Welcome to the second installment of this five-part weekly series on sandbag training. This article is going to focus on using sandbags to build strength, without a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell in sight. I know, it’s almost sacrilegious! You’ll discover how to develop your own progressive sandbag strength program, some of the best exercises for building strength, and find out what you can learn from the long forgotten art of bull lifting.
Strength Building 101, 6th Century BC Style
As an industry, we’re a little guilty of making strength seem like it’s a bit out of reach for many people. With marketing that proclaims “secret systems” and a myriad of programming options it’s really no surprise that many people are left confused when it comes to building strength. There are plenty of ways to maximize your strength, but the basics are really, really simple.
The story of Milo of Croton illustrates it perfectly. Milo of Croton was a famed wrestler in the 6th Century BC. A legendary figure, he was said to have performed the feat of lifting a fully grown 4-year old bull from the ground and up onto his shoulders. How did he accomplish this feat? He simply lifted the bull every day, from birth. As the bull got bigger, he got stronger. Like many of these stories, we don’t know exactly how true this is but it remains an excellent example of a progressive strength training program.
Have you ever actually approached your strength training in this way? I know many of the clients and individuals that I’ve spoken to over the years have never considered something so simple. They get bogged down in reps, sets, and exercise selection when many would get amazing results from just adding a little weight to the basic exercises from session to session.
Sandbag Strength Workouts
Developing strength with the sandbag, as opposed to a traditional free weight like the barbell or dumbbell, requires some adaptations to your programming. As I mentioned in part one of this series, sandbag training necessitates that you get good at transitioning between positions. But the bottom line is, it is going to be very tough to hit your max back squat with a sandbag if you can’t even get it onto your shoulders, so you need to be a little creative.
The Sandbag Strength workout below gives some of my favorite sandbag substitutions for the key barbell strength exercises of deadlift, back squat, overhead press, and bench press. Like a standard strength program, you can break these up into one or two lifts per session, with accessory work if required. And, as with any strength work, you need to be adding small incremental increase to the weight of your sandbag. This can happen from session-to-session, week-to-week, or month-to-month, but it needs to happen.
Workout 1: Sandbag Strength
Left photo: Bear Hug Squat. Right photo: Open Grip Deadlift.
Sandbag Bear Hug Squat 3 x 5
Grip your sandbag in a bear hug so it rests high on the chest. The placement of this sandbag makes this more of a front squat variation, but it does mean that you can complete the exercise without the need to have to press the bag overhead as well.
Sandbag Open Grip Deadlift 3 x 5
You may well be able to add enough sand to your bag to make a sandbag deadlift comparable to a regular barbell deadlift. But for those who are stronger, you can maximize the benefit of using your sandbag by adopting an open grip – using the fabric of the sandbag itself rather than any handles. This places additional stress on the grip, as you won’t be able to fully close the hand. This can be a particularly important variation for judokas, jiu jitsu athletes, and anyone who wants to improve their grip strength.
Sandbag Floor Press 3 x 5
You can perform a sandbag bench press if you have access to a bench. Otherwise, the floor press is a great alternative. I prefer to start the exercise with the sandbag across my hips and then bridge to lift it up onto my chest. Take a firm grip of the sandbag from underneath, this way you’ll be able to maximize your range of motion if the bag begins to sag.
Sandbag Overhead Press 3 x 5
The overhead press is one of the few sandbag lifts that can be done without too much adjustment, principally as most individuals are able to clean their overhead press weight fairly comfortably. You will have to contend with a greater degree of multi-planar stress at full arm extension. The sandbag, much like dumbbells or a Swiss bar, also allows for a more pronated grip – excellent if you have any issues with shoulder impingement.
Rest 2-4 minutes between sets.
Workout 2: The Milo Sandbag Challenge
This workout is designed to replicate the famed wrestlers feat and, who knows, you could be lifting a bull by the end of the year. We’ve added a little more volume to the program, but it remains essentially the same. The aim is to continually add small daily increments of weight to your sandbag. This requires commitment, but the results can be fantastic. I’ve personally achieved a 100kg sandbag ground-to-overhead lift at a bodyweight of 82kg and I continue to make progress with it.
Perform 5 ground-to-overhead lifts with your sandbag. Take as much rest as you need in between lifts. You should start with a moderately heavy sandbag and add 1lb of sand to your bag each day. Perform daily until you can no longer complete the lifts.
Workout 3: Sandbag Medley
Drag a heavy sandbag 20m before lifting it onto (or over) a platform at around chest height. This could be an actual platform, a wall, a fence or even a tree branch. Rest for 2-4 minutes and repeat for a total of 5 rounds. You should be working with the heaviest sandbag you can handle.
The sandbag is a free weight, albeit a little tougher to control than some others, but a free weight nonetheless. So there is absolutely no reason you can’t utilize it for the strength component of your fitness training program. The type of brute strength you’ll develop with the bag is unlike any other, so it warrants a place in any program. If you apply some of the standard principles of a progressive strength training program to your sandbag training you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve. Until next time, train hard.
Check out the rest of the series: