When you think about old-school workouts, you probably envision a bare-knuckle, heavy-lifting session with metal bars and plates. Eventually, new technology spawned complex machines and trendy methods for getting people fit. But lately, trainers are moving back toward classic methods because they are so effective. And one of those old tools—one that goes back to ancient times, in fact—is the most underused strength builder out there—the sandbag.
Sandbag training isn't something people use in most gyms, which in my view is a missed opportunity. (And I don't say that just because I'm the founder of Ultimate Sandbag Training.) Because they provide dynamic resistance, sandbags can develop muscle in a way that traditional fitness implements like barbells and dumbbells cannot. The strength you build using a sandbag is more like the strength you need on a playing field, because a sandbag, like your opponent, is constantly on the move.
Sandbags could help a lot of athletes make incredible improvements in a short amount of time. But there are three huge mistakes people make when they try sandbags, which can prevent them from giving this tool a fair shot.
Mistake 1: You Try to Use Sandbags Like Other Equipment
People try to use sandbags like a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball or other piece of equipment. Problem is, a sandbag isn't like any of these tools. A sandbag is unstable and shifting, which makes it seem much heavier than its actual weight.
One year I was presenting at a large national strength and conditioning conference and had a 160-pound sandbag with me. Many strength coaches came up to see if they could lift it, and were shocked at the result. The size and awkwardness of the sandbag made it really challenging, even for very strong people. Very few of the strength coaches could actually lift it. Many thought it weighed 250 or 300 pounds, and when I told them it was 160, they were in total disbelief.
One of the big advantages of sandbag training is what renown fitness expert Alwyn Cosgrove calls "alive" strength training. The bag is unpredictable and changes with every repetition you perform, so it requires you to be excellent in your movements.
But trying to mimic your favorite barbell lift with a sandbag won't give you much value. For example, performing Deadlifts with sandbags can actually be less beneficial, because as sandbags get heavier, they also become larger. This eventually diminishes the value of your Deadlift, because your range of motion becomes too short.
However, if we know how to use the sandbag properly, we can open up new opportunities for performing the Deadlift in ways you couldn't do with a barbell. We can add motion in Rear-Step Deadlifts, or change our holding position to a Front-Loaded Good Morning, which stresses the body's core and hips in a unique way. We could also change the plane of motion to add a more athletic feel to the classic Deadlift. If we understand how to use the tool, our options for using it to develop athletic strength are almost limitless.
Mistake 2: You Don't Know the Rules
Since the sandbag is not like other strength-training tools, it follows a different set of rules. For example, in sandbag training, we don't up the difficulty by increasing the weight by 5 or 10 pounds. That would be logistically challenging—and a waste of time.
Instead, we make a sandbag workout more difficult by addressing other aspects of exercise programming, including:
- How you hold the weight
- The position of your body
- Your plane of motion
- The stability or instability of the weight
In most programs, we don't often think about how we hold a weight, because a typical implement can be held in maybe three or four different ways. A sandbag, however, can be held 11 different ways, with each serving a specific goal. For example, a Bear Hug position—in which you wrap your arms around the bag like it was a long lost relative—is often used to teach proper squatting mechanics. But if you hold the bag over a shoulder (called a Shoulder Squat), now you are challenging your body's ability to resist lateral and rotational forces during a Squat.
In other words, a simple change in holding position moves us from a simple, sagittal plane exercise to a complex, multi-planar Squat.
Similarly, the way we stand when we lift changes our level of stability. Just like when you add weight, however, the increased challenge needs to be incremental.
As for plane of motion, in sandbag training, we use the sagittal plane as a starting point because it is the plane with the greatest amount of stability. Then we challenge the body to resist frontal and then transverse plane forces by progressing to more complex modifications like Shoulder Squats, Rotational Lunges, Rear-Step Deadlifts and Arc Pressing.
Once we have proficiency in resisting these forces, we start teaching people to move through the frontal and then finally the transverse plane, always working from the most to least stable.
The instability of the sandbag itself is probably what people find most interesting. Sandbags can be stable or unstable depending on the bag's dimension and how it is filled. Smaller sandbags tend to be more compact, so they do not shift as much. Larger sandbags are more unstable because of their sheer size, and depending on how they are loaded (maximally or not), they can be very shifty.
Mistake 3: You Don't Have a Goal
When I ask coaches and athletes why they are using sandbags, I hear a wide variety of reasons:
"I want to use it because it is primal."
"I use it because it is unstable."
"I use it because it is hardcore."
Such reasons sound fun, but they aren't geared to outcomes. The goal of using any tool is to do something, ideally something that's best done with that tool. You wouldn't use a hammer to turn a screw, so you should know up front what you are trying to accomplish with the sandbag.
Do you want to establish better movement mechanics? Sandbag exercises like the Bear Hug and Press Out Squats will get you there. Do you want to improve your core stability and enhance hip and shoulder flexibility? Sandbag drills like Kneeling Around the World are a way to do so almost instantly. Do you want to learn how to decelerate your body and become more resistant to injury? Drills like Rotational Lunges, Shoveling, and Rotational High Pulls are highly effective.
In future articles, I will explore how to achieve these goals using Dynamic Variable Resistance Training (DVRT), which is really the overarching concept behind what we casually call "sandbag training." Knowing the fundamentals of DVRT transforms the sandbag from a dirty old training tool to an innovative form of functional training that is a true solution for many training needs.
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