The Untold Truth Of Strongman Brian Shaw

When strongman Brian Shaw announced his 2023 retirement, it was the end of an era. The four-time World's Strongest Man winner didn't just take home top honors in that competition, but in others — and at the time of his retirement, he still held some ridiculous records. Like what? For starters, he set the record for Max Atlas Stone lift back in 2016 when he lifted a 252 kg (or 552-pound) stone onto a 4-foot-high platform. Because comparisons are fun and sometimes necessary to put things in perspective, it's worth noting that's the weight of a green anaconda or three average-sized Americans.

He also held the record for the keg toss, which involved throwing a 15 kg (or 33-pound) keg over a bar 7.75 meters (or about 25 feet) in the air. And for comparison? Take a look at a 2-story building, and that's about right. 

Shaw issued a statement along with news of his retirement, saying (via Men's Health), "It's been a heck of a ride and I'm so thankful for everyone who has been a part of it. ... I've been very lucky to perform on this platform but hope that I've also inspired some in different ways to go out and be great. That's what it's all about to me." It has, indeed, been an incredible career, so let's look at just some of the things that got — and kept — him at the top of his game.

He was always stronger-than-normal

Being a strongman means competing in feats of strength that would break most mere mortals, and it's no secret that being taller and heavier gives competitors the advantage. At 6-foot-8, Brian Shaw was one of the sport's tallest competitors, so here's a question: Was he always so big? According to what his mother told The New Yorker, "I just think Brian has been blessed. He has been blessed with size."

And that was true from the beginning, starting way back when three-month-old Shaw weighed in at 17 pounds. It wasn't just size, either, it was strength: He was throwing his toys across the room at an age when other kids are just learning how to use them.

It wasn't always easy, though, and his size actually made him a bit of a health hazard to his peers. While grade school was filled with games like, "how many classmates can Brian Shaw carry at once," things started to get iffy when he was a teen. The 6-foot-tall seventh grader was pretty much a given when it came time to hash out the basketball team's roster, but he not only snapped basketball hoops, but he also snapped his classmates, too ... albeit, unintentionally. He accidentally broke bones — including one boy's face — and explained, "It was bad. One guy, we dove for a ball together, and I literally broke his back. It wasn't that I was a dirty player. I wasn't even trying to do it hard."

He cut his teeth by beating a century-old challenge

While some people never truly find out what they want to do with their lives, some have epic moments where everything changes and in a heartbeat, they know what they were always meant to do. For Brian Shaw, life sent him down the latter path.

After going to South Dakota's Black Hills State University and earning a degree in wellness management, things took a big turn when he moved to Tempe, Arizona, for his master's degree. Drifting and a little disillusioned by the fact that he was so much bigger and stronger than everyone else on the football team he was practicing with, he discovered something totally different at a strength and conditioning convention in Las Vegas. Also in attendance was Richard Sorin, who not only designed weightlifting systems, but who also happened to collect old strongman equipment.

He explained to The New Yorker that he set some of the equipment out to attract some attention, but he was the one who was wildly impressed when Shaw walked up and picked up the notoriously difficult-to-pick-up Thomas Inch dumbbell. The 172-pound weight with a single handle had been the centerpiece of his strongman show, and Sorin recalled, "He was just standing there with a blank look on his face. It was, like, 'What's so very hard about this?'" Sorin told him that he needed to do something with his innate strength, and it's safe to say that he listened.

The hardest part of his job is surprising

In addition to his height, there's Brian Shaw's weight that's also notable. Typically weighing in at somewhere between 415 and 430 pounds, Shaw has spoken about just how important weight is. 

After getting his start by competing at just 300 pounds, he knew that he needed to pack on weight and muscle. He wrote in Esquire that it doesn't just take a lot of food, but a lot of time: "I'm trying to eat every two, two-and-a-half hours, all day. It's just constant eating. That's probably the hardest part, is the discipline of preparing the food, and then sitting down and eating."

In other interviews, he's also talked about how eating like he has to eat takes discipline. When The Denver Post talked to him way back in 2009, he told them, "Eating is work. ... You don't want to see any more food, and you've just got to do it." At the time, he estimated that he was eating somewhere around 10,000 calories a day, and 14 years later, he talked to Men's Journal about his 12,000-calorie-a-day diet. He says that includes things like a ton of peanut butter, a ton of meat (that's mostly beef), a lot of carbs, and some shakes ... along with a shocking amount of cheesecake. That's a ton of food, but hilariously, he did meet his match when he tried to take on the entire Taco Bell menu in 2019. It didn't end well.

