Interview with Chip Conrad
By Jim Wendler

A couple of weeks ago, I contacted Chip Conrad of Body Tribe Fitness as a result of him filling out the EliteFTS Coaches and Trainers Survey. What caught my eye was the passion he had as well as a couple of references to Jello Biafra. I knew this was going to be an interesting talk.

I did a little research on Body Tribe Fitness and Chip. Located in Sacramento, California, Body Tribe Fitness is not your everyday, normal gym. It is a gym that hangs art on the wall and celebrates physical movement. There are no mirrors in the gym and they believe in total body movement; this includes deadlifts, kettlebells, squats and other big movements. As long as you are healthy, you are going to be part of the program. There is a CD changer in the gym that plays such things as jazz, rock and metal. This is not your normal gym.

Chip worked for years in a corporate gym. It was all about bringing people in the door and getting their money. He wanted something different and decided to open his own gym.

After exchanging pleasantries, Chip and I talk music. He is a drummer in several different bands and has a complete recording set up in the back of his gym. We talked of Celtic Frost and the great Morbid Tales; Stewart Copeland, the Misfits (both of our first Misfits’ experiences were Legacy of Brutality) and the Melvins. Needless to say, I was impressed and inspired by his passion for music, life and training. Below is taken from our conversation as well as the EFS survey.

EFS: Thanks for taking some time out of your busy day. First, what coach has had the most impact on you?

Chip: There are two people that have deeply influenced me: Mel Siff and Dan John. Dr. Mel Siff was my mentor and friend for almost three years before he died. His approach, no matter what that actual brilliant content of his lecture or conversation, was meant to teach the listener how to learn. That, beyond the loads of information I received from him was the most important lesson I ever learned.

EFS: Tell us something about Mel Siff that would surprise us.

Chip: One of the first things we taught me was what he called, “potty training.” This is what he called learning how to squat. Such a basic, simple movement. I believe that the first two chapters of Supertraining are essential for anyone in the sport of strength. It is required reading for all of my staff.

EFS: What has Dan John taught you?

Chip: Dan John once posted the Ten Commandments for lifting. Number 9 was always my favorite: Put the bar on the ground and pick it up a bunch of different ways. In other words, forget numbers, forget weight, forget 'routine' just pick up the goddamn bar and do something with it. And if there isn't a bar, grab something else, your Great Dane, a Volkswagen, a copy of Atlas Shrugged (or is that to close to a Mike Mentzer reference?) and do something with it. Strength and conditioning could be considered empowered movement, and there is an art and science to it. More coaches have to start thinking from an artistic point of view, while always increasing their education of the science. Never stop learning and applying. From Zatsiorsky and his numbers and charts to Kubick or Steve Justa and their daring to throw away convention and just grab something heavy, there are no limits.

EFS: What is Body Tribe Fitness? It seems like it’s more than just a gym.

Chip: Anyone who works with me or any of the trainers at my facility is introduced to our philosophy during our initial meeting. This involves describing some basic tenets of what we call the physical subculture. Here is the handout we go over with them (yeah, it's long... but you asked): What is Physical Subculture? The body is a tool for greater purpose, not just the end result of your training. Therefore, training is the means to in increase of the quality of life through movement. The Physical Culture movement of a century ago was the modern organized effort to incorporate centuries of physical rituals and beliefs in exercise and movement as an integral part of all aspects of culture. Whether through lifting heavy objects of all shapes and sizes or finding new ways to move the body by itself, the Physical Culture movement was about strengthening the spirit through pushing the limits of the body. Since then the Culture went underground, since more money could be made from trying to sell the futile quest for aesthetic perfection, exploiting exercise as the new snake oil for ‘beauty.’ Eventually a new and very limited view of exercise and training emerged; the obligatory path to a better appearance. Marketing and promoting of exercise as the tool for simple appearance helped usher in decades of self image woes and issues that have created entire industries to both feed and cure low self esteem (and give therapists job security for centuries). The formula was easy, and is still used today (look at any ‘health and fitness’ magazine cover). Here’s the equation that has proven an effective money maker for many years: You are ugly. We can help. This marketing formula sure works better in our society then trying to sell the Physical Culture concept of movement, being that physical strength and performance increase other qualities of life as well. As Bernarr MacFadden used as a slogan for his Physical Culture magazine that he started in 1899, “Weakness is a Crime - Don't be a Criminal.” Movement should be integral to our existence, but not through the obligation of aesthetics. Since then, the performance and ability of the body, which has a direct and strong impact on the spirit and mind, soon took a minor role in training. Today, the fitness industry is a sham; selling gadgets, supplements, and imagery, not actual exercise or function. Curves, 24-Hour Fitness, and their kin, promote and perpetuate aesthetic stereotypes while providing very little in REAL exercise science or training. The mere fact that there are such things as ‘ab’ machines just proves how silly the industry has become. But the Physical Culture movement has always been around. It just may be hard to find these days. It has become a subculture, a movement forcing the mainstream to evaluate what training really is. So what is the Physical Subculture? It is a passion for strength, not an obligation of the scale. It is training without mirrors and understanding the mind and spirit better through movement. It’s picking up something heavy; really heavy. No fear of the body’s abilities. It’s about using REAL training tools with long histories. No gadgets or fads. You must embrace training as focused, intense play-time. Acknowledging and exploring capability.

EFS: Wow. That’s quite an explanation.

Chip: Like I said, you asked.

EFS: What kind of people do you train?

Chip: We train everyone and anyone. We have a lot of “regular” people that are sick and tired of the normal gyms. We also have a lot of athletes and powerlifters. We host and compete in APA powerlifting meets. What I’ve found about powerlifting is that it is one of the most supportive sports that I have ever been involved with. It embodies what training and fitness is all about: making yourself the best you can be, not what someone else wants you to be.

EFS: What about mistakes- what can we learn from yours?

Chip: Failing to realize my mistakes. If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over expecting different results, then if something isn't working to the degree I want it to, I need to stop being insane. Although I have no idea what this 'box' is that everyone is supposed to think outside of, I need to sometimes hop off a path and climb a tree. The perspective would then shift and I would see more opportunity. Now do I win cliché points?

EFS: That’s a great analogy – “Screw the box and climb a tree”. Now that’s something different. What about weaknesses? Are they always physical?

Chip: Not at all. The biggest weakness that I see is not having fun. Our athletic endeavors should simply be an extension of ourselves, another limb of our personalities, affecting all aspects of our lives in a positive manor. 'Fun' can mean painful, intense, and dangerous. But if it ever gets too serious, if the initial element of play, of excitement turns into the troll of obligation, then the athlete has the biggest weakness of them all staring him in the face.

EFS: You opened up your own training facility; something many of our readers would love to do. What advice would you give someone that is looking to do what you do?

Chip: If you don't have a passion and a strong understanding of your own philosophy, stop! Just because you can explain a box squat to someone doesn't give you the right to jump into this saturated and diluted market. I explain at the beginning of every workshop I teach to other trainers that this isn't a 'service industry.' I treat my gym like a sanctuary for the training ritual. And, like a sanctuary or church, I don't bend my philosophy to fit a clients needs. They come to my gym because they believe and understand the lessons I have to teach. If anyone gets into this industry, they need to approach it as that of a scholar and educator, not someone's paid-for servant. Important side note: The best scholars are those who always learn themselves.

EFS: Thanks for your time and we appreciate your input.