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are you useful chip conrad
I met Chip Conrad in October, during a weekend workshop in New York City. He stood in front of a room of trainers and coaches teaching his philosophy of fitness. I listened intently, fascinated that someone was actually talking about the “Why.” I hear about it a lot, especially on podcasts where coaches are talking about getting their clients to focus on weight loss. But it never really felt genuine. Chip, on the other hand, really wanted to go there. Who cares about what you can do in the gym, if it doesn’t carry over to the rest of your life? If your workout routine doesn’t make you a better person? If it doesn’t help you connect deeply with your tribe? No one’s really having this conversation. I wanted more.

And later that year, he published a book: “Are You Useful?” So, I had to read it.

For lifters who think

The subtitle: a freethinker’s guide to creating a philosophy of strength, lets you know right away that you’re going to be challenged. He waits for the first chapter to start railing on what he calls the Fitness Industrial Complex. Do you have a purpose? A program? Or are you just working out to get tired? Does your training have a positive impact not only on yourself, but your community? If not, then Chip has got some food for thought. How can you make meaning out of the work you do in the gym, beyond adding another 5 lb to your deadlift?

Useful. To do something productive and meaningful. We are a culture who values busy-ness, but not so much usefulness. How many meetings have you gone to this week that have had an efficient and constructive outcome. Yeah, I thought so. So, are you useful? Are you a nice person? Do you take care of yourself? Do you care about others? Do you contribute to your community? These are the questions Chip wants you to be asking, and then, asking of your fitness routine. Does your fitness routine make you a better person?

There are certainly more questions than answers in this book and that’s where I see the value. Reading it might make you curious, it might make you mad, it might make you question what you’re doing. And I think those are all good things. If your trend-of-the-moment workout class is just another box to check in the daily schedule, if it adds rather than subtracts stress from your life, if it doesn’t make you functionally better, then maybe you could reconsider. Why are you going? What purpose does it serve for you? You won’t find the answers in these pages, but you will figure it out. We all can’t train with Chip in Sacramento, but if we could, even his gym wouldn’t fit the needs of everybody. And that’s kind of the point. We all have different personalities, different needs, different motivations. There is something for everyone out there and it is your job to ask the hard questions and follow your “why” to the right gym (or dojo or studio or playground or whatever).

Key points

Each chapter is short, and the whole book reads like a somewhat structured stream-of-consciousness tome. But there are a few main themes that come up again and again. I won’t give it all away, but here are three things that really struck a chord with me.

“You matter. Treat yourself accordingly.”

This is one of my favorite quotes in the book. I can’t tell you how many people, mostly medical professionals, who spend all of their days caring for other people and do not prioritize self-care. They come to me looking to fill the “exercise” slot and get on with the rest of their day, but they haven’t truly learned how to take care of their own needs. By asking yourself some of the questions in this book, you can learn why and how to take care of yourself, even if it means thinking differently. The fitness industry makes money off of telling you how not good enough you are, so it is challenging to break this mindset! You matter. You’re good enough. Push past the marketing messaging and find a good fit for your needs. You may find it in a traditional gym, an adult sports league, a martial arts center or on a hiking trail. Or, none of the above. You may need to forge your own way…

Play more

To almost everyone I see, movement is exercise. “I got my exercise today!” after Bob carries his groceries to the car, or whatever. It’s a thing we do with a singular value. Whew, check that off the list, now I can sit down the rest of the day. On the other end of the spectrum, Laura heads off to the mega-gym to do a grueling HIIT-cycle-pi-yo class and then slumps in the corner pounding a protein shake and posting to Instagram. “Ugh, survived another workout. So sweaty! #fitspiration” I’m not the only one who noticed. In “Are You Useful,” Chip points out the mindset change that happens sometime in our adolescent years:

“A switch is flipped, sometime in our lives, where movement turns from joy to obligation, from recess to a workout. Movement, which was the territory of the body, switches to the territory of the brain.”

There is inherent value in play: the joy of exploration, the challenge of overcoming obstacles, the creativity of engaging with other humans. When was the last time you incorporated play into your workout? The book encourages free play, but also play with some underlying structure and measurement. You can integrate the foundations of training with the boundless expression of play. Just watch any of Chip’s videos and you’ll see this guy likes to play.

Build your movement skills

“How many muscle-ups do you need to be able to do?” Chip asked at our workshop. No one got the right answer. It’s one. One muscle-up. Once you’re up there, you can transition to doing other skills. Now, he faced a lot of flack for giving this answer. In a room full of fitness professionals, people argued over how many reps they could do or wanted to be able to do. Check the daily workout at your hardcore neighborhood gym and people will be flailing on rep after rep of muscle-ups. But why? What’s the point? Once you’ve mastered that skill, it’s time to move on.

Note: I can’t do one muscle-up. Yet. So, if you’re rolling your eyes, hey I’m with you too. It’s not a skill I’m working on right now. Oh hey you can use that line the next time someone asks you about your muscle-ups!

There’s a big emphasis on skill in this book. Chip keeps it simple: stand, rise, fall, crawl and flow. Crawling is like, super popular right now. But it’s only a part of the big picture. Are you proficient in all these skills at a level that is appropriate for you? Let’s take one skill, falling. I love this one because it’s not a favorite of Instagram celebrities but it’s a damn important skill to have. No matter your age, you’ve got to be skilled at falling if you want to avoid injury in case you do fall. How do you land and absorb the impact of your fall so you don’t shatter your bones and become incapacitated? This is teachable, and an integral part of any strength program. Think jumping, rolling and landing on various parts of the body.

Buy this book

There is much, much more between the covers of this book but I’d rather leave the rest to you. It’s a book you’ll need to read a few times. It will force you to answer some uncomfortable questions. Most of all it will inspire you to assess your current approach to fitness and make changes for the better. I hope you’ll read it and share it with others in your life.

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Personal trainer, student of movement, and outdoor explorer in the Pacific Northwest
    • Aaron
    • March 21, 2017

    Great review and article. Reinforced some things for me and gave me a few thoughts in other areas I hadn’t considered. I might need to borrow that book 🙂

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