If he found himself in the middle of the zombie apocalypse...

Pondering who you'd want to be paired up with if you happened to find yourself in the middle of the zombie apocalypse is always a fun game that can reveal a heck of a lot about a person's personality. When BarBend asked Brian Shaw which of his strongman colleagues he'd choose, there was no question: "I can only pick one: I would say Eddie Hall. I think we'd have a good time."

The love, it seems, goes both ways, and they reminded him that when Hall was asked who he would want to be stuck on a desert island with, Shaw was his first choice. A match made in heaven? Maybe, but it wasn't always that way. According to what Shaw told The U.S. Sun, he wasn't exactly impressed when he first met Hall. "It started where — and I've told him this — the first couple years he was very kind of out there, like loud, and I was like, 'Alright, who's this new guy?'"

Shaw said that when he realized how seriously Hall took competition, respect grew into an honest friendship. That's a good thing, too: In 2019, Hall posted a photo to his Instagram that showed the two stuck in the same row on a budget flight from London to Scotland. "No-one on the plane would swap seats... Would you swap seats with one of us??? ... I wouldn't either."

Functional strength helped in a heartbreaking situation

Not all types of strength are created equal, and Brian Shaw has always focused on something called "functional strength," which works multiple muscle groups together. In 2020, Shaw posted an eye-opening video to his Instagram, highlighting just how important functional strength is.

Shaw shared that he and his wife were getting ready to go on a much-needed getaway, and were only a short distance from their home when they came across the aftermath of a high-speed, head-on collision. They pulled over and found that they were among the first people on the scene, which meant they had a decision to make.

Shaw said he walked up to one of the cars, which was so badly damaged that he couldn't tell what it had been. The driver was conscious but having difficulty breathing, so Shaw knocked out the window, ripped off the door, and relieved the pressure to allow the man to breathe. 911 responders cautioned him about going farther, but Shaw said that the injured man was able to ask Shaw to call his loved ones and tell them what happened. While he didn't know what ultimately happened and debated about telling the story, Shaw said, "The point of me sharing this with you all is not for a, "Wow, Brian, good job,' ... I am just sharing it because there are times in life where you get confronted with a situation ... where you have choices. ... You can be a good person, and put everything else aside."

The biggest challenges of being his size

Towering over other mortals and knowing you could crush some skulls in the blink of an eye sounds like it might be pretty cool, but there's a major downside to it: The world just wasn't built for a 6-foot-8, 400+ pound person. Brian Shaw has spoken about some of the difficulties he has in navigating everyday life, and says that although he's adapted to a lot of the challenges, it's still tough.

In late 2019, he posted a video to his YouTube Channel, Shawstrength, of clothes shopping. Anyone who thinks there's nothing in their size needs to shop for a strongman who was looking for pants with a 50-inch waist and shirts that were 5XL.

He told Great Big Story, "I have to own my size." That meant some serious challenges on airlines, and in day-to-day life, it's finding Size 17 shoes, getting through tiny doorways, picking up tiny coffee cups, and as for eating, he opts for a set of utensils that are much larger than standard. Computer keyboards look like toys, but he says he's learned to adapt, and as for chairs, he prefers folding chairs — anything with arms, he tends not to be able to fit into. That problem happens with cars too: Unable to fit into a Hummer, he opted for a Silverado altered to be missing the center console. And yes, he does have a medium-sized dog that looks absolutely tiny.

He lost a bet, went through pregnancy and labor simulators, and had a really hard time

Brian Shaw's wife, Keri, knows what the pain of labor is like: She's given birth to his two sons. That's what makes it hilarious that, in 2022, he lost a bet with her, and she tasked him with not only exercising while pregnant (i.e., with a 20-pound medicine ball strapped to his torso), but also strapping on a birthing simulator to get an idea of what it felt like. They posted the video to his SHAWSTRENGTH YouTube channel, and it's as awesome as it sounds like it would be.

Shaw's exercises were intercut with film of a very pregnant Keri doing the same exercises, and he called it "ridiculous" a number of times. Drenched with sweat and struggling to do even a fraction of the exercises, he got absolutely no pity.

