For most of us, myself included, our first encounter with kegs was high school or college when someone’s “cool” older brother or some fraternity decides it would be fun to watch teenagers act as foolishly as possible for a few hours before bright flashing lights cause the entire yard to scatter. Outside of trying to show off for the crowd, most of us probably haven’t considered lifting the kegs and even fewer have probably considered doing it for fun. Yet when the gyms shut down in March 2020, I decided to do just that, and for an entire year, 100% of my heavy lifting consisted solely of loaded kegs. Here’s what happened.
Keg training is very different from barbell training. Keg training is raw, difficult and chaotic. It’s a shame that the term “functional” is so overused in strength training today, because it totally fits here. When kegs are used for strength training, they’re typically loaded with water, sand or gravel and they will slosh around as you move them, forcing you to react to stabilize and move the weight. Kegs also have a far greater diameter than barbells with a half barrel keg, also called a full keg, diameter coming in at 16 and 1/8”. That means that if the weight is centered in the keg (and it won’t always be, remember the sloshing?), the center of gravity is about 8” away from your body forcing you to activate more posterior chain muscles and challenging your spinal erectors to keep your back in position. Where barbell training allows you to move through clean, smooth movements; keg training forces you to grapple with a more real-world awkward instrument and force it to your will. You keep those muscles pulling on something heavy and they will get stronger.
I started encountering beer kegs as workout implements sometime around 2013 when I was still training in CrossFit. Certain pioneering competition programmers started putting different keg lifts into the events and so, industrious CrossFit and strength trainers started keeping them in the gym for training. Eventually, I took Rob Orlando’s Strongman course to get the hang of all the less common strength training implements like logs, farmer’s handles and of course, kegs. I got into the sport and started incorporating these lifts into my training as best I could. Even though I knew I’d never be a peak competitor (I placed 29th in Austin’s Strongest Man in 2015. I’m pretty sure there were barely more than 30 competitors.), I loved the concept of taking barbell training to the next level. I moved to California and worked out at Deuce Gym, probably the best Strongman-for-everyman gym there is. Unfortuantely, before long, injuries sidelined my training and I eventually moved away, relegated to training with more typical equipment with one knee that would never quite get right.
I don’t think I need to belabor everything that happened in March 2020, but for our purposes today: we weren’t working out in gyms for the foreseeable future. I was living in North Carolina by then and I’d just closed on my first house – and that’s where opportunity struck. I didn’t have a covered area to keep weights and for that matter everywhere was sold out of barbells and plates anyway, but I did have a backyard and I remembered my old friend the keg. I reached out to a local brewpub and inquired about empty kegs. After acknowledging that it was an odd request, they agreed to sell me two half barrel and two quarter barrel kegs for what I had in my wallet at the time: $65. I loaded them up in my SUV, brought them to my new backyard gym and set to work. If a brewery doesn’t want to let go of their precious kegs, you can always do what they did at Deuce Gym: throw a keg party. In addition to the price of the beer, they’ll ask for a $20 deposit on the keg. Just… don’t bring it back. Your new keg cost you $20 and your friends like you more. I don’t recommend letting teenagers drink any of it, though.
My old brother-in-iron Travis Holley, owner of Travis County Strength in Austin, had the most serviceable video about how to turn a keg into a strength implement. (https://youtu.be/AxBoIAIdJlE) It has a criminally low 128 views on YouTube. Be careful! Follow all of the safety instructions before you crack your skull open. The essentials are this: kegs are under pressure, so you’ll have to release all the pressure first by pressing the ball lock down (I used a screwdriver) and letting all of that pressure gas spew out. It will smell like old beer. Then you can use pliers and a flathead screwdriver to wedge out the retaining ring, rotate the D body until the notch lines up with the body and boom! Just pull the whole keg valve out. After that, you can load whatever you want in the keg. I used a combination of sand (you can buy 50 lb bags at Home Depot) and water straight from the hose. A half barrel keg full of water will weigh about 175 lbs, so use your judgement as to how much sand/water/whatever you want to put into the keg. Once you’re happy with the load, cap it off with a 2-inch plumbing cap and viola! You have a strength training implement.
My final set up weighed roughly 65, 110, 135 and 190 lbs. I never weighed them; I wasn’t trying to train for precision. Once you’re familiar with the proper form—and you should be before you start lifting—there’s no shortage of exercises you can do with these. I did curls, overhead presses and RDL’s with the smaller kegs. The larger ones I used for deadlifts, rows, keg-to-shoulder and viper presses. Obviously, these were pretty light loads, so I took the time to hit higher rep sets and HIIT workouts on a rotating basis. Kegs are killer for HIIT. Mix in some sets with rounds on the heavy bag, kettlebell swings and snatches and sledgehammer strikes and you can really crush yourself in 20 mins. My workout times dropped dramatically. Whereas I had been training 75-90 minutes at a time in the gym, I typically finished a workout from warmup to putting away equipment in 45 minutes. I occasionally wondered if I should have been incorporating more, but I was still feeling wiped at the end of the workout so I rode with it. I filled out supplementary equipment over time. I bought some gymnastics rings for pull ups, resistance bands for push ups and a heavy sandbag for squats and grip training. But for one year, my main strength implement was the keg.
So, what happened? My last day in the gym in 2020, I pulled a one-rep axle bar deadlift at 500 lbs. Okay, actually I dropped it. I pulled it off the ground, but at the very top my grip couldn’t handle the 2.1” thick bar and I lost the lift. This isn’t Guinness. I filed it away, “my deadlift is about 500 lbs.” Used it for a metric to judge myself against when I could hit the barbell again. One year on the money, the gyms in NC have been open, I’ve been vaccinated and I felt good about getting back in a gym. My first day in, I took a nice long warm up, made sure to hit some supplementary stuff that I haven’t had access to with my backyard set up and started loading up a bar for deadlifts. I truly had no idea where I’d end up. Started at 135, set up, got a firm grip and the bar flew off the ground for a warmup set of 10. That’s good. Let’s add some plates. At 225, I wasn’t exactly concerned but keep in mind that this is more than I’ve lifted in a over a year. Set up, firm grip and pulled a too easy warm up set of 5. 315 goes up easy, then 405 then a 50-lb jump to 465 and it still feels good. I’m flabbergasted. Can I really keep this strength with improvised home equipment? With five 45’s on each side of the bar, I looked at it a little sideways. I searched around for the 2.5-lb plates. I never liked how it added to 495. Now 500 pounds is heavy. No matter how strong you get, the lift may get easier, but deadlifts never let you forget that 500 pounds is still 500 pounds. I pull. The bar lifts off the ground. Then it passes my knees. Is this really going to happen? I lock it out and roar to the mostly empty gym. One year, no barbells, 500 lbs; all thanks to those $65 kegs in my backyard. I pulled at 515 a few minutes later. Stood up, and the bar fell out of my hands. Looks like grip is still going to be an issue.
My takeaway is simple. Strength training is about putting your muscles under tension and pulling against something heavy. Strength trainers can get married to traditional lifts and specific numbers and at certain levels of competition maybe you should be, but if your goal is simply to get or stay strong, don’t overthink it. Take something heavy and pick it up. If it’s easy to do, pick up something heavier or pick it up faster and do it more times. Lift heavy weights, do it right, and strength will be yours. Whether your barbell and plate set are on backorder or you’re looking to add some variety to your training, all you have to do is throw a kegger, take the $20 deposit hit and make your own equipment.