all photos by Marques Jackson
Brooklyn-based ConBody is more than a gym, fitness instructor or program—its existence is a testament to perseverance, hard work, self reflection, and sweat…lots and lots of sweat. Founded by former prison inmate, Coss Marte, ConBody aims to not only provide a unique, tough-as-nails prison-inspired workout but, almost more importantly, to reshape the public perception of ex-cons + their role in society after prison life. Each ConBody workout is led by a former inmate, and any uncertainty or lack of trust dissolves as soon as your heart rate starts to climb. We took some time to chat with Coss about his journey from the streets, through the prison system + how it landed him into the realm of fitness...
hg: hi Coss! Tell us about your personal + your fitness background prior to ConBody...
coss: I was always active as a kid. I played baseball, basketball + soccer growing up, but eventually I started drinking, smoking, and got involved in drugs. I became extremely overweight, and when I went to prison, the doctors told me I could die because of my health issues. So I began working out in a prison cell and running in the prison yard, eventually losing 70 pounds over six months. I created my own regimen + program based off of ex-marine workouts and workouts that I learned from inmates that had done 20-30 years in prison.
hg: it seems that you’ve possessed an entrepreneurial spirit throughout your life—what specifically inspired you to start ConBody?
coss: everything started as a kid. My mom immigrated from the Dominican Republic when I was young. She was really poor and had limited things to provide for us. When I would ask for something, she would always say, “I don’t have enough money.” That would frustrate me and when I would go to school, kids would ask me what I wanted to be when I got older and I would tell them that I wanted to be rich. When I was 19, I was making over two million dollars a year running one of the largest drug cartels. I always hustled as a kid—cleaning cars, opening up fire hydrants, selling baseball cards, going for anything to make my own.
"That was just my mentality—nonstop hustle."
What really inspired me was when I was almost done with my incarceration time, I ended up in solitary confinement. This officer had placed me against the wall + started searching me. I felt like he was touching me in inappropriate places and when I moved my body, he quickly punched me, knocking me down. When I got up from the ground, I turned around + went into protective mode because he pressed the pin, and I just braced for impact. When that pin is pressed, about a dozen other officers come to the scene to beat the crap out of you. They came in, shackled me up + put me in a 24-hour lockdown. I had two more months before I could go home and because of this incident, I was facing three more years in prison.
I ended up doing an extra year because of it and while I was in that cell in 24-hour lockdown, nothing to do, I was devastated. I had just finished telling my son I was coming home—he was excited + I lied to him. It was at that moment that I began writing a letter to my family, a letter about how I’m not coming home and how I messed up. When I finished the letter, I realized I didn’t have a stamp to send it out, and I started going crazier because I had no source of communication, no one that could help me. My sister found out about two days later that I was in solitary confinement + wrote me a letter. In it, she just told me to read Psalm 91 from the bible and when I read that letter, I was like “**** that, I’m not, I’m not reading that.” I took that letter, crumpled it up and threw it in the corner of my cell. Eventually, after sitting there in 24-hour lockdown, I decided to pick up the bible and I turned to Psalm 91, the pages that she told me to read, and as soon as I started reading it, a stamp fell out of my bible.
It was the stamp I needed to send out this 10-page letter to my family, and I just felt chills run down my body. I felt like there was something bigger than myself. For the first time, I started realizing what I was doing was wrong, that I was not only affecting myself + my son, but by dealing drugs and living the street life, I was affecting the thousands of people that I sold drugs to. I realized that they had families too and I needed to give back to society in some sort of way. I felt regret + started praying and asking God how can I give back. I realized that I wanted to give back to the world of fitness because I was already helping these inmates in the yard work out, lose weight, and I felt like this was what I’d want to do when I came home. I felt that the idea of ConBody was all created in that.
I began writing all of my regimen workouts down + basically put together a small business plan while I was in there. When I came out a year later and returned to the same neighborhood, I was just hungry to make things happen. I started working out in the local parks, going up to athletic types and pitching to them all day. Eventually, I gained a little following and from there, I started renting out studios. Then the studios started getting overfilled and I eventually opened up this space in the Lower East Side + ultimately Midtown.
hg: while in prison, were you able to help or motivate other inmates with your workouts?
coss: I was running the yard and nobody really runs the yard. People used to call me "Fat Forrest Gump," but after I lost all of the weight, this guy came up to me, who was like 315 pounds, and he was like, “You know, I want to start running with you.” So we started running and then his friend got involved and he started running and then we just started forming a circle together. After our runs, we’d do a whole 45-minute routine. I would stand in the middle and people would just follow me. From there, it just grew organically + became like comradery.
hg: tell us a bit about prison-style workouts + how you incorporate a “prison-like” atmosphere in your gym...
