Physical subculture

Chip Conrad, owner of Bodytribe Fitness, gets local artists to lift something other than a cup of coffee

Photo By Larry Dalton

Peer into the dimly lit storefront at 920 21st Street on any random weeknight. Paintings hang from the walls, plants surround a sofa in the corner, and rock music is on the stereo. A handful of downtown denizens, mostly musicians and artists, will be inside, but they won’t be drinking coffee or chatting. Instead, you’ll see them lifting heavy things and carrying them around the room. Although it may seem an unlikely setting—with rockers and painters exercising—it makes perfect sense to Chip Conrad, owner of Bodytribe Fitness.

“There’s no movement in today’s culture,” observed Conrad, “especially in my peer group. I generally think of the musicians and artists and everybody that makes up the downtown scene as a pretty smart bunch, but they’re tragically out of shape.”

Conrad, 34, is clean-cut and friendly, and muscular but not intimidating, and he has remarkably good posture. He’s played drums since grade school and has been an exercise enthusiast since his early 20s. He’s held various jobs in the fitness industry over the past decade, including a stint as the fitness director of Mid-Town Athletic Club, but he never found himself in an environment that stimulated both the brain and the body.

“I realized that when I work out with a certain level of intensity, my brain is on fire. My soul is ready to produce, to create,” said Conrad. “It’s hard to notice [at a normal gym] because of the neon lights and spandex and cell phones.”

So, Conrad left his fitness-director position in 2003 to found Bodytribe Fitness. Besides a strict “no cell phones” rule, the most obvious difference between Bodytribe and other gyms is the décor. Floor-standing lamps have replaced overhead neon lights, and the only mirror to be found is in the bathroom. “I don’t want to look at myself in a mirror,” Conrad said. “I want to look at somebody else’s expression, somebody else’s soul.”

The atmosphere that Conrad has fostered at Bodytribe is a welcome alternative for people who don’t want to put on makeup to go to the gym. It attracts a clientele to which health and fitness are important, but achieving the Baywatch body type might not be. The lack of mirrors is as much to make people feel comfortable as it is to help them concentrate.

“So many people avoid the gym because they think it’s a place for pretty people,” Conrad said, “which is silly, because the people that need the gym the most avoid it, and that’s a shame. That’s why Bodytribe has no mirrors. If someone comes into the gym and already has body-image woes—and we all do—then you have to get rid of the mirrors. I don’t care about what people look like when they come to my gym. And I want them to not care either, at least for that hour.”

Conrad feels that there is a misconception, both in the minds of artists and in the general public alike, about the role of the body and exercise in relation to creativity. “In the artistic community, it seems to be cool to be tragic and unhealthy. That’s how people think they have to express themselves. I call it Bukowski syndrome. You don’t have to spend your whole life on a barstool to be expressive.”

In the right environment, Conrad believes, exercise can promote creativity. “Frankly, if done correctly, movement can inspire and create, and make your brain and soul come alive,” he said enthusiastically. “I can’t imagine sitting around doing nothing and then feeling like I want to create. I have to be active in order to create.”

In addition to building a healthy environment for the coffee-shop crowd, Conrad seeks to attract fitness novices who are intimidated by big, bright gyms full of beautiful people and complicated-looking machines.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Traditional gym equipment, for a beginner, is freaky and overwhelming,” he said. “There are all these machines and dangling chains, and most people don’t know what to do. [People] think that exercise is limited to … what they learned in gym class back in junior high school. I think that people need to understand that it can be fun and exciting. My gym is essentially full of toys.”

There are no rows of exercise machines or lines of stationary bikes inside Bodytribe. Although weight training and cardio play an important role in Conrad’s exercise regimen, he prefers movements that involve large muscle groups, and often the whole body at once. His goal isn’t just to create a body that looks strong, but to create a body that actually is strong and can function properly.

Consider the windmill, an exercise that requires a person to bend over and alternately touch each foot with the opposite hand. “When I do a certain type of exercise, like a windmill,” said Conrad, “people ask me, ‘What does this work?’ When you think about it, it works pretty much everything. My spine is involved, my shoulder, hips and legs. There’s a lot going on in a windmill, and that’s the kind of movement I like—the kind that is big. Not a lot of isolation movements.”

Throughout the past 100 years, mainstream exercise has shifted its focus away from functional bodies toward pretty bodies. Isolated movements like bicep curls may create bigger arms but not actually improve the arms’ performance.

“There’s gym training, which you see all around, the kind of thing you learned in junior-high gym class,” Conrad observed. “And then there’s athletic training, where coaches train people with large lifts, heavy lifts, fast lifts. They don’t fear using speed or using the whole body. They don’t bother with silly little isolation lifts. … For some reason, those two worlds have been very separate. You don’t see athletic-style training in normal gyms.”

Conrad’s exercise philosophy is rooted in the physical-culture movement. Popular in Europe and America in the mid-1800s and early 20th century, physical culture is a school of exercise that focuses on large motions that work the entire body to the fullest of its ability. “Physical culture was the pursuit of strength and health before the word ‘fitness’ ever became vogue,” Conrad explained. “I realized that athletic training … is going to create the best body, the most functional and best-looking body. I think that people that look strong actually look the best. Why look strong if you can’t actually do anything?”

NaturalStrength, a Web site for physical-culture enthusiasts (at, proclaims, “We Build Muscle The Olde Fashioned Way … We EARN It!” In addition to articles on exercise, nutrition and drug-free strength training, the site features a historical gallery with photos of people picking really heavy things up off the ground.

Conrad regularly brings such modern feats of strength to Bodytribe by hosting frequent powerlifting events. “The powerlifting community has done worlds for exercise science,” Conrad said. “The mainstream fitness community sees powerlifters as just a bunch of dumb guys that want to lift a lot of weight. But, in reality, the powerlifters have studied for years on how to get strong. So, there’s this whole world of strength and speed, and the fitness community knows nothing about it. I want to be the bridge between the two worlds.”

A traditional powerlifting competition centers around three lifts: bench press, squat and dead lift. The dead lift, when a person lifts a barbell off the floor and stands upright, is a personal favorite of Conrad’s. “I think it’s the most important lift on the planet,” he said. “It’s how we should lift everything. The dead lift not only works more muscles than most other lifts; it’s functional. It’s the most important thing anybody should learn: how to pick something up off the ground without hurting themselves. And yet, most trainers don’t teach it and don’t know how to teach it. They say it’s bad for your back. But if you have a bad back, you’d better know how to dead-lift, or you’re going to hurt yourself time and time again.

“I have a 51-year-old woman that’s going to be competing in my powerlifting meet,” added Conrad. “She’s a bad ass. She can pull 200 pounds off the ground, and she’s not freaky-muscley. She’s a good-looking woman that can pick 200 pounds up off the ground.” (Incidentally, the grandmother of three won her division at the meet.)

Bodytribe often holds powerlifting competitions on the same day as the Second Saturday art walk. According to Conrad, “We’ll do a Second Saturday event two hours after a powerlifting meet. Powerlifting all day, then clean up really fast and do an art show.”

Being an art gallery is just another unconventional aspect of Bodytribe’s offerings. “I’ve been an ‘art walker’ for several years and have a strong appreciation for visual expression but very little talent for it,” Conrad admitted. “We had our grand opening on a Second Saturday and have done every show since, with miscellaneous, non-Second Saturday music and art shows thrown in for good measure.

“The art shows and live music are, philosophically, a wonderful extension of Bodytribe,” Conrad summarized. “My goal is not to make sure that somebody does all 10 bicep curls or whatever. I want to get people to move, and I want them to have a sense of play in their life.”