LJ wows with Wandsworth workout

8 Aug 2017

By Morwenna Bennallick 

The prison fitness book ‘Cell Workout’ and its founder LJ Flanders are quickly becoming household names. Whilst in a cell in HMP Pentonville, LJ sought to use his expertise as a personal trainer to inspire prisoners to use fitness to support a healthy sentence and future. The resultant book Cell Workout is now available, and popular, in prisons across the country and sales have taken off since being made available online. The brand is even proving popular with A-listers like Tom Hardy, who was recently snapped wearing a Cell Workout vest.

At the start of the year, LJ took himself back into prison. This time it was HMP Wandsworth and this time he held the keys. With funding from the Ministry of Justice he developed the book into a short course and was determined to use this opportunity to “give something back and inspire other prisoners to change their lives”. The two-week course took place around the prison and was made up of fitness sessions in the morning and discussion sessions in the afternoons.

Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) provided support for LJ to successfully apply for Ministry of Justice funding for the course, and last month I was invited to the family day held to celebrate the achievements of the many cohorts. With over 150 men taking part over the past six months, the day needed to be split into two halves to accommodate all those who were able to come.
Family has always been an important part of the Cell Workout journey shown by the proud presence of LJ’s mum, brother and partner who have each been actively involved in supporting LJ’s venture. They were joined in the Wandsworth Visits Hall with men, women and children there to celebrate the success of their sons, brothers, partners.  

The day started in the same way as each of the workshops – with an intensive hour-long workout. Though I had had been warned about how hard it would be, it gave me a personal sense of satisfaction to take part (despite only making it to the end of the warm up!) The space was inclusive with some family members getting in the mix and others happy to watch. Yet for those with their children, this workout offered a valuable opportunity to be active with their child.

After following highly focused, high energy exercises led by LJ, the men were invited to lead the group using their fitness leadership skills developed through the workshops. As men came forward, one by one, it was clear that the course had been influential in developing the confidence that now saw them lead a class.

Kicking off with a powerful message, one man talked about his struggles with mental health, stating that he has been on medication for many years and has not felt as positive as he has since starting this programme. Others talked about their developed sense of independence and control. Others noted that you can develop through this course but it can still mobilise beginners to begin their journey.

For some, the relationship with the workshops ended six months previously, yet it still shaped how they lived through their sentence. Three men on the same wing told me that they now met every morning to workout together. This community is now developing around the wing with others expressing their interest in joining in.

The course used fitness to focus discussion on issues such as goal setting, developing a ‘growth mindset’ and support in structuring time in prison wisely. This has led to wider interest in other forms of self-development. In one course, eight out of 15 men applied to start a distance learning course with Prisoners’ Education Trust, with one saying he that “wouldn’t have bothered” until LJ informed them of the follow-up courses they could do.

There is no doubt that LJ’s charismatic and inclusive approach to delivering training has been a key driver in the success of this project. As it develops further the Cell Workout team are working hard on an evaluation. We look forward to reading that and seeing what next for this dynamic project.