High schooler breaking bench-press records

Last week in Abilene, Texas, a small-town country kid named Matt Poursoltani bench-pressed 700 pounds.

Record-keeping in powerlifting is a little spotty because rules and methods vary from state to state, but it generally is accepted among those in the sport that it is the most ever bench-pressed by a high schooler. Poursoltani’s lift obliterated his previous personal best (570 pounds), which already was the state record. The lift, accomplished at the state meet in Abilene, has turned the 18-year-old Poursoltani into one of those famous child prodigies that come along from time to time. He has been interviewed on national news programs, and the video of his lift has been zipping through all corners of the Internet galaxy. One video of the lift has nearly two million views on YouTube. So you wonder what, exactly, we’ve witnessed here.

Are we talking about a Bryce Harper type of guy? Is this the LeBron James of power lifting?

“You can put that name on him if you want,” said Jody Allen, Poursoltani’s coach. “You could compare it to track a little bit. I think the fastest time in the state in the 100 meters was 10.17 … Matt just ran a 9.8.”

Poursoltani is of Persian and German decent. His father, Rex Poursoltani, immigrated to the United States 36 years ago to go to school and swim at the University of Texas-Arlington. He is now an executive for the Taco Bueno restaurant chain. His mother, Nellie Cobb, is a native Texan who raises chickens on her small family farm but only uses them for their eggs.

In seventh grade, Matt already showed some promise as a powerlifter.

“He was a short, hairy kid,” Allen said.

Everybody who knows Matt seems to view him as a natural prodigy, the result of chance and fate and a double helix of DNA code that formed the ideal recipe for shoving around hunks of steel. Matt is 5 feet 10 and 275 pounds. He has short arms and a chest that precedes him like the grill on a Hummer. He never ate baby food as an infant. Instead, Nellie would just put whatever they were eating into a blender and feed it to him that way. She liked the idea of not feeding him chemically preserved foods, but she is ambivalent as to whether this had something to do with the development of her son’s strength.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “He has a brother 13 months younger than him. He’s 50 pounds lighter. Matthew’s just big. … Matthew is kind of shaped like a Trojan horse. He’s just thick. His bones are thick.”

There are stories. Nellie said Matt never struggled to hold up his own head as an infant. She would have to park his stroller far enough away from any nearby structures, because if Matt could reach anything with his tiny arms, he would pull himself out. Rex remembers a toddling Matt pushing around a refrigerator. Nellie said he once pulled the handle off the microwave. It’s nothing for Matt’s chores on his mom’s 7-acre bite of Texas to involve slinging around 100-pound sacks of feed for the animals.

“Any time anybody needs anything moved,” she said, “I just go get him.”

Matt lifted weights for the first time in seventh grade. At the time, he and his mom were living in Frisco, a Dallas suburb. He was a city kid back then, and when Nellie initially decided to move out near Pilot Point (pop. 3,856 as of the 2010 census), Matt was not ready for the change.

The drive to Pilot Point showed Matt what he was in for.

“I stopped in the middle of the road and picked up a turtle,” Nellie said. “He was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ “

Before long, though, Matt found a comfortable identity as a country kid. When the Pilot Point High School senior is not lifting, eating or doing chores, he likes to hunt and fish and shoot skeet.

“Our here, they wear boots and jorts,” Nellie said. “Nobody cares.”

Nellie’s and her husband’s partially self-sustaining lifestyle has been helpful in raising a powerlifter. She has to keep the refrigerator stocked with meats and vegetables, and she has to be at the ready to fix them for her child. On one recent night, he woke up his mom at 2 a.m. with a poorly timed request.

“Mom,” he said. “I can’t go to sleep. I can’t stop thinking about that steak in the refrigerator.”

She told him to cook it himself, so he went outside, started up the grill and had himself a big ol’ hunk of meat in the middle of the night.

“He’s found his niche out here,” Nellie said.

While everyone seems to agree Matt’s strength comes naturally, Matt is motivated by records and milestones. That makes a raw athletic endeavor such as weightlifting a better fit for him than sports such as football or wrestling.

The linear relationship between the work and the payoff appeals to him.

“It makes me feel good,” he said. “What you put into it is what you get out of it.”

He lifts weights four times a week but only benches one of those days. That day, however, is all about total exhaustion.

“You should be dead after you’re done,” he said.

The training itself is not particularly complicated. Basically, he lies down and lifts as much as he can. The main thing that differentiates his training from what a regular person might do at the gym is that powerlifters will knowingly put more weight on the bar than they are capable of lifting, but will place a board on their chests to reduce the length of the up-down stroke of the lift. It helps them get used to the weight — and Matt has benched 750 pounds a few times this way. Otherwise, the training is more or less a process of pushing his bench-press muscles to the point of failure, then letting them recover for a week while he works other muscle groups.  

Because of Matt’s relatively short stature and because he reached puberty at an early age, his coach thought he probably had peaked as a sophomore, which would not have been uncommon. Allen also said Matt’s training isn’t uniquely intense. His body just responds to it better than anybody else’s.

