Chip Conrad: owner & operator of Bodytribe Fitness in Sacramento
Chip Conrad has done more than create an exercise system, build a business or attract a group of followers. He has forged a discipline of strength and mobility training with a solid and unique philosophical base, drawing worldwide from established basic training techniques and incorporating their time-honored tools, and infusing the discoveries that his intuition, experience, experimentation and dogged research have earned him.
Conrad shares his approach generously and with panache through his gym, traveling workshops, his blog, a book, videos, a growing body of DVDs and conversation anytime, anyplace. So information about his discipline is accessible. What I want to explore in this interview is the man himself. He is the embodiment of his own creation, the creation of his discipline, philosophy and lifestyle; and that is so large and bright that the man himself can vanish in its light. I want to learn about the parts that built the sum, because by understanding the history of the messenger, we are freer to examine the message.
And so we begin.
I. Personal Evolution
What did you want to be when you grew up? Talk about the significant changes to your first vision of your adult future.
Not sure if growing up was something I’d ever fully wanted to do. Once I started playing music when I was 8-ish, and that was a career path of choice for a while. Not one to embrace a standard idea of responsibility (fancy, blame-dodging speak for ‘lazy’), I wanted to rock.
What brought you to exercise? Were you involved in sports, movement or athletics growing up?
I played a season of little league and half a season of soccer, which I quit for choir, which I quit for something I can’t even remember. I wasn’t hopelessly bad at anything, more like radically mediocre… the middle kid to get picked to play. I’d rather thrash around on my BMX, climb trees, hike or simply explore; stuff that didn’t have to always have a winner and loser.
What was your introduction to physical training?
I needed a job and started working at a cross country ski resort when I was 21. I believe my eyes had never set on a pair of cross country skis up until then, but within days I was hooked. I remember my first trip out thinking myself naturally gifted because I covered an entire kilometer. Then I found a map of the resort and realized that there were over 300K worth of trails, and the average skier went out for 10-30k in one session. Oh.
But this new hankerin’ to get better at something, something physical and downright exhausting, was an exciting new trek, and I started embracing the concept of training to increase ability. Guess I haven’t stopped since.
Describe your evolution in training. What did you try, what did you like and develop, what were dead ends for you?
When I first strapped those skinny planks on my feet, I weighed about 127 pounds. Training for xcountry skiing gave my muscles something to do and they responded with a pound or two of extra weight, thanks in part to my voracious eating habits.
A few folks introduced me to a weightroom, and the introduction was so pleasant that within two years I was working in a gym. Oh, the iron bug struck big, but like most folks, my education at that time was limited to the world of bodybuilding magazines and driven more by vanity than anything else. Why should I be 130 pounds when I could be 230 pounds and look like a monster. Chicks dug that sort of thing, right?
Here’s a quick, rather personal insight:
My sexual activity stayed about the same no matter what I weighed. Muscles never got me laid as much as personality (which, thankfully, I can pretend to have when needed).
I never hit 230, by the way. Can’t possibly see how I could, even if I were putting needles in my tush. But it started mattering less and less and my motivation shifted to being able to DO, rather than just look like I could do.
What or who influenced your evolution in movement and training? Who or what has significantly inspired you and driven your thought?
Well a big chunk of my paradigm shift was simply grokking the lessons I had from the folks. Moms and Dads do have a bit of influence, and I think the lessons and support my parents gave this sort of average kid with a lot of imagination seemed to alter my thinking about training when I started asking myself why I was doing what I was doing.
The answer? I hadn’t a clue. Big muscles had no real purpose, despite my dreams of a bolstered self esteem through being bigger. Truth was I wanted to have a purpose behind my training, and that’s when I decided to start figuring our what strength really meant.
You buck the conventional, commercially-driven fitness mentality that is pervasive today. Where you ever involved in it? Did you ever buy into it? Did you cleave away from it, and if so, what was the story?
I was fitness director of a corporate gym for almost a decade. There is no better lesson in how much crap goes on behind the curtain of the fitness industrial industry then having a position of pseudo importance in said industry. There is no actual “fitness” in the fitness industry, and as I was going through a redecorating of the inside of my head to make a more comfortable pad for my spirit, the vacuum of passion and value in the corporate fitness world made it a very inhospitable place.
