On a quiet corner on the Lower East Side, alongside dingy bodegas and graffiti-laced walkup apartments, you would likely miss the sign to a basement-level gym. The underground fitness studio is not particularly modern or shiny or boasting any of the hottest equipment–in fact, there’s no equipment.
Instead, as you exit a small elevator, you’ll spot mugshot printouts lining the entrance hall: O.J. Simpson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and three of Lindsay Lohan, among others. Further in, a tall cement wall fences in the check-in desk. At the end of the hall, a metal gate stands before the fitness space, which features a graphic of barbed wire.
Welcome to ConBody, the lockup-themed gym run by ex-convicts. Here, civilians brave a challenging 50-minute session of cardio and strength training. There are no dumbbells, weights, or machines–just the power of one’s own body weight. Members repeat sequences of burpees, lunges, squats, jumping jacks, and military-like running drills–movements commonly spotted in a prison yard.
At one point during an 8:00 a.m. class, I struggled to keep up with the succession of push-ups. I took a five-second rest, which quickly drew the attention of the instructor. He approached me in a booming voice.
“This isn’t SoulCycle!” he exclaimed, as I insecurely tugged at my overpriced leggings. “Get working!”
Prison, I thought, is hard. Where were the refreshing cucumber-infused towels?
None of ConBody is meant to be easy, explains founder Coss Marte. “These are exactly the routines I used that I designed while I was in prison,” says Marte. He claims he lost 70 pounds in just six months with the type of exercises available at ConBody. But more than that, he explains,”[Prison] taught me that everyone deserves a second chance.”
A Wake-Up Call
Coss Marte always wanted more.
Marte felt the burden of living below the poverty line throughout his childhood. “I couldn’t get anything I wanted,” he recalls. “I was frustrated.”
As he grew into his teens, Marte vowed to end of the cycle of poverty. He remembers when friends and family asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His response never wavered: “I said I wanted to be rich.”
At age 12, Marte began to sell drugs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By age 19, the young hustler was running a multimillion-dollar marijuana and cocaine business, with over 20 employees and over $2 million a year in personal earnings.
“I had everything I wanted,” says Marte of the monetary benefits, “but it quickly ended.”
In 2009, Marte, then 23 years old, was arrested by federal agents for his drug empire and sentenced to seven years in New York State prison. When he arrived at Rikers Island, he was not only forced to acknowledge what had become of his life, but also of his health. At 5-foot-8, he weighed nearly 250 pounds and was told by prison doctors that he was running the risk of a heart attack.
“I was told I could die,” says Marte. “My cholesterol levels were that high.”
The morning after his doctor’s visit, Marte started doing jumping jacks in his 9-by-6-foot cell. It was a small but emotionally significant step forward.
“I just kept moving,” he says, adding with a laugh, “for five minutes.” He was determined to use his sentence wisely.
The following day, he ran a lap. The day after that, a few more laps. During the next few weeks, he began to brainstorm new ways to exercise and move his body in the prison yard.
Within six months, Marte had lost the 70 pounds and lowered his cholesterol. The dramatic loss inspired Marte to share his fitness regimen: He started to regularly train out-of-shape prisoners. He did this for his next six years in prison, continuing after being transferred to a prison upstate. By his estimates, he helped over 20 inmates lose a collective total of 1,000 pounds.
At one point, following an altercation with an officer, Marte was sent to solitary confinement. It was there, during a 24/7 lockdown, when Marte was “banging his head against the wall,” that he had a spiritual awakening. “I realized I had to turn my life around,” he says. Marte decided that upon his release, he would do something with all that he learned during his time in prison. During those hours, he came up with the concept of ConBody. It would be a mix of cardio, military-style strength routines, and all the signature touches of prison life.
Coming “Full Circle”
Upon his release in 2013 (New York State reduced his sentence to four years), Marte was ready to start his life over. But the newly released ex-con faced rampant discrimination during the employment process. This is not uncommon: According to a survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 76% of former inmates said finding work after being released was difficult “or nearly impossible.” Roughly two-thirds say they are unemployed or underemployed even five years later.
“Nobody wanted to hire me,” says Marte, who recalls the painful experience “going door-to-door” with his resume throughout lower and midtown Manhattan. “I filled out every application I could fill out in person, and nobody was getting back to me.”
Sometimes he would check the “previous felony” box on an application form and see a store manager’s face sour on the spot. “I could quickly scan their face and body language that yeah, they’re gonna throw this one in the garbage.”
