Appropriately named for its visual similarities to a prisoner being arrested, the posture and mechanics of the Prisoner Squat create tension along more muscle chains than classic isolation squats. The ‘prisoner’ placement of the hands behind the head forces the back to arch, creating a tall posture that produces additional benefits to abdominal stabilization as well as other isometric stabilizing contractions in the back and shoulders; making the Prisoner more than just an average squat routine.
The Prisoner Squat is a terrific strength and conditioning exercise for sport specific and Crossfit athletes alike, due not only the additional posterior chain muscles it addresses, but also due to the lack of thoracic compression the exercises involves, allowing the squat to be performed at high accelerations over many reps, underscoring the Prisoner Squat’s benefits to overall strength and endurance training.
Various iterations of the Prisoner Squat are possible either through additional use of resistance like weighted vests or through varied dynamic iterations of the mechanics to enhance functional strength benefits. Making the Prisoner Squat an excellent complement to any of your Crossfit WOD lists.
Prisoner Squat Basics
Positioning for the Squat
The Prisoner Squat itself is not an over difficult squat to perform. There is no spine compression or any other resistance to stabilize against the body, other than your bodyweight itself. It’s important however to perform the exercise with proper form and technique in order to achieve all the benefits the Prisoner Squat has to offer. As we maintain with every exercise we covered, proper form and technique not only reduce the risk of injury but also help in developing a mastery of the exercise that will ultimately enable you to improve and scale your workout. Below are the steps position yourself to perform the Prisoner Squat, followed by the mechanics of the squat.
- Clear an area of a 5 foot diameter free from any machine, furniture (if you’re working out at home) or other obstructions.
- Feet are at mid shoulder width stance, meaning slightly wider than shoulder width with the knees and feet turned slightly outwards at around 25%.
- Place both your hands behind head, fingers interlaced (as if being arrested).
- Puff out your chest to force your back to straight and with your fingers interlaced behind your head, retract your shoulders by shrugging your shoulder blades together. This will cause your elbows to naturally flare outward.
- Remain in this upright position with back straight, head forward and arms behind your head shrugging the shoulder blades; it is in the position that you will initiate the squat.
Prisoner Squat Mechanics
The squat mechanics concerning movements below the waist never differ, whether it’s an isolated bodyweight squat or a compound powerlifting squat, these mechanics are unchanged and apply to the Prisoner Squat as well.
- Drive your hips back and down while bending the knees. This is an explosive movement and you should decelerating quickly and squatting deep but just short of the ‘full squat’ Generally speaking you should shoot for squat angle where the upper portion of the leg (the femur) is bent a perfect 45 degree between your waist and the ground.
- From the bottom of the squat, now ACCELERATE back up by exploding through your heels and driving all your power evenly back up through each leg, through your mid-section and out through your flared elbows.
- That completes the rep
3 Dynamic Variations to the Prisoner Squat
Here are a few iterations to the classic Prisoner Squat which can, and should be employed for balanced moderation and to improve on not only the benefits unique to Prisoner Squats, but also leg and core body strength that will improve your all around squat performance and acceleration power.
Prisoner Squat Jump
From the bottom of the squat, accelerate vertically using your concentric force, driving through the ground and exploding into the air. Gently land in the same medium shoulder width stance you began the squat and in squat back down in a continuous controlled speed before exploding into another vertical muscle contractions ground as you come out of the squat. This is technically a plyometric exercise and further enhances the properties of explosive, functional strength already intrinsic in the Prisoner Squat. Any time you have the ability to modify an exercise though plyometrics do yourself a favor and take the opportunity; plyos are a tremendous way to improve explosiveness, balance, coordination and overall functional strength.
Prisoner Box Squats
Place a bench behind you and apply the same techniques as the Box Squat while maintain the prisoner pose. This shortens both the eccentric range of motion on the way down, as well as the concentric range of motion on the way up. Changing the lever lengths affects the torque required to accelerate out of the squat, which requires muscle fibers to rethink and position themselves to handle the new levers, leading to strength gains.
Add a weighted vest or collar to the exercise to increase resistance. This will result in slower concentric accelerations, basically compromising minor cardio elements of the exercise to improve the anaerobic strength elements of the squat.
