Pursue Excellence with Masters Strongman Brian Pankey

Origin of Brian Pankey #thewinteruncle

The hashtag #thewinteruncle came from a video Brian Pankey and I did Thanksgiving 2016. It’s a play on a scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But Brian Pankey’s story began years ago. He’s built his backyard gym from a dream and gone from an undersized kid  to a local celebrity in his hometown of Dayton, TN, mentor to others and an inspiration to garage athletes around the world. Now, as he’s on the verge of achieving his physique and strength goals, Pankey has to overcome multiple injuries that would sideline a normal athlete. Instead he continues to pursue excellence. Find out how he’s doing it.

The Pursuit of Excellence

You’ve been working out for a long time despite a lot of injuries. Before we get started, list the injuries you’ve had. You’ve had a ton of adversity, been hospitalized twice including being stabbed in a fight before I met you. What else have you had to overcome?

I did something to my neck doing behind the neck presses. Next morning I couldn’t tie my shoes. That only lasted for a couple of days. I’ve had bad ankles; my ankles got me put out of the military. When I injured my ankle; I believe it was a stress fracture. I made a mistake and got with people who had a faster time than me in the two mile run. These guys were running wind sprints! I was in heaven but my ankle wouldn’t hold up, I fell and rolled off the track so many times the drill sergeants started helping me up instead of talking about me. I’ve had knee surgery; tore the tendons from my quadriceps to the top of my kneecap and split the tendons down the side of it.  I pulled my groin doing hill sprints; I wouldn’t injured but it shows it’s face from time to time. Hurt my bicep the week before the 2018 Central Georgia’s Strongest Man and I re-injured it on the Sandbag Carry during the competition. Abscessed tooth that broke in several pieces the week of that same competition with what I think is damage in my sinus cavity.It’s okay now. I’m dealing with an odd shoulder pain. I can’t even describe it.  Right now I’m just banged up I guess from competing so close together without taking a break.

Well, both knees were bad. You had one knee repaired surgically and the other one is still bad right?

Yup. But it don’t stop nothing.

Then you were hospitalized because with all of these aches and pains you were taking aspirin so that led to you having internal bleeding?

Yeah, I had internal bleeding and bad ulcers; looked like an eagle’s claw scratched my stomach raw. I bled so much I passed out twice in front of my wife and kids. People have had it a lot worse than I have; I don’t want anyone to think I’m crying about it.

It’s not something I thought about until we were talking the other day and I asked you if some injury or other was a mobility issue and you said you didn’t know because you’re so used to being in pain. But the point is you’re in pain all of the time. Even in your Instagram videos where you’re laughing and joking you’re in pain.

I don’t really notice until later on. I guess I’m just caught up in the moment. But I guess you could say that.

What did you do to your shoulder?

The first injury was a motorcycle wreck. I rode the bike 80mph home, turned around, came out of first gear and went straight into a ditch. 2 miles per hour and hurt my shoulder ha ha! Then I dislocated my shoulder on a Smith Machine. I thought the Smith Machine would be better, you could do more weight, you could work out by yourself but the Smith Machine is locked. There’s no deviation for the natural way your shoulders and joints adjust under weight. So something’s got to give and it ain’t going to be that metal, it’s going to be your uncle! I’d dislocate it, then forget about it and go back to it and dislocate it again.

Brian Pankey trains outdoors year round to be at his best in all conditionsWhat is it that keeps you motivated to train despite all of the injuries and comments from naysayers?

I know what it feels like and looks like to be out of shape. I know how much work it took for me to get in what little bit of conditioning and shape I’m in now and I never really mind the journey. I’ve always enjoyed the journey. That goes all the way to trying supplements back when I was big into all of that and maybe they didn’t work the way I expected them to but I’ve always enjoyed the journey and I always will. That doesn’t mean I like to keep taking it over and over again. Sometimes you’d like to get somewhere and actually reach your destination instead of getting halfway there and having to fall back.

Well a few years ago you had a situation where your little girl ran and jumped in your arms and it actually caused your knee to buckle and that was sort of a wakeup call for you

My knee didn’t buckle when she jumped in my arms, it’s just my timing was off. When she hit my chest, she bounced off and I couldn’t catch her fast enough. Reflexes were just slow. You and I both have a definition of a man, outside of knowing that one must be saved and listening to the leadership of the Lord to be a good man, but not being able to catch your daughter and hold your daughter if you work out is pitiful. And then she busts her head because of it and I fall backwards. That’s just low.