After dozens of rejections, Marte returned to what he did in prison: fitness training for free. He’d venture out to his local park at 5:00 a.m. to approach strangers about free training. He picked a few clients over time, training them in public spaces or in rented ballet studios. But the dream he envisioned in solitary confinement lingered: a gym that encompassed all that he learned while incarcerated. And now he felt further emboldened: He wanted to create a place where ex-cons could get a job–without judgment.
Getting investors to take a chance on an ex-con “was not easy,” says Marte, so he took money raising into his own hands. In 2014, he made the rounds at business competitions to pitch his unique gym concept and an appeal for social justice. His story quickly won them over: Marte won the Defy Business Pitch Competition (a prison entrepreneurialism program), Pitch for Good by TOM’s shoes, and the YPO Shark Tank competition with Barbara Corcoran, among others. He then started a Kickstarter campaign that garnered nearly $26,000 in 25 days with 300 backers. In total, Marte raised over $200,000 in a little over a year.
Armed with enough money to break ground, Marte found himself up against another hurdle: real estate. “Most landlords discriminated against [ConBody]. They said I was too risky,” says Marte. “I was denied so many times for a space.”
By chance, a real estate agent showed him a little building tucked on the corner of Broome and Eldridge on the Lower East Side. It was the same exact corner where he once sold drugs when he was a teenager. He had a gut feeling.
The landlady, a practicing Buddhist, “believed in second chances,” says Marte, and accepted his business application. “It came full circle.”
Hustling Towards A New Identity
Marte opened ConBody in 2016, but despite the business competition enthusiasm, getting people inside the gym proved more challenging. No one was coming in.
“[The first six months] were hard,” says Marte. “My only real customer was my mom.” (He gave her “a good discount.”)
Marte took to the streets, parks, and public spaces to hand out flyers promoting ConBody. At one point, he made announcements on the New York City F train. “I’d say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t want your money. I just want to make you aware of my story,’ and I would tell my story right there,” he says. “People looked at me like I was crazy.”
Half a year in, following a string of press mentions (including a bit on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update), clients began to show up–at first slowly, and then by a year, membership topped 1,000. Many classes now boast a waiting list. (There are even a few celebrity clients, like Usher.)
The majority of members are young professional women attracted to a workout without any equipment (“Equipment can be pretty intimidating,” says Marte) and are intrigued by the theme. They’ve watched Orange is the New Black or Prison Break and were curious what prison would feel like.
“[ConBody] has that ‘scary factor,’ like you’re not sure what you’re gonna get yourself into,” says Marte. He’s had some who chickened out upon seeing the fitness center’s faux prison gate: “I had to lead them by the hand,” he laughs.
Is ConBody, one could say, trivializing the prison experience? By all accounts, the gym makes prison seem almost fun, and well, inspiring.
“It’s a great branding opportunity,” admits Marte, acknowledging that it’s a lighthearted approach to a serious topic. At the same time, he says the gym’s concept comes from a place of honesty, to pay tribute to his own personal history. “I’m not proud of what I did, but I just want to be free. I don’t want to keep secrets . . . my past doesn’t judge me for the rest of my life.”
For the staff, who were all previously incarcerated, the decor serves as a stark reminder.
“It reminds me where I don’t want to end up again,” says Jamal Campbell, 44, who runs the front desk. Campbell served eight years in a New York State prison for robbery and bail jumping. He was released this past May.
ConBody now has several thousand members and just opened a second location in New York City–at upscale department store Saks Fifth Avenue. The retailer even sells ConBody’s apparel, which includes sweatshirts and T-shirts adorned with a graphic meant to mimic a prison escape. There’s also a daily workout streaming service for just $5 a month. So far, over 3,500 people from 22 different countries signed up for the service.
Marte is also giving back: He’s involved in various organizations helping the formerly incarcerated as well as those trying to keep youth out of jail. He’s especially involved on the Lower East Side, where he see kids who are just as ambitious as he once was. He says he shows them there’s another path to success: “Those kids salute me and look up to me that I stopped [selling drugs] and started a legit business.”
In addition, ConBody recently secured a contract with Rikers Island to train prison inmates to achieve personal training certifications. “We’re creating a direct pipeline,” explains Marte, who hopes he himself can hire many of them upon release. “I can’t hire every single person, but I’ll try my best.”
In the coming year, Marte intends to open more studios, expand into further streaming categories (ConYoga, anyone?) and release even more merchandise. A true-born hustler, Marte refuses to slow down–he’s finally free and embracing every bit of his second chance.