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Why The Sandbag Over Shoulder Toss Isn’t Great!

sandbag training

One of the most important things to know when answering a question about training is that context is everything! When someone asks me if this or that piece of equipment, exercise, or training program is good or not, I have to know a lot more! Who are we talking about, for what goal, what phase of training are we in, what issues do they face? I say that because I see a popular sandbag exercise being promoted all the time and I think few ever think about is it good, what are they trying to accomplish, and should you be doing it?

sandbag over shoulder toss

Thanks to DVRT Master, Cory Cripe for being the model;)

So, why do I not love the sandbag shoulder toss? Let’s start with where it comes from. As some of you may know, I used to compete in strongman competitions (I wasn’t too bad but the Magnus’ of the world were very safe) and this drill actually kinda, sorta stems from the world of strongman. A popular implement in strongman competitions are Atlas stones. These giant stones are typically lifted from the ground to platforms of varying heights (sometimes the same height). Over the years other organizations started putting them in their fitness challenges and since platforms took up a lot of space, they would have people toss them over bars.

Me “back in the day” working on speed work with Atlas stones

So, what does this have to do with sandbag shoulder tosses? I promise I’ll get there very soon! In the technique of doing stones because it looks very scary for a lot of people (there is A LOT of technique here otherwise it can be very risky for low backs) we have to pick the weight from the ground, to our lap, and then explosively bring the weight to the platform or over the bar. The way you didn’t hurt your low back was by using the shape of the stones to make the weight part of your body and you created specific tension against the stone to create core stability and protect your low back. This was essential for someone like myself that had a history of low back issues since I was 14.

Understanding this is key in appreciating our discussion of the sandbag over the shoulder toss. That tension and being able to become part of the stone is SOOOOO important in the movement and not hurting yourself. In fact, a lot of people don’t know we would use a “goo” known as tacky when we would lift Atlas stones to really adhere ourselves to the stones and take stress off the forearms because you need to create that much tension (ironically most sodas are great for removing this goo if that says anything!).

Okay, I’m almost to the main point! When we would get to high platforms we would get in a position like you see Cory up above with the Ultimate Sandbag. What would save many from hurting their backs (there were still a lot of injuries) is the fact that as you went into that position you could keep tension against the stone till the VERY last moment. So?! Well, for one let me start with the most important question about this movement, what was my goal? The use of Atlas stones was part of my sport at the time, we all knew there were inherent risks with the sport, but we enjoyed doing it. We didn’t just get better at it by using the stones either. In fact, the use of the stones was so intense that you had to carefully cycle when you would use them in your training. In other words, for us it was sport specific training. Therefore, my first question for people doing sandbag over the shoulder tosses is “why?”

You see in strongman, we had a running joke amongst many of the competitors. It wasn’t a question of if you would get hurt from the sport, just how hurt were you (this ultimately led me to giving up the sport because I wanted to have some longevity in my life). I don’t care the sport, they all have inherent risks that the athletes know about and in a way agree to have part of what can happen to them. However, if you aren’t in such a sport, why are you doing such a movement?

My Issue With The Sandbag Shoulder Toss

I really couldn’t understand why people would want to perform such a high risk movement if they weren’t competing in a sport. Then the other day I saw a mainstream magazine print the following…

Ah-ha! So people do it JUST to build explosiveness?! I can understand why people believe that and the sandbag shoulder toss can build explosiveness, EXCEPT it is VERY different from a stone. Yes, even those round shaped sandbags are still very different! Why? For one, they simply don’t have a shape of a stone, yes, even the circular ones. The round shape is very important in how we lift stones and then there is the second important distinction. Why a lot of people initially say they like sandbags is that they are unstable and move. In this case, THAT is exactly what makes them high risk and different than stones. Obviously stones are solid and the sandbag is moving and non-cooperative. Remember that tension I said was so important and that we would even literally glue ourselves to the stones? You don’t have that with the sandbag really exposing the low back to far more risk. The sandbag shoulder toss is a great example of risks versus reward.

However, what do you do if you DO want to want to build power? There are a few key concepts of explosiveness that is critical to understand. One, it is about force generated into the ground. That force helps us create what is known as triple extension (ankle, knee, and hip). It is triple extension that is used when we run, jump, create a lot of power in many cases. THAT is the reason athletes use Olympic lifts and their variations.

ultimate sandbag cleans

Renown strength coach, Robert Dos Remedios, shows that great triple extension in the middle picture. 

I’ll be honest, NO sandbag (including the Ultimate Sandbag) is great for trying to do a sandbag shoulder toss, especially when we have BETTER ways to use the tool to create explosiveness and add a much needed addition to that equation. What you see DVRT Master, Cory Cripe performing Ultimate Sandbag power drills that develop awesome power, but don’t put your back at the high risk. PLUS, we get to work on deceleration strength too! You can’t focus on power training without also looking at deceleration abilities, it doesn’t make sense. What you notice is how smoothly and in control that Cory lowers the weight each movement.

That begs the question, why would I perform a higher risk movement if there are just as good if not BETTER ways of developing power? This is an especially important questions if we are thinking about using such a movement with others.

sandbag shoulder toss

Last point, what Cory shows below is also an awesome demonstration of how the Ultimate Sandbag is different than a barbell for cleans and snatches. Not only do we have different positions we can load the body, but the handles being away from the center of mass (the barbell has the grip at the center of mass) we have a longer period of having to create that power as well. That is why an Ultimate Sandbag of 100 pounds can feel like a much heavier barbell!

I’m not trying to judge anyone for using an exercise, rather I want people to understand what is occurring when they use an exercise they may see a lot like a sandbag shoulder toss. Is there a better and safer way to accomplish the goal? If so it seems crazy not to use those options! As the great Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Remember, context is so important so even if it isn’t the sandbag shoulder toss, I hope this helps you ask better questions about your training!

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