Unlike most 7-year-olds, Giuliano Stroe spends much of his playtime in his family’s Ciuresti, Romania, gym, lifting weights and toning his muscle-ripped prepubescent body. In one workout video recently posted on his popular YouTube page — Stroe’s videos have been viewed 13 million times — Giuliano benchpresses twice his body weight, flexes his biceps, and then growls at the camera like a cherubic Hulk Hogan. The boy owns Guinness World Records for (1) the shortest amount of time to walk 10 meters on one’s hands with a medicine ball between one’s legs and (2) the number of “air push-ups” — which are like normal push-ups except much harder, since one’s feet aren’t allowed to touch the ground. Stroe completed 20 without breaking a sweat.
Iulian Stroe claims his son became obsessed with strength training as a 2-year-old, if not earlier. “He has been going to the gym with me ever since he was born,” Iulian told the Austrian Times online newspaper last year. The hard work is paying off; Iulian recently announced that Tokyo-based Fuji Television Network paid him €1,000 (roughly $1,400) for a 30-second clip of his son in action. He declined to speak to Bloomberg Businessweek because, he says, he only does TV interviews now.
The Stroes have become icons of a child bodybuilding netherworld that was, until recently, merely a dream of enterprising trainers and testosterone-fueled pageant dads. According to market research firm IBISWorld, gyms and health clubs have become increasingly popular among the Care Bears set. “Youth memberships have become one of the fastest growth areas for the fitness club industry,” says IBIS senior research analyst Taylor Hamilton. “And many clubs have begun shifting their focus to this area.” Over the past five years pre-adolescent and teen memberships have increased by 2.9 percent annually — and the 6-to-11 age category has almost doubled since 2005.
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Jeff Martin, director of youth programming for CrossFit Brand X, a health club in Ramona, Calif., claims his business has doubled in the past three years and that the majority of his new clients are underage. “We have kids coming into our gym now who are 2½, 3 years old,” Martin says. Brian K. Maloney, director of fitness and education at New York City’s Visions Wellness Center, believes his gym is attracting a younger crowd mainly because it allows it. “Unlike a lot of health clubs and private gyms, which won’t let you work out in the weight room unless you’re 16 or older, our insurance covers younger members,” says Maloney, who charges $70 and up for pre-adolescent sessions. “We cater to people who have the money,” he says.
Those endeavoring to break into the mini-meathead circuit can bring out their guns on a growing circuit of national bodybuilding events that peak during the summer. Among the most prestigious are the USA Powerlifting’s Men’s Teen, Junior & Open Nationals, held last month in St. Louis; the Iron Boy Powerlifting N.C. Push Pull Championships, held in Kings Mountain, N.C., on July 9; and the GNC Teen and Masters Nationals, later this month in Pittsburgh. At the 2009 Iron Boy Powerlifting contest, 12-year-old Joel Delgado impressed the crowd by dead-lifting 240 pounds. Fitness coach Jay “Big Red” Cholewa has trained enough gifted preteen lifters to recognize a rising star. “That’s quite a feat,” he says.
Participating in these competitions, however, isn’t cheap. This October’s Junior USA Natural Bodybuilding & Fitness Championship — the Peabody Awards of youth bodybuilding — charges $60 per contestant, with an additional $5 for processing. Then there’s the mandatory $50 to $70 drug testing fee and a $25 late fee for forms submitted within two weeks of the competition. If a contestant wants a DVD of his performance, that’s an additional $79. Eager parents must shell out $45 for premium seating.
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The rewards for the weight lifters and their families are not obvious. The Reebok CrossFit Games, to be held later this month in Carson, Calif., pays $250,000 to its top adult contestants and nothing to the winner of its teen division. It’s the same story at most youth bodybuilding events, which offer prizes ranging from almost no money to literally no money, says CrossFit’s Martin. He explains that the lack of a financial incentive is to “avoid any conflict with scholarship opportunities.” When asked to explain why a cash prize would interfere with a student’s scholarship prospects, Martin says, “I’m not exactly sure.”
The larger concern remains an ethical one. Just how young should a child begin a hard-core strength-training regime? According to André Farnell, president of the North Brunswick, N.J., training outfit Better Body Expert, the answer is simple: very young. “Some children come out of the womb ready to do this,” claims Farnell, who says that up to 25 percent of his clients are children. It all depends on their kinesthetic sense, says Farnell, which he describes as an “ability to have a mind connection with your muscles.” Some children are born with it, he notes. “It’s not totally unbelievable that there are 7-year-old kids like Giuliano Stroe who excel at this.”
There are also less philosophical concerns. A recent study conducted by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, concluded that 47 percent of weight-training-related injuries occurred in people aged 13 to 24. Subjects 12 and younger also suffered from the highest number of lacerations and fractures and were more likely to have a piece of equipment fall on them. But youth bodybuilding trainers have developed strategies to circumvent this scary reality. Martin says that when he’s working with a particularly young student, he gets creative. “You can’t tell a 3-year-old to do three sets of 10 curls,” he says. “You tell a 3-year-old, ‘Hey, let’s go across the monkey bars.’ ” Maloney points out that most weight-room accidents can be avoided with proper adult supervision. His 5-year-old son enjoys working out on the strength-training machines at his gym and, under his father’s gaze, often demonstrates how to use the equipment.
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The most intractable problems, however, are often the dads. “It is never a good idea for children to be obsessed with physical perfection,” says Dahlia Keen, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills. “When it’s pushed too far and little boys start to look like mini-men, it can be brutal. Bodybuilding does not tickle.” Mike Burgener, the proprietor of Mike’s Gym in Bonsall, Calif., knows this all too well. Having introduced his four kids to weight lifting at a tender age, he became more involved as they grew up, and even coached his son Casey to the 2008 Summer Olympics. Looking back, though, Bonsall says he was “too gung-ho,” often pushing Casey harder than his adult students. Still, he believes weight lifting is rewarding for kids, if only for the “feelings of strength and confidence it gives them” — after being screamed at by their overbearing fathers.