Results! That is the one thing that all of us care about, whether as a coach, athlete, or fitness enthusiast. This is a large reason that so many people have turned away from the supposed “high-tech” training tools and have sought out some of the time tested training that the strongest humans in the world used. This has given rise to grip training, stones, logs, kettlebells, extreme bodyweight training, and most recently sandbag training.
As a strength coach for the past fifteen years I have found myself in a similar position as many who want to find the fastest ways to strength. This led me down the road of examining many different training methods, and one that has always intrigued me was sandbags.
For years sandbags were used by athletic programs that simply could not afford to supply large amounts of athletes with strength training tools. Tell an athlete they have to lift a sandbag and they already know it is going to be more difficult than a bar or dumbbell, their heads sink as they know they are just flat out hard! Yet, even if something is difficult, it doesn’t automatically make it beneficial.
I found it intriguing that sandbags had no definitive system of training. It appears that EVERYTHING from medicine balls, body weight, to kettlebells have a system of training. Having a system is important in developing meaning behind training and exercises, without it things remain random and training is stagnant and without purpose.
Why sandbags? Having competed in team sports for over a decade, and iron sports such as Strongman and Olympic lifting, I found sandbags provided some unique benefits for all types of athletes.
The Bridge into Strongman
Having lifted stones, logs, and lots of odd implements, sandbags still remain one of the most challenging implements to train with because of the constantly shifting load that makes sandbags so difficult. I first used sandbags when access to standard Strongman tools were impossible. It just seemed obvious that sandbags hit the body in a different way than your standard weight room tools, it was as though sandbags hit all our weak links. Then when I actually got to train with Strongman tools and events, nothing compared with the challenge that lifting heavy sandbags provided on the back, hips, arms, legs, and abs…YES, truly the whole body! There seemed to be something there that could be more applicable to people beyond Strongman, but what was it?
Strongman is known for lifting odd objects, but the angles and movements that could be created even go beyond the standard Strongman protocols. One of my greatest disappointments with the renewed excitement of sandbag training is the lack of innovation people are using in their training.
Olympic Lifting Excuses
Hang around strength coaches long enough and you will undoubtedly get into the “should or should not” Olympic lift argument. For those that are typically in the “do not” camp, it is the fact that Olympic lifting is a very specific sport and technique is challenging to pick up. Some coaches are fearful they will spend more time teaching technique than receive the benefit of Olympic lifting.
Sandbags remove that concern as cleaning, jerking, and other Olympic “style” lifts can be performed quite easily so more time is spent training than practicing. Some may argue that kettlebells do the same, however, kettlebells are different as they typically don’t hold true to the triple extension that occurs in Olympic lifting which is what makes it such a powerful training tool for athletes. Sandbags do hold true to the triple extension and offer more variety in exercises that can be created that can replicate the unpredictable nature of sport itself. We now can not only perform the standard pulls and explosive exercises but perform them in rotation and other angles that happens in many sports!
Total Body Conditioner
Sandbags have long been a favorite tool of wrestlers and martial artists for their fitness training. These are some of the most well trained athletes in the world! Why do they use sandbags? In John Jesse‘s famous book, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, he states,
The use of heavy sandbags and their large circumference forces the lifter to do his lifting with a round back instead of the traditional straight back lifting with a barbell. It is this type of lifting that truly develops a strong back. It develops the back and side muscles in movements that are identical to the lifting and pulling movements of wrestling.
This means athletes can hit angles previously impossible with standard strength tools, but can get in great shape too, maybe better than anything else! This is a pretty bold statement, but possible if we examine the sandbag. With every other strength training tool, “grooving” an exercise is possible. In fact, training methods such as kettlebell sport rely on one’s ability to “groove” an exercise. We get better at the lift, but over the long term we may become too efficient losing some of the benefits of conditioning with these movements. As Strength Coach Charles Staley notes, due to the “uncooperative” nature of sandbags you can not “groove” them.
In essence, every repetition is different which means the execution of every repetition requires the body to work harder. Your body has to expend more energy not only to produce force to lift the sandbag, but to absorb the force during the unpredictable positions that occur during sandbag training.
Performing movements in not your typical patterns and angles means the body has to incorporate more muscles and expend more energy coordinating these new movements. Not to mention the fact that having a sandbag resting in a variety of positions on your body makes it work even more to maintain proper posture.
Sandbag training should not be looked at as complicated, yet, recognizing the potential benefits requires us to give it a more serious look than just a “cheap” way to get fit. In my next installment I will discuss how sandbag training can be used as a corrective, performance, and teaching tool to better movement and sporting excellence!