On a frigid Saturday in February, Etta Nichols strutted proudly into Hall B1 of the Spokane Convention Center in Washington to undertake her third dead lift of the day. This lift is 5 kilos more than “two times her body weight,” an emcee boasted over the public-announcement system, eliciting a roar of cheers from the crowd.
Etta crouched into proper form, per her training with Eric Cafferty, her coach, and confidently exhaled as she lifted a chalk-dusted barbell bearing 143 pounds off the floor.
“Oh my God!” yelled her father, Chet Nichols, 46, a retired civil-service analyst.
For the past seven months, Etta has been fully engaged in the sport of powerlifting and has just set 12 new American records. She is 11 years old and weighs 65 pounds.
“I don’t just like power lifting; I love it,” she said. “It makes me feel strong, and like I can do anything.”
Damiyah Smith, also 11, and from Commerce, Oklahoma, began powerlifting in fourth grade and goes by the nickname “The Powerhouse Princess.” She’s become a staple on the youth circuit, earning 22 world records over the course of two years and starting her own fitness brand for children, Powerhouse Athletics.
After getting into weight training at age 8 to enhance his performance in other sports, Garrett Stinchcomb, who is now 12, of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, found his way into powerlifting. Over three years of competing, he has accumulated 26 national titles, nine world records, and two gold Junior Olympics medals.
And Luma Valones, who is just 5, has been performing weighted dead lifts, squats and bench presses since she was 3.Luma, who is in kindergarten, has her own private Instagram page, “HappyLuma,” where her mother, Nicole Lacanglacang, 36, a graphic designer who lives in Hayward, California, shares videos of her triumphantly raising a set of pink weights over her chest.
Lacanglacang, a powerlifter herself, began training her daughter on a homemade PVC pipe barbell sporting 3.5 pounds out of her garage in February 2016. Luma’s dead lift maximum is now 53 pounds, 18 more than her total body weight.
Lacanglacang said powerlifting had made her daughter self-confident and was helping her to foster a positive body image.
“She tells me she wants to get bigger, that she doesn’t want skinny arms — just big muscles,” she said. Luma seconds that, exuberantly declaring that she wants “to be the strongest person in the universe.”
In recent years, child powerlifting has become more prominent thanks in part to organizations like USA Powerlifting (“America’s Choice for Drug-Free Strength Sport”), based in Anchorage, Alaska, which hosts the annual youth national competition in which Etta Nichols recently participated.
“It’s like the Super Bowl of powerlifting,” Etta said. The USAPL began holding the event in 2015, for ages 8 to 13, following growing demand from children and their parents across the nation.
Another organization, the U.S. Powerlifting Association of Irvine, California, has a current roster of 1,500 children, ages 13 and above, competing at their meets. And the Amateur Athletic Union of Lake Buena Vista, Florida, which has hosted competitors ages 5 and up at their powerlifting events dating back to 1994, continues to see a steady stream of youth participants.
Veterans of the sport say it has grown more popular thanks in part to its newfound visibility on, what else, social media.
Children like Etta, who posts her latest adventures in the gym on her personal Instagram page, @ponytailsandbarbells, have become unofficial ambassadors for juvenile powerlifters. Youngsters like Luma Valones look up to YouTube fitness moguls like “Meg Squats,” aka Meg Gallagher, who gives regular shout-outs to her squadron of Strong Strong Friends. And youth powerlifting has its own trending hashtags, like “#KidsWhoPowerLift.”
Priscilla Ribic, the executive director and chairwoman of the woman’s committee for USAPL, said that powerlifting has proved particularly popular among girls; the 2018 USA Powerlifting Nationals competition was more than 75 percent female, she said. “I have never seen females outnumber the males, so it was really kind of awesome,” Ribic said.
Martin Drake, the national chairman of AAU Strength Sports, which is hosting a Junior Olympics of powerlifting in Des Moines, Iowa, this summer, believes there has been a trickle-down effect from grown-up gyms, where strength training, once the exclusive province of Biffs building muscles, has extended to Betties as well. “It has become very en vogue for young ladies to be athletic and strong,” he said.
Many members of the industry rave about the sport’s potential benefits for its young participants. “Powerlifting helps children develop connective tissue, including ligaments and tendons, muscles and bones, and also helps to build a foundational strength,” said Tom DeLong, the director of science education for the National Council for Certified Personal Trainers and the USPA.
But some medical professionals and others are not so keen on the trend.
“As both a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and a mother, this would not be my first choice of an activity for my child,” said Dr. Abigail Allen, the chief of pediatric orthopedic surgery at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “Powerlifting condones lifting heavier and heavier weights,” Allen added, noting that the potential dangers of the sport include “putting too much stress on the growth centers and causing growth anomalies.”
But parents of peewee powerlifters, many of whom are their children’s coaches and lifters themselves, maintain that they take precautions to keep their little ones safe in the gym.
“The key is the right coach,” Nichols said. “Just like in football, you get a coach who teaches a kid to tackle by leading with the head; you’re going to have problems. If you teach a kid to dead-lift or squat with a rounded back, they are probably going to get hurt.”
His daughter Etta, who is in fifth grade, agreed. She said that she recently sprained her thumb playing basketball but has yet to sustain an injury related to lifting. Nor are sports her sole interest.
“She loves anything with bling. Her room is Paris-themed and her favorite color is pink,” Nichols said.
But at the Mecca Gym in Meridian, Idaho, where she trains in custom pink Aesthreadics lifting belt and Wonder Woman socks, Etta is a star. She has three older brothers, and none of them powerlift.
“She’s always trying to defy odds,” said her mother, Natalie Nichols, 41, an administrative assistant.
“Lifting has helped Etta realize her strengths,” said Cafferty, 27, her coach, who owns the Mecca Gym.
“Not only is she physically strong and coordinated for her age but she has learned a lot about herself through powerlifting — how hard she can push herself, how she can accomplish things she puts her mind to and how success is not given, its earned.”
Next, Etta wants to tackle AAU’s annual Powerlifting World Championship next September in Laughlin, Nevada. But her greater goal is to inspire her peers to embrace the sport.
“Sometimes when I’m lifting, I will see a kid staring at me like I’m some famous person and then they go ask their parents if they can do stuff like me,” she said. “A lot of people look at a sport like powerlifting and think that girls can’t do that and I want to prove them wrong.”