As for the birthing simulator, Shaw was asking her to stop — and for a mouthpiece — at level two. There were still a few more levels before he got to the halfway point, and rather than sympathy, she snacked away on some of their branded crisps. "It was horrible," he said afterward. "Honestly, it felt like my stomach was going to rip apart."

He competed with a torn bicep for a hilarious reason

Sports and injuries go hand-in-hand, and that's true for even the strongest of athletes. In 2014, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning released the results of a study on the most common injuries suffered by strongmen, and said that most were muscles or tendon strains, or tears. It makes sense, but here's a fun fact — only 4% of strongmen in the study broke a bone. The reason was almost always improper lifting technique, so it sort of makes sense that Brian Shaw suffered one of his worst injuries early in his career.

In writing for Esquire, he shared that he was at a 2012 competition when "I detached my bicep." Some things can just hurt a person physically without first-hand experience, and fair warning, this is one of those things. It was the competition's first event, and he didn't quit. "I asked the doctor, 'Can I still compete?' And he looked at me like I was a little bit crazy, but he said, 'Well, it's already torn off. You're probably not going to do much more damage. So if you can deal with it, you can do it.'" So, he finished it, came in fourth, and considers it one of his best showings.

He's in favor of drug testing

In 2017, strongman and "Game of Thrones" star Hafthor Bjornsson was asked whether or not he had ever used steroids, and controversially told ESPN, "Yes, I have. When you want to be the best, you do whatever it takes." The same year, Brian Shaw took a win over Bjornsson in the Arnold Classic, and when Vice took a look at how regulated the sport was as far as performance-enhancing drugs were, they found it was sort of still the Wild West.

Shaw addressed the question of performance-enhancing drugs back in the beginning of his career, when he was interviewed by The Denver Post in 2009. At the time, he was a vocal opponent of the use of any such drugs, saying, "It frustrates me because when people see big guys, they say, 'It's all drugs.' That's because people don't want to work hard. But I'm out there almost every day. I haven't missed two straight workouts in five years. It's tough, it really is, but I don't know if you're ever going to have a completely tested sport."

By 2012, he was still in favor of testing, but industry experts were already predicting that the use of performance-enhancing drugs was only going to increase as records did: How much, after all, could the human body take?

His career almost ended with an amputated limb

Brian Shaw has had an undeniably epic career, and not only has he achieved things that many people might just dream of, but he's also encouraged countless others to go out and chase their dreams. When he announced his retirement for 2023, that almost came with a heartbreaking caveat: It was April of 2023 when he shared a video that described how he had nearly ended not with one last competition, but with something that was potentially life-threatening.

His prep for World's Strongest Man had started in earnest in January, but later that month — and 12 weeks from the competition — he was hospitalized with an infection in his leg. Just days into his hospitalization, he was already describing it as one of the most mentally challenging things he'd faced in his career, and it was only going to get worse.

He was ultimately diagnosed with cellulitis, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's an infection that can be incredibly dangerous and — if untreated — even fatal. Shaw didn't get into too many of the grisly details, but said that the incident had very nearly ended not only his career, but his leg as well. He made it to the competition and placed seventh, impressive any year and even more impressive given his hospitalization just months earlier.

His career did end in a fitting way

Brian Shaw might not have ended his strongman career with a win, but in speaking with The U.S. Sun, he revealed that there were a few things about the 2023 World's Strongest Man competition that made it an incredibly fitting and somewhat poignant way choice to be his last WSM.

For starters, Shaw gave a shout-out to Conan's Wheel, saying, "I've never actually done a Conan's Wheel at World's Strongest Man. It was a very common event towards the start of my career, so I got to see it a lot." Shaw, who was in Group 4 for the Finals Qualifiers, ended up netting only 2 points in the event, almost at the bottom of the rankings.

He shared that he was also looking forward to Fingal's Fingers, saying that he'd competed in that event in his first WSM Final. "So, I guess in a lot of ways, you can kind of say it comes full circle maybe — my first final and potentially my last final, with having Fingal's Fingers as an event there." That event netted him four points. After the competition, he said (via Men's Health), "I feel the love, I'll say that. ... I'm a lucky man. I'm a very, very lucky man, I'm grateful for all of it, I'm grateful for each and every one of you that's been a part of it in some way, shape, or form."