Benefits of the Prisoner Squat
The New York Minute Workout
In a world where finding time to exercise has become increasingly difficult, programs and exercises that work a long chains of muscles groups are increasingly popular. Therefore, many forms of strength and conditioning programs are now marketed to consumers based on their efficiency at producing results in the shortest time possible. These programs fall under the ‘DVD Fitness’ category and use the catch phrase ‘muscle confusion’ to promote their strength and conditioning philosophy. You’ve no doubt heard of P90x and Intensity to name a few. They’re not bad workouts, but they’re limited.
Then you have High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) programs like Crossfit and Tabata that focus equally on strength and endurance as well as Metcon HIIT programs like the Swedish Fartlek System and the lesser known Coe, Gibala and Timmons regimens. The goal of HIIT programs is to enhance the training regimen by varying the speeds at which exercises are performed between sets of recovery. HIIT theory believes high intensity exercises with short periods of rest are the most effective for increasing muscle strength and aerobic fitness.
Where Crossfit separates itself from these other interval training programs, including Tabata, is its balanced use of weightlifting and bodyweight calisthenics for resistance training, employing far more Olympic and Powerlifting exercises than Tabata to produce superior strength and explosive power. But I digress, we are here to talk about the Prisoner Squat and why this exercise is overlooked and underrated given its versatile strength and endurance benefits.
Prisoner Squat Properties
If there were ever a scalable bodyweight exercise that provided maximum output punch in a minimal amount of time, the Prison Squat would be in contention for 1st place. Prisoner Squats utilize all of the body’s posterior chain muscle groups: the ‘lats’ and ‘traps’ of the back, the full calf muscle group and all 3 major hamstring muscles, as well as several anterior chain muscle groups including all 4 quadriceps femoris muscles, the core and oblique abdominals and the psoas major, your hip flexors.
In essence the Prisoner Squat is an isolation exercise because it promotes the same lower body acceleration properties as all other squats, however the ‘prisoner’ hand posture creates just enough sustained tension throughout the exercise that the squat produces isometric contractions in the upper posterior chain muscles – lats, traps and deltoids – complimenting the strength and endurance elements of the lower posterior muscles activated in the squat.
The core is strengthened through rotational chain muscles – opposite and antagonist muscle groups from both the anterior and posterior chains that work in concert with each other to activate the abdominal stabilizer muscles. This process can be illustrated through the anterior and posterior thigh muscles working to produce the descent (quads and hamstrings), while the posterior back and shoulder muscles flex to produce an upright posture that further requires the support of the abdominals and hip flexors to not only maintain and control this position, put also contract to aid in the vertical accelerate of the exercise.
Squats in general are good for mobility, balance, coordination and injury prevention, and the Prisoner Squat is no exception. Mobility and flexibility benefits are achieved throughout the entire movement of the Prisoner Squat. Ligaments and tendons in the knees, ankles, hips and shoulders (shoulders being additional stabilizers unique to the Prisoner Squat) are constantly flexing against tension to achieve and maintain the proper posture and balance required by the athlete to achieve the full range movements of the exercise. Along with the obvious aerobic benefits, the intensity with which Prisoner Squats are performed also intrinsically effect mobility and flexibility as the frenzied and constant protractions of the body are performed through large ranges of motion over long intervals.
Prisoner Squat Versatility, Adaptability & Scalability
We’ve covered in detail all the benefits Prisoner Squats provide to strength and endurance training, even suggesting dynamic iterations to modify and enhance these results; but we haven’t detailed just how easy it is to scale the Prisoner Squat. Using the technical iterations above as examples, Prisoner Squats can easily be scaled to include more weight and target specific muscle chains that you feel might need extra attention.
Utilizing chairs, benches and weight vests allows you to change the angle, levers, and torque required to achieve the squat, thus only small increases in weight or adjustments to angles can produce a variety of different results, depending on your ultimate strength and conditioning goals.
Along with all the fitness benefits highlighted here in, we would be remiss without also noting the Prisoner Squat’s versatility and its universal applications to strength and endurance. If for some reason you can’t make it to the Box, you don’t have time to complete a full WOD at home, or you’re phasing through a deloading cycle, the Prisoner Squat can act as your one size fits all ‘cure all’ exercise for the day.
Prisoners are that comprehensive a full body exercise that you could simply string together a Prisoner Squat routine of say a weighted vest AMRAP series, a set of Prisoner Squat Plyo jumps and finish up with a set of Prisoner Box Squats and in less than 15 minutes you have achieved in earnest, a formidable workout you can feel good about. A Prisoner Squat themed workout would be analogous to grabbing a salad when you can’t stop for an entire lunch, you still receive a healthy amount portion of fitness benefits without having to spend too much time and effort at it.