Hang out with Ben Mudge for half an hour, or see him with his shirt off, and you’d never think he’s anything other than a pretty normal 25-year old personal trainer from Belfast with an infectious sense of enthusiasm and an enviable set of abs. That’s the way he likes it.
“I don’t ever want someone to pick me out of the crowd as the sick one,” he says, between swapping chest-building tips with MF on our cover shoot (turns out we aren’t retracting our shoulders enough before we bench). “I’d want to be their last pick. I try to live my life like a normal guy, but that does help me on the days I’m not feeling so motivated.”
For Mudge, though, there’s more to staying in shape than just looking good on Instagram. As a cystic fibrosis sufferer since birth, training hard and eating right helps him fight off potentially fatal infections, as well as keeping his organs and digestive system working properly. “It just slows everything down, makes everything harder,” he explains. “The mutation I have affects about 50% of people with cystic fibrosis, so… it’s kind of selfish, but I’m glad I’ve got the most common version because it means treatments are targeted to it. It affects the production of mucus in the body – for someone like you, it’s like water, but for me it’s more like wallpaper paste. It also affects the pancreas, so digestion doesn’t really happen unless I take digestive enzymes.”
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This meant an operation when Mudge was less than three days old, and worrying days as he lost weight because his stomach wasn’t digesting foods properly. Despite that, though, and another, almost fatal, scare when he was seven, he managed to live fairly normally until he was 18.
“My mum and dad’s approach was pretty similar to mine: don’t exclude him from anything,” says Mudge. “That’s why it’s strange to me now when people message me saying I’m inspirational. I don’t wake up and do anything different from what I feel is normal.”
At 18, though, disaster (almost) struck. “I left school and that took away organised sports,” explains Mudge. “That was when I got really sick. A chest infection landed me in the hospital for two weeks on an IV. For me, that was weird, because there are days I forget I have cystic fibrosis, and again I’m very grateful for that. But it really drove home that there are certain things other people can do that I can’t. So I sat down and thought ‘There’s something missing here.’ And I realised that I’d always done rugby three times a week and trained in American football and other organised sports. I had a weight set in my garage, but I never really used it. So I decided I needed to do something. I was training in my garage, and one of my big brother’s friends came along, and he pushed the entire stack – that’s one of the first things that I remember that gave me a goal, something to drive towards.”
And, yes, he pushed the stack eventually – but he also started training almost every day, taking control of his own diet, eating lean proteins and good fats rather than the junk food doctors recommended, and learning more about training. “Eventually I started lifting in my university gym and became one of those guys who just trains chest and arms all the time,” he grins. “I kidded myself that I didn’t need to train legs because, you know, I used to run a lot.” (An aside here: Mudge most definitely trains legs now, to the extent that he nearly had to cancel a recent modelling shoot because his quads are so gigantic it made the trousers look strange). And then came Game Of Thrones.
Everyone’s favourite swords-and-sex-and-sorcery show, of course, does a fair amount of filming in Belfast, and at 20 Mudge landed a job on the show as a trainee assistant director. “There were a lot of 17-hour days. I was always first on set and last off, looking after the cast and extras, telling them when to be on set and occasionally doing stand-in work. But a lot of the food they were giving us was crap, just fuel to keep us going, nothing nutritious. There was a lot of fat, which my pancreas doesn’t really know what to do with. With that and being outside all the time, I got sick again.”
He was in and out of hospital for more than a month. “Again, I know that many people have it a lot worse than me, but it was bad… I couldn’t run up a couple of flights of stairs without having to stop because I was out of breath. I realised I couldn’t do the job, so I had to think, OK, what do I enjoy? And I enjoyed going to the gym with my friends. And I always wanted to be stronger [and] faster. At some point, one of the guys in the gym said I should try being a PT and I went, OK, I’ll give that a go. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
As PTs go, Mudge is solid. At one point in the shoot he grabs an MF staffer to demonstrate how to get more out of seated rows (think “pulling the handle apart”, basically) and at another he shares his top tip for seated leg extensions (squeeze a water bottle between your thighs for the hamstring activation). He’s into teaching as well as getting ripped, and it comes across. And, in an age when less scrupulous trainers are happy to repackage the same programme for every client and email it over without any further input, he insists on being able to interact with trainees via Facetime or Skype.
“You can only sell shit once,” he says. “Instagram’s been the best thing and the worst thing for fitness. You can spend your time looking at guys and asking “Why aren’t I in this shape?” but on the other hand, people with CF or their mums and dads message me all the time, and I’ve realised that my training is giving people motivation in a way I can’t really fathom. I mean, I realise that, if I’d been shown a picture of me when I was five, when it’s all about superheroes, that would have helped me. So it’s a great feeling.”
Up next is YouTube, online coaching and expanding the empire. “My life expectancy’s 40,” says Mudge. “But at the same time, I could be hit by a bus tomorrow. I got married this year. Now I have a house, I have a dog. My motivation’s changed completely. I need to make sure my wife is taken care of. Days where I’d previously be ‘Well, I can’t be bothered’ have taken a different path because it’s for someone else. I’ve never been massively money-driven, but I want to do something that keeps her safe.” And, of course, he’s going to keep up the heroics. “I don’t want people going ‘Oh, he’s done well for someone with CF,’ he says. “I want them going ‘That guy’s in good shape,’ and then finding out I’ve got CF… and maybe that’ll make them realise they’ve got it in them to do something they thought they couldn’t before.”
Ladies and gents: MF’s trainer of the year.
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From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.