What do you think made your reflexes slow? Because most people would say that could happen to anybody?

That ain’t an excuse for me. Just because it can happen to anybody don’t mean that it should and it don’t mean that I have to live with it. I mean right now, having ulcers and a broke foot can happen to anybody too but I ain’t anybody. I’m me and I refuse to sit back and let it dictate— I mean there are going to have to be some adjustments, I can’t run sprints, can’t push the sled but I do have a friend that gave me a bike. So I can still do some kind of sprints.

Some people set goals down of getting bigger and stronger, I’m really guilty of it; they don’t focus on the stuff they might lose that might be important later on— flexibility, mobility, agility. It’s like an umbrella goal; because you’re working out you should get stronger, you should get faster but that ain’t the case. There are little things that you miss out on if you’re not careful.

That’s huge because when I met you, you were able to do backflips and back handsprings; now can you?strongman competitor Brian Pankey doing handstand pushups in his backyard gym

I can still do the handsprings, I haven’t tried the tuck in a long time, for fear and I haven’t tried the back handspring but I can still do round offs and front handsprings. Yeah, you let stuff go. That’s not really important, I don’t necessarily need those to live but still it’s something that you lost.

It’s like we were talking about how when we were younger we could all do a muscleup because that’s how you got over a fence if a dog was chasing you or whatever. Now, people look at muscleups and are intimidated by them. I remember doing a muscleup to get into a tree, for no other reason than I was climbing the tree.

That’s what it used to be called! Climbing!

You’ve been working out since you were 11 and you started working out because your mom was in a bad situation and you wanted to be big and strong enough to beat up the guy who was taking advantage of her but somewhere along the way, you stopped working out and your friends who did work out, started taking your girlfriends and you got tired of it so you started working out again. Talk about that, why did you stop?

I fell out of it. For a couple of years, I don’t even remember why. I don’t remember how my friends ended up with the weights they had. But I do remember that when I worked out with them, my results were so fast that they were like, “Man! If you kept doing this—“

Well your dad was always in good shape and so was your younger brother.

Speaking of quick results, you were on the football team and you never got picked because you weren’t good and at the end of that summer you went back and did better.

I came back faster, I got my forty time to like a 4.7 with better endurance and I got praised for it. I mean this was a night and day difference. And it was just normal squat, bench, deadlift workouts. Running 4/40s and stuff like that on the off days.

Finding The Courage to Compete

It took you a long time for us to convince you to compete because you didn’t think you were good enough. I noticed a switch got flipped when we went to The Animal Cage in 2012 during the Arnold Classic and you did the Bench Your Bodyweight Competition what was it that held you back for so long and how did you overcome it?

I’m sitting here thinking about that stuff at The Cage and for the life of me I cannot figure out what made me do it! I’m not a shy person but I don’t like being made fun of and I don’t like putting myself in that position. I don’t remember thinking anything; I don’t think I’ve been like that since.

Now you’re competing as a Strongman Competitor in the Master’s Division!

Sometimes man, you’ve just got to be like, “Quit tripping. I mean honestly, quit tripping. You want to do something, you know what you like so embrace it and go for it! That’s what I think happened with strongman. I still don’t consider myself strong, I’ve got a long way to go and maybe a short time to get there. But I still know that even with the ulcers and broken foot, there’s still a way and I feel like I will be letting God down by letting something like this stop me.

Tell me your best numbers:
  • Log Press: I’ve gotten 260 x 1 in competition
  • Yoke:700lbs x 80 feet
  • Axle Deadlift: 500lbs
  • Car Deadlift: Jeep Renegade 4×4 x 10xs
  • Trapbar Deadlift: 620lbs x 1
  • 2inch Axle Overhead Press: 270lbs x 1
  • Seated Overhead Press: 315×2
What about competition results?
  • Kentucky’s Strongest Man October 2015 – Third place
  • True Grit Strongest Man April 2016 – Second Place
  • Alabama’s Strongest Man August 2016 – Second Place
  • Alabama’s Strongest Man August 19, 2017 – First Place
  • Brute’s Strength Gym’s Strongest Man Norfolk, VA 2018 – First Place
  • Central Georgia’s Strongest Man March 10, 2018 – First Place
You’ve made steady improvement each year and without a coach. Do plan to get a coach now that you’ve qualified for Masters Nationals in both American Strongman (formerly North American Strongman) and United States Strongman?

