A chiselled bodybuilder, now shaping frail clients

A chiselled bodybuilder, now shaping frail clients

Addo uses his hard-won expertise to help frail senior citizens restore their balance, mobility and strength.

With his enormous muscles bulging beneath a small T-shirt, Martin Luther King Addo guided one of his most dedicated clients through a squat exercise inside his tiny Manhattan gym. “You can do it, Shirley,” he said. 

Shirley Friedman, a silver-haired 90-year-old standing 4 feet 9 inches, shifted into another gear, bending at the knees for multiple repetitions. “I never did this stuff before, but he gives you the confidence that you can do it if you’re up to it,” Friedman said afterward. “He’s not a phony. Got me?” 

Addo, who honed his muscles using a mango tree as a pull-up bar and concrete blocks for dumbbells, is a two-time former winner of the Mr. Ghana bodybuilding championship. Years ago, his chiselled physique, bowling ball biceps and camera-ready smile brought him fame across his homeland in West Africa. Today Addo uses his imposing muscles and hard-won expertise to help frail seniors like Friedman restore their balance, mobility and strength. 

He works out of a storefront gym that he opened last summer inside Southbridge Towers, a housing development in Lower Manhattan that is home to many older adults. The walls are decorated with posters of Addo shirtless and flexing. “Ask me how to build a Rock Solid foundation,” says one that features him in nothing but tiny yellow trunks. 

On a recent afternoon, Mary Killoran, 86, was willing herself through a kettlebell dead lift. Killoran, a retired medical transcriber, has lived alone since 1971 in an apartment overlooking the East River. A few years ago she suffered a bad fall and began using a walker. Addo, 44, taught her exercises like balance lunges and stretching techniques. Gradually, she regained her balance and traded the walker for a cane. Now, she drinks a protein shake each morning and strolls to the World Trade Center and back - twice a day. 

She works out about three times a week, but stops by the gym even on off days to visit Addo. He helps her “be more cheerful, so you don’t have to be depressed,” she said. Addo, too, says the seniors energise him. Raised within the Ashanti tribe, Addo was always taught that improving the lives of one’s elders is of the highest virtue. “They remind me of my grandmothers and aunties back home,” he said. 

Addo’s life changed when he was a teenager in the mid-1980s and first saw “Commando” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was living with his grandmother in the village of Asafo, in Ghana’s western countryside, and he watched, spellbound, as Schwarzenegger pushed Chevrolets around and hauled tree trunks on his shoulder. Addo decided at that moment to pattern his life after Schwarzenegger’s. He studied American muscle magazines and built a gym in his aunt’s backyard. By age 24, Addo was enormous, an Ashanti He-Man doll come to life, and he knew he “finally had the muscle” to enter bodybuilding competitions. 

In 1995 and 1996, he won the Mr. Ghana title and became a national celebrity, starring in television commercials. He flexed his muscles whenever he was in a crowd, making girls giggle, said Samuel Kissiedu, a former sports reporter in Ghana. “Everybody talked about his strength, his power,” Kissiedu said. But Addo’s dream was to live in America - “the land of gold and great opportunity,” as he put it - and follow in Schwarzenegger’s footsteps. In 1999, Addo arrived in New York City. He became certified as a personal trainer and worked in clubs like Equinox and Gold’s Gym. All along, his goal was to open his own club, said Camille Agro, a former client at Dolphin Fitness who befriended Addo. 

Training sessions

Agro lived in Southbridge Towers, a middle-income co-operative that offered free yoga and knitting classes. Addo started teaching a weekly fitness class there, and it became popular, especially among older women. A one-hour personal training session costs $60, and monthly memberships are $30. A few years ago, an 850-square-foot storefront by the main courtyard became available, and Addo jumped to claim it. 

He announced the club’s grand opening on a Facebook page he created. “Glory be to God!!” he wrote. Addo hung up plaques of his bodybuilding achievements and a framed photo of Schwarzenegger as governor wearing a suit and tie. The gym quickly “became like a little home to him,” Agro said. 

Addo sees his work as more than just improving older people’s fitness. He set up a computer for them to use and organised a holiday party and a trip to a Ghanaian restaurant in Brooklyn. Addo’s clients vary in age and shape, but they skew older and female. There’s Elizabeth Birnbaum, 72, a retired librarian, who loves Addo’s inspirational speeches on the connection between physical and mental health. There’s Diane Harris Brown, 66, who attends his Monday classes and has Parkinson’s disease. 

And there’s Carmen de Lemos-Chiarandini, 77, a former associate research professor and scientist, who had fallen three times in two months before she came to Addo. Two months later, after working on her balance and posture, she was able to rise from her chair without using her hands. She has not fallen since. But Friedman might be his most loyal client. She has private training sessions twice a week, attends a suspension training class, and, she said proudly, “I also do the boot camp.” 

She lives by herself in a one-bedroom apartment around the corner from the gym. A native of Brooklyn, she worked as a medical technologist at a Manhattan hospital and moved into Southbridge Towers when it opened in the early 1970s. She has had trouble lifting her shoulder since a mugging two decades ago, when a man ripped her purse from her shoulder, damaging her rotator cuff. (She said she chased the assailant into the subway; a city worker later returned her purse, and Friedman mailed him a reward check.) 

She thought she was “too old” to work out. But Addo made her comfortable, and after a few months of stretching, massage treatments and suspension training, her shoulder’s range of motion had improved remarkably, she said. On Friedman’s 90th birthday, in March, Addo ended class early for a party. About 25 people, including many women of Friedman’s generation, gathered as Friedman beamed and blew out the candles on a cake provided by Addo. 

Eventually, Addo wants to open more fitness studios and go into acting, like Schwarzenegger. Lately, there has been a buzz in the gym about his arms, which have grown from very large to simply colossal. He recently confirmed that he is training for the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association’s Mr. Universe contest next year. 

Pete Molinelli, a court officer who lives in Southbridge Towers, said the building’s seniors used to be “just kind of shut in.” And then Addo arrived. “All of a sudden, it’s like there are all these new people in the neighbourhood,” Molinelli said. “But no, they’ve been here forever. Addo brought them out.”