Iroh lost 43 pounds, thanks to 5 to 20 Nautilus!
Well I'm goin to the place where the tough guys go And come out even tougher
— Social Distortion, "Prison Bound"
This trope is when people use time in prison as a way to get in shape, or even Take a Level in Badass
A big complaint about exercising is that most people just don't have time. Well, you definitely
have the time when you're doing time
. 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. Some real prisons might have actual gyms, especially white collar prisons
. 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. However, 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
Compare/Contrast Training Montage
and Prison Riot
Anime and Manga
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Kick-Ass Big Daddy does that during his stay. However, in the comics it turns out that it was all a lie.
- 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. 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 has lost nearly 150 pounds (68 kilos) while also building his muscles.
- 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.
- 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 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 District 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.
- 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.
- The Gordon R. Dickson short story "Danger—Human" is built around this trope.
- 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 "getting an education" variation also applies here: Valjean learned to read while in prison, and afterward becomes a highly literate and learned person.
- 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 farther 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.
- Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo receives an extensive education during his incarceration in the Chateau d'If, courtesy of Abbe Faria. In The Film of the Book, at least, he's also trained as a swordfighter.
- 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.
- 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.
- In The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, (and, indeed, in the Real Life interviews that were adapted into the script), Aaron McKinney, a convicted murderer and hate criminal, mentions he spends most of his time in prison working out.
- 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.
- In Anti Hero For Hire, Baron Diamond elects to forego the weight training and instead improves his running speed by taking up jogging.
- The second joke there is that Baron Diamond has no arms. Well, he has robot arms, but they took those away while he was in prison.
- Chell, in the short Portal: No Escape, works out in her cell before making her escape attempt.
- Spoony says this would have been awesome to see Snow White doing this while imprisoned in Snow White & the Huntsman
- 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 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, and sweet-talking a female guard to get him extra rations to build up that muscle mass (and also clueing 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.
- 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 (in a straight fight without powers), a typical high school jock, 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 and kill with her braids.
- 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.
- Bronson claims to do about 3000 press-ups a day. He even wrote a book called Solitary Fitness.
- May soon be discredited in real life - it costs a lot of money to maintain gym equipment. You want to be fit, you do work for the prison or do push-ups in your cell. It didn't help that frequently people were more afraid of the convicts who were leaving prison than when they went in to begin with. And free weights in particular were especially problematic due to the potential for inmates using them as weapons. Hence, gym equipment is no longer available in many prisons. There's even legislation prohibiting prisons as gymnasiums. Inmates can still do push-ups and other exercises that require no equipment. And if a pair of cellmates are both interested in working out, that provides additional options (taking turns doing push-ups while the other inmate sits on their back to provide added resistance is an extremely simple one).
- The Prison workout
- Outside America however, several places have a balanced and nutritious diet and well-equipped gyms for prisoners. In those countries this trope is perfectly justified.
- The trope was, presumably, in full effect when prisoners were ubiquitously used as a source of cheap labour (which means "most everywhere, throughout most of mankind's history", essentially). Even though more often than not underfed and mistreated, one assumes that anyone who went to prison out of shape and had the fortune of making it through was now much stronger, mostly because he had to be.
- During the Renaissance, serving as a Galley Slave had this effect. Those that completed a term on the galleys usually ended up living significantly longer than the average men of the era.
- Working out is recommended by such diverse sources as spies, political activists, and military personnel as the simplest way to maintain morale and mental discipline if you find yourself incarcerated. It's very hard for your jailers to completely remove your ability to do it, too.