“It’s such a fun event because there aren’t a lot of times you get to throw something under technique and control, but also as hard as humanly possible.”
In a nutshell, that’s the keg toss: the rarest combination of discipline and abandon, of focus and letting loose. It’s why, according to professional strongman and holder of the New York State keg toss record Mike Gill, it’s a favorite event among strongmen themselves.
“It’s got that element of the unknown in it because you’ve gotta get that angle right too, you’re not just whipping that thing,” he continues. “It’s a combination of technique and maximum explosive power.”
So is it worth your time to train it yourself?
The Stages of the Keg Toss
There are actually two main forms of the keg toss event. The first is speed kegs: in sixty seconds, the athlete has to throw five progressively heavier kegs (thirty pounds to fifty-five pounds) over a bar that’s typically fourteen feet high.
The better-known version of the event, and what we’re focusing on in this piece, is simply called the Keg Toss. The weight of the keg remains constant – usually 15kg (33lb) but sometimes up to 24kg (52lb) – and the height of the bar slowly increases over several heats until one man or woman is left in the running. The number of allowable attempts varies, but in the Highland Games there’s a limit of three failed throws. The current world record holder is the Icelandic Hafthor Bjornsson, who threw a 15kg keg over a 7.15 meter (23.45 foot) high bar.
“It’s like a snatch, but there are a lot more variables,” says Gill. “Unlike a snatch or a jerk, where you have to throw and catch, you just get to whip it over your head. Plus, you’re straddling this keg, so you do the heave ho: you swing it two or three times, then you pull it up and release.”
The biggest mistake that people make with the keg toss is they treat it like a kettlebell. It’s not a kettlebell, and the toss is not a swing. If you whip the keg way out in front and try to make a big, round ellipse over the bar, you’re wasting energy. That’s why the move is more like a snatch: while it looks circular, the focus is on pulling it up, with the athlete driving the elbows skyward and pulling the torso back.
“In that regard, it’s closer to a stone load or a suplex in wrestling,” says Gill. “You wanna pull your head back toward the sky and look up, so you’re bringing the keg up and it has a nearly vertical ascent toward the bar. The less arc you have, the better. You really want it to go up and down like a pyramid, not an oval.”
How to Train
“The keg toss is going to complement your other lifts, so your training doesn’t have to be super keg specific,” says Gill. But he has two favorite exercises to improve his keg toss: American kettlebell swings in his warm-ups and cool-downs, and nine to twelve sets of snatch grip high pulls per week.
Otherwise, prepping for the keg toss just involves a whole lot of keg tosses, at least twenty at a time, which Gill trains one or two days per week. Without doing the keg toss itself, you won’t teach yourself when to release the weight and how to position yourself to get it over the bar.
“The great thing about the keg toss is that there’s no negative portion of the exercise, there’s only the positive contraction,” he adds. “So, you’re not going to get sore from doing them and it’s a harder thing to overtrain.”
The lesson here is that if you’re interested in developing power and you’re already a fan of weightlifting or strongman, you can get reasonably proficient at keg tosses without a big risk of compromising your other training goals. (Of course, you should talk to your coach first if you’re planning on adding to his or her program.)
Plus, if you have a friend in the bar or restaurant business, you can probably get your hands on a keg for twenty-five to fifty bucks, and most kegs you can find (often called “half barrels” in the food and drink biz) will be the standard weight used in strongman events.
If you live near a strongman or a throwing gym, there’s a good chance you can train the movement without too much difficulty, since the same apparatus for a keg toss is used for the sheaf toss, another popular Highland Games activity, and some other throwing activities.
So throw a party, empty a keg, and enjoy! (Just make sure you sober up first.)
Featured image via @terralutabjj on Instagram.