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By SAM SPOKONY | The new face of fitness at Southbridge Towers is Martin Luther King Addo, even though he had to come halfway around the world before opening up shop.
Addo, 44, gained fame as a champion bodybuilder in his home country of Ghana, where he was twice crowned “Mr. Ghana.” After following his father and moving to New York in 1999, Addo worked as a fitness instructor and personal trainer at gyms throughout the city before opening his own business.
In July, Addo opened his own gym, Southbridge Fitness Center, in a cozy, two-floor space at 66 Frankfort St., tucked within the Downtown housing complex. Ever since then, he’s been helping Southbridge Towers residents — especially the seniors — stay fit and limber, while also offering personal training sessions for those looking to drop a few pounds or pack on some muscle. Addo spoke about bodybuilding, the suspension workouts he now offers to customers, and his love for working with the people of Southbridge. Interview has been condensed and edited.
How did you first take an interest in fitness and working out?
I was born and raised in the countryside of Ghana, in a little village called Asafo, and ever since I was a little boy, a lot of the things we did were about manpower and hard work. We would go to the river to fetch water and bring it back to our family’s house, and we would go to the farm to bring food back. We would walk miles to do that, or to get firewood. Everything was hard labor. It was basically a workout, but we considered it normal.
Once I was in high school, I took a strong interest in running the 100 meter dash for track and field, and after that I started learning about bodybuilding. At that time, I subscribed to the muscle and fitness magazines from the U.S., and I started following the careers of my role models, including people like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
How did you end up pursuing bodybuilding on a professional level?
My first gym was actually in the backyard of my aunt’s home in Accra [Ghana’s capital city], which I started using when I was 20. I didn’t have weights and machines, so I used paint cans full of cement or plastic containers to do workouts.
A few years later, after going to college to become a personal trainer, I first entered the Mr. Ghana competition in 1994. I didn’t win, but the judges told me I would do better once I learned how to pose and flex correctly for the show. I went back and learned all those styles, and then I won the Mr. Ghana competition in 1995 and 1996.
Why did you decide to move to New York and continue your work here?
I decided that I was finished with my bodybuilding career in Ghana a few years after winning the competitions, and around that time my father, who was a chef at the Intercontinental Hotel in Manhattan, came to Ghana to say that he was ready to take me back to the U.S. with him. I hadn’t seen him since I was a little boy, and so I moved to the U.S. and started off by living with my father in Yonkers.
My first job in New York was at the Palace Hotel [in Midtown]. I worked in the private gym inside the hotel, doing fitness instruction and personal training with guests and other clients from throughout the city. After that, I worked for a lot of other gyms, including Equinox at 14 Wall St.
Now that you have your own gym at Southbridge, you’ve had to work with a very small space — only about 900 square feet. How have you utilized the space to give effective workouts and grow your business?
This is the first time I’ve opened my own club, and I’ve definitely used a lot of the experience that I’ve gained by working for other people during my time in New York.
In terms of making the small space work, I’m using TRX suspension training equipment, which doesn’t take up any floor space since it hangs off the wall. The equipment is great, compared to what you find in most big gyms, because it only weighs a few pounds, so it can be easily carried and tied to any of our wall mounts. And it can be used to perform a wide range of multi-functional exercises — you can work out your chest, back shoulders and lower body. In addition to that, we also have a treadmill and an elliptical trainer, as well as some weights and machines in the downstairs space.
Considering that many of your clients are seniors, what are some of the added benefits of that suspension training equipment, as opposed to typical weights and machines?
When you exercise using this equipment, you are totally in charge, because it’s controlled by your own body weight. So seniors don’t have to worry about the possible dangers of working with machines or heavy weights that could fall and cause injury.
What about classes for children?
Kids ages 6 to 12 are put into our empowerment program, where we teach them about strong leaders in addition to staying in shape. It’s a combination of physical fitness and motivational training. The kids can talk to us about how they’re doing in school, and we can help to turn everything into positive energy for them. And for ages 12 to 18, we offer programs that are based on more serious physical workouts, because kids that age already have a lot of energy, and many of them are involved in sports at school.
It seems like you really enjoy working with the seniors here at Southbridge. As someone who’s gained some fame as a bodybuilder, what makes you so passionate about your work now?
I was raised by my grandmother, so I feel very connected with seniors. And when I was growing up in Ghana, I was raised to believe that our seniors are the most important people in our life, because these are the people who paved the way for us to be here. So we need to give back to these people, and we need to help take care of them when they reach this stage in their life.
There are a lot of seniors here at Southbridge, and I love them very much. They also understand the importance of staying physically fit, because it allows them to continue doing the everyday activities they love, and so I enjoy helping them do that. I’m glad to consider the residents here part of my family.
For more information about Southbridge Fitness Center, including details on memberships, visit southbridgefitnesscenter.com or call 212-964-4414.