Welcome to the first article in a weekly five-part series on sandbag training and the how and why of adding it into your current training program. Throughout the articles I’ll be adding in plenty of background information to make your training more effective but make no mistake, the next five weeks are about learning by doing. So, to get the most from it you’ll need to get involved!
Despite authoring a couple of books, owning a sandbag training company, and founding the Sandbag Fitness blog, I’ve really only been training seriously with sandbags for four years or so. It all started back in 2008 when I had neither the time nor the money to get to the gym, so I went about getting hold of as much weight as I could for as little money as possible. It just so happens this turned out to be sand. I ended up purchasing 150kg of sand for my garage gym for around £10/$15.
Those first few sessions were tricky and it did take me a little time to get used to the demands of training with the sandbag, but it wasn’t long before I felt as though I was really making some progress. When I did get back into the gym (after about six months of sandbag lifting), I saw 10-15% increases in all of my main lifts. While I’m not trying to suggest sandbag training is some miracle method, if used correctly it can be an excellent way to help you develop your strength and conditioning.
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 1. It’s Affordable & Accessible
I started sandbag training because I didn’t have the time or the money to get to the gym or purchase any other equipment. My first sandbag was a 25kg plastic contractor bag of builders sand, taped up to seal the holes. Was it perfect? No. Did it get me off my ass and doing something? Most definitely. It also cost me less than £2/$3. As I progressed I started adding these bags into ‘outer’ bags for extra strength and durability – I used an old hold-all and rucksack that I had spare in the house. This degree of affordability and accessibility is important as no one should feel like fitness is something unavailable to them.
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 2. You Can Do It Anywhere
Sandbag training doesn’t really require any additional equipment or specific location. Sure, there are plenty of additional pieces of equipment that’ll improve your results over time, but you don’t need any of that stuff to get started. It’s also an incredibly portable way to train. I take my sandbag with me when I’m traveling and fill it when I arrive.
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 3. Be Awesome Rather Than Just Looking Awesome
The bottom line is the vast majority of people who train with sandbags are more concerned with what they can do than how they look. If you walk into a gym with a pile of sandbags in it, you know those people are there to train. Only those in the know will really be able to appreciate that you’re doing superhuman work picking up that nondescript bag. That’s the polar opposite of the guy who picks up the biggest dumbbells and always looks around to make sure people have seen him. It takes real skill to control a sandbag while making the movement look impressive and you’ll probably spend most of your time looking like you’re wrestling an oiled hippopotamus. This is not a good look for posers.
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 4. It Makes You Feel Like Rocky
I train in my garage in all weather. Plenty of times I have to take a breather because my hands re too cold to grip my already frozen sandbag. Have you ever tried to lift a 90kg frozen sandbag? It’s the kind of thing that makes you pretty focused. I actually like the adversity element that comes with sandbag training. I’m there to get results, to make a real difference and, sometimes, to simply get through it. I don’t care that the other guy is training in a temperature-controlled gym, sipping his energy drink, with access to a whole range of expensive equipment. That guy is Ivan Drago. I’m Rocky Balboa, and I’m going to go the distance (possibly winning the hearts of the Russian people in the process).
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 5. It Really Does Compliment Other Training Methods
As opposed to a lot of health and fitness ‘experts’ promoting their systems, I’ll just say that sandbag training could be a great addition to your program rather than saying you should drop all that other stuff and do this instead (“no credit card required!”). Yes, you could use sandbag training as your primary form of strength work. I do and it works well for me. But you can also use sandbag training as accessory work for barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, bodyweight, or any other form of training. Try including some sandbag lifts during deload weeks or during outdoor conditioning sessions like hill sprints. I know plenty of people who have dramatically increased their overhead lifts by supplementing regular barbell presses with sandbag variations, myself included.
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 6. Unlock A Whole New Range Of Exercises
The nature of the sandbag means you can use it for a range of exercises that are either impractical, or just plain impossible, with other traditional free weights. Sandbag training really comes into its own when you start including exercises like:
- Bear hug squats, step ups, lunges and carries
- Load carries of any variety
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 7. It’s Unforgiving
The sandbag has a constantly moving center of mass and, more often than not, will make you fight for each and every lift. This does a few interesting things, most notably it gives you a high return on the time and effort you put in. But I’ll be honest right now and tell you a lot of people don’t stick with sandbag training because it isn’t easy and there are very few glossy ads telling you it’s the thing to do. However, like most unconventional training methods it can also yield unconventional results. And sometimes unconventional results are just what you need to move forward.
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 8. It’s Like Totally Multi-Planar Dude!
While I love biomechanics and sport science, there is no denying it’s often used incorrectly to get you to A) buy something or B) follow a particular method. When discussing multi-planar movement it’s all too common for people to assume that every exercise needs to be performed in every direction for it to be effective. This is just plain nonsense and leads to the kind of programs that steadfastly refuse to incorporate exercises that haven’t literally just been invented there and then. Yes, multi-planar movement is important, but it’s not the be all and end all of athletic training.
