Young, Light, and Strong


After spending my teen years being bullied and feeling inadequate, I decided to stop listening to all the other voices and listen to my own. I wanted to chase something that no one would think was possible: to be the youngest and lightest Beast Tamer in the world. This meant that I would need to do a strict one-arm overhead press, a pistol squat, and a dead hang tactical pullup with the 48kg (106-pound) kettlebell at 20 years old and with a bodyweight of 65kg (142.5-pounds). On top of that, I wanted to pass all the requirements of the SFG I kettlebell instructor certification. That’s a lot already but the biggest challenge was the tests would be in just less than a month.

Crazy? Absolutely.

Impossible? Absolutely not.

Current State

At that point, I was able to do the pullup with the 44kg and I could pistol and press the 40kg. I wasn’t worried about reaching the pullup. However, the press was definitely going to be the most challenging due to my size. I was also worried about the pistol, due to my relative inexperience with the movement (I had only started practicing the pistol one month before I decided to pursue the challenge). On the plus side, I was able to do the snatch test with the 28kg (my testing weight is the 20kg) and I had no trouble with the technique and required weights for the basic movements. All of this meant I needed to maintain my conditioning and technique for the SFG I test and create a plan that would allow me to taper to the three powerful lifts without burning myself out.

The perfect one-arm swing setup

Planning and Strategy

I knew this was an extraordinary goal, and that I would need help from an extraordinary man. I walked down to my old high school and met with Mr. Cole Summers (StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor ad honorem), the man who taught me everything I knew about strength and conditioning. After a firm handshake, we got straight to business.

We decided the best way to go about this was to train the lifts three times per week, gradually increasing the load while decreasing the reps and sets every week. On alternate days, I would practice the three movements unloaded, as well as do some light to moderate conditioning to maintain my snatch test and also continue practicing the kettlebell technique requirements. Notice that I used the word “practice.” This meant light or no load. The goal was not to get tired but to build strength while maintaining what was required for the SFG.

De Leon performing the double kettlebell pistol squat

Now, each lift for the Beast Tamer Challenge is based on one principle: a single explosion of power. This made tapering to simulate testing conditions the best strategy. Training days consisted of low repetitions and long rest periods between sets. I needed to be fresh before every lift to maximize my energy output. To focus the effort and training even more, after week two we decided to only train one arm for the press and one leg for the pistol. After some discussion, the taper followed this outline for all three lifts:

De Leon Beast Tamer training table
Click on the image to enlarge.

There are a few important things to note about this taper. First, notice that each week started with a “drop and raise” of reps, sets, and/or weights. I thought it would be unsustainable from a physical and mental standpoint to do a continuous increase in sets, reps, and weights without burning out from the stress, especially in such a short time frame. My previous training experience conditioned me to “wave the load” with a light, medium, and hard training day during the week. At this point, it would be unwise to try and rewrite the book. In that sense, we planned for my hard training day to line up with Saturday—the same day of the week that the challenge would take place. Second, notice that my training weight dropped drastically during the testing week. This was to allow my body and mind to have adequate rest before attempting the challenge, while still allowing me to practice. Lastly, notice that I never once touched the 48kg kettlebell at any point of my training. The last thing I wanted was to use the 48kg kettlebell in training and fail to complete any lifts. This would be detrimental to the psychological aspect of the lift. However, I did use the 48kg during my shadow lifting sessions. What is shadow lifting? I’m glad you asked.

De Leon performing the tactical pullup
StrongFirst Bodyweight Fundamentals online course

My Secret Weapon: Shadow Lifting

A few years back, I read “Psych” by Dr. Judd Biasiotto and it taught me a lot about how much psychology affects your lifting. In my personal experience as a mixed martial artist, the outcome of the fight is rarely based on size, but your technical prowess and, more importantly, your mentality. Mr. Summers was also a big supporter of this, so I decided that shadow lifting would give me the edge.

Shadow lifting follows the same principles as shadow boxing: fight an opponent without an opponent. In my case, fighting was lifting and my opponent was The Beast. This meant visualization and going through all of the movements without the weight. For example, I would close my eyes, then physically prepare myself for a clean and overhead press. I would set up my distance from the imaginary 48kg kettlebell, load it into my hips, then clean it into the rack position. Then, under full tension, I would fight the non-existent Beast until my arm was in the full overhead lockout position with a strong exhale. This would be repeated multiple times with each lift throughout my day and during my alternate lift days. Done properly, you’ll break a sweat.

