How one man found his calling behind bars and developed a health regimen to elevate himself and then others. Coss Marte is an inspirational life story of poverty, struggle, resilience, empathy, self-improvement and success.
Coss Marte was born and raised on the Lower East Side. He’s seen it go from a crime-ridden neighborhood of abandoned and decrepit buildings to a site of trendy eateries and pricey cocktail bars. And the neighborhood, in turn, has watched the 33-year-old son of Dominican immigrants undergo his own evolution. He was raised by a single mother who worked in a factory, and struggled to support their family on her low wages. They lived below the poverty line, he said, and he envied the things people around him seemed to have.
“The guys on the block had chains and money and clothes and everything I wanted that my mom couldn’t provide for me,” he recalled. “So as a kid, the people I looked up to were drug dealers.”
At 13, he started selling drugs and was arrested for the first time with a couple of bags of weed in his pocket. Within 10 years, he would find himself in and out of the prison system another eight times, all for drug-related charges.
Marte was released from prison in March 2013 after serving time for dealing drugs. Four years later, he’s the proud owner of ConBody, a trendy “prison-style boot camp,” and has trained the likes of “Avatar’s” Stephen Lang and “Seinfeld’s” Larry David.
He says he was making over $2 million selling drugs from age 19 to 23 when he was arrested. While in prison, doctors told him he was overweight and that his cholesterol was so bad he only had five years to live. Determined to not die in the cell, Marte started working out and lost 70 pounds in six months.
The businessman, now 31, says his first paying customer after his release was his mother. Every day he would head to a public park at 5:30 a.m. to exercise. From there, he began training people who he came across in the park. He would hand out business cards to passerby on the street and approach girls in yoga pants to offer his training services.
“I never stopped pitching myself,” Marte tells CNBC Make It. “I’d tell my story 20, 30 times a day. I’d go on the train and talk about what I do and act a fool. Whatever it took.”
As his client list started to expand, Marte began renting out rooms and by 2014 his classes had begun to outgrow the spaces he was renting.
Upbringing in the lower east side (LES)
On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there was a small scrappy building on Rivington Street. There, as a young boy, Marte, and his recently arrived Dominican Republic family struggled. His mom had arrived six months pregnant and found work at a factory.
“We ended up in the Lower East Side in the 80s when it was a heavily drug-infested neighborhood. Even before going to school and just walking down my building steps I would have to skip over heroin needles and people lined up — coming out of my building, I would have to squeeze myself in through the hallway because there were 50 people lined up to buy heroin out of different people’s apartments.” Says Marte.
He started selling marijuana as a pre-teen. He was naturally intelligent and intuitive, but he used those skills in a dangerous business. Continuing to profit, he later added cocaine and other drugs to his inventory, and by the age of 19, Marte was making bringing in serious money. He says at times he brought in as much as $30,000 a day.
“I used to just hustle right off the corner, right in the bodega, in front of the bodega, sit on a milk crate or sit right here [on] the stoop, and just, uh, sell drugs, like 24 hours a day,” Marte says.
By 2009. He was running a $2 million a year business. After a series of arrests occurred and eventually he was charged and sentenced to seven years in prison for possession of a controlled substance and sale of controlled substances. (Later reduced to four years.)
By this time, Marte was weighing in at 230 pounds. A prison doctor informed him he had to make a change because his cholesterol was through the roof, that he had to lose weight. The doctor warned him he could die if he remained in his current direction. This news broke the camel’s back. Marte was determined to not die in prison. As with everything he does, he did it intensely. It was a rigorous fitness regimen, little did he know, the seed of thought, that would mushroom into the fitness business had been planted on his mind.
With new purpose, the invigorated inmate would return to his tiny cell and he would create an ingeniously simplistic yet effective workout. He began doing dips, using his bed. And he did the basics, jumping jacks, and pushups. Truly, it was about the man, not the gear. Using the few items allowed to him, his persistence never faltered.
“It was a combination of exercises I learned from inmates who had probably done 20 to 30 years in prison and then a combination of exercises I learned from this military program. Basically, it’s ex-marines turned correctional officers who beat the crap out of you,” he says.
But Marte said the real change was that his son, who was a toddler when he was incarcerated again, was now 6 years old and didn’t know how to talk to his father if it wasn’t through a prison payphone.
About three years after his release, that goal, that thing that kept him sane, evolved into an intense workout fitness company known today as ConBody.
It is as much a rigorous boot camp, as it is a social experiment and endeavor. Marte hires people who were formerly incarcerated as his trainers. With a humanitarian focus, it becomes a means of minimizing recidivism (the likelihood of a criminal returning to prison after their release, usually within five years). Repeat offenders comprise 44.7% at the federal level and 76.6% on a state level. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle that keeps young people in a nonstop incarceration and release pattern. There is a huge need for reform as the goal is not to punish but to rehabilitate.
He still had plans to start a fitness business, but without any means to do so, he had to find another job first. Marte would sleep on his mom’s couch and spend every day going from store to store looking for minimum wage retail jobs — but no one would hire him.
“Three felonies on my record … It was like a stamp for life. So ConBody was basically born out of desperation,” he said.
In the Lower East Side’s Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where he played soccer as a kid and later sold drugs, he began approaching people with offers of training sessions. He started with the people he knew and eventually approached strangers to spread the word. From there, he rented out studios to teach classes, and entered business plan competitions for entrepreneurs, through which he was able to get more funding, until, in 2016, he was able to open ConBody’s first permanent location — just blocks from where he’d once been arrested.
It’s not just ConBody’s workouts that are “prison-style” though. It’s also the space itself. When class begins, a prison cell gate slams shut. There’s a “mugshot wall” where clients can take photos after their workout with a sign bearing the business slogan: Do the time.
“A lot of people say it’s a little bit gimmicky because of the mugshot wall and the prison gate and all that stuff,” Marte said. But he feels it’s his gimmick to claim.
“The reason why I did this and fitted out the whole space like this was I was just tired of hiding. I felt like this is freedom for me.”
Instead of having to hide or be ashamed of his criminal record, Marte said that ConBody’s theme empowers him and the other formerly incarcerated people he’s hired to own their pasts. And, for once, the “gimmick” — their records — has been an advantage instead of a deal-breaker, setting them apart from other fitness companies.
To date, Marte has hired 26 other formerly incarcerated individuals and has seen a zero-recidivism rate, meaning no one has been re-incarcerated — his proudest achievement so far.
“That’s pretty much unheard of by any nonprofit or for-profit business tackling the criminal justice space. And what we’ve done has worked. The community that we build has really changed a lot of perceptions,” Marte said.
Not being able to find a job means many formerly incarcerated people struggle to afford food and housing. They’re unable to support their families, and are either driven into or kept in poverty. And, studies have shown, that this can lead to higher rates of recidivism.
“You know, when you’re released from a New York State facility, you’re only given $40 dollars and a bus ticket. That money goes to your first meal at, like, McDonald’s, and then the train system, and then you’re pretty much broke,” Marte said.
“What happens next? Desperation — and I want to eliminate that and I want to give people an opportunity,” Marte said.
“Seventy-six percent will return within five years. Now they have a statistic which is 83 percent will return within eight years, which is almost everybody. Everything is stacked against you when you come out.” Says Marte.
Marte’s employees who would, in many other cases, be in the street or back in prison as they struggle to find employment. He refuses to allow his people to get locked up again. He refuses to submit to a broken system.
With over 20,000 clients, Marte’s fitness program is a proven success. He has been featured on multiple media outlets and has appeared in conferences, iWerx, and TEDx. He continues to share his story in prisons inspiring others to break their cycle of crime and achieve success.