“Being a short, hairy guy, I thought he’d top out,” Allen said.

Matt pressed 350 pounds as a freshman, then 450 as a sophomore. Allen thought he was done, then Matt got to 500 as a junior.

“He said, ‘Coach, let’s go for 550. And I said, ‘Whatever,’ ” Allen said. “He did it. He’s been astounding me ever since he’s gone over where I thought he would peak.”

The source of Matt’s drive is easy to identify once you’ve met his father. Rex came to the US from Iran in the 1980s and got a degree in mechanical engineering. Because of his ethnic background and an accent that still seasons his voice all these years later, Rex found the job market was not as open to him as it was to some others, and he took a job as a general manager at Wendy’s. He quickly worked his way up and, after 10 years, joined Taco Bueno. Twenty-three years later, he is vice president of operations.

“I’m very happy with the job I have,” he said. “I’ve been very successful.”

Rex sees some of that ambition in his son. See, when Matt was younger and started showing some promise at weightlifting, he worried his father wouldn’t support him. Rex admits he was not initially excited about the idea.

But Matt wanted it.

“I think self-motivation is the main factor,” Rex said.

So Matt just kept lifting and kept getting stronger. Of course, any time a great athlete comes along in one of the raw athletic sports such as sprinting or weightlifting, everybody wonders how that ability can be applied to the more lucrative and glamorous world of team sports.

Theoretically, one of the strongest teenagers of all time should be a dominant football player. And Matt does play on his high school team’s defensive line, but he doesn’t consider himself much of a prospect.

“I am not a five-star football player by any means,” he said.

Being 5-10 makes him about 4 inches shorter than most high-level defensive tackle prospects, and he has some difficulty chasing the ball sideline to sideline. Rex nonetheless doesn’t want his son to close himself off to the sport.

“When I ask him, ‘Have you ever thought of playing football?’ his answer is, ‘I’m 5-10,’ ” Rex said. “That’s because somebody got it in his mind. If you really believe in it, you can do it. Unless you don’t.”

But Matt’s heroes are not Ndamukong Suh or Warren Sapp. Matt’s hero is Mark Henry, the two-time Olympic powerlifter who is now a professional wrestler and, like Matt, comes from a little town in Texas.

At various points in the past 20 years, Henry has been considered the strongest man alive. As a high schooler in Silsbee, Texas (pop. 6,611), Henry was the subject of a profile in the Los Angeles Times that declared him the “world’s strongest teenager.”

Henry’s strongest lift has never been the bench (he pressed 501 pounds as a senior in high school), but his combined total in the squat, bench and deadlift (2,033 pounds) has been the state record since 1990 and, at the time, was the No. 8 total in the world regardless of age group.

Henry is happy to see another Texan make history in the sport.

“I hope to see him become well-rounded,” Henry said. “I’m very proud of him.”

Contacted Monday by FOXSports.com, Henry was preparing for a WWE Monday Night Raw performance and hadn’t yet seen Poursoltani’s video. The first thing he asked upon hearing about the 700-pound lift was, “Did he do it raw?”

In weightlifting, this refers to the presence or lack of a specialized shirt. Upon seeing the video, Henry noted Matt was wearing a shirt specially designed for use during the bench press. The shirts are tight and rigid and, Henry said, they can have a dramatic effect on the amount of weight an athlete can bench-press — sometimes making a difference of 100 or more pounds.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m taking anything away from anybody,” he said.

But he added that when he gives advice to young powerlifters, he tells them to lift raw — without the special shirt.

“Don’t get caught up with all that stuff,” he said.

Naturally, everybody wonders what all Matt might be caught up in. He constantly is being asked about steroids. He says he doesn’t use them, doesn’t take creatine, doesn’t even drink protein shakes. He just lifts and eats.

“I think it’s just really good genetics,” he said.

Pilot Point is small enough that Matt really just gets teased about his strength. They call him “Mr. 700” in the halls now, and everybody seems to be amazed by how much attention Matt has gotten. Then again, Nellie said, “Everything that happens here is big.”

Matt doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do with his life. He says it has all just been “jumbled up” since his historic lift. He just knows he wants to keep breaking records, and if that means he gets to go to the Olympics or become an entertainer like his hero Henry, so be it.

“Anybody can do anything, right?” he said. ” ‘Merica.”

Allen said most weightlifters reach their physical peak between ages 27 and 35. Allen expects Matt will keep getting stronger. Much stronger.

“I think over the next five years he’ll do over 1,000 pounds,” Allen said.

But if there is anything a sprinter or a powerlifter knows, it’s that no record is forever. That lesson was driven home a matter of minutes after Matt’s 700-pound lift, when a little boy came up and declared his ambition.

“I’m gonna go for the record of a million,” the boy said.

Matt told the boy he bet he’d do it too.

“I guarantee my 700-pound bench press — now that everybody knows it’s possible, there’s gonna be a high school kid out there beating it,” Matt said. “I hope it doesn’t stand forever.”