At CrossFit Uncontested in Houston, Texas, it isn’t unusual to see a woman doing a bench press in a wheelchair, or an amputee doing box jumps with his hands.
It’s all part of the more inclusive CrossFit gym that Zack Ruhl, a double amputee himself, is working to create.
“I want them to get the full experience,” Ruhl tells PEOPLE. “When we’ve got everybody pairing up with adaptive athletes on workouts, how badass is that?”
To make that happen, Ruhl, 26, opened up his own CrossFit gym and offers free classes to anyone with a disability.
“I know it’s scary being in a wheelchair and going to a place and asking someone to train you – some people just don’t know what to do with something like that,” he says. “So I wanted to open up my gym for both.”
Ruhl understands their situation well. He was born without a thigh bone in his left leg, and sans a knee and shin in his right, so he had both legs amputated at age two and learned how to adapt without them.
“It was challenging, but it’s kind of cool, I could do anything anybody else could do – I just had to find different ways to do it,” Ruhl explains. “I played high school football, and I would have to find different ways to make a tackle, and find different strategies to get around people or through them.”
Ruhl became a personal trainer after he graduated from high school, but only became a CrossFit addict five years ago.
“I had a buddy who was running a CrossFit competition for wheelchair athletes only,” Ruhl says. “I had never done CrossFit before, but I ended up signing up for it and I won it. I’ve been hooked ever since. I drank the Kool-Aid.”
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Ruhl opened up his gym a year ago, and he adjusts the workouts for himself, and any adaptive athletes that come in the door.
“I want my workout to be almost the same as the class’s. I want to change it as little as possible,” he says. “I always think my quads would be like my triceps if they were reversed. So if the class is doing squats, I’ll do dips or pushups. I’ll just try to replace it anyway I can.”
Of course, Ruhl does get confused looks from prospective members when they come into the gym.
“I’ve had somebody come in and be like, ‘So, you’re going to be training me?’ And I’m like, ‘Yep, I’m the coach!’ And they’re like, ‘How are you going to work out my legs?’ I’m like, ‘Just because I don’t have ’em doesn’t mean I’m not going to train you to do it.’ It’s a pretty positive impact.”
Ruhl says he’s happy to see everyone co-existing in one CrossFit gym.
“I’ve been at other CrossFit gyms, and I’m not saying they neglect adaptive athletes, but they sometimes put them in the corner. And I’m like, ‘We’ll modify the workouts a little bit, but were going to make you do the workout somehow,’ ” he says. “I want everyone to be cheering for you, and you cheering for them.”
It’s all part of his goal to change the mentality that people with disabilities can’t do the same things as everyone else.
“I just feel like no matter what situation you’re in, you might as well be the best that you can possibly be,” he says.
“So if you’ve got a disability, come on in! I probably don’t know what to do with you, but we’ll figure it out together.”