Nah. I have people I can call on for advice when I need it like Larry Berry, or my sponsors at East Ridge Fitness, but when I started this journey, I prayed and asked the Lord, “If I try and put in the effort, will You step in and do the real work? Will You multiply my strength? Just like increasing my borders from the Prayer of Jabez. I’m also aware that this next competition will separate the true strongman athletes from the weekend Saturday warriors that just show up and compete. You’ve got your local heroes in small towns that can show up and win. But at Nationals you’re going against all of them dudes. The weights are heavier- this will separate the true strongman winners from the guy that was pretty good at football but who got a job at a factory and who comes out to compete occasionally. Which one will I be? I believe that after trial and error over the years that I’ve finally got a good training regimen that works.

Like the dude said in Lord of the Rings, “We cannot beat them in war” and King Théoden said, “Yes, but we will meet them in war nonetheless.” That’s how I feel about it.

You were 275lbs when you did Bench Your Bodyweight. How much do you weigh now?

Body weight fluctuates between 220 and  230. I used to say that I’d like to get to 235 and then see what’s up.  I’m there now and I like it. I want the small waist but my waist won’t get too small because of my eating habits for one, ha ha and because I lift without a belt. But I don’t care.

Why don’t you wear a belt?

Don’t like it. I just can’t get comfortable. I’m not saying that people who wear them are crazy; protect your back. I just protect my back with muscle. Look no matter what anybody admits who’s in this lifestyle, one of your goals is at some point you want the ability to do something that nobody else around you can.

You used to train in a commercial gym. Tell me how you ended up with the gym you have now—

Well, I had three nephews in the gym I was working out at doing sprints on the basketball court. One of them ran and hit the wall; put his knee through the wall and thought he was doing something powerful. He’s a big boy, sort of special needs and all he was trying to do was impress his uncle. This was on the weekend so I sent them a picture and told the owners about it. The wife came in Monday said that other people were telling her a different story. I asked why don’t you look at your cameras? I offered to pay for it but she never gave me a price. Her husband told me not to worry about it. But every time I saw her she was asking me for money. Finally I had enough. I had two kids I trained who’s mom gave me some weights and a bench and it worked for a while but I wanted something better for them. I had five kids training out there at the time and I believe that’s when I dreamed my wooden gym.

Okay and now you’ve upgraded. 

February 3 of 2016 was the two year mark that I upgraded. I didn’t need an upgrade, everything still worked fine but I wanted to get some new stuff.

Your gym is now listed on Starting Strongman as an official training facility. There are only ten in the entire state of Tennessee. How did you set that up and has anybody shown up to train with you because of it?

I went on the website and signed up. It was a pretty simple thing to do, it wasn’t something that just happened as soon as you put it on there. I got an email I believe. I’ve had two guys show up, one from Chattanooga and the other from somewhere deep in Georgia. I had a guy from Kentucky, I think but he wasn’t able to show up.

With this gym from day one you’ve been determined to train people there but not charge them anything. Is that because no one charged you when you were growing up and learning about this?

The people I wanted to deal with are the ones that I knew can’t afford to go to any of those camps or their parents couldn’t afford to get a trainer. I don’t have credentials on the walls; you know I don’t have any first place finishes. I guess I’ve just got a heart that wants to help other people succeed.  That being said, I do value my time and I do value my name. So if I’m training you and my name is coming out of your mouth; at least do me the honor of putting in the work.

How did it go from kids to training and mentoring men?

The kids moved on. Football season, wrestling season came around and they started working out with the team. Even with the men, I’m older than everybody that trains here but I still play it as being a mentor trying to help people be better than they were yesterday.

Follow Brian on Instagram @uncleboo56!
Check out Brian’s Training on YouTube

About the author

John Greaves III is a writer based in North Georgia with nearly two decades of experience in training at home. A former amateur kickboxing champion, John now competes recreationally in powerlifting. He takes a physical culture approach to training; believing that strength and health need not be mutually exclusive. In addition to his nonfiction work, John has written two fiction books, A Different Kind of Giant and A Little Lesson in Manners that are available on Amazon.com.