I also used shadow lifting to complement meditation. Before each loaded lift, I would sit on my knees and take ten breaths. The purpose of the first seven breaths was to clear my mind of any distractions and calm my nerves. The last three breaths were dedicated to visualizing energy surging through my body until it could barely be contained. The best way to describe it is to imagine that you set off an explosion in your body without giving the energy a way to escape except through the lift you are about to perform.

Being a perfectionist like most athletes, I decided to take it a few steps further. To make sure my mind and body were absolutely ready for the challenge I simulated the testing conditions for the whole month. This meant that every training session, I would wear the same shoes and clothes (I washed them repeatedly, might I add), and use the same pullup chain belt. I always trained the press first, the pistol second, and then the pullup third, allowing me to go from my most challenging lift to the least challenging. Each day of the week had specific meals at specific times so that my body would know what to expect on the week of the challenge. I looked at pictures of the Chicago Dome where the challenge would take place and visualized myself there with everyone watching during practice and training sessions. I was constantly repeating the words press, pistol, pullup in my head. The key was being strict, disciplined, and consistent. In those four weeks, I had conditioned myself to know my opponent inside and out so that when the time came, I would be ready.

Taming the Beast

I will be honest, it was definitely nerve-wracking to know that Jon Engum, Brett Jones, and Fabio Zonin, StrongFirst Certified Master Instructors were my judges and that I was likely one of the youngest people in the crowd full of highly experienced athletes. Nonetheless, my training had prepared me well. Standing there, I realized that “taming” the Beast had little to do with lifting the kettlebell, but everything to do with finding my inner strength. I wasn’t fighting the Beast. I was fighting myself. Taming the Beast meant confronting my fears and my insecurities to prove to myself that anyone is capable of being strong. You just have to believe.

With that, I left Chicago as a StrongFirst Certified Instructor. And at 20 years old and 65kg (142.5lb), I became the world’s youngest and lightest Beast Tamer.

De Leon performing the kettlebell military press
Nolan De Leon
Nolan De Leon is a strength and conditioning coach at Fukumoto Fitness based in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada). He is an experienced martial artist with a black belt in Sikaran Arnis, Tae Kwon Do, and Shotokan Karate. A student of science, Nolan has obtained his BSc (Microbiology-Biochemistry) and is an MSc candidate (Physiology and Pathophysiology) with a strong interest in cultivating a holistic understanding of the human body and disease. He is currently pursuing a career in medicine while promoting healthy living through exercise, functional movements, and nutrition.

12 thoughts on “Young, Light, and Strong

  • Very inspiring, especially your faith in your ability, the shadow lifting, and meditation. Thank you for sharing this experience, it must have been incredible to behold!

  • While Nolan’s feat is a proof of strength, more importantly it is a proof of mental preparation and how much the mind body connect is important. I used visualization for my training for my Iron Maiden. I was taught to use visualization as swimmer. You sat with a stopwatch in your hand and closed your eyes and started the race with the watch visualizing the start, every stroke, the flip turns, the breaths, the finish and then stopped the watch. Typically you could recreate the event and be right on your real time. You would then visualize how you could improve the race…to the point you could recreate the improvement in the water and break your PR. Shadow lifting is a powerful way to prepare for the Iron Maiden or Beast Challenge. Congratulations Nolan De Leon!!!!

  • Amazing! Everyone tells me to gain weight but now I see it’s completely unnecessary. No reason I couldn’t do the same at 6’2″ 145lbs!

  • I was there when Nolan tamed the Beast in Chicago. Amazing as it is, taming the Beast at his age and weight was not the thing that left the biggest impression on me. It was his spirit that left me in awe. I attempted the Beast Tamer as well, and missed. My disappointment in that was completely washed away by the energy of being in the room when he hit it (when he did his pull-up, it was so fast and high it looked like he could have turned it into a muscle up). The spirit of StrongFirst is alive and well in him, and I just wanted to share my experience: Nolan is the real deal. Thanks for being you, brother.

  • Congratulations, great achievement and indeed maximized human potential given how young and light you are! You inpsire!

  • Wow. Mind blown – an impressive feat!

    Your clients are very lucky to have you coach them 🙂

    Thank you for your article!

  • Congratulations on a sensational feat of strength and determination! Do you mind answering how tall you are? It’s interesting to think about what kinds of builds/BMIs might be able to pull this off . . .

  • I have been lucky enough to have been coached by Nolan at Fukumoto Fitness and he is an inspiration. His energy is one of calm & fire all at the same time and his coaching is superb. This is a great piece on a human who gives much to his clients.

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