A case for the sandbag, and why the barbell might hurt you

Jeroen van Duijn

At our gym, the sandbag is part of our exercise routine. You will often see people walking the block carrying a heavy sandbag.

The use of the sandbag has been a very deliberate choice because we now understand how it enforces natural movement. 

We also really much like the barbell, but it is not our main tool. The use of the barbell might not be as functional as the industry wants you to think. To understand this, we have to take a look at our history.

Some form of strength training has existed in Western Europe since the dawn of time. It has generally been confined to the margins of society. Objects similar to the kettlebell and dumbbell can be traced back to ancient Greece.  Indeed, in non-militarised civilizations, health and fitness as a hobby only really emerged in the nineteenth-century when people started to do less and less manual labor.

The first use of the barbell can be traced back to the late 19th century.  It is a tool that now exists in almost any exercise routine and you are not really considered a strength and conditioning coach if you are not using the barbell.
We love using the barbell at our gym and we think it is a great way to improve your fitness. We cannot imagine a life without some Olympic Lifts.

However, we can’t ignore the fact that the barbell is completely different from most of the weight we used to carry (stones, food, even bodies…) in the past.

Internal Torque versus External Torque

The past thousands of years when humans lifted a weight that weight was usually distributed between our hands. When the barbell was introduced in the late 19th century, and people started to “work-out” to stay in shape, we started to distribute the weight on the outside of the body.
This distribution of the weight directly affects the way we use our muscular system.

Internal Torque

When we have weight in between our hands we are creating an internal rotation. It activates a chain of muscles that is colored yellow in the picture below. When we press something overhead a few big muscles we use are the ext. obliques, pec major and lat. We have been doing this for thousands of years and our body is designed to press weight overhead this way.

External Torque

Now let’s introduce the barbell. Because the barbell distributes the weight outside your body it pulls your body into an external rotation and creates external torque (red color in the picture below). It will try to activate muscles like the upper traps that will prevent you from stabilizing your scapula and keeping the head of the humerus properly positioned in your shoulder joint. If you have a well-balanced body that knows how to move, this will not be a problem. You then would still be still able to activate the internal torque chain that allows for proper movement.

But, if your body already compensates with muscles that are part of the external torque chain than you might not want to use a barbell that reinforces this pattern. Using external torque when one should use internal torque is one of the main reasons we see for the shoulders problems people are having. 

Many people that we see walking into the gym are underdeveloped in their internal torque chain and therefore compensating with the external torque chain. This is mainly caused by inactivity and habits that result in poor posture (office jobs, coach potatoes, mobile phone addictions etc. ).


As fun as the barbell might be, it might be wise to not use it as your main tool in your exercise routine. The barbell enforces unnatural external torque during movements that should have internal torque. If you have a well-balanced body this probably will not be a problem. But if you are new to training and fitness it might be better to balance it out by the use of sandbags, dumbbells and other tools that allow natural movement. Once you understand what muscles you need to use during movements and how this feels you are ready to progress to this still awesome tool!

If you want to learn more about this internal and external torque please take a look at www.strongfit.com. Our gym is part of the StrongFit mentoring group.




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