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Walking the Streets with Canada's Most Famous Pushup Artist

Doug Pruden is a consummate performer and holds several world records for his pushup prowess. We walked up and down Edmonton's Whyte street to see how he makes his money.

Pushup guy Doug Pruden does his thing for a group of onlookers. All photos by the author

There is one thing you need to know about Doug Pruden: The man can do a pushup.

Known around town as the "Pushup Guy," Pruden has held ten world records in his lifetime and currently holds seven. Among the Edmontonian's records are most fist pushups and most one-armed pushups using the back of his hand in a minute, just to name two.

Now most of Pruden's pushups are done for cash on the cold sidewalk of Edmonton's main bar strip Whyte Avenue after soliciting passersby with a hearty, "Pushups, boys! Five dollars for 30 one-armed pushups."

Annons

Pruden, who declined to give his age, was born on Edmonton's south side to a religious family. The Prudens are a family of performers. His brother Dale is "bucket-drummer guy"—a man who sits in front of Rexall Place after Oilers games and, well, drums buckets.

It was his faith that started Pruden performing. In the early 90s he set up shop in South Edmonton malls, determined to talk to teenagers about God. It didn't go over well. At times, kids spat on Pruden and in extreme situations hit him and even knocked him out cold.

Even though he's still religious, proselytising isn't a part of his show anymore. But it was around that time in Pruden's life that he noticed his extreme upper-arm strength, which he began to showcase with pushup performances at Edmonton's popular Fringe Festival.

From there he started doing assemblies at local schools where he would talk about fitness and cap off performances with 1,000 pushups in under 20 minutes. Pruden set his first world record on August 19, 2001, doing 102 one-armed pushups in one minute. That lit a fire under him, and that's when he started breaking records en masse – eventually landing numerous appearances on Canadian television.

Once the hoopla died down, Pruden took his pushups to the street. When I met up with him for a night out on Whyte last Saturday, Pruden said that his experience at assemblies had come full circle and the kids that he talked to years ago now frequent the bars we're walking by.

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"The school kids flocked to the Fringe, and then they flocked to the nightclubs and bars," he said. "It was like a circle once they become of legal drinking age."

Three punks are excited to take a photo with Pruden.

Sure enough, during our walk we encountered young men who Pruden had talked to years ago. "Dougie do you remember me?" One of them asked. "We have been hanging out since I was in grade five."

Edmonton's Whyte Avenue is, like many western Canadian cities' main drags, a gauntlet of corny bars blaring top 40, throngs of drunken students, young women severely underdressed for Canadian winter, and rig pigs with too much oil money in their pockets.

Not everyone is down with the pushup guy. Three rumours are particularly irksome to Pruden: that he uses drugs, that he is mentally ill, and that he's homeless. He actively refutes these claims. Pruden is on the street simply because he "likes to feel connected with people."

"It's all about community," he told me.

It's hard to tell if these suit-clad bros are more excited about Pruden or the camera. Either way, they're pumped.

Suddenly we encountered a group of University of Alberta students carrying a trophy, headed towards the relatively hip bar the Buckingham. They had apparently won their trophy for Great Northern Concrete Toboggan, an engineering contest, last year. Doug immediately started joking with the group and eyed the prize.

"How many pushups to hold it?" Pruden asked.

The besuited students, drunk as hell, laughed and told him "Twenty." Pruden immediately got down on the street for his first show of the night.

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Pruden mimes drinking from the trophy.

After pretending to drink from the trophy, we carried on.

In a single night, Pruden may walk up and down the strip up to 30 times, trying to sell his show of 30 to 60 one-armed pushups. He prefers it in the summer but still makes it out in the winter if he feels up to it. At least one person who stopped him to high-five him or take a picture with him every time we made our way across.

A few people told him to fuck off, typically bros sporting tight Diesel shirts and sparkly MMA jeans, guys who were most likely fresh off the rigs. Pruden took the abuse and moved on.

We walked past the Billiards Club when all of a sudden a bouncer tackled a young man down the stairs of the building, shouting, "Hold him down! This fucker is going to jail."

We hadn't seen the actual altercation that led to this event but several men swarmed the bouncer after his partner left to get the police. The men started shouting to let their friend go. The scene only escalated when the two cops arrived and started to cuff the guy, and this was when the Pushup Guy stepped in.

Using his fame for good, the Pushup Guy helps police and bouncers calm a group of rowdy drunk men

"Calm down boys! I'm Doug, the Pushup Guy," he said while grabbing the wrist of a young man yelling at a cop. "You need to take it easy. I'm Doug."

The young man didn't calm down, but the cop left the kid talking to Doug while he went and checked on his partner. Pruden kept the guy up against the wall and attempted to calm him down for several minutes.

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"Calm down, buddy. Do you know who I am?"

Pruden takes his role as Edmonton's Pushup Guy seriously.

When the subject moved to some recent fatalities on Whyte, he broke down with a sincerity I haven't often seen.

Pruden looks contemplative during a cold January night on the town

"What if I had done a show for these people the night before?" said Pruden, wiping tears from his eyes. "I enjoy going out into the community and feeling what other people feel, expressing the compassion in my heart."

But this is where Pruden's story gets complicated. In my search for him, I asked several established journalists in Edmonton if they had a contact for him and they all seemed to have a story.

When speaking to these people, one term was frequently used: media whore.

An article entitled "Like Forrest Gump, Doug Pruden Just Has a Way of Popping Up", written by David Staples for the Edmonton Journal (it doesn't appear online) chronicles Pruden's search for media exposure in the 90s.

Fans can't help snapping pictures as Pruden shows off his world-class pushup form

It details how Pruden would attend children's funerals, lead search parties, run for political office, help load planes that were bringing relief to war-torn countries, and so on. The most shocking example of this saw Pruden, in 1995, attend and speak at the funeral of 11-year-old Hisaya Okumiya, who drowned in Edmonton's Mill Creek Ravine.

Pruden's media exposure was so extreme that the CBC documented it. But he denies claims that he was out seeking glory and explains that he is just has an extremely empathetic personality.

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"One of the greatest commandments of the Lord is, 'Love your neighbour like you love yourself'," Pruden said. "To show that empathy wherever you can.

"If they don't receive it that's up to them."

Either way, those days seem to be behind him.

Pruden can be as polarising a figure on the street as he is with the media. Some complain that he can be a tad aggressive when it comes to performing. But I didn't witness Pushup Guy's pushiness. He was eccentric, sure, but never overbearing. When talking to people he would drop rehearsed lines like, "I haven't been this nervous since going through London customs" in an attempt to make people smile and maybe drop some coin on pushups.

Staking out a spot on the sidewalk, Pruden shows passersby what he's made of.

True, he would ask for money if people engaged him about doing pushups, but that's just simple economics. If you do something well never give it away for free.

It had been a cold, slow January winter night. He had warned me that this might happen, that "people hold their wallets tighter during the winter." Our luck changed when he decided to visit the other side of the street past several bars that we had neglected.

Outside a charming spot called Twist Ultra Lounge, a group of people were having a cigarette in the smoke pit. They were part of a little-explored subset of Edmonton bro culture: the Edmonton Guido. With their tanned skin, Ed Hardy shirts, and tight pants, it looked like Miami had thrown up all over a freezing cold Alberta sidewalk.

"Pushups, boys! Thirty one-arms for five bucks."

Turns out they were some of the nicest people we met all night—apart from their flashing the "west side" sign repeatedly. They laughed with Pruden and countered, asking what he would do for $20. He answered without skipping a beat: "60 one-arms, no stopping."

They paid.