Tate Fegley Is the Little Lifter That Could

Tate Fegley Is the Little Lifter That Could

At age ten, he’s already a powerlifting legend. Next up, puberty.

OH TO BE A KID with a sled in winter. Zipping down a bunny hill. Wind in your face. Racing back up for another go.

Not quite. Tate Fegley’s sled is a heavy-duty steel power sled. Alone, it weighs 80 pounds. On a sunny, snowless day in early December, Tate, age ten, drags it out of a hangar-like garage in suburban Minden, Louisiana. The space was originally designed to store a camper but has since been converted into a professional-looking gym, complete with power rack, glute-ham developer, bench, walls of weights and plates, and banners reading BEAT YESTERDAY and TRUST THE PROCESS.

Tate piles on a 45-pound plate, then a 25-pound one. After clipping into an over-the-shoulder harness, he leans forward and charges toward a busy parish road, dragging a load that weighs more than he does along the pavement.

He’s begun to sweat through his shirt, and he swings his arms in front of him for momentum. His trainer, Peyton Gray—a friendly, compact CrossFit trainer (CF-L1) who will soon finish nursing school—and his dad, Brint Fegley, a nurse practitioner, don’t seem concerned about what the neighbors might think. “They’ve all seen the news and they know what goes on, and they just drive by and shake their heads,” Brint says.

In January 2020, Tate competed at the USA Powerlifting Louisiana State Championships, breaking four American records in his age group and weight class. Then nine, Tate weighed 113.5 pounds, making him the youngest and lightest male competitor. That day, he squatted 187.4 pounds, benched 88.1 pounds, and deadlifted 231.5 pounds. It was a breakout moment. “A 9-year-old boy who can deadlift more than twice his bodyweight is breaking powerlifting records,” CNN reported, calling Tate “a small wonder.”

Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an exercise-science advisor, says it’s not unusual for good powerlifters to squat and deadlift double their bodyweight, but the powerlifters he’s referring to are generally full-grown men with high testosterone. Even before puberty, Tate’s benchmarks are typical of college-age men with at least six months of training.

Tate’s squat record is nearly 55 percent better than the previous best for his age, set by a nine-year-old from Wyoming named Brady Dibble in 2018. His deadlift is almost 25 percent better than the record set by Landon Hauser of Kansas, also nine, in 2019. He set a new record for most overall weight, too. When I ask Brint who Tate’s closest competition is, he shakes his head.

At meets, other competitors watch Tate lift, mystified. They cheer for his feats. But as public awareness of the young lifter has grown, Tate’s wins have sparked criticism. Many people are concerned that starting strength training too early might lead to injury or stunted growth. Tate’s parents and Gray believe otherwise, so much so that Tate has become a sort of one-kid public experiment. He could upend how we think about kids’ strength and lifting.

When Tate is about 100 feet away, his pace slows and he loses balance, his right leg staggering over his left. Brint jogs over while Gray remains unconcerned. “This is hard for him, but it’s a hard that’s safe. It’s not going to hurt his back; it’s going to burn in his legs,” Gray says. “It’s a very low-skill movement. You just pull it.”

TATE’S INTRODUCTION to powerlifting began by accident in mid-2018. As he tells it, he was just doing what a lot of kids do: trying to impress his dad.

The Fegleys live down the block from Gray’s parents, who had graciously allowed their son to build his own Iron Paradise. Brint and Gray often work out together, along with Gray’s dad, Lonnie. One day, Tate, then eight, tagged along, and when Brint stepped out of the gym for a moment, Tate approached a barbell loaded with 110 pounds.

“I tried to pick it up and I did,” Tate recalls. “And he came back and I said, ‘Dad, I can pick it up.’ ”

“I said, ‘Don’t,’ ” Brint jumps in, “and I turned around and he did it.”

“And I went, ‘I told you so,’ ” Tate says quickly.

When I ask Brint why Tate was able to lift that first weight, he says he believes it is a gift from God. Schoenfeld suggests Tate may benefit from genetic factors like the “internal moment arm,” in which a tendon that’s farther away from the bone in a limb provides more leverage to a lifter. Being short means the weight doesn’t have that far to go, either. “But even with that, it is extremely unusual for a child that young to be squatting that amount of weight.”

