Heavy lifting: Primal Strength Gym offers training for all levels

Charles “Tank” Tankersley opened Primal Strength Gym with the goal of providing a strength training environment that’s welcoming to people of all levels of fitness. Photo: Amy Jackson Charles “Tank” Tankersley opened Primal Strength Gym with the goal of providing a strength training environment that’s welcoming to people of all levels of fitness. Photo: Amy Jackson

It may be hard to imagine a gym where heavy-lifting Strongman competitors and women trying to tone up both feel comfortable working out. Introducing Primal Strength Gym, a weight-lifting fitness center located at 1110 E. Market St. that revolves around building strength—for intense competition or otherwise.

The brainchild of Texas A&M alum Charles “Tank” Tankersley, Primal Strength Gym celebrated its one-year anniversary this month. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s a reason for that. Tankersley deliberately kept the gym’s existence pretty quiet for the first year, recruiting members through friends and by word of mouth. He wanted to start small and gradually grow the business so he could still manage his life as a government employee and father of a 3-year-old. Since opening he’s expanded and essentially doubled the size of the space, which is filled with standard weight-lifting accoutrements such as barbells and benches. But you’ll also find strength training equipment you’re not likely to see in gyms that play pop music and offer BODYPUMP classes, such as the spheres of pure concrete known as Atlas stones or the rows of kegs filled to varying weights with sand.

Creating an atmosphere that’s welcoming to everyone on the fitness spectrum is challenging, Tankersley says, but there’s a supportive camaraderie that comes with strength training.

“I wanted it to be like a family, and everybody knows everybody. They take ownership of the gym and really take care of the place,” Tankersley says, adding that everyone there has at least one thing in common: “People like feeling strong.”

A former high school baseball player, Tankersley got away from weight training in college and stayed in shape by running. By the time he moved to Washington, D.C., in 2006 for a job with the Defense Intelligence Agency, he was eyeing the irons again.

“I was really skinny and really weak, and wanted to do something to improve my body image,” he says. “I started lifting and made a lot of improvements, and kind of got addicted from there.”

That addiction ultimately led him to get certified as a personal trainer and start competing through North American Strongman, an amateur Strongman corporation that holds weight lifting-based competitions around the country. (You know those 400- pound behemoths you see on TV pulling trucks and running with giant bags of sand? It’s like that.) When the desire to live in a smaller town brought him to Charlottesville in 2010, he couldn’t find a gym that fit his training needs.

“When you look at people who are really high-level competitors, they train at places that create intensity,” he says.

In 2012 he began Primal Strength Camp, an online resource for anyone interested in Strongman-style strength training. Last year, when he found the perfect spot, he turned his online presence into the brick-and-mortar Primal Strength Gym.

So what can you expect if you walk into the gym with little to no prior weightlifting experience? Along with the heavy metal blaring through the speakers and Hulk-like men walking around, you can expect a friendly, welcoming environment where members cheer each other on and equipment that ranges in weight enough to be beginner-friendly.

Tankersley walks newbies through a simple warm-up of stretching, jumping rope and air squatting. He’ll gauge your strength by starting you out on the lowest weights, like the 90-pound Atlas stone, which he’ll ask you to deadlift, hold on top of your knees in a squat and then hoist with your arms onto a platform that may or may not be as tall as you; and the 30-pound empty keg, which you’ll clean up to your chest before pressing above your shoulders. And if you smugly lift the empty keg onto your shoulder without any struggle, he’ll hand you the 50-pounder—which, it turns out, is a lot heavier. 

One of the primary elements that sets Primal Strength Gym apart is the emphasis on rest time. Some of us don’t do well standing still, especially when there’s a perfectly good 135-pound barbell racked and ready to be squatted, but Tankersley says taking ample rest time between sets is crucial to this type of training. It’s one thing to only give yourself 45 seconds to breathe between reps during a fast-paced circuit training class with low weights. But when the weight is higher, the rep count is lower and the ultimate goals are bulk and brute strength, Tankersley says it’s crucial to take what may at first feel like a lengthy period of time between each set. For building muscle he recommends two to three minutes of rest for men, and about one minute for women; for both genders who want to gain strength he suggests a solid three to five minutes. Too long and you won’t make progress, he says, but not long enough and you run the risk of burning out or hurting yourself.

It’s a different style of workout for sure. You may not walk out of there with your heart racing and sweat pouring down your face, but be prepared for sore legs and shoulders the next morning.

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