Do you have formal education in exercise, certifications, did you ever hold related jobs?
I’ve had over a dozen certifications (probably close to 15) and I worked not only for a corporate gym as their ‘fitness director,’ but also for a certifying body, giving the 2-day workshops that allowed people to call themselves ‘certified trainers.’ All of it crap, by the way.
I decided at some point to seek out the people doing the best work and learn directly from them. This eventually led me to the doorstep (literally) of Dr. Mel Siff, considered by many to be the leading brain in exercise physiology and biomechanics at the time.
The physical culture is still a place where we can find mentors and sit at their feet to let their sagacity trickle down to us. It is a tribal-style initiate-teacher scenario that is too rare in our modern scholastic hierarchy. I worked with a few folks like this and learned more than any college would even come close to offering. In fact I have yet to meet anyone fresh out of school (no matter how big the degree) who actually knows how to train anyone.
Are any of your family members deliberately physical? How has your family reacted to your path?
The parents were a bit surprised, mostly because I never stuck with anything for any length of time. 16 years with this particular passion (including my books and DVDs) seems to have finally convinced them I might be into something this time. Also I have the dreaded role of making people feel guilty just through my career. Who the hell wants to eat with a trainer?
How have your life goals changed since you decided to open Bodytribe?
Ya can’t change something you don’t really have, and up until I started developing the Bodytribe concept, I was a bit aimless. It takes the defining of a passion to completely own it, to become complete with it, and when I finally gave words to what I was feeling about all this movement and strength stuff, paths unfurled in front of me.
What is your vision for your empire now? Is your gym the top priority? How do you prioritize your gym with your related endeavors – writing, producing DVDs, the documentary you are filming now?
The TRIBE is the priority… the extended family of folks who grok what I do and what Bodytribe means. So much of my mission seems to be simply showing better alternatives to what is currently offered. From the fitness industrial complex tothe modern physical culture movement, folks limit themselves WAY to quickly. The first thing to be abandoned as adults who are engaged in movement again in their lives is creativity. Instead we trust our time, ducats and self-respect to modern day gurus called trainers, living free thought and our concept of frolic at home.
Something deep in our souls is vehemently screaming towards the surface of consciousness that we need movement… intense, glorious movement, sine qua non! But somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we identify movement and strength with work, not the kind of work that puts food on the table and a big screen on our walls, but the uncomfortable kind that reeks of obligation and pain. That screaming from our souls is so muffled, we feel it more than we hear it, and only in brief moments of introspection. We know it is important, but we don’t get that it is US, not something beyond us.
So when we finally make the decision as adults to once again embark on a movement quest, our immediate, media-basted lexicon isn’t full of words like ‘passion’ or ‘fun’ when thinking about fitness. In fact we want to think as little as possible, so we simply hand ourselves over the an industry that seems shiny and exciting but is actually incredibly droll, sort of icky, and in many cases, nothing short of creepy. Folks who have very little knowledge about the history or passion of fitness are the educators your average gym member has to rely on to create change in their lives. That seems like an empty quest.
And this is seeping into the groovy little Narnia I call the Physical SubCulture. With CrossFits opening like Starbucks and anyone with a laptop offering up their words of wisdom through forums, blogs and websites, there are a growing number of folks who started off a decent path, but decided to teach before they even began to learn. I like the enthusiasm, but shut up and listen for a while. Learn your history. Go sit at the feet of the masters and ASK SOME FUCKING QUESTIONS! And, for the love of all things heavy, get under a damn bar and do some things with it for a big chunk of your life before you feel it your duty to put your word (or, in most of these cases, someone else’s word) out as gospel.
In other words, there is now a frightening vacuum of creativity in the modern physical culture movement as there is in the corporate gym world. Hyperbole seems alive and well in both camps, whether it’s a million member gym chain, or a lump of metal on the ground called a kettlebell or an eating program fit for a caveman, the sheep are flocking around and the brains are being left at home.
And we’re taking it all too seriously. That’s the ultimate mistake.
Competition photos of Chip taken by Allyson Goble at Tommy Kono Open V 2010