And yet Tate says he doesn’t talk about his accomplishments with friends that much, even when they tease him by saying they can lift a bajillion pounds. “I about said, ‘The bar can’t hold that much,’ ” Tate says, laughing. Then he turns contemplative. “It would probably snap.” (His mother, Marla, says he avoids schoolyard tiffs, too, although he recently did pick up another boy in jest and put him on his shoulders to “swirl him around.”)

After that first lift, the Fegleys decided Tate could learn some basics. He wanted to do CrossFit competitions, like Gray does, but his parents didn’t think he was ready for some of those moves, and the minimum age is 14. They still felt that he needed a goal—“It’s like practicing baseball but never playing a game,” Marla says—so they turned to powerlifting.

Gray and the Fegleys read all the available research on kids and strength training, and Gray reached out to Westside Barbell, the elite powerlifting mecca in Ohio, for advice. “Nobody really has anybody that young lifting at that high of a level,” he says, so he developed his own training methodology for kids based on his research and his CrossFit experience.

Gray started Tate out with light weights and low reps; form was his focus. “And that’s still my main focus,” the trainer says. “But at first it was: Until he can move this weight exceptionally well, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that he is really good at this weight and has a good position, I don’t want to move up.”

After five months of training, Tate could deadlift 95 pounds. A few months later, in January 2019, he deadlifted 155. That month, Brint took him to his first competition, a state meet, and Tate was hooked. His goal last year was to win the Youth Nationals in August in Daytona Beach, Florida, which would have allowed him to set formally recognized world records, but it was canceled due to COVID-19.

Since the pandemic hit, Tate’s been homeschooled, and although his mother says that has allowed more flexibility with his training, the family did it for a totally different reason. “They missed so much of third grade,” she says, “and we just wanted something a little more consistent.”

During their workouts, Gray blasts Post Malone to keep Tate pumped and barks out directions in the fairly common boot-camp fashion. From an outsider’s perspective, the atmosphere is aggressive. “Usually they’re screaming. And I feel sorry for Tate, usually,” says Lonnie Gray, who often observes the workouts. “I’m like, ‘Peyton, you’re kind of hard on him.’ ”

“He likes it though!” Gray says. “He likes the intensity.”

On the day I visit, Gray tells me that when he’s lifting he’ll sometimes take his shirt off, which leads to some copycatting from Tate. “In the summer,” Gray says, “he will carry the ball out, and he’ll come back and the shirt is off.”

“It’s so hot!” Tate says.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, many Americans still have a knee-jerk reaction to a ten-year-old in a weight room. “We’ve had a lot of negative comments,” Marla says. “We were told we’re horrible parents for letting our kid lift like this—that it’s unsafe.” With more media coverage, she says, came more naysayers, especially on Facebook and Instagram.

“It has been proven time and time again by actual doctors all over the world that ‘lifting’ should not be done until mid-late teens at the earliest,” one Face- book user wrote.

And he will remain 5-foot nothing for the rest of his life . . . fine parenting,” said another.

Yet another commenter pointed out that some tumbling sports might be harder on your body. Then he veered philosophical: “All these are not great for youngsters but Society pushes for greatness.”

Concerns about preadolescent powerlifting seem to orbit two loci: a fear that children might be more susceptible to injury and a conviction that early strength training stunts growth. But after significant research, the Fegleys don’t share those concerns.

The reality is that over the past four decades, physicians have gradually softened their stance on preadolescent strength training. In 1983, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised against it, citing a high risk of injury. Seven years later, the same group maintained that advisory but noted that there wasn’t enough data to know for sure whether lifting was detrimental. In 2001, the AAP said training can be good for children, supporting sports performance, preventing injury, and enhancing long- term health, among other benefits.

Emily Kraus, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at Stanford Children’s Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center, and Derek Miles, D.P.T., a children’s rehab specialist at Barbell Medicine, both say injury is a more salient fear than stunted growth, the latter of which studies don’t support.

“We’ve just accepted that certain things are inherently dangerous and certain things are not,” Miles says. “We have a side epidemic of kids just not being active.”

Powerlifting is also relatively safe. According to a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, adult powerlifters rarely suffer the sort of injuries that cause them to stop training. (The rate is just one to four injuries per 1,000 hours of training.) Research has suggested that injuries are related to the large range of motion used during exercises, insufficient rest, and training too heavy or with the wrong technique. These factors can be avoided with proper guidance.

