ConBody founder Coss Marte tells Moneyish how he turned prison cell exercises into NYC’s most hardcore workout and a new book out on Tuesday.
No one would hire this ex-con, so he became his own boss.
Coss Marte has turned the body strength workout he improvised in his 6- by 9-foot prison cell during a six-year drug sentence into a fitness brand training 200 students a day and pulling in $500,000 a year. ConBody, a prison-style bootcamp daring students to “do the time,” was launched after Marte was released in 2014 and realized that no one wanted a worker with a rap sheet. He was forced to live on his mom’s couch because his criminal record barred him from getting an apartment with his then-wife and son.
“I basically created this company out of desperation,” said Marte, now 32. His backstory and the 12-week workout that he used to lose 70 pounds in six months (and helped 20 other inmates shed 1,000 pounds collectively) are laid out in “ConBody: The Revolutionary Bodyweight Prison Boot Camp, Born from an Extraordinary Story of Hope” hitting shelves on Tuesday.
And the former millionaire kingpin isn’t just selling $125 class passes in a studio on the same Broome Street corner where he was busted for selling drugs a decade ago. He’s also paying it forward by hiring other former inmates. Thirteen of his 17 personal trainers and employees were once incarcerated.
“I created this to not only help myself, but to also help other individuals who have been down my path, who felt the pain of what I went through knocking on doors, going out and filling job application after job application and being denied left and right,” he said. “It’s been a huge blessing to give somebody a second chance; maybe even a first chance.”
Between four and five million Americans are on parole, and these former inmates who’ve already done their time still find themselves serving life sentences after they get out of jail. Most employers are hesitant to hire someone with a criminal record. So 60% to 75% of inmates are jobless a year after their release, which leads to more than three-fourths of ex-cons (76.6%) getting arrested for a new crime within five years as they struggle to find honest work.
And Marte is working with non-profit organizations such as Goodwill and Our Children to hire former inmates to teach his boutique fitness classes — which were even housed in a posh pop-up studio at Saks Fifth Avenue for six months last year.
“I want the ‘regular’ individual that never came across somebody that’s been incarcerated … to break through that stigma,” he said. “So we don’t use locks on our lockers at ConBody. We tell people, ‘Trust ex-cons with your s–t.’ We’re just regular human beings that committed a mistake. I feel everyone has done something wrong, and we just want to be accepted as human beings.”
Syretta Wright from Flushing, Queens, was convicted of second-degree murder at 16. She told Moneyish that it was hard to imagine what life back on the outside would be like when she was staring down a 22-year sentence.
“I didn’t have a dream initially. I did my time one day at a time. That’s how you do your time,” said Wright, now 39, who was released in 2016 and found a job at ConBody through Our Children, a nonprofit that takes in formerly incarcerated women with children, and women who have served a significant amount of time in prison.
“Fitness has always been second-nature to me. And as the years of my sentence dwindled down, I was teaching other inmates how to work out, and everyone said I should be a personal trainer,” she said. “There is no better feeling than when somebody comes to you who can’t even do a push-up, and you help them reach their goal. And being where I came from, I never imagined that I would be in a position to help so many people. It’s humbled me.”
Because ConBody hasn’t just given Marte and his employees a fresh start. The men and women who sentence themselves to the hour-long classes — where Marte runs them through non-stop drills behind a door with actual bars on it — are breaking free of their own prisons; obesity, low self-esteem, stress, or using junk food and alcohol as crutches.
“I had one lady come up to me after she lost 100 pounds with us, and she said, ‘Your story motivated me. I realize I have everything I need: I have my freedom and I have my body weight. I have no excuse not to get in shape, and you guys changed my life.’ She was bawling,” said Marte. ‘And she made me tear up. We draw clients that are so motivated and inspiring.”
He’s looking to expand his outreach by launching virtual workouts in the near future, where for $9 a month, “You can choose your favorite ConBody ex-con and get that prison body you always desired,” Coss laughed. He plans to open another nine studios cross the tri-state area and New England within the next five years, and to have ex-cons working in those gyms, too.
“Former inmates make incredible employees. There’s skills that translate from running an illegal business to a legal business. And they’re hungry for the work,” Marte said. “You hire a ‘regular’ person, and they’re happy for that second … but then they get bored. They get tired. An ex-con brings such an appreciation to the work. Everyone should hire former inmates.”
Wright agreed. “We’ve all done something in our lives that we’re not happy about. And you can’t tell me I’m the same person that I was over 20 years ago,” she said. “So you can’t judge people. If you want to be treated fairly, if you would want a second chance, then you also have to give that second chance to someone else.”
And she credits her sentence with teaching her one of life’s most valuable lessons. “If you learn nothing else in prison, you learn how to be patient,” she said. “You have to stop and think about the things you say [to the guards and to other inmates.] And nothing comes when you want it. You could be waiting for weeks for anything. Patience is key; I can’t stress that enough.”
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