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Well I'm goin to the place where the tough guys go
—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. 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 factory.
- 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.
- Hell, 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.
- Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She was in an asylum, not a prison, but it ended up the same. Of course, 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, though he seemed to be in good enough 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.
- Edward Norton's character in American History X spends all his time in prison keeping his transformed-from-a-nerd body in even better shape than usual.
- 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 of course.
- In Conan the Barbarian, 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 Pendragon Adventure, Bobby spends about a month in what is basically 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
- 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.
- 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, and is strong enough to twist a 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.
- 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 Antihero 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 and the Huntsman
- Iroh of Avatar: The Last Airbender worked out when in prison to great effect in preparation for an escape attempt. Heck, 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.
- In The Venture Brothers, the Monarch is particularly proud of his "prison-sculpted abs".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 basically a sumo wrestler in a good suit.
- Bernard Hopkins learned to box in prison and bulked up significantly. When he came out, he became quite the accomplished middleweight.
- 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. Of course, 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. 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.
- 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.
- Working out is recommended by such diverse sources as spies and political activists 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.