below).
- The Gordon R. Dickson short story "Danger—Human" is built around this trope. The protagonist's captors make an explicit effort to improve his strength and well-being because they don't want him to die before they've got what they want from him; after he escapes from the supposedly inescapable prison, one of them immediately goes off to get drunk after realizing that their own efforts are going to contribute to their downfall.
- In Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean spends about nineteen years in prison, much of it at hard labor in the galleys. The superhuman strength he gains there becomes an enormous asset for him the rest of the novel. So does the agility he learns there - in particular, being able to scale six stories of sheer wall freehand.
- The Real Life biography Monster follows the eponymous gang member's life. A major part of prison for him was pumping iron and learning how to fight so that he could survive without his gun.
- Montmorency: His doctor in prison puts him on hard labor to strengthen his weakened muscles after his accident. Montmorency takes it further because he needs to be stronger to go to the better life of crime he has planned after he gets out.
- Both averted and played straight in The Last Chancers trilogy. Since all the prisons seen are used as recruiting grounds for the Penal Legions, they tend to have good if spartan gyms that the inmates are encouraged to make use of. Badass protagonist Kage, who has a history of jailbreaks and murdering people, is specifically barred from using them in the hopes that muscular atrophy will make him more controllable.
- In the P. G. Wodehouse story "The Come-back of Battling Billson", the eponymous boxer, while starting in top physical condition, is unable to stay in shape for an upcoming bout until he gets tossed into prison for two weeks.
- The Count of Monte Cristo: Rather confusingly, Edmond Dantes is said to have gained unusual strength due to spending 14 years of imprisonment in a small cell. It's not from exercising, but simply the rough conditions that made him stronger.
- Convict Conditioning is both a guide to calisthenics workout derived from real prison conditioning and an examination of some myths surrounding the physical culture inside the American penal system. It explains why old school exercises work for everybody while pumping iron doesn't create bigger and meaner criminals, despite media or political outrcries.
- Prince Peter of Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon splits his time in prison between working out and fashioning a rope from napkin threads with which to escape.
- Alluded to in For The Emperor. When Cain collects the five soldiers he'd sentenced to the penal legions a few chapters earlier, he notes that they aren't as out of shape as he'd expected.
... but then, I don't suppose they'd had much to do except exercise, anyway.
- In A. Merritt's The Ship Of Ishtar, Adventurer Archaeologist John Kenton was already pretty tough when he was pulled into the alternative universe where the Ship is — the nasty tricks he learned as a World War One veteran serve him well in hand-to-hand combat. So when he's Made a Slave and set to rowing in the Slave Galley, it's good exercise, and the food is okay, so he Took a Level in Badass and ends up even stronger — although he's so busy with his escape plan he doesn't really notice until he's magicked back to his own room for a bit and sees himself in a mirror.
Live Action TV
- The main character in Pointman did this in the pilot.
- Most of the convicts in Oz are already pretty tough before being locked up. Beecher, however, goes from being a milksop lawyer to someone tough enough to hold his own is a prison brawl.
- Wiseguy. An opening montage (set to the reading of a letter) shows a youth being sent to prison on a trumped-up charge, where it's implied that he's raped. The letter ends with him saying that he's got to "pull himself up". When he's released several years later he's visibly bulked up, but a Mexican gangster points out that it's brains, not muscle, that's needed in the outside world. He responds by twisting the gangster's head so it's on backwards.
- How I Met Your Mother gives us this reaction when one of the main characters is tricked into thinking he might go to jail:
Ted: I can't go to prison! Although I could get a lot of reading done, finally write some short stories, work out all the time... Seriously, if I don't come out of there totally ripped...
- The 70's TV show Sword of Justice had this as key backstory for the main character.
- Parodied on an episode of Just Shoot Me!. One of Maya's old boyfriends comes out of prison looking buff, which he explains was to fend off advances from the other prisoners. When she asks if it worked, he replies, "Oh, you win some you lose some."
