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“Live it up, be fearless and take big risks,” Interview with Ruben Payan, RKC Team Leader

Ruben Payan, RKC Team Leader at Gym
Dragon Door: What's your fitness background?

Ruben Payan: I've been in the fitness industry for about 18 years—since I got out of the Marine Corps in 2000. And I'm the first fitness professional to ever finish the Seven Summits and climb K2. The Seven Summits were my goal for the past 10-11 years, and I finished it a year and a half ago, and in the process carried the UFC banner to Everest. Unfortunately, there was an avalanche on K2, so I wasn’t able to summit it, but I was on that bad boy!

Dragon Door: That’s huge! What inspired the Seven Summits goal?

Ruben Payan: Feeling depressed. I was going through a really bad divorce and lost my business. I felt that if I didn’t do something with my life I’d feel irrelevant. So in 2005, I had the names of the mountains tattooed on my back before I climbed them. I didn't know how long it would take to climb them all, but I believed it could happen. So, I just started climbing. One by one, I had the summit dates tattooed underneath each mountain’s name.

I took a leap of faith and knew I would feel really stupid if I didn’t complete any of the climbs. It’s really important to realize that anything is possible if you have the right formula: patience, persistence, and lack of sleep! If you want to sleep 10-12 hours a day, then it will be challenging to get everything completed. I also had to be diligent because it was self-funded and it’s not cheap to complete the Seven Summits. The completed goal also represents a lot of personal training sessions!

Dragon Door: That's amazing! Did your time in the Marines originally inspire your choice of the fitness industry?

Ruben Payan: Everyone gets into the fitness industry from different routes, some from athletics and sports like soccer and basketball. But, I got into it through bodybuilding. In the 90s, I was in the Marine Corp, and we were into bodybuilding. We didn’t care as much about functional training because we were already doing that with our PFTs and obstacle courses. Since I was 18, I also wanted to look good at the beach.

Our idols were guys like Ronnie Coleman. I competed for a few years but decided that I didn’t want to go deep into the anabolic route. I was a really big guy at the time, 107kg (about 235lb), but I was looking in the mirror and thinking I wasn’t big enough. I remembered it was getting worse—no matter how much the scale said, I didn’t feel big enough or strong enough. That's when I knew I had a problem. But that’s just kind of how that scene is.

After bodybuilding I got into Brazilian jiu jitsu, because I felt like if I wasn't getting bigger I needed to get stronger. After a 155lb man wrapping me up into a ball, I realized that strength wasn’t always about having big muscles.

Around that same time in the early 2000s, functional training started taking off. At first it was like a circus act, then the whole industry realized we were really looking for the primary, fundamental, principle-based movements that really get results. I think that’s where we are now.

Dragon Door: How did you get started with fitness in China?

Ruben Payan: In 2007, Cami and I moved to China. One year earlier—around the same time I decided to climb the mountains—I had already planned on coming to China. It was one big life transformation. While going through depression and divorce, I decided to move out of the country, tattoo the names of these mountains on my back, and just change my life!

We moved to China in March 2007 and we were studying at the Beijing Sports University. Originally, we only planned to stay for a year, but after about six months, we decided that we wanted to stay much longer. At first we weren’t sure about what we wanted to do. I had a fitness software business back in the States, so I sold that and we just started teaching English to kindergarteners for $15 an hour. We were just two foreigners in China trying to figure it out.

I decided to get into fitness because I realized the foreign and expat community was kind of untapped in terms of fitness—and it all started from there. I brought everything I knew from the US and we opened our first studio in 2008. Our studio was the first functional training studio in China. Soon, I wanted the personal trainers in my studio to get certified so that everyone would be on the same page.

I reached out to a few organizations, and ended up choosing the Institute of Human Performance in Florida, and I 've been working with JC ever since. I also reached out to Dragon Door for kettlebells and kettlebell training as a brand to bring to China.

Dragon Door: Are you still mostly training expats at your gym?

Ruben Payan: I don't really teach much PT now because I'm mostly lecturing for IHP. But, we have a team of coaches who train at our gym and who are training more locals who are starting to come to the gym as well. Mostly I am lecturing, promoting our curriculum, and helping Dragon Door promote kettlebells here.
Ruben Payan Headshot

Dragon Door: After completing the Seven Summits, are you still climbing?

