Ten minutes of hell: I’m at minute nine, and after an ab-destroying circuit of leg lifts, toe touches, crunch variations, and planks, I grit my teeth and try to hold the final side plank. My body shakes; my resolve wavers. Eleven others groan and gasp in this “correctional facility” in a Manhattan basement that you enter through a steel cell-style door. There’s no mercy on your muscles.
Not here at ConBody, the hourlong boot camp that’s made the unglamorous prison workout into a bodyweight fitness trend.“No breaks,” the instructor shouts gruffly.
ConBody was founded in January 2014 by Coss Marte, an ex-con who was locked up nearly a decade ago for running a network of cocaine dealers. The program replicates the gritty, space-crunched prison where Marte turned his life around. His classes feature imaginative exercises, lots of reps, and little rest. And it’s attracting plenty of attention: In 2017, Marte expanded from his Lower East Side location to a second cell on Fifth Avenue. He also published a workout program in 2018.
And the classes are grueling. I did pushup variations, squat work, and jumping jacks for reps in the 40-plus range. Then it was shoulder presses and pullups supersetted with mountain climbers. It’s simple, just like the fitness that transformed Marte from schlubby to svelte during his five years in correctional facilities. When he was first incarcerated in March 2009, he weighed 230 and prison doctors told him his blood pressure and cholesterol were perilously high.
Marte began running 20 laps around the prison yard every day, eventually adding pushups, dips, and other moves. In six months he was down 70 pounds, training other inmates, and compensating for the lack of weights and gym equipment with unique tag-team exercises. Coincidentally, this prison-forged formula—performing sets to failure using light weights or body weight—is one that exercise science now shows can be just as effective for muscle growth as using heavy weights, says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. Plus, using lighter loads puts less stress on your joints, tendons, and ligaments; that reduces your risk of injury.
Part of the ConBody mission is to change how people who’ve been convicted of crimes are perceived. Marte hires only ex-cons as trainers. “It’s about getting to know the people and making sure they’re qualified.” Marte also refuses to put locks on his lockers.“We tell everyone: ‘Trust an ex-con with your stuff,’” he says.
And stop taking breaks.
Life in the pen forced Coss Marte and his trainers to get creative. Liven up your own workouts with their tricks.
Marte’s cell had little elbowroom, so he worked his triceps with dips, placing his hands on his bed and feet on the toilet. You can always find ways to workout in your cubicle or of ice. Start with a daily set of pushups with your hands on your desk. Work up to pushups with your feet on your desk and hands on the floor.
Inmates rely on people as both equipment and for motivation. ConBody embraces that idea. In one class, everyone does a wall sit while one person performs lunges; if anyone falls out of the wall sit, the entire class has to restart. If you can train with a group, end your workout with a similar pact.
Trick Your Mind
ConBody’s Shane Ennover sometimes has his class hold wall sits for 30 seconds—and then counts down the last few seconds extra slowly, conditioning people to push themselves. “You’re going to do more that way,” he says. Get a partner to count down your planks—without telling you how quickly or slowly he’ll count.
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