As a skinny, quiet kid growing up on New York City’s Lower East Side, Coss Marte seemed like your typical 11-year-old. He played soccer and baseball and stood out as a math student in elementary school. But like so many of his neighbourhood buddies, he was swept up in the local drug trade. He was poor, and he quickly learned that selling marijuana and cocaine earned a much bigger return than baseball cards and aluminium cans. “At such an early age I felt like time was money,” he says, “and I needed to spend all my time making more money.
He was a natural—“I was always a hustler,” he admits—and he became so successful as a dealer that he decided to devote himself to it full time after being expelled from the University of Albany during his freshman year for (what else?) dealing drugs. And by the time he was 23, he personally oversaw an empire generating $2 million a year in profit. “I felt like nobody could stop me,” he says now, looking back. He was a small-time kingpin, living large—and he had the physique to prove it: At 5’8″, he weighed a staggering 231 pounds. He owned four cars, and he and his crew routinely blew through money on girls, gambling trips to Atlantic City, and lavish Caribbean vacations—sometimes ringing up as much as $30,000 in a single day.
Then he got busted—hard.
In 2009, Marte and nine associates were scooped up by the NYPD on the same day. Not only had one of his accomplices flipped on him, but the officers had tapped his phones and spent a year building a case against him, documenting upwards of 40 cocaine sales. Police raided his apartment and found bundles of cash and more than a kilo of cocaine. After a stint at Rikers Island, Marte was sentenced to seven years upstate, most of his time spent at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, NY. It was during his prison sentence that his prison doctor told him he would die of a heart attack within five years because of his stratospheric blood pressure and cholesterol.
Then prison, he says, altered his view of the world. “It really made me think about the stuff that I was doing before and how bad it was,” Marte recalls. “The problems I was causing, the effects to people’s bodies. And it really made me regret everything.”
To pass the time he began working out in his nine-by-six cell. Like so many incarcerated men before him—notably Joseph Pilates, who invented his eponymous fitness system in an English internment camp during WWI—Marte began developing his own form of exercise. He’d do pullups using a towel woven through the bars of his cell, and he’d wrap his mattress up like a backpack for squats.
“I put my feet on the toilet to do dips off my bed,” Marte says. “I’d do planks from wall to wall. My cell was so tight I could put my hands on the wall and my feet on the other wall without touching the ground.” He started running in the yard, a first for the prison. His workouts eventually drew a crowd, which slowly evolved into structured classes. He shed 70 pounds in just six months.
When New York state amended its drug laws in 2009 and knocked down the sentences for less-serious offenders, Marte was released; he’d served four years. By then he’d perfected his workout regimen and completed his prison-offered college classes in psychology. When he returned to his old New York neighbourhood, he began teaching his body-weight-only prison workout in the parks.
Today, the 30-year-old is an unlikely fitness guru with a dedicated following and a new gym called ConBody. He employs six instructors, five of whom also served time. His clientele ranges from neighbourhood locals to millionaires—among them Dominic Suszanski, otherwise known as the guy responsible for the selfie stick. He’s been a ConBody regular since June. “I travel a lot for work, and I like that the workouts are all your own body weight,” says Suszanski. “You don’t have to worry about a gym having all the right equipment. You really just need yourself and some space. It’s a great workout, and my core is much stronger than it has ever been.”
We caught up with Marte to discuss what it’s really like getting ripped behind bars—and what fitness buffs everywhere can learn from his ex-con-led, prison-inspired classes.
MF: So what’s the fitness culture really like in lockup?
CM: People work out basically for respect. You earn this respect from other inmates through the workout. Obviously, you don’t want to be the soft guy and be puny and get pushed around. You want to look fit, feel fit, and it helps for fighting. Some people feel like they can push you over because you’re not looking fit. You don’t want to be weak. It’s all image. Nobody’s going to pick on a guy who looks strong.
Did being fit ever help you in a fight?
I got into three fights. Three fights in four years is good—there’s people who fight every day. I kept myself busy working out two to three hours a day and concentrated on myself and studying books. So I wasn’t getting involved in the gangs. But, yes, there’s always someone trying to pick a fight. My first fight was wrestling on the floor, when I was still pretty fat, back on Rikers Island. I was smoking weed that I smuggled in, and a guy wanted to smoke with me, and I told him to get the hell out of there. I was definitely losing that fight before it eventually just ended. When I got upstate, I got in a fight over a chair. A guy said I was sitting in his spot. My workout definitely gave me stamina then. I beat him up badly. I remember I once fought over cans of tuna. That one was a tie. We both got our punches in.
What’s the biggest myth about prison fitness? People say that we don’t work out legs and all we do is arms—that our upper bodies are crazy big. That’s a huge myth. When you go to prison yards, a lot of guys are squatting 500 pounds.
Can you get fit on a prison diet?
It’s pretty difficult to get in shape with prison food, which is basically a bag of meat with sauce that they heat up in a kettle with butter and just dump on your tray. It’s disgusting. And they don’t feed you enough. I was fortunate to have money to order food and go to the commissary. I would buy rice, which was probably the best carb I could eat, at least better than the bread or pasta. So I was eating small portions of that and chicken and cans of tuna, salmon, and mackerel.
And I’m sure that played a significant role in your weight loss.
Definitely. I began going back to my cell and developing a workout. It began when I started doing dips off my bed. Then I did a few jumping jacks, and then I just came up with different ideas of what I could do without that much space to work with. I made up body-weight moves, experimenting in my cell. I would do two or three hundred repetitions with my pillow case, just pushing it up over my shoulder. I would wrap up my mattress and two bed sheets and put it on like a backpack and start doing stepups on my bed.
What else did you do?
I began running the yard. People would make fun of me because I was the fat guy, calling me Forrest Gump and everything. Nobody was doing that type of stuff in the yard. But then people started following me, and I had a running club. And I learned stuff from other prisoners, like the deck of cards game. We used to go through a whole deck of cards and do 1,200 pushups. If you choose a five of diamonds, you knock out five diamond pushups. In my prison cell, I would crab-crawl from my window to my cell door and knock out an exercise at each side.
What exactly is ConBody?
We run 30-minute classes that are all body-weight exercises that I created in prison, done at high intervals for cardio. Also, we arrange it so that everybody has a “prison bunkie” in class. He’s your partner and will hold you accountable, pushing you. The most important value to working out with a partner is building camaraderie, a friendship you most likely won’t get in any other scenario.
You took college psychology classes in prison. Did that inform ConBody?
It did, and I always try to confuse people and use mental tricks to get them to do more than they think they really can. Like, we do a four-count on jumping jacks, but one and three are actually when you open up. So you’re doing twice as many, and you don’t know it. Your mind is a lot stronger than you think. A lot of times we don’t count out loud, and a trainer keeps the time silently on his watch. You just keep knocking out exercises and keep going. People actually do more than they think they can because they’re not concerned about a number. When your mind is set at a number, you’re going to stop there.