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Chris Ruden first shot to fame when he took to YouTube and shared the emotional story of how he pushed past the desire to hide a congenital birth defect that had given him a shorter left arm with just two fingers. In 2017, a video documenting his first week with a prosthetic hand went viral and since then, Ruden has made great strides in both his physical and mental growth.
Now using his journey to inspire others, Ruden is a well-rounded fitness professional owning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and health promotion. He is also a bodybuilder and elite powerlifter, able to raise an incredible 600-pound deadlift — with just one biological hand. But it’s been a rocky transition for a youngster who first turned to drugs and alcohol as a means of drowning out his self-doubt. In his new book, cleverly titled “The Upper Hand,” Ruden gives hope to those of us facing our own struggles.
The South Floridian’s inspirational and uplifting story is a must-read for anyone in need of reassessing and overcoming their own limitations.
As if growing up with a different arm was not enough of a strain for Ruden already, he was later diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, forcing him to monitor his own insulin levels from the age of 19. Still, with all his trials and tribulations, labeling Ruden as simply disabled would fail to acknowledge the fact that the former Titan Games contestant can likely do many things that most of us can’t.
As a young man, Ruden first fell in love with bodybuilding as a means of creating a physical armor that could offer emotional protection against his perceived limitations. “I felt like a monster,” he says. “My compensatory mechanism was to be competitive. It was to prove to people that not only am I disabled, but I can do it better than you.”
Ruden’s relationship with the gym was a turbulent one at first as he found that, for the most part, gymnasiums were only built to cater for a certain mold. “I saw the fitness magazine covers, and I would always think that the bodies were so cool,” he says. “I wanted that, but someone told me this could never be me because of my disability. That lit a fire in me!”
“The word ‘overcome’ is funny,” says Ruden. “I don’t think there is an end destination. It’s a process more than a place.” For example, stepping into a gym for the first time is an intimidating experience for anyone, but when coupled with body confidence issues, anxiety levels can skyrocket. Ruden says we are all on a journey, and we shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to ‘overcome’ fears or confidence issues before challenging ourselves to participate. Taking the first steps toward our goals may help us to overcome our fears, but even if we don’t completely overcome every issue, we can still gain so much from allowing ourselves to at least make a start on what we want to do.
As a one-handed guy living in a two-handed world (his words), Ruden had to figure out ways to adapt his movements in order to work with the different gym machines. “I did everything wrong,” he laughs. “With a limb difference, I made a lot of mistakes, I built on a bad foundation. I felt like I had to blaze a trail on my own.” But with time came wisdom and Ruden soon found that working out was more than a way to let out his anger, he also found the gym to be a calm space where he could focus entirely on himself.
With modern culture celebrating overnight success stories and slick social media campaigns focusing on instant gratification, it would be easy for us to feel like a failure each time we make a mistake. The truth is that human beings have evolved because of our ability to take information from the things that don’t go our way first time. So, if we fail at something, we can use a different approach next time, and this will ultimately lead to the success that we crave. “The gym taught me to fail”, says Ruden. “And that’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned. There is a difference between failing, and failure. If you fail to do something, you just keep going until you get it right”.
How does your definition of “disabled” stack up against a man who can bench-press 365 pounds and squat and deadlift more than 600 too? “I love finding gyms with options,” says Ruden. “Disability inclusion in gyms is getting there, but those with a disability are in the largest minority in the world, so it’s a hard thing to master. Unilateral equipment is great for me,” says Ruden. “I love gyms that use Hammer Strength or different movements that I can isolate.”
While gyms are actively trying to make their environments more inclusive, it’s sometimes the small things that have the biggest effect. “I see it all the time,” says Ruden. “Paper towel dispensers will have a sticker that reads, ‘Must use two hands.’ I’m like, well, that’s not going to happen today! It’s kind of funny, but then I think about my younger self, or any kid who
might be struggling, so inclusion and awareness is super important. You will always be the best at being yourself, and you will always suck at trying to be someone else.”
There’s no doubt that having type 1 diabetes puts extra pressures and responsibilities onto Ruden’s daily routine, but he’s learned to see the positive effects that being so in control of his nutrition can have. “I’m more aware of what I’m eating, I’m more aware of my training, and where I am at with my health,” says Ruden. Thanks to innovations in technology, Ruden is able to wear a Continuous Glucose Monitor that connects to a smart phone app. He is also excited about advances in insulin uptake that offer inhalable alternatives to needles.
Ruden has found that there is a huge community of people going through similar challenges as himself, and is able to draw comfort, and provide support to others, while learning about the latest developments in medicine. If you are going through struggles, take peace in knowing that there are other people out there. Connect with a like-minded community because we are always better together.
Ruden is powered by a desire to show others that limitations are self-imposed. As a motivational speaker, he draws on his own experience of facing his fears. Of course, one of those biggest challenges came when he entered the first season of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Titan Games. With one hand, he scaled the Lunar Impact scaffold like a big cat, but inside he was shaking like a kitten. “I was terrified of heights,” says Ruden. “I wrote on my application that I wasn’t afraid of heights, and they gave me the heights thing! It was crazy … an awesome experience to showcase that those people who are thought to be ‘less than’ can be powerful.”
For Ruden, becoming a public figure has been like throwing himself into the deep end. In one regard, he is finally gaining the love and acceptance that he’s always craved, but has likewise had to wrestle with a spotlight that he’d already spent the majority of his life trying to avoid. “It was like hiding in plain sight,” says Ruden. “That attention forced me to become more comfortable with myself.”
On top of his motivational speaking and record-setting lifts, Ruden is also part of the team behind NRG Foods, who have launched diabetes-friendly protein snacks with less sugar. Like everyone, Ruden has good days and bad, but he feels that people of all abilities should feel empowered when it comes to reaching their goals. “Life is not a Disney movie,” says Ruden. “It’s not like magically overcoming challenges, it’s about the daily grind.”