With a Prison-Style Fitness Business, Former Inmate Is Giving Others a Second Chance

ConBody's Coss Marte has hired over 40 formerly incarcerated people
BY Andrew Thomas TIMEJuly 27, 2020 PRINT

The last time Coss Marte was locked up, he knew he never wanted to go back to prison. Now, he’s back in his old neighborhood with a good kind of hustle: a no-equipment, high-intensity workout program.

Marte, 34, was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. When he was growing up, the neighborhood was marred with drugs, violence, and prostitution, before it became a trendy place to live. He vividly remembers the long lines of people on the block waiting to buy drugs.

“It was a bit normalized for me growing up. It looked like everybody was doing it. Everybody was involved, and that’s how it was,” Marte said.

Prison Pushups

His mother emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1985 while she was pregnant with him. He and his mother lived with his aunt for a while, before they moved into the small apartment next door with his father and all of his siblings. Marte’s parents slept on one mattress and the kids slept on another.

Marte recalls drug and criminal activity on every floor of his building. He saw his older cousins selling drugs on the corner, and envied the lifestyle. The drug game made an impression on him, and at age 13, he started selling drugs. Despite multiple arrests, he continued to sell.

“I just got into that world where I felt like I was trapped, and it was hard to get out. There were very limited opportunities, and I didn’t see any other opportunities out there for me except for that,” Marte said.

His stature in the drug world rose quickly. By age 19, he was running a lucrative drug delivery business and was making about $2 million a year. He and his partner had moved from the old business model of selling cocaine and crack on the street corner to a delivery business that served an older, wealthier clientele. Marte and his partner even created business cards and wore suits and ties.

A class
ConBody features bodyweight and cardiovascular exercises exclusively. (Courtesy of ConBody)

After Marte was arrested again in 2009 at age 23, the doctors in the prison system informed him that he suffered from severely high cholesterol and was in danger of having a heart attack while locked up. The doctors recommended exercise and healthy eating.

Marte began running in the yard every day and doing calisthenics. He did pushups, dips, jumping jacks, lunges, squats, and burpees in his cell. Within six months, he had lost 70 pounds, and his exercise routine caught the attention of other inmates. During his incarceration, he helped more than 20 inmates shed a combined 1,000 pounds.

“I got my health back,” Marte said. “I just felt way better. I looked better.”

Following an altercation with a guard, he decided he was never going back to prison. And during a stretch in solitary confinement, he decided to make more of his life, and the idea for a fitness business was conceived.

“I wanted to do something with my life instead of selling drugs for the rest of my life,” Marte said.

Building the Gym Business

Marte was released on March 29, 2013, at age 27, and returned to the Lower East Side, which had by then undergone a huge transformation. He had no money, no job, and struggled to provide for his family financially. He worked odd jobs off the books, but couldn’t find steady employment, largely due to his criminal record.

That brought him back to his idea for a fitness business, featuring the same workouts he had done in prison: a routine comprised of bodyweight-only and cardio exercises in a 45-minute hardcore workout.

Marte started ConBody by approaching people he knew in the park—and also some he didn’t know—asking if they would work out with him. Over time, he developed a regular crowd and began renting out studios and hosting pop-up events. Through a lot of hustling and hard work, he secured a permanent location for a gym in 2016.

Marte started ConBody to make a better life for himself, and also knew that he wanted to hire former inmates to teach the classes. From his own experience, he knew the difficulty of finding a job after prison and wanted to give them a second chance, as their talent and work ethic are often overlooked because of their past.

“I felt the pain. I tried to find any type of job when I came home, and you’d just see the body language once you hand over the application and the second line says, ‘Have you ever committed a felony?’ and you check the box ‘yes,'” he said.  

A class
Coss Marte has hired over 40 formerly incarcerated people. (Courtesy of ConBody)

To date, Marte has employed more than 40 people who have come out of the prison system; ConBody has had a zero recidivism rate among its employees.

Changing Shape

The gym’s slogan is “Do the time,” and the space itself features a prison theme. ConBody has trained more than 30,000 people to date, and the vast majority of his clients have responded enthusiastically to the fitness bootcamp concept.

Most recently, Marte started a nonprofit called Second Chance Studios to train former inmates for careers in digital media. Now, he’s trying to raise $50,000 to secure the space above the ConBody facility for the nonprofit.

Since the pandemic, Marte has featured ConBody workouts via Zoom, and says he’d like to open franchises around the country—and possibly around the world.

A lot of people depend on weights and machines to work out, but that’s not the way at ConBody.

“I feel like God gave us everything we needed. We don’t need weights. We don’t need anything around us. Everything we have is within us,” Marte said.

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