Litfest Special: “Trained In A Cage – The Magic of Prison Workouts” – Akshaya Surendran

In a typical South Indian family, the concept of ‘working out’ is like that of the “perfect partner” – It is easy going, efficient, cool, and wholly imaginary.

I am a typical South Indian girl who was confined within the 4 walls of my home after college hours, and told to excel in my academics. But as an ambitious girl who believed in pursuing the best version of herself, I knew that I had to break the boundaries set by my family within those very 4 walls of my house. I believed in the power of workout.

But where were the resources? Based on the experiences of my life, I know that it’s not the resources but it is resourcefulness that makes us what we are. And thus, I googled “workouts without gym equipment that can be done in a confined space within the four walls of your home”. “Baba Google” reduced the entire line into just two words, “Prison Workouts.”

This got me curious and the more I searched on this phrase, the more articles, videos and images of bulky prisoners came up. They all looked like if they lifted me up and threw me like a shotput, I would most probably land on Mars without the help of a space shuttle. But jokes apart, the question remained: When most of us are using gym equipment and heavy weights and still have a tough time keeping up with our fitness goals, how are these men doing it? Were they born lucky? Well, if destiny had decided that they should do jail time, they sure weren’t born lucky. Then what was it?

Prison workout uses simple equipment like chairs, beds, hard floors, and your body weight – all within a limited space that would not be much more than a prison cell. Hence the name. Seemed totally apt considering the kind of strict family and the limited room space I had! So, I decided to get on with it.

The first exercise was the “Push-up.” That didn’t require much of an effort, I thought. Push yourself down and back up, and there you have it – a job well done. So, I aligned myself in the perfect push-up position all ready for my first rep of my life. I bent my arms and went down, and there I was on the floor in no time, looking quite like a handicapped grasshopper unable to lift myself up. But I didn’t quit. Second push-up attempt of my life – fail. Third attempt – fail… Tenth attempt – still an absolute and dismal failure.

But I kept pushing. As Rocky Balboa says, “It’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and still keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” The next exercise was the “Tricep Dip.” With my hands straight against the edge of the bed, and with legs extended on the floor for support, I pushed myself down and lifted myself up. This seemed easy-peasy. But by the 10th rep, the only dip I could take was a final dip to sit square on the floor, like I was being served a delicious meal for Pongal. That was my day one. Totally exhausted, I thought of doing some yoga and got into my favourite pose “Shavasana,” and said a goodnight to the world.

For the next 2 years, every single day I was on the granite flooring, window grills and iron edge of my bed. Failure after failure after failure…but then at last came success. I could do almost all the bodyweight exercises that prison workouts prescribed and with practice, I did 5 times what I could do 2 years earlier…and this was me 5 years ago.

Today, I travel places. In most of my trips, I don’t have the access to a gym. But that doesn’t stop me. As Ho Chi Minh said, “When the prison doors are opened, the real dragons will fly out.”

And if the doors don’t open, then bend the bars and do a prison workout!



Article Credits – Akshaya Surendran (Litfest Submission)