Besides warning against overtraining, experts invariably discourage early specialization in a single sport, which has been shown to increase the risk of injury. (Tate also plays baseball.) They stress the importance of ensuring that preadolescent athletes are recovering properly, and they advocate for strong guidance and qualified supervision. Two important questions to ask: Is my child mature enough to do this activity safely and happily? and Whom do I trust to coach my child?

THE FEGLEYS are putting a lot of faith in Gray. He may not have the fitness industry’s top training certifications, like C.S.C.S. and NASM, but they trust him not to push their son too hard.

If Tate says he doesn’t feel like working out, for instance, Gray asks him what move he is excited about, and they do a half session, because it’s better than nothing. Crucially, Gray and the Fegleys also trust Tate: to follow gym rules (“The one thing I’ve learned the most is never to bench heavy when someone’s not around,” Tate says), to let them know if he ever feels a pain or strain (as he did last summer, when he felt some tension in his hamstring— they worked around it for a few weeks), and to tell them if he ever loses interest.

Marla and Brint have also tried to strike a balance between the two or three hours of training Tate does every day and other components of a pleasant childhood. He’s very involved in their church, Marla says, and he loves baseball, hunting, fishing, and going to the pool with his friends in the summer. “He’s still 100 percent little boy,” she says.

I ask Tate what would cause him to turn away from powerlifting. “I don’t know,” he says immediately; willingly choosing not to powerlift is unfathomable.

“Girls,” jokes Lonnie Gray. Everyone laughs but Tate.

When it’s time for his signature lifts, Tate starts with the back squat. First, he gathers his own plates and slides each one onto a bar on the power rack. Next, he straps on his leather lifting belt and cinches it tightly, causing his belly to pooch out. Then he situates himself under the bar, lifts off, and lowers himself into a deep squat. As he straightens up, Gray spots him, instructing him to stay tight in his back. Otherwise the room is silent..

Marla and Brint watch while shooting videos on their phones. Only when Tate has racked the bar does his family breathe and applaud. “Was that a lot?” Marla asks Gray. He tells her Tate lifted 210 pounds, more than 20 pounds heavier than his record-breaking squat at the state championship the previous January.

Next comes the deadlift. Tate starts out at 70 pounds, keeping his back straight as he levers up; only his puffed-out cheeks suggest exertion. Then he uses a jack to add more plates to the bar. There are six on each side now—each stack wider than Tate. He’s about to lift 245 pounds, something he’s tried before, albeit with a hitch that would have disqualified him in a meet. Again, the room goes quiet. Gray stops talking mid-sentence.

Tate bends down to grab the bar, staring straight ahead, past everyone and out to the driveway. As he pulls the bar up to knee height, his face reddens and his mouth squeezes shut, then his brow furrows and his eyes nearly close from effort. He looks like he’s having a silent tantrum. When he stands fully upright, Gray says, “Hold,” and Tate lets out a breath. When Gray says, “Down,” he lets the bar down with control.

“Oh my gosh,” Marla says.

Both are personal bests, but Tate is unfazed. After a minute of recovery, he’s bouncing around the room and playing with Oaklee, Gray’s goldendoodle.

Where he still struggles, if you can call it that, is with the bench press. Shoulder strength doesn’t fully develop until one’s mid-20s, Gray says, so Tate won’t really begin making big gains until puberty. Still, he can already bench 110 pounds. When asked how his current workout stacks up to others he’s done, Tate says, “Hard!” But after each part, he quietly asks Gray if he can add another exercise.

After several minutes of towing his sled, he turns around and heads back to the driveway red-faced and breathing hard. “All right, go get you some water,” Gray tells him. “Relax.”

Any trace of exhaustion vanishes when Oaklee trots up. Tate throws a ball for the dog to fetch, then sprints into the gym to hide from her. He jumps out giggling, ten-year-old energy restored.

Tate has no idea that strangers across the nation are watching him, waiting to see if he continues to make astronomical gains into his 20s, waiting to see if he will get injured or otherwise affirm the taboos about a ten-year-old in a weight room. He doesn’t understand yet what it means to have no peers. He feels none of the public pressure his trainer and his parents feel.

When he grows up, he says, he wants to compete in the Strongman Games. He thinks for a second. “Or MLB.”

Source: https://www.menshealth.com/fitness/a35809614/tate-fegley-child-powerlifting-champion/