coss: we don't use any equipment—it’s all bodyweight stuff like in a prison. The only piece of equipment we use is the pullup bar. It’s all cardio + calisthenics strength training. I begin my classes with about 15 minutes of cardio. We’ll take a break, and by "break," I mean we take a 10 second break, enough for a sip of water. Then we start doing more group exercises. I start partnering up people + we’ll do my routine (which is like my secret sauce, so I’m not gonna share it with you). Then we end up with a three minute stretch.
hg: what ideas do you hope to instill in trainees at ConBody + what can trainees expect to get out of the program? What is the one message you hope each trainee comes away with after spending time at the gym?
coss: people definitely get toned up + gain strength. I’ve had people lose a lot of weight in our program but I think more importantly, we build comradery.
"We build a community that is trustworthy and we break down the stereotypes between formerly incarcerated individuals and young professionals."
All of my trainers are ex-convicted felons + a lot of people go into this with the notion of “Oh, I’m gonna get beat up.” They think “Oh, this guy’s an ex-con” and they’re scared, but when they take the class they feel more like "Wow, this is a real person," and it really breaks down the stereotype. They think “I can hang out with this person, he’s not gonna murder me, he’s a nice, regular person.”
Now, we will break your body down, it will hurt, it’s probably one of the hardest workouts in the city, but just like someone described the other day, "I go in with a smile and I come out with a smile.” He doesn’t get that experience in any other boutique fitness studio. We don’t use any locks on our lockers. Everybody trusts the ex-cons to watch their s***. There’s just this very trusting community at the end of the day.
hg: is there a recommended entry fitness level for your classes + what kinds of wellness transformations have you seen from your classes?
coss: it's for everybody—my mom is 63 and she does it four times a week. People have no excuse—it’s basically just trying to give it your all + if you need to take a break then take a break, but we’ll push you back in it. It’s not gonna be easy, it’ll be difficult for anybody’s level. We say that our workouts have multilevel purposes.
I think one of the biggest transformations that I’ve seen was with this lady who lost 100 pounds. It took a year, but she came in + tried one of my classes and she kept coming in at least four times a week. A year later, I’m at the front desk, and I’m like “Yo, Jamie, you look like you’ve lost mad weight," and she started bawling and said, “I have the money, I have no excuses. Your story motivated me to keep moving. I have everything I need and you did this in a prison cell. We’re all going through this negative stuff and we have no excuses. We need to feed our bodies the right nutrients and we need to work out. We need to take some time for our bodies.” She was just so inspired by my story that it motivated her to change her whole body + her whole mind.
hg: why is it important for you to help change the perception of ex-cons in today’s society?
coss: I feel like, especially right now, there’s a lot of racism + stereotypes out there. What the media portrays is thar ex-cons are locked up like we’re chained animals, rapists, killers, and that’s not the truth. We’re people who made a mistake at a very early age + now we're known for the worst thing we've ever done. I feel like, especially as a kid, everybody makes some type of mistake. I have people that work for me that did 23 years—went in at 15, came out at 38. Most people that work for me went in as teenagers and came out in their 30s. It’s just not fair to write someone off at such an early age, knowing that everybody as a young adult will do something stupid. We just need to understand that the young individual is not fully developed + we need to find other ways to rewrite the script in terms of criticizing that person for their background.
hg: what advice would you give to someone who is currently enduring some form of struggle + is looking for a positive way to turn their life around?
coss: my advice is just that if you do the right thing, everything will work out no matter what. There are certain times that we feel like we need to do something negative to survive, but the truth is, if we do the right thing, we’re gonna sleep somewhere, we’re gonna eat something, we’re gonna wear something. Everything's going to work out no matter what. I feel like my mom is one of the most successful people that I know. She only makes twelve dollars an hour as a home health aide, but she pays her rent, she sleeps well, doesn’t stress, and if she wants to take a vacation once a year, she does.
"I feel like that’s true success, being at peace with oneself and just knowing that everything’s gonna work out."
hg: ConBody is now beginning to offer online training classes. In addition to this new component of your business, how else would you like to see ConBody grow?
coss: I want to open up multiple locations across the country. I have a lot of interest internationally. I’m actually heading out on an around the world speaking tour right now. Over the next two months I’m going to ten countries including Israel, Marrakech, a couple spots in Mexico, Dominican Republic, London, Spain, and then Australia. It’ll be a pretty crazy trip around the world, but I feel like we need to take it to the next level + open up more locations. I really want my online platform to have over 100,000 users to create the largest virtual gym (editor's note: you can back Coss' vision on Kickstarter now!). I feel like we’re creating a social movement, and I feel like we could really disrupt the fitness world.