If there is one group of strength trainers that holds a nearly-mythic status by anyone who trains to get strong, it's the convicts. They frequently boggle many of our minds with the raw power that they develop while in prison. I think that part of the allure is how they manage to do it. They don't have access to the best equipment (if any). Prison food is never going to win the universal praise of sports nutritionists. Their access to supplements and steroids is horribly inconsistent too. Often times, they don't appear to apply some of the latest scientific knowledge about strength training.
I remember reading an article by Zach Even-Ech on T-Nation a while back about old school strength training (you know, using sleds, tires, sandbags and other unconventional weights for training). He opened his article by describing a documentary that he saw that featured a prisoner who was so powerful he had broken handcuffs and even ripped his way out of a straight jacket. Apparently, a large portion of his training was BW and sandbag work done in some pretty insane rep counts.
Now, a couple forum members at T-Nation mused over how it's possible to get that strong with high rep sandbag work. Apparently, that's only good for strength endurance. I've come across similar ideas. I'll never forget the day that I told my BJJ instructor that I didn't lift weights and his stunned response. I'm known for being a pretty strong guy.
So, how do they do it?
I think that a large portion of the answer rests not in the load lifted but in the mind of the person doing the training. They're often times bored and training is about all they can do. So, they're 100% focused on their training. That focus on their muscles fires them more, making them get stronger, even while training, "strength endurance" only exercise. Too often I think that we neglect the impact of thinking into the work that we're doing for the sake of a sexier idea in training. It just can't be emphasised enough. I repeat my love of George Jowett's description of our bone-movers: SLAVE MUSCLE. I think it's the best way to describe your muscles. They're your slaves and they should obey what they tell you to do.
Now, I understand that you just can't think into the work and magically lift a car (although we know that it has happened). This takes time and practice. Still, telling your muscles what they will do on an incremental basis goes a long way towards improving. I've told myself to push out one or two more reps when I felt like I had nothing left (that 5th handstand push-up on the T's was such a time for me). I've also talked myself out of doing things that I knew that I could do. Lo and behold, my muscles became inexplicably tired. Within reason, your mind has more control over your body than you realize. It may have control to do what strength science says can't be done. Who knows?