Why you should care

Because this is the weirdest teen pastime we’ve ever heard of.

Minutes after Scottish schoolboy Cosmo Taylor finishes his math homework, he turns to his weights. He counts the reps he’ll make (10 of each exercise) and the hours he’ll spend (one or two) at the gym. Every few weeks, the pale-skinned, mild-mannered student drenches himself in a fake orange tan and ditches his favorite skinny jeans for a pair of itty-bitty black posing trunks.

Fifteen-year-old Cosmo Taylor’s alter ego is a record-making competitive bodybuilder — the youngest ever in the U.K. He is among a growing crop of bodybuilders who don’t have a driver’s license or voting rights but who can bench-press, we’d venture, tens or hundreds of pounds more than you. Tiny titans Claudio and Giuliano Stroe from Romania, at 7 and 9 years old, respectively, are now Internet sensations for performing vertical pushups and human-flag pullups without breaking a sweat. Not impressed yet? There’s also 9-year-old bodybuilder Andriy Kostash, who started pumping iron when he was 5 and shattered the Ukrainian record for the most consecutive pushups at 4,000. (Both the Stroes’ and Kostash’s parents declined to comment on their children’s behalf.)

Bodybuilding is all about looks — it’s judged aesthetically, based on how well-built and impressive the body appears.

The minute-sized musclemen are a harbinger of the times: It’s no longer just a fitness-crazed world but one in which fitness for its own sake is increasingly prized. With showcases like American Ninja Warrior and bodybuilding competitions, you don’t have to play a traditional ball and running sport anymore to be one of the world’s most elite athletes. This is the story according to former bodybuilder Bill Gronachon. There’s something more to the childhood-bodybuilding trend, though. Unlike kids who participate in elite tennis academies or practice at a young age for intense sports like tennis, gymnastics or soccer, these bodybuilders train not just for excellence or even to win a major athletic competition. There’s not even any prize money. Rather, bodybuilding is all about looks — it’s judged aesthetically, based on how well-built and impressive the body appears. Which makes it an even more bizarre sight to see.

In the past decade, youth gym memberships for kids between the ages of 6 and 17 increased twofold, according to a 2009 National Strength and Conditioning Association study. Moreover, some 1.2 million American adolescents — the bulk of them around 10 or 11 years old — are buying and taking supplements for sports performance, according to data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. The youth fitness market among 6- to 11-year-olds is now worth $106 million and is booming as an increasing number of sports-conditioning centers cater to junior gym rats like Taylor.

A 15-Year-Old Who Can Bench-Press 165 Pounds

Cosmo Taylor

Taylor’s first weights were a modest set of five 1-kilogram (or about 2-pound) dumbbells, which were a special 11th-birthday gift from the owner of the gym near his home, because he was “too weak” to lift anything else. Since then, the teenager — now 5-foot-11 and 161 pounds — has graduated to 340-pound dead lifts and 165-pound bench presses at professional competitions around the country. Slowly but surely, Taylor is “getting a wee bit bigger,” he told OZY after cramming in a weekend gym session between schoolwork and dinner. “I’ve been hooked on seeing results ever since,” he added.

Outside of bodybuilding, Taylor is “just a normal teenager,” he explained. He wears high-top sneakers, racks up hours on his PlayStation and hangs around his small suburban neighborhood in Inverness during his free time. People describe Taylor as down-to-earth: “the most humble I’ve ever come across,” said one family friend. For Taylor, the real worries aren’t the intensity, the supplements or even the “so many delicious foods out there like KFC, ice cream — this list can just go on and on,” he laughed. His clean diet of oats, lean chicken, rice and salad is sometimes hard to stick to, he admitted.

A young boy flexes his muscles during a regional bodybuilding competition in Kabul on April 30, 2012.

A young boy flexes his muscles during a regional bodybuilding competition in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 30, 2012.

Gronachon, for his part, started strength training at 15 and was bench-pressing a whopping 450 pounds in his heyday. Now the disks in the 44-year-old’s spine have fused together, and Gronachon is anxiously awaiting surgery to alleviate the longtime pain caused by his earlier, intense years. Much has changed since the peak of his bodybuilding career, including the grunge and grit that used to characterize gyms. “People were using chalk, and they were playing rock music. Kids wouldn’t dream of going there today,” he explained.

Nowadays, gyms are more kid-friendly. Some, like the one Taylor uses, carry playful fitness equipment with monkey bars, climbing ropes and trapeze rings. Sure, childhood bodybuilding seems like a much better situation than childhood obesity, but with such Adonis-like physiques, are these young bodybuilders taking it too far? Bodybuilding before puberty may be overkill, explains orthopedic surgeon Steve Ballinger, of Samaritan Albany General Hospital in Oregon. “You can’t just hammer on them,” he said. Too much stress over building an intense amount of muscle can “inhibit” a child’s growth, he explained. “A 9-year-old should never know what his bench press max weight is.”

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