Seis Continentes / Fall 2003
By Larry Luxner
PARKLAND, Fla. — Colombian bodybuilder-turned-biochemist Marco Ossa is clearly Latin America's answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At 46, Ossa is perhaps the region's best-known personal trainer, helping celebrities from one-time Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona to Mario Kreutzberger — a.k.a. Don Francisco — get themselves into shape. He won the Mr. Latin America title in 1982 and the Mr. Universe title nine years later, and proudly holds the international record for the leg press: 1,250 pounds, or 14 twenty-five-pound "plates" on each side.
Ossa has also conducted training seminars with Schwarzenegger and has made dozens of TV appearances on CNN, Telemundo, Fox Sports and Univisión.
Unlike the new governor of California, however, Ossa decided long ago that his future lay not in politics but in business. Today, the muscular Cali native is profiting handsomely from his three books on fitness, not to mention his own line of nutritional supplements and his steady stream of high-priced clients.
Besides Maradona, the list of famous people Ossa has trained includes boxing champion Evander Holyfield, karate's Robert Fletcher and tennis star Michael Chang. He's also worked with Argentine pianist Raúl di Blasio, supermodel Niki Taylor and talk-show personality Cristina Saralegui.
"Most of the time, they see me in TV interviews and call me," Ossa told Seis Continentes during a recent interview at his luxurious five-bedroom home/office in Parkland, a ritzy new suburb northwest of Fort Lauderdale.
"I'm very popular with the jet set," he boasted. "Some people say I'm the most expensive trainer in the world."
In fact, Ossa charges anywhere from $150 to $5,000 per session, depending on the intensity and length of the workout and, of course, the client's ability to pay. "In the case of professional athletes, we set up a contract that works out to $1,000 to $2,000 a day," he said. "People come to get my advice. Usually, the regular one-hour consultation is $275. In the case of models, when they're preparing a calendar, I usually train them six months before the pictures."
Born in the Colombian city of Cali, Ossa trained as a swimmer for almost two years, but then switched to martial arts because he was fascinated with Bruce Lee.
"The problem for me was that I was pretty skinny. That's why I decided to start learning what's going on with people's bodies. I began bodybuilding at age 16 and learned how important nutrition was."
After getting his biochemistry degree from Cali's Universidad del Valle in 1980, he left Colombia and settled in the Fort Lauderdale area. Eventually he began working with the International Sports Science Association, giving seminars and certifying personal trainers. Along the way, he also earned a Ph.D. in nutrition.
While nutrition is like fingerprints — everybody's different, he says, "my general advice is, first of all, don't believe in a bunch of garbage. You should eat six small meals a day, spaced three hours apart. Basically every meal should have at least 30% protein, 60% complex carbohydrates and 10% fat."
To get that protein, Ossa recommends tuna fish, eggs and his own brand of protein powder, which can be mixed with milk or water and supplies 48% of the average daily protein requirement. The stuff costs $27.99 for a one-pound container, and may be ordered through the Internet — along with all of Ossa's other products — at www.wissusa.com.
"The most important thing is to take a good multivitamin, an antioxidant and protein powder," he said. "People should be very careful with carbs, since they're the energy you're supposed to use every three hours. So if you're not gonna work hard, don't eat carbs. And if you don't eat enough protein every three hours, you lose muscle."
Asked about creatine — a controversial supplement designed to give weightlifters and athletes extra energy — Ossa said the substance should be used with caution.
"Creatine is good, but you have to drink enough water or you'll have kidney problems," he said. "People should drink 10 to 15 glass of water a day anyway."
Nutrition is "70% of the game," but exercise and workouts are important too.
"Probably 90% of people don't know how to exercise. They make mistakes when they go to the gym because they don't have professional advice. That's why sometimes they join a gym, go for a week, don't see results and quit. But when you know how to train and you have a professional on your side, you don't need to spend more than one hour every other day. But you have to know what to do."
"Usually I don't recommend more than two big muscles a day," he said. "Running is very good, but if you don't push yourself enough, you'll never be able to reverse the damage that's been built up for years."
Ossa described his own workout routine: "I do no more than three different exercises per muscle, and between 8 and 10 reps per set. Mondays, I train chest and triceps, Tuesdays I train my legs, calves and abs, and Wednesdays I rest. Thursdays, I train my back and biceps, and Fridays my shoulders, abs and calves. I also run on a treadmill for half an hour every day."
Ossa says men should aim for a body mass index (BMI) of 15-20%, while women should keep within the 20-25% range. Ossa's own BMI these days is an enviable 8-10%.
"The point is not to lose weight. It's to lose fat, gain muscular tissue and recuperate the cardiovascular system. Never think about losing weight, because when you try to do that, you lose muscle."
The problem is particularly serious with children in this country, nearly half of whom are considered overweight. For that reason, Ossa's company has a special line of bodybuilding products specially for kids.
As a way to expound on his nutritional advice while furthering his own business interests, Ossa has written two Spanish-language books — "Cardio Resistencia" and "Los Diez Mejores Secretas para Estar en Forma" — and is now finishing his third: "El Gran Error de Hacer Dietas." The books have been widely promoted throughout Latin America.
Ossa's Puerto Rican-born wife Gladys (they met at a disco in Fort Lauderdale) manages the couple's growing publishing and nutritional supplements empire while taking care of their two children, 12-year-old Jessica and 3-year-old Marco Jr.
"After my third book, I think I'll work with kids," said the famous bodybuilder, then added with a wink: "Probably in 10 years I'll be governor of Florida."