The New York City workout born in a prison cell

(Photo: Brian W. Ferry)
Coss Athletics
(Photo: Brian W. Ferry)

Trainers love to tell anyone who’ll listen that “all you need to get in shape is your own body and a small square of space!” But would you believe it (and not roll your eyes) if the guy who said it had lost 70 pounds in six months by exercising in his prison cell?

That’s exactly what Coss Marte, now the founder of Coss Athletics, says he did—and it’s what inspired him to ditch his lucrative past as a drug dealer to launch his fitness method, a “prison-style boot-camp class” to bring the moves he developed in jail to the free world.

Marte, 29, now runs close to 20 classes per week in New York City, with three other trainers teaching his method. And while he’s been operating out of rented dance rehearsal spaces and city parks, next week he’ll officially move into his own studio on the Lower East Side, with the help of a recent $100,000 investment from Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran.

He pounced on the space quickly without much time for build-out, he says, so for now, it’s a small open studio with mirrored walls, mats, and wooden lockers. Eventually, he hopes to turn it into a “prison” (seriously). But this time, it’ll be one that he’s in charge of. “I want people to work out with a jumpsuit, have a gate in the front instead of a regular door,” he laughs. “You know, make it an experience.” Hey, it worked for boot camps, which went from dreaded military rite of passage to an accepted (and often high-end) fitness genre.

Coss Athletics
(Photo: Brian W. Ferry)

From druglord to entrepreneur

Marte grew up on the Lower East Side and says he started selling drugs when he was 13, and grew into a serious druglord, making millions a year, and employing dozens of people. By the time he was 23, he was arrested and sentenced to seven years in jail, four of which he ended up serving.

When he got to prison, Marte was incredibly overweight and plagued by high cholesterol and high blood pressure. “A physician told me I could die in jail because of my health issues,” he says. That sparked something in him: he started working out in his cell, using exercises he remembered from growing up, and altering them based on how quickly he saw results. He lost 70 pounds in six months. “Everyone was like, ‘Wow, how the f*ck did you lose all that weight? You look totally different,” he says.

When he was released, Marte started to hold free workouts in the park. He eventually found a way to monetize his method through the non-profit organization Defy Ventures, which works to channel the energies and ideas of formerly incarcerated people into profitable startups. Coss Athetics was born.

Coss Athletics
This time, Marte is the one saying “put your hands on your head.”  (Photo: Brian W. Ferry)

The workout

Marte’s approach to fitness is basic but brutal. He takes simple moves like jumping jacks and squats, and tweaks them using variations on speed, repetition, and form until they feel almost unmanageable. “I don’t make you do 1,000 push-ups, but it feels like you just did 1,000 push-ups,” he says, explaining the approach. (Actually, I’m pretty sure we did 1,000 push-ups.)

He doesn’t have a polished bag of tricks to get you sweating buckets—no splashy boutique fitness functional training tools, no music chosen by BPM to match the speed of your mountain climbers. Instead Marte pushes you with a million reps that he forces you to count aloud with him. You’ll feel more like you’re working out with a motivating friend than watching a dazzling fitness star lead the class.

It works because what really inspires most people in a workout isn’t necessarily the latest exercise science or shiny workout toys, it’s the idea that the sweat, grunting, and pain they’re feeling will improve something about themselves or their lives. And Marte owns the market on that front. Throughout class, he’s got one directive he repeats over and over: “Just try to keep up with me,” he says. —Lisa Elaine Held

For more information, visit

Loading More Posts...