- Alcatraz: In "Sonny Burnett'', Sonny uses his time in solitary to toughen up.
- Dexter: Dexter in season 2 contemplated turning himself in as The Bay Harbour Butcher, however, at the end he gladly embraces his freedom. These are lines of his inner monologue: "This is so much better than a prison cell. I can squeeze fresh orange juice, savor a fine French roast, grab a morning workout... ok, working out I could have done in prison."
- The X-Files, "Paper Hearts": John Lee Roche, a Serial Killer and child molester, is seen playing basketball in a huge sports hall. His other privileges include access to the internet and library. He did manage to get out with Agent Mulder's unfortunate help, and he tried to get loose.
- Played with in Angel. Faith was already super strong due to her slayer powers when she was sent to prison, but while in prison she's shown working out to stay that way. It also provides her with a handy Improvised Weapon, as well as a reminder to casual viewers of what she can do, when she gets attacked and casually knocks her attacker out with a set of barbells most people would struggle to even move.
- In Sam & Cat, Nora worked out in prison. Unfortunately for her, when she tried to get revenge on Sam, she simply pushed her into a well instead of fighting her.
- In Orange Is the New Black, before Piper goes to prison, she and Larry joke to each other that she'll be in better shape when she gets out.
- Parodied on Community when Troy said he didn't want go to prison because he'd have to kill time by working out and he's very comfortable with his upper body at the moment.
- Downplayed in Burn Notice. The season 3 premiere has Michael spend a couple weeks or so in jail (the length of his stay isn't clear), and he's shown doing push-ups and pull-ups. Difference with the normal way the trope is played, Michael is already in very good shape, he's just working on staying that way.
- Jenny Mills on Sleepy Hollow is first seen doing chin-ups in a mental institution, very much like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Also like Sarah Connor, she was institutionalized because nobody believed her when she told the truth about what happened to her, and escaped shortly thereafter...)
- Grant Ward on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was plenty tough before being imprisoned, but he has a whole exercise routine that he runs through in his cell starting at 5:30 every morning. This has apparently been going on for a while, but the first the audience sees of it is at the beginning of the episode which ends with him breaking out.
- Discussed in Angie Tribeca. Geils convinces a disgruntled ex-gym teacher to surrender by noting that he can teach gym in prison.
"Every great gym teacher has spent time in prison."
- An... unusual example of this trope was seen in the cover of the Dragon Magazine issue which featured an Underdark Prison Riot. Mind Flayers are normally depicted as rakishly thin, Squishy Wizards, as seen in the Cthulhumanoid page picture. The Mind Flayer on the cover, depicted during said prison riot◊, however, is incredibly well-built, leading to the Fan Nickname of this nameless Mind Flayer as the "Illithid Beefcake".
- In The Sims 3, if a Sim is in the Criminal career track, they can be briefly sent to prison, and you get a set of options as to how they should spend their time. Working out is one of them.
- Space Rangers has a recurring text quest that plays when you are arrested by a planet's military. In the quest you get sent to prison and have survive through your sentence. Among the activities you can partake in is working out.
- In the Fight Night Champion story mode the boxer you control puts on 50 pounds of muscle during his prision stint.
- One mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has CJ picking up his old friend Jeffrey (who now goes by "OG Loc") from prison. When they get a chance to talk, CJ compliments him on his new muscular physique. OG Loc is quite proud of it himself, and touts prison as a great place to get into shape. CJ notes he could have done that without going to jail, but OG Loc thinks doing it while imprisoned is important for street cred.
- Danny Evanger in the Doom total conversion Hacx.