Ruben Payan: I'm not climbing mountains anymore. Since I turned 40 last year I’m more focused on keeping my body healthy and new projects. I just produced my first film, and two and a half years ago, I wrote my first book. I like to write stories—it's my creative side. The book is We Are, and I published it in the US.

Since I’ve always wanted to make a movie, we adapted the book and finished the movie about 5-6 months ago. It’s now in the film festival circuit and we've already won multiple "best action" awards. It’s going really well. It's a war film, but not a documentary, and is also called We Are. I'm excited that it’s doing well because getting into film is kind of my 40s to 50s goal.

Dragon Door: That's really cool! It’s always fascinating to find out what other passions RKC leaders have, since the training methods are so efficient. What role are kettlebells playing in your life?

Ruben Payan: I've refined the way I train. I used to train for fun, just to play, but now I train to stay strong and healthy. When I go to the gym, I only do things that will really benefit me. I don’t like screwing around with too many new toys. I may even use dumbbells and other "old" tools. I use what works consistently. So, what do you need to keep the back, knees, and shoulders healthy?

With kettlebells in my training, I know exactly what I need to do to keep my back and shoulders strong. Kettlebells are a fundamental part of my training. I use grab and go protocols, because I may only have 20 or 30 minutes to get everything done, so I need to be as active as possible with exercises that really work.

Dragon Door: That makes sense. It's interesting how when we find protocols that really work, it’s harder to get distracted by novelty.

Ruben Payan: For example, when we look at principles that governed by nature, they will never change. We didn't make them up, nature made them. So, we will always have to deal with gravity and ground force reaction—those two things will never change. It makes sense to use a training program that will cover the whole body in all three planes and not waste time. Especially since we’re a little older, we have other things to do!
Ruben Payan Mountain Climbing

Dragon Door: Conquering the film festival circuit seems like it would be time consuming...

Ruben Payan: And it's not the best career choice if you want to be in the gym all the time. Many times you’re on site, shooting and there’s not a gym in sight! Cami and I have talked about eventually having a trailer with some kettlebells and bands in it that we haul with us, so that we can get to work wherever we are.

Dragon Door: What’s your next goal for your training business?

Ruben Payan: Right now we're going though an expansion. We are adding seven new lecturers for IHP this next week. It’s a big deal for us because JC to help bring these new guys on board. They've been with us for over 8 years now. Expanding the team will eventually open up the door even more for kettlebells and other certifications that we represent here in China. I'm also the Asian director for North Face because I climbed with The North Face Gear.

So, we’re in scaling right now and I will be stepping back into more of a management role.

Dragon Door: How many Chinese RKCs are there?

Ruben Payan: Right now, I think over fifty have passed the test and certified. The RKC has been received very well. When you're looking at principles and optimal transfer, RKC Hardstyle training transfers better with the other modalities that you're already teaching with barbells for example.

Dragon Door: It sounds like through all your interests, you’ve always had a strong focus on staying active.

Ruben Payan: Though the whole process, I became a father at 17. Now, I am a 40 year old man with a 23 year old son which has been a blessing. He works at the gym, he’s an RKC-II and he’s super pumped. I’ve enjoyed watching how fitness has transformed his life. The whole process of becoming an RKC also requires a little bit of grit which transfers into other parts of life. It's been an honor to watch him grow. He's a great coach, my best friend and a good workout buddy.

Life is way too short. Live it up, be fearless and take big risks. I'd rather risk everything and fail miserably than get old and say I didn't do shit!

RubenPayanThumbnail150RUBEN PAYAN JR., RKC Team Leader, CEO of Human In Motion Fitness Studio, Director of The Institute of Human Performance ASIA, Director of The North Face Outdoor Fitness Education, Foremost Asia fitness consultant, lecturer, Master Trainer and Director of IHP ASIA and CEO of HUMAN IN MOTION Fitness Studio.

Ruben Payan is the author of WE ARE and the producer of WE ARE WAR. He regularly shares his insights and serves as an industry consultant for magazines and organizations such as: Men’s Health, GQ, Esquire, Target Magazine, The North Face, Nike, Westin Hotel, C-Soft Corp, KEEP, X - Mudder and Precor. Ruben is also the only fitness professional to ever climb the 7 Summits (highest mountain on each continent) and K2 (the 2nd highest) mountain in the world. Follow him on Instagram:  and Facebook: