Coss Marte is a former drug dealer who admits to pocketing $2 million a year on the sales of cocaine and marijuana by the time he was 19. But these days, as the founder of Conbody, Marte is selling exercise in $14-per-month increments (or $29 for each in-studio class), and rehabilitating formerly incarcerated people in the process (almost all of his staff and trainers have also served time). To that end, the Conbody website boasts that the company has worked with more than 100 previously incarcerated individuals with a 0 percent recidivism rate.
Marte served a total of seven years in prison in three separate spans, and his training experiences behind bars cultivated the idea that eventually manifested into his thriving fitness operation right in the heart of Lower Manhattan.
I recently spoke to Marte about the ways in which he assembled his program from the restrictive confines of his cell, the challenges he faced as an entrepreneur with a record and how he feels about permitting privileged Manhattanites to approximate the rugged veneer of training like an incarcerated person without also being forced to endure any of the overwhelming hardships that are part and parcel to being locked up.
Where did the Conbody concept come from?
Conbody came from my personal experience where I lost 70 pounds in six months in prison. I was sentenced to seven years in prison and was told that my cholesterol level was through the roof, and if I didn’t start eating correctly or exercising that I could probably die of a heart attack. So I started working out in my cell and running laps in the prison yard, and lost all the weight. Then I helped more than 20 inmates lose more than 1,000 pounds combined. The idea to start a fitness business came about toward the end of my incarceration when I was sitting in solitary confinement.
What sort of assessment did they give you in prison to determine that you had high cholesterol and needed to lose weight?
You get a physical when you go into prison. They line you up in the medical unit as soon as you get upstate. They take your blood work and do all types of testing, and give you shots where you don’t even know what you’re taking. About a week or two later, they called me down to the medical unit, and that’s when I found out I had issues. They advised me to exercise out in the yard — to do walks or jog — and then they put me on a special diet. They put you on portion control, which is basically like starving in there. They give you three meals a day, and on your special diet, you may get one slice of wheat bread instead of the four slices they’d normally give you each meal, or bran flakes instead of corn flakes.
With commissary, you could still stuff yourself with all the cookies and crackers you want, but I was dedicated to doing it justice and to stop eating all the sweets. I cut out carbs and increased my amount of protein by buying tuna in the commissary, and Jack Mack. With commissary, people can eat horribly: ramen noodles, honeybuns, cheesecakes, chips, soda. You can be very unhealthy in there.
Did you start working out right away, or did it take you some time to get going?
As soon as they told me to lose weight, I went straight back to my unit and started working out. It was hard, but I just got through it. I did all the bodyweight stuff: push-ups, jumping jacks, dips, burpees, stuff that I made up with my body. All of the exercises that we conduct in the classes today are things that I was doing inside my cell.
When you were locked up, how much time did you have available to work out?
You have a lot of time. Basically, you get four hours in the yard a day, but for two hours in the yard, I was pretty much running the whole time. Then I was going back to my unit and just doing push-ups, dips, pull-ups and all types of calisthenic workouts. I was pretty much working out three hours a day. You could work out all day if you wanted to. It was, though, out of the ordinary for someone to run the yard nonstop; I was the only one doing that. Most people just did push-ups. When I was struggling while running the yard, people would make fun of me and call me “fat Forrest Gump,” but I just kept moving.
What percent of the inmates you did time with were working out in some form or fashion?
I’d guess 95 percent. Pretty much everybody at one point was doing stuff. You’d get people who’d say they wanted to work out, but they’d fall off after a month. They’re like normal human beings in the world who feel motivated by a Rocky movie and start working out, only to stop. But a majority of the people inside take the time to do something.
What is it that motivates people inside of prison to maintain their workouts?
It’s various things. You want to look tough. It’s not like you want to be the baddest guy in the yard, but you also don’t want to be someone who’s going to be pushed around. You also want to look good for yourself, but also if you have a significant other coming to visit you, you want to look good for them. The other thing is, you have the time. You have nothing else to do. It was what I wanted to do, and it became an addiction for me.
How long did it take you to start working on the Conbody concept after you got out of prison?
I started on day one. I pretty much came home, saw my family, and then I woke up the next day, went out to the park and started working out. I went back to my same neighborhood, and I started going up to all the people who were still on the block. I told them, “If you guys want to work out in the park, come join me. I’m doing this fitness thing.” People looked at me like I was nuts because I went from making crazy amounts of money to making $20 for a class in the park. It was a crazy transition for people to see, but I just kept doing it. Now, some of those people who said I was crazy are asking me for jobs.
Was your criminal record any sort of an obstacle to you receiving funding or getting any of the other support you needed to get Conbody off the ground?
Absolutely. Again, at first, everyone thought it was a crazy idea. Then, when I got the money, I went out to rent spaces, and in that application process I was always asked if I had a criminal record, and I had to check that box. I was being denied left and right. Even brokers were telling me it wasn’t going to work, but I kept pushing it. Finally, I saw an ad on Craigslist for a basement under a Buddhist temple on the same exact block where I sold drugs at. This old Buddhist lady gave me a chance and rented it out to me. Then we outgrew that space and moved on to a bigger location. Now we get hit up all the time because we’re better known and have a bigger following.
Who is the average Conbody customer?
They’re 80 percent female. That surprises a lot of people because of our prison theme, but a lot of females say they love the fact that it’s limitless and there’s no equipment involved. When they go to most gyms, they don’t understand what type of machinery they’re using, so they like our class setting. The age range of our customers is usually 25 to 40. The oldest person we had was 80. My mom also comes four times a week. She’ll be 68 soon; she’s a beast.
Based on the instructor bios on your website, it looked like most of the instructors in your company have criminal records. To what extent are you trying to provide opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds?
That’s the whole mission. Our whole mission is to hire as many people coming out of the prison system as possible to teach fitness classes. That’s the biggest thing we strive for. And it’s not just fitness classes — we have managers, videographers, editors and marketing people who are all formerly incarcerated. We try to keep that theme across the board. Except for two of the 14 employees, everyone else on the staff has been locked up at some time or another.
What would you say to someone who considered it inauthentic for a Conbody class to be taught by someone who hadn’t done time? Would that diminish the credibility of the instruction?
Not at all. Everyone who’s worked with us who hasn’t had a criminal record either has a family member involved, or has had some involvement with the criminal justice space. The authenticity is in the workout and the way it’s delivered, and the experience that customers are receiving across the board. Everyone who we’ve hired has been involved with someone who’s been affected by the system.
How about those taking the classes? Are they appropriating the prison experience in your opinion since they haven’t ever been convicted of a crime?
We’ve done multiple surveys asking our customers why they support us. Most of the people who come in are people who want to give back, and they feel like they’re fulfilling some sort of social responsibility through our platform. They could go do CrossFit or support any other sort of fitness gym, but they feel like they’re doing something right by supporting people who need a second opportunity. And they’re getting a great workout on top of that as well. That’s the biggest brag — they’re supporting something bigger than just a Gold’s Gym; they’re supporting a movement and giving opportunities to people who need them.