Fitness is a fascinating activity, hobby, career, and sport. It infiltrates so much of our life, but most know very little about the history of fitness and the way it has shaped what we think today. To a certain extent, the history of fitness has been romanticized, so that our thought processes are governed by things that may or may not have occurred.
Studying the history of fitness should be done with an eye toward making us better today. When so much of the industry wants to say things like “it has always been done this way,” We should ask the question, “has it?”
A great example of the nostalgia we have in fitness is the clean. When we think of powerful strength exercises in the weight room, the clean ranks high on the list. Barbell cleans are strongly defended as one of the most functional exercises one can perform, but in the history of strength, cleans have rarely have been exclusive to barbells.
A bit over a hundred years ago, weightlifting competitions were very different. There were eight events that athletes competed in:
- Right arm snatch
- Left arm snatch
- Right arm jerk
- Left arm jerk
- Right arm swing
- Left arm swing
- Two-arm press
- Two-arm jerk
Compared to today, weightlifting a century ago was a totally different sport. We have gone from eight lifts to two, and the techniques and implements have radically changed, as well. For example, it wasn’t uncommon to see athletes split clean a weight instead of the squat clean that many think of today. This means that the modern clean is maybe 70 years old. In that time techniques, equipment, and intent has changed quite a bit.
The Evolution of the Clean
With that historical evolution in mind, what is a clean? Originally, the definition of a clean was to bring a weight from the ground to the chest without touching the body. Some competitions then allowed a Continental clean, in which the lifter rests the weight on their body as they raise it. In fact, cleaning implements like logs, stones, and kegs generally require a Continental clean, not the Olympic style we see most often today.
Is one better or another? Do they provide different stimuli? Having competed in both weightlifting and strongman, I would argue that being able to clean many different implements, using different styles, introduces a diversity of movement that better represents functional fitness. Every type of clean and implement we use teaches us something unique.
One would think that anyone who can clean a barbell can be successful at any other form of clean. But that isn’t necessarily true, when it comes to cleaning steel logs, stones, tires, and sandbags. These objects require unique ranges of motion and muscles you may not have known you had. The benefit is that the more broadly you train your body, the better the carry over to things in real life.
So what should you clean besides barbells? And how should you implement those objects in your training plan? I believe that tools besides the barbell don’t get the same respect mostly because we don’t put the same thought and programming behind them. Let’s get started!
The Advantages of Cleaning Odd Objects
Of all the implements I have lifted over the years, my favorite has become the sandbag. I come back to it time and time again, mostly due to the many different ways you can use the same implement. The second reason for my fondness for sandbag training is the love that many old-time lifters had for them.
Sandbags have a long history with martial artists and wrestlers in building their dynamic strength and legendary endurance. In John Jesse’s Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, he observed:
“Some of the old-time strongman wrestlers would shoulder a 180-220lb sack of grain to the shoulder with one hand and then walk several hundred yards with the bag on their shoulders. A few were capable of pressing the same bag overhead with one hand after bringing it to the shoulder.”
What makes the sandbag such a great tool to clean? You might expect me to speak about instability, but that is a really misunderstood concept that I will explain later. What makes the sandbag such an amazing tool is the many different ways we can perform the clean using just one implement, engaging the body in many different ranges of motions, postures, positions, and angles.
All this is not to say that the barbell clean is a bad exercise. But it has limitations as a functional exercise, because all of the power and strength is developed in the same position, and with a perfectly balanced tool.
The biggest difference that one will find with a sandbag is the leverage. This element messes with many lifters more than instability. When you grab a barbell, you hold onto the weight right through the center of mass of the object. As your hands move, the weight moves with you. When you clean a sandbag, your grip is offset from the center of mass of the object. This becomes more dramatic as you get to heavier sandbags.
This also makes squat cleaning a sandbag of any significant weight very challenging. The difference in leverage makes it very hard to get underneath the weight, so most have to create a longer pull. This increases emphasis on the posterior chain and explosiveness of the body.
We acknowledged that the barbell clean occurs in the same stance, using the same positions, with the load moving along the same line all the time. Such training is called “functional”, but in real life, such things rarely happen. More times than not, we have to create great force in a wide array of positions and postures. More importantly, we also have to learn how to absorb force in the same way.
Progress Movement Without Changing Load
The sandbag offers so many different ways to progress any exercise. Most people see changing the actual load of the sandbag as a drawback, but that is only true if you approach the sandbag like a barbell. If we look at the unique nature of the sandbag as an implement, we find many options to create smarter movements and make the same weight feel heavier. In fact, this is a very old-school technique. When metal was very expensive, it wasn’t practical for athletes to have dozens of weights in tiny increments. Using a variety of methods to make the same weight feel more challenging to lift was a great asset and problem solving strategy.
One of the most frustrating things for lifters is when they are taken out of their element. When we take them away from perfectly balanced environments, people really learn a lot about their movement and functional strength. A simple way of accomplishing this is by changing how we hold and position the sandbag during our lifts. Here are some of your options:
The sandbag allows us to assume postures and positions we are not familiar with trying to be strong in. This can be a real eye-opener for some people. These changes of body position expose some of our weaknesses, and can also make cleans feel more progressive in load. Here is a way we progress body position over time:
How to Program Sandbags Into Your Training
I honestly believe that the lack of use of sandbags in strength training comes from not knowing how to optimize their progressions and programming. People try to use them like barbells, and well, they aren’t barbells. So how do we take advantage of their unique benefits?
Since each type of sandbag clean offers a different stress, that also means their intensity can change. So we can take the idea of periodization, and simply apply it using the following variables as guidelines. These will be relative to your fitness level, but here are some good standards to shoot for:
- Heavy: 100lb +
- Light: 60lb
- Heavy: 60lb
- Light: 40lb
Heavy: Bear Hug clean
Moderate: Sprinter Front Loaded clean
Light: Lateral Step clean
Instead of trying to change the load of the sandbag to adjust for accumulating fatigue during a workout, we can change some of these other variables. So, a sandbag clean series in a workout could look like the following, without ever changing the load. In this case, we move from the most complex to the simplest.
- Set 1: Max lunge clean
- Set 2: Rear step clean
- Set 3: Walking cleans
Break Free of the Barbell
The options for movement variation with a sandbag are immense. Hopefully, the ideas presented here capture your interest and motivate you to add sandbag cleans to your training. If you do, you’ll find that we can actually make training more specific to an individual, and remove much of the cookie cutter approach that frustrates so many people. Even in group training, we can cater to the specific needs of the individual, by providing better movements.
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