I can't say what it is, but I, like the thousands of other people in this country, have an inexplicable fascination with crime-based television series. In fact, much of my honeymoon was spent binge-watching the second season of "Orange Is The New Black," and many late nights with my husband are reserved for "Beyond Scared Straight" reruns. Naturally, when I was introduced to ConBody, the NYC-based prison-style boot camp, I was intrigued.
Yet, unlike my favorite fictional shows, the ConBody workout was inspired by a very real experience for founder Coss Marte. See, Marte is a former drug dealer who spent part of his youth in and out of the correctional system. He did his crime, served the time and is now looking to change ... not only the way we work out, but how the public views ex-offenders, and to give them economic freedom.
My class with Marte began at 8 a.m., sharp. A group of flushed-face women, drenched in sweat, exited as I rang the bell to enter the studio. The space, which is located on Broome Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side, are Marte's old stomping grounds. "This was the first [spot] that gave me an opportunity to rent with my criminal background," he says when we first meet.
While serving a seven-year sentence (eventually reduced to four years), he masterminded the very exercises that now make up the class I was getting ready to join. "I developed the moves from my previous incarceration," he says. "I learned a combination of exercises from ex-Marines-turned-correctional officers through a program called 'Shock.' It's a six-month military boot camp program that saves you two-and-a-half years from your prison sentence."
Marte's gym -- which he says was a "dungeon," with no windows or ventilation, when he found it -- is now a well-lit white studio with black-painted fence lines, barbed wire and sketches of prisoners in mid-escape etched on the walls as decor.
A workout developed in a 9-by-6 foot prison cell using no equipment -- straight bodyweight exercises -- couldn't be too hard, I thought.
Boy, was I wrong.
My class of five was instructed to leave our belongings, including our shoes, in lockers just outside of the studio. "Show off that pedicure!" Marte says playfully. Eyeballing the room, I was surprised to see a female-dominated class -- just one man and four women in total.
Marte says the proportion is standard: "A lot of females tell me that they don't like going into studios with a lot of equipment because they're overwhelming. This is a tough cardio, strength-training program that feels doable." Plus, all you have to do is show up in comfy workout gear, no add-ons required. So, you're not jumping through hoops to participate in the classes -- which range from 30-minutes to a full-hour, at $30 per single session.
Once the clock strikes 8, the sound of an iron gate slamming shut rings out. Then the warm-up begins. Fat Joe and Remy Ma's "All the Way Up" serves as the soundtrack for our dose of cardio, which included jumping jacks, squat thrusts and glute kickbacks. Next, some floor-based ab work, followed by toning exercises, including scissor kicks and pushups.
Doing the time
After a series of calisthenics during the warm-up (who knew simply standing up and sitting down for 30 repetitions could constitute as exercise), Marte introduced the real workout with more hip-hop tunes on rotation. "I created some of the moves on my own, like the 'up-and-downs.' The space that I was using in my cell was so small that sometimes I couldn't do a full squat, so I would sit down and stand up, and I realized -- that's hard!"
For the remaining 45 minutes of class, Marte created an eight-lap routine consisting of nonstop calisthenics, including mountain-climbers, planks, 10-second pull-up holds and more.
And as hard as it got with each lap, Marte's encouragement throughout the class was helpful. And his own success story proves that the routine offers noticeable results. Prior to being imprisoned, the 5-foot-8 Marte weighed 230 pounds, had high blood pressure and sky-high cholesterol. He was even told that if he didn't slim down, there was a strong chance that he would die in prison. On his custom workout plan, Marte lost 70 pounds in the first six months of his sentence, a physical change that was life-altering.
"[When] I lost the weight," Marte says, "my cholesterol and blood-pressure levels went back to normal. Obviously, I wasn't eating great in prison, but I started trying to increase [healthier] carbs and vegetables in my diet." And for ConBody regulars, Marte has hired a registered dietitian to offer nutrition advice for those in need of pointers. "All of my trainers are certified trainers, but we're not dietitians. For those who enroll in personal training programs, I refer them to our dietitian."
Speaking of trainers, though I only experienced Marte's class, it was interesting to learn that many ConBody instructors were formerly incarcerated, and others are close to the prison system in some way.
Having experienced the difficulty of securing a job with a tainted record firsthand, it's Marte's mission to help those looking to get back on their feet after serving time. "We go into jails and prisons to train the inmates to become personal trainers through a correspondence program to help them get their ISSA [International Sports Sciences Association] personal trainer certification," Marte notes.
Once we cool down, the class finished with wall sits and a crab crawl toward Marte for a celebratory high-five -- a positive reinforcement that is far different from the instructors' own experiences during their prison-based boot camp courses.
"Sometimes, we'll stop a class to tell the participants about the prison experience and the struggles that we went through," Marte says. Sultan Malik, a ConBody instructor, who had previously been imprisoned for robbery, tells his classes that if he could do seven years in solitary confinement, they "should be able to handle this 45-minute class".
"We did these same workouts in a small space with nothing. Here, you have someone motivating you and a class of people that are pushing you. We try to build that camaraderie and social support," Marte adds.
And unlike the real deal, Marte and his team encourage participants to take their mugshot after the workout as proof that they "did the time."
Marte, who receives what he calls "fan jail mail," says that he regularly receives inquiries from prisoners looking to apply for positions at ConBody upon their release. And given that one in 35 adults in the U.S. have faced correctional control, including prison, jail, parole and probation, his service to the ex-offender community is much-needed.
Marte says his goal is to create a platform so that the ex-offenders can be trained by a ConBody mentor via computer. "I want to hit 100,000 people and employ 50 ex-cons [of varying offenses] by the end of next year," he says.
You'll be able to choose your personal instructor based on their profiles on the studio's website. "These videos will tell the story of why they went to prison and why they want to change their lives," Marte says.
Marte is also exploring opportunities to expand, starting within the New York City metro area and eventually branching out overseas. So, if you're not in the Big Apple, no worries. Soon, you'll be able to #DotheTime too!
Lyndsay Green is a Chicago-based style and travel editor and founder of Beauty Atlas magazine, a destination guide for beauty enthusiasts. When she's not in some far-flung destination testing natural face masks or stocking up on foreign beauty products, you can find her brushing up on her tumbling skills in an adult gymnastics class in the Windy City.