So they send you packing… to the federal pen. For the rest of your natural life. No computer, no gear, nothing. Total drag. Cement and bars, and the other guys inside aren't exactly your average beefcakes. They catch a glance at your cyber-jockey derrière and get a wet gleam in their eye. So what you do for the next twelve months is hit the weight room—hard and fast! You pump iron like your life depended on it—and it does. You learn to sleep with one eye open. Punching the heavy bag becomes your breakfast; tae-kwon-do your lunch, and for dinner… well, you gotta eat sometime. And practice? Plenty. 'Cause these boys got a gleam in their eyes that won't go away. But how you've changed! Over once scarecrow arms, muscles wrap tight and heavy, and you've got a fu-kick that makes the boys call you "Sir". Before you were just an average pencil-necked geek, now you could grace the front of Muscle and Guns Magazine. And just in time, too.
- Iroh of Avatar: The Last Airbender worked out when in prison to great effect in preparation for an escape attempt. The contrast between his figure in seasons one and three helped lead to his Memetic Badass status. By the time Zuko came to rescue him, he had already escaped single-handed, leaving a wrecked cell and a heap of trounced guards gibbering about he was "like a One-Man Army".
- Though his Training Montage shows that he had to take extreme effort to keep the guards from realizing what he was doing: playing the part of a crazy, broken old man, only training when they weren't looking, stuffing his clothing so hi still looked fat and sweet-talking a female guard to get him extra rations to build up that muscle mass (and also cluing her in to not to come to work during his escape day). The food he was getting actually looked pretty tasty and nutritious as well, possibly because he is a prince and was being kept in the royal city's very own prison. On top of that he was a military general, so he already had the muscles there and was rebuilding them after years of neglect.
- In The Legend of Korra, Sequel Series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, we have Ghazan who is an earthbender imprisoned on a floating wooden fort with his cell in the middle. When we first see him, he's doing pull-ups from the top of his cage.
- In The Venture Bros., the Monarch is particularly proud of his "prison-sculpted abs". He was only in prison for a few months but managed to get some impressive definition on his otherwise incredibly gaunt frame.
- In Batman Beyond, scrawny uber-loser Willy Watt spent all his time in juvenile hall in the weight room, partially to pass the time, but mainly to be big and strong so he could push people around even without his psychic powers. However, when he breaks out and tries to take on his former tormentor, a typical high school jock, in a straight fight without powers, the jock still ends up stronger (or, at least, a better fighter), so Willy just goes back to using telekinesis.
- Marge bulks up to the point of being able to pin Homer while doing 30 days for shoplifting in The Simpsons episode "Marge in Chains".
- Also, one of her friends, Ruth Powers (who had stolen her ex-husband's car a few seasons back) evidently spent time bulking up while in prison, and encouraged Marge to do the same (and to use steroids to do so).
- Invoked in another episode. Homer is being sent to jail, claiming that he will become even more out of shape due to his imprisonment. A police officer states that most people actually get into shape while in prison, but Homer immediately cuts him off with his previous statement.
- Sideshow Bob does this one episode, in a Shout-Out to Cape Fear.
- On Family Guy, Meg Griffin became capable of beating up her own family after spending only three months in prison.
- In the 1990s Fox Spider-Man: The Animated Series cartoon, "Willie" Fisk underwent the physical and mental transformation needed to become Kingpin while in prison. When he went in, he was a tagalong butter-ball who got caught because he couldn't lift his own bulk onto a fire escape ladder. When he came out, he was a sumo wrestler in a good suit.
- Parodied on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated when grade-school-age Mary Anne Gleardan is incarcerated and learns to lift enormous barbells and kill with her braids.
- Averted in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic where it is explicitly said that being imprisoned in Tartarus weakened Tirek to the point that it took from his escape in "It's About Time" to "Twilight's Kingdom Part 1" (a grand total of 43 episodes in-between) for him to regain enough strength to start stealing magic again.
- Bernard Hopkins learned to box in prison and bulked up significantly. When he came out, he went on to become one of most highly regarded middleweight champions of all time.
- The Real Life person on whom the title character of Bronson was based claims to do about 3000 press-ups a day. He even wrote a book called Solitary Fitness.
- During the 1800s there existed such a thing as "Penal treadmills", which were large human-powered wheels similar to water wheels, that were used for punishment. These treadwheels were the precursor to our modern treadmill.