Are YOU brave enough to hire a personal trainer who’s done time? It’s been a huge hit in America, now a group of former inmates are bringing their punishing prison-cell bootcamp to Britain
- Sophia Money Coutts tried the Conbody workout at Kensington Palace Gardens
- The cardio and callisthenic movement sessions are taught by former convicts
- Coss Marte, 33, launched the classes in NYC after serving time for drug dealing
- The first international studio is set to open later this month in East London
On a sunny day in Kensington Palace Gardens, some tourists are taking photos; others are sunbathing. Two small children run after a sausage dog. Suddenly, the harmony is shattered by a New York accent. ‘C’mon, girl, get your butt down. We’re going again!’
I fall to the grass on my knees heavily, as if I’ve just been shot in the chest, and assume the plank position — my palms flat on the grass, I push my chest up while my body stretches behind me and my toes dig into the ground. It’s a brutal core exercise that hurts after, oooh, one or two seconds.
‘Tighten everything, don’t swing that butt,’ barks my instructor, Pedro, crouched beside me.
Pedro, I’ve learned quickly, and with horror, is a big fan of planks. While I’m in position, my stomach burning, he pushes my hip as if a swing to make sure I’m clenched and don’t topple over. I manage 20 seconds before I collapse.
Sophia Money Coutts (pictured right) gave her verdict on the Conbody workout after a session with 38-year-old personal trainer Pedro (pictured left) at Kensington Palace Gardens
Pedro simply orders me back up and through another two plank variations — one where I have to tap my alternate shoulder with each hand, followed by elevator planks where I have to lower myself down to my elbows and up again.
This isn’t just any old workout. It’s a punishing new class called Conbody, which has arrived in the UK from New York.
It’s taught, as the name suggests, by former convicts — and we’re not talking feeble white-collar crimes such as fiddling the Excel spreadsheet.
Pedro, one of 30 Conbody employees, was released from prison two years ago, having served time for attempted murder. Coss Marte, Conbody’s 33-year-old founder, was jailed ten times in five different New York prisons between the age of 13 and 27 for drug dealing.
Bet you a tenner they’re tougher than any personal trainer you’ve come across in Fitness First.
Coss’s story is extraordinary. He and his parents, first-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, lived on the lower-east side of Manhattan in the 1990s. The area is now gentrified, but it was a rough place when Coss was a child: he grew up seeing people injecting heroin and hearing gun shots at night.
Aged 13, Coss started selling drugs. By the time he was 19, he was making £1.6 million a year from flogging cocaine and marijuana around his patch of New York, and was very well-known to the police (not that this put him off much).
At the same time as ricocheting in and out of prison, Coss got fat. He clocked in at over 16st when, during one of his spells inside, a doctor told him he was ‘dangerously’ overweight.
‘My cholesterol levels were way off and they said within five years I’d probably die,’ he recalled.
Coss Marte (pictured), 33, founded Conbody after serving time in five different New York prisons for drug dealing
He had a two-year-old son and a wife. It was enough to convince Coss to exercise. He lost 5st in six months by doing push-ups in his cell and running in the yard.
Like a Prison Pied Piper, he encouraged other inmates to join him and helped 20 men lose more than 14st between them.
That achievement — and a month in solitary confinement after an altercation with a prison guard — sparked the idea of forming his own exercise business when his jail term ended.
During his spell in solitary, in a cell measuring 9 x 6ft, Coss devised a series of high-intensity exercises that needed no equipment. He was released from prison a year later, in 2014, and launched his business the next day, using the New York parks in which he used to deal drugs.
Back then it was called Coss Athletics Prison Style Bootcamp. Five years on, it’s the snappier Conbody, and Coss has 30 people working for him across two gym studios in Manhattan, with similar pop-ups in LA.
Conbody’s first international studio is opening in London this month in the ultra-hip East London hotel The Stratford. It came about after a conference in Miami where Coss met property developer Harry Handelsman, the man behind London’s celebrity hangout Chiltern Firehouse.
Harry was planning the opening of his newest A-list hotel, a shiny skyscraper overlooking the Olympic Park. ‘We just clicked and kept talking, and two years on it’s happening,’ says Coss.
Coss is set to debut Conbody’s first international studio this month at East London hotel The Stratford, the gyms are daubed with the slogan #DoTheTime
Every Conbody employee (staff pictured) has served at least one prison sentence, with the exception of Coss’s chief financial officer
His gyms are daubed with Conbody’s official slogan #DoTheTime and have prison-style doors made from steel bars. Hour-long classes have names such as Tough Love Tuesday and Lock-down Wednesday.
Apart from one person, Coss’s chief financial officer, every single employee has served at least one prison sentence. The only people he won’t employ are sex offenders.
Ahead of the class, I’m ever so slightly sceptical of yet another bootcamp-style workout class. London, in particular, is saturated with studios offering expensive packages of workout sessions which promise to get you fit and strip fat quickly.
