Personal trainers are big business, but when you work out with Cory Crosby, you get someone who honed his skills in the big house. During an eight-year stretch for armed robbery, Crosby, now 29, became a fitness devotee, chiseling his body from 200 pounds to a muscular 165 with a core-focused bodyweight workout he devised. The business card for 2 Real Fitness Studio, his 5-month-old Missouri studio, says it all: “No faking over here, it’s too real!”
Crosby has become part of the small but growing market of ex-con fitness gurus, a tag that differentiates their studios from America’s 30,000 gyms. Arguably the most famous of these former felons is Coss Marte, who opened ConBody in New York after serving a four-year sentence for dealing drugs. Others have gone the book route, with titles like Jailhouse Workout, Felon Fitness and Cell Workout.
Having a trainer with a criminal past adds a certain hard-boiled authenticity.
Around 636,000 people in the United States get released from prison every year. The recidivism rate, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is approximately 76 percent. The causes are many and complex, but one factor is the limited opportunities available to those with a criminal record. The fitness world, however, is unusual in that having a trainer with a criminal past adds a certain hard-boiled authenticity — such trainers are not messing around, they know how to get results.
“There are a lot of common traits between ex-cons and entrepreneurs,” Crosby says. Working for yourself, staying focused and a willingness to challenge the system, for starters — but there are also some telling differences. “A hustler is willing to risk life and freedom,” he says. “An entrepreneur calculates the risk more so it will be worth it.”
That said, the path from ex-con to entrepreneur is seen as the best route for avoiding recidivism, according to “From Inmates to Entrepreneurs,” a May 2016 report from the Centre of Entrepreneurs. Report author Maximilian Yoshioka says that prisoners tend to be better suited to entrepreneurial work than the majority of the worldwide population is. And he understands why former inmates might be drawn to the fitness space. “Many prisoners find working out is a way of gaining respect and security [in prison],” he explains. “Once released, they may find helping others attain physical fitness a convenient and fulfilling way of earning money.” Plus, ex-cons without much education find low barriers to entry when applying for work in professional gyms.
Of course, the benefits of getting inmates involved in fitness go beyond postprison entrepreneurship. A Prisoners’ Education Trust report titled “Fit for Release” detailed how a concerted push for fitness in prison leads to lower recidivism rates. “Many prisoners have had bad experiences of schooling and won’t engage in the conventional classroom environment,” wrote co-author Nina Champion. “Sport offers an effective and powerful way in which to embed numeracy and literacy, promote higher-level learning, and motivate prisoners who may be difficult to engage in other resettlement, educational or psychological interventions.”
With skills and motivational training, ex-cons can find themselves on a fast track to a fitness career. Boutique studios are the fastest-growing segment of the gym industry, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, making up around 40 percent of all facilities, up from 21 percent in 2013. Josh Leve, CEO of the Association of Fitness Studios, says he’s seen a growth in revenue across the U.S. in recent years, with more than 100,000 studios generating nearly $2 billion in revenue.
In such a crowded field, the challenge is to stand out. Gyms have tried every kind of gimmick to distinguish themselves, from boxing-yoga mashups to cultish havens like SoulCycle and Orangetheory. Or, now, working out in a faux jail cell. That’s where 27-year-old Shane Ennover, a former bank robber, trains his ConBody clients. The studio features strip lighting, a cell door and a wall of mug-shot-styled selfies — suggested hashtag, #dothetime. Like a boot camp drill sergeant who’s served time for crossing the line, Ennover barks orders, corrects positions and pushes clients to work harder. At one point, he deals a deck of cards in front of the class — diamonds mean pushups, hearts equal jumping jacks, etc., with participants required to perform the same number of reps as the number on the card. “This is how we did it in prison,” he says. Later, I ask Ennover why none of the cards had a number lower than eight. “What do you expect?” he responds. “I’m a convict; these cards are rigged.”
Cory Crosby acknowledges ConBody’s success, but he takes issue with their message. “I don’t agree with promoting prison, because that’s a mentality I’m trying to break — kids here think that if they go to jail, they’ll get extra street cred,” he says. His studio is spartan, his graffitied logo the only hint to his past. Compared with other ex-con entrepreneurs, Crosby seems less interested in promoting the felon part of his enterprise. Which means no Prison & Pints pub crawl, a popular offering at ConBody. “I want to introduce a healthier lifestyle to my community and show them that any goals can be reached with hard work,” says Crosby.