Chris Ruden looks like a tough guy, a bodybuilder with a physique that makes you embarrassed that you don’t work out more. When he tells you he’s on target for getting into the Guinness Book of World Records for breaking a weightlifting record—640 pounds at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, held in March—it isn’t that surprising.
That is, until he reveals, humbly, that the record is for the strongest deadlift by a disabled person.
Disabled? Well, Ruden would rather be called something else. He has a symbol tattooed on his chest. It means “I’m adaptive,” the Coconut Creek resident says. “Disability means dis-abled, like you can’t do something. But I’ve had to adapt my whole life.”
The 26-year-old with sculpted muscles, a perfect smile and model looks was born with a congenital defect. He always wears a powerlift glove on his left hand, where he is missing three fingers. His left arm is also shorter than his right.
He enters competitions that don’t have special categories for the disabled. To lift, he uses a hook on his left hand. Some competitions, because of the hook, won’t allow him to compete.
“They say I have an unfair advantage,” Ruden says.
The strongman laughs at the irony. At the same time, he enjoys being that “imperfect image.”
“People will say to me, ‘Man, you look good,’ but they don’t understand the struggles I’ve had,” he says. “They don’t know the years of failure, mistakes and depression, and all the problems that came with it.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. The last thing Ruden would want is for anyone to feel sorry for him.
When he was a kid growing up in Pompano Beach, he didn’t know he was different. “My parents sheltered me,” he says. “I was in a Christian school, and everyone knew me; we had all grown up together. It wasn’t until the school closed and I switched schools that people started to make fun of me.”
In middle school, he says he was bullied: “I didn’t want to tell my parents because I was afraid of how it would make them feel.” At Pompano Beach High School, playing drums and breakdancing took the focus off of what others saw made him different. “I started being known as the kid who was disabled but did all this crazy stuff.” Part of that “crazy” was drinking a lot and partying, he says. When he started college at Florida Atlantic University, his personality and entrepreneurial spirit had him running collegiate party buses. “But there was too much drinking,” he says, “too many substances.”
At 19, Ruden was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. During a three-day stay in the hospital, he decided it was time to turn his life around. “The first day in the hospital, I was upset and thinking, ‘Why did this happen? I already have a disability. Why do I have to have an additional disease?’ And then diabetes kicked me in the face,” he says. Thinking back to the books he had read, he remembered one phrase: You teach best what you need to learn the most. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should help other people in order to help myself.’ ”
Quicker than he could jump out of the hospital bed, he changed his major at FAU from pre-law to exercise science. He started an exercise training business, and it took off. Then there were the certifications, one right after the other. “I couldn’t accept just going to school for four years to get a degree, so I got every specialization and certification possible.”
As a personal trainer at YouFit Health Clubs, he was assigned clients who had chronic conditions. “I was more than familiar with that, you know?” he says.
He began to notice he could influence people’s outcomes by helping them improve their mobility. “I worked with a kid for six months who had cerebral palsy, and I watched him run on the beach for the first time,” Ruden says. “I had an 85-year-old woman who had relapsed twice from cancer. She couldn’t even get out of a chair, but after a few months, I had her standing. She wrote to the company to say, ‘Chris gave me my life back.’ ”
At YouFit, he climbed the corporate ladder, but he felt lost.
Weightraining had turned to powerlifting competitions. After attending a competition in Texas, he decided that when he returned to Florida, he was going to quit his job and focus on his own business.
Now, through his own company, Ruden coaches, trains and instructs people, most with chronic conditions, about fitness and nutrition. He has clients from as far away as South Africa and Australia. “Sure, it’s great to go to a gym and get a trainer for three hours a week, but what about the [rest of the week]? When you train online, you’ve made the decision that you are going to do the work yourself.”
With 35,000 followers on Instagram, more than 100,000 views on YouTube for the video “7 Fingered Diabetic Powerlifter Breaks Four State Records,” and hundreds of clients, his popularity grows daily. He’s also racking up frequent-flier miles doing motivational speaking around the country, mostly talking to those with Type 1 diabetes, especially to children. “I like to think it is transformational speaking. I can’t motivate people. They can only do that for themselves,” he says.
Every day for Ruden is about gaining momentum. He still holds a record he set in April 2016 at the Max Madness Competition (where that YouTube video was captured), setting the Texas record in the squat, bench press, deadlift and the total record for the state.
He has plans to keep on competing and besting himself in powerlifting. “It’s me versus me,” he says.
Learn more about Ruden and his business at chrisruden.com.