What’s the difference between, say, a Barry’s Bootcamp class (a favourite of Victoria Beckham and Ellie Goulding, and described by some as ‘the best workout in the world’) and one at Conbody?
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Coss laughs down the phone. ‘It’s just no b*******, no frills,’ he tells me. ‘You could do a Barry’s class and survive, but come to our class and be like: “What the f*** did I just do?” We don’t use any equipment, it’s just a mixture of cardio and callisthenic movements [simple exercises such as squats and push-ups] that I created. We set the bar high.’
I’m feeling relatively cocky when I meet Pedro for our workout. Having run marathons and half-marathons in the past few years, I consider myself something of an exercise junkie.
I’ve done high-intensity classes at Barry’s and Crossfit and spinning classes at Psycle. I’ve stretched myself on Pilates machines and at the ballet bar. I’ve done warm yoga, slow yoga, flow yoga. I’ve tried walking with ankle weights. Although I generally get bored, after an initial burst of enthusiasm and endorphins, and give up. But still, I’m relatively fit, so ahead of the Conbody class, I assume I’ll manage.
Pedro shows me how to warm up in the park — a few stretches of my hamstrings and my hip flexors. ‘Pah, this is easy!’ I think.
Sophia admits she was skeptical of trying Conbody as there are already alot of bootcamp style fitness classes on offer across London
Pedro instructed Sophia to complete cardio and callisthenic movements including planks, squats and press-ups
But then he starts with the real exercises and it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I’m not as fit as an ex-con.
He orders me through the planks; squats alternating with press-ups; jumping jacks and lunges. Plus, an exercise which sounds easy, but is astonishingly taxing on the legs. ‘Get your butt down on the grass,’ says Pedro, ‘and then get up again, but without using your hands.’
I sit on the grass, legs bent in front of me, and try to rock myself up — like a toddler attempting to heave itself into a crawl position. Eventually, through the sheer force of my upper body, I swing myself upright, but my thighs are screaming in pain.
‘Back down,’ orders Pedro, ‘Gimme another ten.’
Pedro is an intimidatingly muscled chap one can easily imagine doing 200 push-ups on his little fingers, and explains his own story in between barking at me about planks.
What happened, according to Pedro, is that he got into a ‘bar brawl’ in downtown Manhattan. His opponent pulled a knife on him, he says, and a scuffle followed. Pedro got nicked in the knee, but the other man ended up with a cut across his chest, leading to an attempted murder charge.
Pedro told Sophia that he spent time in prison after being given an attempted murder charge from a ‘bar brawl’ in Manhattan
Conbody’s recruitment process in New York involves hiring former convicts of Rikers Island Prison and helping inmates to get personal training certifications
Pedro, 38, had never been in prison before and had previously sailed competitively in Spain and worked as a backing dancer and choreographer in Hollywood. He was sent to a prison outside New York where he slept in a dormitory with 60 other men. He kept himself fit using a skipping rope in the yard — ‘there wasn’t much else to do’ — and, when he was released two years ago, was introduced to Coss via a mutual friend he’d met in prison.
Conbody makes sense, if you think about it. Go to the gym on your own, and you faff about on the cross-trainer for 20 minutes and do a paltry few sit-ups before spending much longer in the shower using all the free shampoo and conditioner.
But what if you’ve got a former jailbird shouting at you to ‘push out another 20’? There is little toleration of weakness here. Am I allowed to do push-ups on my knees because my arms are pathetic? I am not, says Pedro, sternly. Gulp.
Conbody’s recruitment process in New York involves working with Rikers Island Prison, where Coss and his colleagues go to train inmates before they’re released. They help any interested prisoners get their personal training certification, then, when they’re released, work with a charity to help them find housing.
‘Then there’s another two weeks’ training before they work with us on a two-month internship,’ explains Coss. ‘If they do well, we hire them full-time.’
Sophia (pictured right with Pedro) has signed up to another three months of training with Pedro following her first impressive Conbody session
While Coss is overseeing the UK opening from New York, Pedro is over here to recruit British trainers with the help of a London-based charity called Bounce Back, which specialises in employment for ex-offenders. The aim is to sign up two full-time trainers and go from there.
Wariness of his business is understandable, says Coss, who has been pitching to investors to raise funds to expand further.
‘Some people are scared, and I get why,’ he says. ‘Ex-cons are portrayed as the scariest people on the planet. But at the end of the day they are just human beings who made a mistake.’
Give Conbody a go, if you’re brave enough. I couldn’t stand without groaning the next day, and even lifting my arm to put on mascara hurt.
The Conbody workout is agony (Pedro says clients have thrown up over him before because his classes are so demanding) but impressive. So impressive, I’ve signed up for three months of training with Pedro to get shouted into shape.
Although my idea of criminal behaviour is overdoing it on the rosé on a Thursday night, I’m hoping my butt will be hard as nails by my summer holiday.
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