CONWAY — Phillip Brewer said he was the weakest kid on his seventh-grade football team, and now he holds world records for his strength.
Brewer, 34, of Conway is a champion weightlifter known for his bench-pressing abilities.
He has competed in 20 states and in cities all over the world, including Moscow.
Brewer, aka UnReal Phil, has seven world records in the 165-pound weight class with several organizations.
“I started weight-training when I was 12,” he said, sitting at the counter at 365 Fitness in Conway.
A native of the small town of Horatio, he said there wasn’t a lot to do.
He said he ran track and played football through high school.
“[The town] didn’t really offer a lot of sports,” he said.
Compact — he’s 5 feet 5 inches tall — and fast, he said his coach in peewee football nicknamed him UnReal Phil.
“I was elusive as a tailback,” he said.
However, he wasn’t strong.
“I was a gifted athlete, but I never was the strong,” Brewer said. “I made myself the strong.”
Working out on weights was a good way to pass the time and stay out of trouble, too, he said.
“I wasn’t a good hunter … ,” he said. “The gym was kind of like my home.”
His work paid off.
“In eighth grade, only two guys were stronger than me in anything,” he said.
And by his sophomore year, he said, he was “one of the strongest guys in high school.”
He entered his first power-lifting competition in the bench press at age 17, when he weighed 135.
“I hit double my body weight at 17,” he said, and bench-pressed 275 pounds.
His records include bench-pressing 480 pounds in his weight class, at 181 pounds. He has also bench-pressed 225 pounds for 41 repetitions.
Brewer said the most he’s ever bench-pressed is 500 pounds, “touch and go,” where there are no pauses.
“I brought it down, and it didn’t bounce on my chest, but as soon as it touched my chest, it came back up,” he said.
Brewer said that, according to powerliftingwatch.com, he has been ranked all-time No. 1 at 181 pounds and all-time No. 2 at 165 pounds.
“Right now, I’m at 170,” he said.
Brewer said that in the 1990s, the Internet was relatively new, and he found out about meets through word of mouth or weightlifting magazines.
Brewer moved to Conway in 2000 and got a job at Molex in Maumelle. He now works for Southwestern Energy.
“I probably did 50 to 60 meets in states in gyms,” he said.
Although he said some of them had tough rules, they were unsanctioned meets.
Brewer said that as part of his journey, he became a bodybuilder. He was the National Physique Committee Mr. Arkansas in 2004 and won other awards before bowing out.
“I was really successful, but it’s a lifestyle,” he said, and not one he wanted to continue.
He said his eating and sleeping habits had to be perfect during bodybuilding training.
Brewer said he competed in his last bodybuilding event in 2009.
“No, I don’t really do bodybuilding,” he said. “I work more for strength.”
As a weightlifter, he said, he can have a normal life with his two daughters, Ava, 5, and Bree, 2.
“If my kids want some cake, I can get some cake,” he said.
Brewer said he works out four to five days a week at 365 Fitness in Conway.
“I used to train everything; now I have a back day, chest day, arm day and leg day,” he said.
He started doing “bigger meets” and put videos on Facebook, becoming more well-known.
Brewer has competed all over the country and in Russia, which was by invitation only.
“That’s where I hit that near-triple body weight, [by bench-pressing] a 479 at 162 [pounds],” he said.
“It was December; it was like negative 20 degrees the whole time and snowing for five days,” Brewer said. “It was so different. The general public was horrible; nobody liked us because we were Americans.”
Brewer said that when he and the others needed help with translations to find the venue, no one they stopped on the street would help.
When they found the venue, it was in a well-known historical area, Brewer said.
“It was like looking for Hog stadium in Fayetteville,” he said.
The attitudes of the Russians at the competition were completely the opposite of the public.
“I felt like a movie star,” Brewer said. “I had people coming up with magazines and napkins wanting me to sign them. In Russia, power lifting is about like our pro football,” he said.
The competitors’ biographies were in the magazines, and the fans knew their names.
“Once we got to the venue, we were like superstars,” he said. “I was taking pictures with guys and their wives and their kids.”
Brewer said people often told him when he was in his 20s that he’d stop weightlifting soon, but he said he doesn’t see an end to it.
“It’s a hobby, but you just always feel so much better after you get a training session in,” he said.
He has had one injury — and it was a doozie.
Brewer said that while at a competition in 2011, he felt something that “wasn’t right” in his chest when he was bench-pressing 315 pounds in a repetition contest.
He had torn his pectoralis major muscle.
A little later, it was swollen “like a snake had bitten me,” he said.
“I tore the muscle off the bone,” he said.
Brewer underwent surgery and had to stop lifting weights for 17 weeks and undergo physical therapy.
“It was a rough few months,” he said.
The doctor said it might take him four or five years to rebuild what he had.
“That was my first injury, and I started lifting when I was 12, so I went 18 years without an injury,” Brewer said.
He said lifting that much weight can be risky.
“A lot of guys want to get in under a bunch of weight, and their form gets sloppy,” he said.
Wearing a red T-shirt with the logo of his sponsor — BOAD, Built on a Dream — he adjusted his headphones and lay back on the bench to warm up.
As he added more weight, Brewer asked gym co-owner and fellow weightlifter Anthony Sacomani to spot him.
Michael Lusty, who uses the same gym as Brewer, said, “He’s helped me a lot over the last two years.”
Lusty said he has lost 200 pounds through surgery, diet and exercise.
“He’s not only one of the strongest guys; he’s one of the nicest guys,” Lusty said.
Brewer said he’s happy to share workout tips, and people from all over the country ask him questions on his Facebook page.
“There are people wanting to know my bench training from Australia,” he said. “I try to help everybody.”
He’ll go to Port St. Lucie, Fla., in February to the largest invitational meet in North America, he said.
At the end of February, he’ll travel to Columbus, Ohio, where he will do an exhibit called “animal cage.”
“It’s just like it sounds,” he said. Chain-link cages, which are 10 feet tall, are placed inside an expo center. Weightlifters are on display to show off their skills, “like an ultimate fight or something.”
Animal is a supplement company, too.
“I’ll come in and just lift whatever they want me to lift,” Brewer said. “It’s just for the fans, basically.”
His advice to others seeking success in weightlifting is to work at consistency, diet and dedication.
A cool nickname doesn’t hurt, either.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.