Sandbag Misconceptions: The Truth About Effective Sandbag Training

“Sandbags? Really? We talking about sandbags?” Look through these three points for a new look at sandbags.

Whenever I start speaking about sandbag training, I hear the famous basketball player Allen Iverson’s voice in my head. Why in the world would I hear such a thing? Iverson is famous for answering a reporter’s question about practice with, “Practice? We talking about practice?”

Whenever I start speaking about sandbag training, I hear the famous basketball player Allen Iverson’s voice in my head. Why in the world would I hear such a thing? Iverson is famous for answering a reporter’s question about practice with, “Practice? We talking about practice?”

When I talk about sandbags, I think many people think, “Sandbags? Really? We talking about sandbags?” As though there isn’t much to say. However, after you look through these three points I hope to dramatically change your mind.

Sandbag Training is Misunderstood

Sandbag training isn’t new, but how we look at it, use it, and think about it should be. I often ask people, “If sandbags aren’t new, then how come they have never been the focus or the cornerstone of most fitness programs?” We can come down to only three answers to this question:

  1. They just don’t work.
  2. The implement as we know it is faulty.
  3. The way we choose to program and implement is faulty.

I believe sandbag training works – and not just works, but is a game changer. So, the first idea is out the window. So, when I have this discussion with people, I default to the last two answers. But for now, let’s focus on the third idea about programming and implementation.

Most people try to implement sandbags in the same scope as barbells. They squat, clean, press, row, and maybe lunge. They do it for shock value and end up seeing little value because they treat the sandbag like a barbell. It isn’t a barbell. It functions by a completely different set of principles and overall thought concept.

Yes, you can use the sandbag for some barbell-like work, but most people misunderstand how the sandbag works differently. Here are two classic examples:

Why does the sandbag clean feel different? Ask most and they will say because it is “unstable.” This is not the case. The sandbag in a clean still moves through a vertical plane so there isn’t that much movement of weight.

The difference has to do with the distance the hand is from the center of mass of the weight. During a barbell clean, the weight moves with you because you grip right through the center of mass. In the case of the sandbag, the weight drops away from your body as you pull because the hand is much further away.

Why are sandbag front loaded (Zercher) squats different than a barbell? Most will again say because the load is unstable. Again, this is not the case. Once you are holding the sandbag, the weight can’t really shift. The difference has to do with the dimension of the sandbag. Holding a sandbag puts the arms further away from the body than a barbell. This increases the stress on the trunk and makes the weight feel much heavier.

Understanding such concepts helps us recognize the unique attributes of the sandbag beyond an “unstable load.” These two examples take us to our principle.

Four Important (and Often Missed) Training Variables

The barbell appeals to people because they can easily quantify the load. They can move up five pounds and chart this over time. However, if simply changing loads was the best and only variable, we would have people deadlifting and squatting 4,000 to 5,000 pounds at some point over the years. As far as I know, that has yet to happen.

Trying to apply the incremental loading concepts to a sandbag is both impractical and unnecessary. Putting in little five-pound packets can actually disrupt the proper movement of the sandbag. But best of all – we just don’t need to do it.

The best part of the sandbag isn’t necessarily being unstable. It is the greater number of training variables we can use to enhance strength. In our Dynamic Variable Resistance Training (DVRT) system, we speak a great deal about four typically missed and important training variables:

  1. Body position
  2. Holding position
  3. Plane of motion
  4. Stability of the implement

Holding position means we progressively change how we hold the sandbag to change the stress applied to the body. In sandbag training, we have over eleven holding positions to accomplish this goal. A barbell has four or five. This is an important and effective training variable most miss.

Body position refers to how we stand when we lift the sandbag. Making slight changes to our body position can completely change how an exercise feels. Having people clean from a typical bilateral stance is one thing, but simply move them to a staggered stance and the clean completely changes. We do this in bodyweight training all the time. Makes you wonder why we don’t use this in external load training.

Planes of motion are something that need to be progressive as well. The simple act of walking requires all three planes, but most lifting is based purely in the sagittal plane. Introducing different planes of motion works best by first resisting them (i.e. in shoulder squats, rotational lunges, lateral drags). After that, we can move through them. In DVRT, we start sagittal, introduce frontal, and finally teach transverse. We move from stable to unstable, just as with all drills.

Stability of the implement. As I mentioned, most believe sandbags are always unstable, but the truth is they can be either stable or unstable depending upon the need and goal of the exercise. The one thing no other tool can do is change their dimension, but in doing so with sandbags, we can choose to make a load stable or unstable. This is a great variable when it comes to teaching progressions and building success.

A New World of Sandbag Variations and Progressions

Sadly, with so many ways to progress, have variety, and use sandbags, a great majority of people just end up running with sandbags. Is this possible? Sure. Is it awesome? Eh.

Once you start using the sandbags in the manner for which they are intended, then you open up a whole new world of possibilities and solutions to training needs. Below is an example:

  • Bear Hug Clean
  • Clean to Fists
  • Clean to Front Load
  • Shouldering
  • Staggered
  • Lateral Step
  • Crossover
  • Rear Step
  • Forward Step
  • Off-Set Grip
  • Rotational
  • Rotational Lunge Clean

Those are twelve different types of cleans for all different purposes, without even using all our variables. If we add holding position into our calculations, it takes our total number of potential cleans to over forty. And these aren’t just variations – but purposeful progressions.

The Impact of the Sandbag on Fitness

The sandbag is slowly, but surely making more and more impact on fitness. Using it the right way and looking at it in a new light will not only give you a new and exciting training tool, but a whole better way to deliver results.

Photo courtesy of Ultimate Sandbag Training.

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