If you’ve ever taken a run around McCarren Park track, the chances are you’ll know Kiki. Kiki Morris has been a regular fixture at the northwest corner of the track for almost 18 years and is one of the most well-loved figures in the neighborhood. He trains people in the park every day of the week and is greeted by pretty much everyone who passes by. Mothers with strollers come up and say hi, NYPD cars slow down on Driggs to honk and wave, shirtless muscle-rippling joggers remove their earbuds and stop for a chat, and little kids run over and high-five him. It’s no wonder he’s earned himself the unofficial title of Mayor of McCarren and the official title of Village Voice’s ‘best outdoor personal trainer in NYC’.
Kiki’s training routine is called Traditional Tribal Fitness and is adapted from techniques his grandfather taught him during his childhood in Ghana. It’s an all round workout to strengthen the body and, whilst its physical results are what people sign up for, it’s Kiki’s endless positivity and motivational skills that keep them coming back week on week, year on year.
I started training with Kiki about two years ago and his classes have totally transformed my morning routine, leaving me feeling alert, fresh-headed and ready to face the day. The workout is always different but usually includes some cardio (skipping, running, squats, lunges etc.), some strength training (boxing, hand weights, rope-wrangling, resistance bands) and a good amount of core work. As we motor through sets of crunches, planks, bicycles, leg lifts and throw-downs, all the while Kiki is giving us words of encouragement: “Come on my sister, summer is coming”…”It’s okay family, I got your back”…”Okay, what you’re doing is good…it’s just not really really good!”
The best thing about the class is that it brings together people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, all united by the shared goal of wanting to stay fit, and the knowledge that Kiki is the one we can rely on to make this happen.
Recently I sat down with Kiki after class to hear about how he got started in the business and why fitness is the key to a long life.
GP: Kiki, your African Farmers Workout is amazing and has made you the most popular guy in McCarren Park. How did it all begin?
Kiki: I grew up in west Ghana and when I was eight years old my grandfather used to wake me up in the morning and take me to work with him at the farm. I’d carry firewood, run, and do push-ups to grow strong, and when I turned nine he taught me to box. To begin with it was hard because I was so little, but he continued to push me until one day I got used to it and started to like it. I worked out with him every day until I was about 16. At that time my mother moved to Canada. I went to visit her and didn’t like it, but the second time I visited Canada, I stayed. I went to school there, and I never went back to live in Ghana, but I continued to work out, adapting all the things my grandfather had taught me at the farm.
GP: So how did you end up in McCarren Park?
Kiki: In my early twenties my mother got a job over here at the United Nations, so we came to New York and I moved to the East Village. I studied for my certification in physical education and started teaching at some gyms and training some clients in East River Park. At the time I had a girlfriend who lived by McCarren. I fell in love with the park and eventually moved over here and started training people on the track. My girlfriend had to move away for work, but I couldn’t leave as I loved it here too much And since then a lot people have joined me to work out. NY Times and Village Voice have written articles on me and I slowly I’ve become one of the fixtures of McCarren park. This park is like my home.
GP: How has the neighborhood changed since you started training here?
Kiki: When I started working out in McCarren about 17 years ago, it was a very different place. There wasn’t really anyone here, there was just a dirt track, and I was the only person doing classes. A few older people would walk around, and some people would play sports, but it was nothing like today. There were no lights and it was very dark at night, so there was still quite a bit of crime. But then they started to come and fix things up around here and the park began to change. Now I’m really happy because so many people are getting into fitness. Now people come and workout and enjoy what we’re doing and I’m really excited about that. And now I have to come at five in the morning to be the only one here!
GP: So you work out early every morning and each evening too. What time do you go to bed?!
Kiki: I go to bed at 10pm, I get up at 4.30am each day.
GP: Wow! Is getting up early your biggest challenge?
Kiki: My biggest challenge is getting people to commit. You’ve got to keep working out. I understand that with work it’s not always so easy and in America you gotta work to pay the bills, but it’s important to commit for the sake of your health. Even if you don’t come to work out with me…at least do 10 minutes’ workout in your house. And if you keep doing that, you’re always going to be in good shape.
GP: And so what’s the best thing to do if you only have 10 minutes?
Kiki: If you only have 10 minutes: do some jumping jacks to get your heart rate up, do leg lifts and bicycle for your core, and then you can go to work. That’s all you need.
GP: And what’s the best exercise to do if you want to get a flat stomach in time for summer?!
Kiki: You can’t just get a flat stomach with one exercise. You’ve gotta do everything: crunches…leg lifts…bicycle…plank. You’ve got to do them all to get the core tight because there’s a lot of muscle inside there.
GP: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
Kiki: The most rewarding part of the job is to see people looking strong. Running can make you lose weight but it can’t make you strong on its own. You gotta be in shape. (Someone calls across the track: “Bye Kiki”…”I see you when?…tomorrow? Okay now. Bye bye now”.) I love seeing how working out brings people together. It makes people strong, it makes them feel healthy and energized.
GP: Your grandfather is now 90. What would you say is the key to a good, long life?
Kiki: The key to a long life is keeping active. Good food, good rest, a lot of water, a lot of green stuff. A little wine, a little sex. Everything is good for you in moderation. And chew raw ginger. Ginger is good for you because it cleans your immune system. I never get colds or blocked sinuses because I chew it every day, not just if I’m getting sick. The human body is not meant to get sick. We’re like a machine, so you’ve got to take care of the machine all the time. Too many people wait to get sick before they try and defend themselves.
Wake up in the morning and do some exercise before you eat every day. If you exercise your core every day you’re gonna stay strong, you’ll always look good and you’ll never get sick. When you workout before you go to work, I think it makes your day much better. To wake up in the morning…workout…feel good…I think that’s the best thing.
GP: Thank you Kiki. You are the best!
Kiki is at the Driggs and Union corner of the McCarren Park track every morning between 7-10am and evenings between 6-8pm. For more info on his classes you can check out his website or just swing by the park and say hi!