Slowly but surely, it seems the age of bouncing on big, beach balls and dancing on whoopee cushions is coming to an end. People have found that what has been deemed “functional training” for the past fifteen years does not produce the results it promises. In an industry of fads and gimmicks, we have to ask ourselves, “What’s next?” The future seems to hold many of the same lessons the past has already taught us. To get strong, lean, and, dare I say “functional,” you must squat, deadlift, lunge, press, pull, and carry weight.

This is nothing new. However, more and more people are adding strongman training to their routines. Some may roll their eyes at the idea of another fad coming along. The obvious questions come up: “Why can’t I just use dumbbells/barbells?” and “How does this make me any stronger or bigger?”

I’m not suggesting that you drop barbell and dumbbell work. However, various aspects of strongman training are a perfect compliment to any training routine. What made functional training such a buzz was the idea that it trained stabilizers and used movements that are hard to replicate using just standard methods of training. But performing a military press while balancing on a Swiss ball seems to do very little for both the trunk and shoulder stabilizers unless you are a complete newbie to training where anything will work.

What would be more effective is to change the dynamics of the lift slightly to stimulate new recruitment patterns and increase the use of often neglected muscles. The biggest difference between odd object lifting and functional training is that with odd object lifting you train these muscles in a similar manner as you do in your lifting. Therefore, you can expect a greater carry over to your lifting performance. In the famous book Dinosaur Training, the author, Brooks Kubik states, “You feel as sore as you do because the bags (sandbags) worked your body in ways you could not approach with a barbell alone. You got into the muscle areas you normally don’t work. You worked the “heck” out of the stabilizers” (Kubik, p. 115).

You may be thinking, “Josh, this doesn’t sound all that scientific. Show me the research!” But, there isn’t any research. This is all anecdotal. Nonetheless, coaches in the trenches have long been ahead of performance studies. In fact, research has just been confirming what the great Paul Anderson knew about partial training and other effective means of increasing strength from years ago.

Using odd objects in training isn’t reserved for just the old time strongmen. Allen Hedrick, the head strength coach at the Air Force Academy, has been using this type of training for many years. He has written and lectured on the idea of using odd objects—often in the form of water filled kegs—to increase performance and decrease the risk of athletic injuries.

“But, applying the concept of specificity, it makes sense that training with a fluid resistance is a more sport-specific method of training as compared to lifting exclusively with a static resistance because in most situations, athletes encounter a dynamic resistance (in the form of an opponent) as compared to the static resistance. Further, because the active fluid resistance enhances the need for stability and control, this type of training may reduce the opportunity for injury because of improved joint stability.” (NSCA Journal, Vol.25 Number 4)

This sounds good for an athlete, but how would someone who just wants to become big benefit from using odd object lifting? First we need to define odd objects. Many different types of odd objects can be used such as logs, stones, sandbags, and kegs. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with just sandbags and kegs. These two implements are incredibly versatile and very inexpensive. They don’t take up a lot of space so they can be used by those lifters who are restricted to the room they have for training. Water-filled kegs and loosely filled sandbags have a lot of movement about them. When lifting either of them, you must adjust to the constant motion. Sandbags will constantly change shape as you lift them, and kegs will have weight shifts, especially as they gain speed. Both provide a different stimulus and are very effective.

In the classic days of strength athletes, lifters were a collection of strongmen, bodybuilders, and weightlifters. It was unusual to see a lifter classified as only one type of athlete because the various disciplines seem to compliment each other well. We should learn from what these amazing athletes were able to accomplish, and use these methods to the fullest potential. For example, lifting kegs and sandbags is perfect for those lifters who want to increase arm size and poundage. Doing so can improve grip and hand strength and greatly contribute to deadlifting, benching, chinning, and pressing more weight. It can also improve arm and forearm size as the famous George Jowett can show us. Jowett displayed 19-inch arms without doing many bicep curls. His method of training focused on levering and iron bending feats, which he contributed to his great arm development.

Lifters who want strong back and shoulder muscles would find keg and sandbag lifting the perfect remedy. When trying to shoulder, zercher, press, or clean odd objects all the muscles of the upper body are used. Lifting heavy versions of these odd objects is not possible without heavily involving the whole body. As Brooks Kubik commented, “You will feel muscles you didn’t even know existed!” With heavier loads, you don’t just “lift” the weight. You must wrestle and fight the weight till you conquer it. Then, you will find curls almost unnecessary.

The infamous core also receives some of the most effective stimulus with strongman training. Many people have told me that they have a strong core, but when asked to demonstrate their strength, they fail miserably. Sucking in your abs while balancing on a Swiss-ball or lying on the floor does not get the job done. However, sandbag and keg lifting are brutally effective because as you try to lift the odd object, you must try to maintain proper posture.

To train the components of trunk strength, heavy, slow, and explosive movements can be used. Sandbags have long been a favorite training tool of wrestlers and combative athletes. In John Jesse’s famous book, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, he states,

“The use of heavy sandbags and their large circumference forces the lifter to do his lifting with a round back instead of the traditional straight back lifting with a barbell. It is this type of lifting that truly develops a strong back. It develops the back and side muscles in movements that are identical to the lifting and pulling movements of wrestling.”

Sold? Good! Let’s learn how to implement odd objects into your training, specifically sandbags and kegs. You could use sandbags and kegs exclusively for one or two workouts a week, and utilize them in classic exercises like shouldering, clean and press, and Zercher squatting,

Even though using odd objects exclusively is an option, I prefer to integrate them into barbell and dumbbell lifting programs so that I can take advantage of the benefits of both lifting styles and achieve a more complete training program.

Here is a three-day program demonstrating how easy it is too combine odd object lifting with barbell/dumbbell work. Enjoy!

Day 1:

  • Barbell back squat, 5 sets of 5 repetitions, rest 90 seconds
  • Keg clean and press, 5 sets of 5 repetitions, rest 90 seconds
  • Good mornings, 4 sets of 10 repetitions, rest 60 seconds
  • Chin-ups, 4 sets of 10 repetitions, rest 60 seconds
  • Keg bear hug carry, 2 minutes for 2 sets, rest 120 seconds

Day 2:

  • Bench press, 6, 6, 4, 4, 2, rest 90 seconds
  • Sandbag snatch, 15 repetitions, rest 60 seconds
  • Step-ups, 3 sets of 12 each leg, rest 60 seconds
  • Zercher squats, 4 sets of 6 repetitions, rest 90 seconds
  • Farmer’s walk, 2 sets of 90 seconds, rest 120 seconds

Day 3:

  • Deadlift, 3 sets of 6 repetitions, rest 90 seconds
  • Keg shouldering, 3 sets of 5 repetitions each side, rest 90 seconds
  • Towel/rope chin-ups, 4 sets of 6 repetitions, rest 90 seconds
  • Sandbag shoulder get-ups, 3 sets of 6 each side, rest 90 seconds
  • Carrying medley, 1 set: sandbag Zercher, carry 50 yards; keg shoulder, 50 yards; barbell overhead walk, 50 yards

Oh, did I forget to mention that this style of training is amazing for losing body fat in no time!


Kubik, Brooks (1996) Dinosaur training: Lost secrets of strength and development.
Jesse, John (1974) Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, Athletic Press.