Resistance against stress is a great way to work on developing your core strength and multi-planar capabilities. For most people, the ability to resist against movement in the sagittal (forwards and backwards), frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) planes is just as important as being able to move through them. The sandbag is a great tool for this as it forces you to control an unstable object through all planes, irrespective of whether you are moving in a particular direction.
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 9. It Makes You Better At Other Stuff
I’m a big fan of heavy barbell lifting (heavy anything for that matter). And I’ve had numerous conversations with people who are trying to improve their strength that typically raise concerns about their inability to lift as much weight in a sandbag as on a barbell. That’s true, especially when it comes to overhead lifts. But the thing about sandbag training is that it makes you very good at the stuff in between the lifts as well. You get good at the transitions.
You can’t overhead press a sandbag unless you can also clean it up to chest height. If you’re using a handleless sandbag (the choice of the purist) then you’ll also probably have to round back lift it from the floor like an Atlas stone. You may well be pretty tired before you even start your actual exercise and that will really test your mental fortitude. The same is true of many sandbag exercises – there are transitions to accomplish alongside the main lifts. Some would see this as detracting from the program, but I see the opposite. Sure, I like to lift max weight on a barbell from time to time. My sandbag work is something different though. Though I’m loath to say it, as it is always horribly over-used, sandbag training can therefore have a good transference into functional daily activities.
And that leads us nicely onto…
10 Reasons Sandbag Training Is Awesome: 10. Sandbag Training Is Simple (But Not Stupid)
One of the greatest advantages of sandbag training is the intense challenge it can provide. I know I’ll certainly end up dumping the bag after a failed lift far more than I would with a barbell. This has the surprising effect of keeping sessions focused on the work at hand rather than lots of arbitrary additions that don’t really add anything.
One of my favorite sandbag training sessions is 20 ground-to-overhead lifts with a handleless sandbag filled to my bodyweight. It looks simple, even basic, but it never fails to leave me feeling as though I’ve had a great workout. This ethos of straightforward and effective training sums up sandbag training and how I feel about health and fitness as a whole.
Get Yourself A Sandbag
In order to follow the next five weeks of training sessions you’ll need a sandbag. There are two main options here with space for a range of budgets and needs. You can do much worse than starting with a homemade sandbag, just like I did a few years ago. Get yourself an old hold-all, stuff-sack, or rucksack that you don’t mind beating up. The sand you use isn’t that important, but builder’s sand is generally better as it has less dust and normally comes in cheaper. The most basic option is to put a whole bag of builder’s sand directly into your outer shell bag. If you need to adjust the starting weight then just cut open the contractor’s bag, remove the required amount, and tape the bag back up. Likewise you might want to add more sand in this way. You may also wish to create a number of smaller plastic wrapped sandbags to act as incremental weights.
The alternative is to get a sandbag specifically constructed for use as a strength and conditioning tool. On the whole these will be considerably more durable and they will often have additional features such as handles.
Each weekly article comes complete with a selection of workouts for you to try. These will build, week on week, to give you a great grounding in sandbag training and set you on the right course to make some serious improvements to your strength and conditioning. The workouts have been designed to give you a blend of various different exercises and methodologies, so you should aim to give them all a go (so no picking and choosing your favorites, okay?).
Take a day off between each workout and make sure you warm up thoroughly beforehand. As with any new exercise or activity you should try to build slowly to working at full intensity. This will give you the chance to learn the movements and allow you to maintain the quality of your workout.
Workout 1: Sandbag Basics
This workout is designed to give you grounding in the basic techniques involved in training with a sandbag. Use a moderate weight sandbag and take the time to really get a feel for the movements.
- Sandbag Clean x 10 repetitions
- Sandbag Floor Press x 10 repetitions
- Sandbag High Pull x 10 repetitions
Repeat for a total of 3-5 rounds with rest as needed.
Workout 2: Sandbag Strength Session
This workout is focused on developing strength with the sandbag. The sandbag should be relatively heavy and offer a challenge.
- Sandbag Deadlift x 5 repetitions
- Sandbag Back Squat x 5 repetitions
- Sandbag Overhead Press x 5 repetitions
Take 2-4 minutes rest between each set.
Workout 3: Sandbag Conditioning Session
- Sandbag Get Up with a Sandbag Windmill x 5 repetitions on each side
- 400m Run
Complete as many rounds as possible in 15 minutes.
Sandbags in Summary
I hope you’ve found the first article in my series on sandbag training interesting and it’s inspired you to try it out (or return to it if you haven’t given it a go for a while). The next part in the series will further develop the theory of sandbag training and build on the practical element with a whole new range of movements.
Check out the rest of the series: