Oh, to be a kid with a sled in winter – flying down hills with the wind in your face, then racing back up for another go.
Not quite. Tate Fegley’s sled is a heavy-duty steel power sled that weighs more than 35kg. On a cold, sunny day, Tate, aged 10, drags it out of a hangar-like garage in Louisiana. The space was originally designed to store a camper van but has since been converted into a professional-looking gym, complete with a power rack, a glute-ham developer, a bench, walls of weights and plates and banners reading “Beat yesterday” and “Trust the process”.
Tate piles on a 20kg plate, then a 10kg one. After clipping into an over-the-shoulder harness, he leans forward and charges towards a busy parish road, dragging a load that weighs more than he does along the pavement.
He has started to sweat through his shirt, and he swings his arms in front of him for momentum. His trainer, Peyton Gray – a friendly, compact CrossFit coach who will soon finish nursing school – and his dad, Brint Fegley, a nurse practitioner, don’t seem concerned about what the neighbours might think. “They’ve all seen the news, and they know what goes on. 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 years old, Tate weighed 51.5kg, making him the youngest and lightest male competitor. That day, he squatted 85kg, benched 40kg and deadlifted 105kg. It was a breakout moment. “A nine-year-old boy who can deadlift more than twice his bodyweight is breaking powerlifting records,” CNN reported, calling Tate “a small wonder”.
Brad Schoenfeld, a Men’s Health exercise science advisor, says that it’s not unusual for good powerlifters to squat and deadlift double their bodyweight, but the powerlifters he’s referring to are generally fully grown men with high testosterone levels. Even before puberty, Tate’s benchmarks are typical of college-age men with at least six months of training.
His squat record is nearly 55% better than the previous best for his age, which was set by a nine-year-old from Wyoming called Brady Dibble in 2018. His deadlift is almost 25% better than the record set by Landon Hauser of Kansas, also nine, in 2019. Tate 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, his wins have sparked criticism. Many have raised concerns that starting strength training too early might lead to injury or stunted growth. Tate’s parents and Gray believe otherwise. Tate has become a sort of one-child public experiment: he could upend how we think about young people’s strength and lifting.
When Tate is about 30m 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 kind of hard that’s safe. It’s not going to hurt his back; it’s going to burn in his legs,” says Gray. “It’s a very low-skill movement. You just pull it.”
Fit to Compete
Tate’s introduction to powerlifting began by accident in mid-2018. As he tells it, he was just doing what a lot of children do: trying to impress his dad. The Fegleys live down the block from Gray’s parents, who had allowed their son to build his own Iron Paradise. Brint and Gray often work out together, along with Gray’s father, Lonnie. One day, Tate, then eight, tagged along. When Brint stepped out of the gym for a moment, Tate approached a barbell that was loaded with 50kg.
“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.”
“I went, ‘I told you so,’” Tate says.
When Men’s Health asks Brint why Tate was able to lift that first weight, he says that he believes it was a gift from God. Schoenfeld suggests that Tate may benefit from genetic factors, such as the “internal moment arm”, in which a tendon that’s further away from the bone in a limb provides more leverage to a lifter. Because he is a child’s size, the weight doesn’t have that far to go, either. “Even with that, it is extremely unusual for a child that young to be squatting that amount of weight.”
Tate rarely talks about his accomplishments with his friends, even when they tease him by claiming that they can lift a bajillion pounds. “I’d tell them, ‘The bar can’t hold that much,’” he says, laughing. “It would probably snap.” (His mother, Marla, says that he avoids schoolyard tiffs, too – though he recently did pick up another boy in jest and put him on his shoulders to “swirl him around”.)
After that lift, the Fegleys decided that Tate could learn some basics. He wanted to take part in CrossFit competitions, like Gray does, but his parents didn’t think that he was ready for some of the moves – and the minimum age is 14. Nevertheless, they felt that he needed a goal – “It’s like practising baseball but never playing a game,” Marla says – so they turned to powerlifting.
Gray and the Fegleys read all of the available research on kids and strength training, and the former also 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 43kg. A few months later, in January 2019, he deadlifted 70. That month, Brint took him to his first competition, a state meet, and Tate was hooked. Tate’s goal last year was to win the youth nationals in August in Daytona Beach, Florida, which would have allowed him to set formally recognised world records, but it was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Since the pandemic hit, Tate has been home-schooled. Though his mother says that this has allowed more flexibility with his training, that’s not the reason why the family made
the decision. “[He and his classmates] 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 common boot-camp fashion. To an outsider, the atmosphere feels aggressive. “Usually they’re screaming, and I feel sorry for Tate,” 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.”
An Evolving Debate
Not surprisingly, many people still have a knee-jerk reaction to a 10-year-old in a weights room. “We’ve had a lot of negative comments,” Marla says. “We were told that 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 Facebook user wrote. “He will remain 5ft-nothing for the rest of his life… fine parenting,” said another. A different commenter pointed out that some tumbling sports might be harder on the body, before turning philosophical: “All these are not great for youngsters, but society pushes for greatness.”
Anxieties about pre-adolescent powerlifting seem to orbit two issues: the fear that children might be more susceptible to injury and the conviction that early strength training can stunt growth. But after significant research, the Fegleys don’t share those concerns.
Over the past four decades, physicians have gradually softened their stance on pre-adolescent strength training. In 1983, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised against it, citing a high risk of injury. Seven years later, it maintained that advice but noted that there wasn’t enough data to know for sure whether lifting was detrimental. In 2001, the AAP said that training can be good for children, supporting sports performance, preventing injury and enhancing long-term health, among other benefits.
Dr Emily Kraus, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford Children’s Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center, and Derek Miles, a children’s rehab specialist at Barbell Medicine, both say that 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,” says Miles. “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 suggests that injuries are most commonly related to the large range of motion used during exercises, insufficient rest and training with weights that are too heavy, or with the wrong technique. These factors can be avoided with proper guidance.
Besides warning against overtraining, experts invariably discourage early specialisation 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 pre-adolescent athletes can recover properly, and they advocate for strong guidance and qualified supervision. There are two important questions to ask: is my child mature enough to do this activity safely and happily, and who do I trust to coach my child?
Trust the Process
The Fegleys are putting a lot of faith in Gray. He may not have the industry’s top training certifications – he’s not a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) – 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 that Tate does every day and his other interests. He is very involved in their church, Marla says, and he loves baseball, hunting, fishing and going to the pool with his friends. “He’s still 100% little boy,” she says.
I ask Tate what would cause him to stop powerlifting. “I don’t know,” he says. Willingly choosing not to powerlift is unfathomable.
“Girls,” jokes Lonnie Gray. Everyone laughs except 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. 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 videoing on their phones. Only when Tate has racked the bar do they breathe and applaud. “Was that a lot?” Marla asks Gray. He tells her Tate lifted 95kg, about 10kg heavier than his record-breaking squat at the state championship the previous January.
Next comes the deadlift. Tate starts out at 32kg, 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 is about to lift 111kg, something he has 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 grabs the bar, staring straight ahead. As he pulls the bar up to knee height, his face reddens and his mouth squeezes shut. His brow furrows and his eyes nearly close from the effort. He looks like he’s having a silent tantrum. When he stands fully upright, Gray says, “Hold,” and Tate lets out a breath. Gray says, “Down,” and Tate lowers the bar.
“Oh, my gosh,” Marla says.
Both are personal bests, but Tate is unfazed. After a minute of recovery, he is bouncing around 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-twenties, Gray says, so Tate won’t begin making big gains until puberty. Still, he can bench 50kg. When asked how his current workout stacks up to others he has done, Tate says, “Hard!” But following each part, he 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. “Alright, go get you some water,” Gray tells him. “Relax.”
Any trace of exhaustion vanishes when Oaklee trots up. Tate sprints into the gym to hide from her. He jumps out giggling, 10-year-old energy restored.
Tate has no idea that strangers across the nation are waiting to see if he continues to make astronomical gains into his twenties, or if he’ll get injured or otherwise affirm the concerns about a child in a weights room. He doesn’t understand 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 Major League Baseball.”