With sandbag training, not only will you build a strong body but you’ll also substantially improve how you perform in any of your fitness activities of choice.
If we correctly interpret the meaning of an ancient Egyptian mural that appears to depict three men swinging bags of sand over their heads, we’d say that strength training using bags of sand has a history that dates back to at least 2,040 B.C. Now, thanks to the popularity of functional fitness and military-style exercises, sandbag training is making a comeback. The 2011 CrossFit Games even featured a grueling sandbag component in one of the events. (The winner of that event, incidentally, was Rich Froning Jr., who was featured in the July/August 2012 issue of Reps.)
And why is sandbag training trending? Not only will it help you build muscle, but sandbag training will also stabilize and strengthen your joints, says Josh Henkin, a conditioning specialist in Scottsdale, Arizona, who’s been championing the benefits of sandbag training for years. “More muscles have to be used to perform the same lift that you would with dumbbells, barbells or even kettlebells,” Henkin explains. These smaller stabilizer and assistor muscles aren’t usually challenged as much with traditional gym exercises.
“Sandbags are great for more multi-planar training,” adds Henkin, “which takes the body outside of its comfort zone.” Multi-planar training approximates movement and speed forward, rearward, to either side, or via rotation, which means it’s much more functional in nature. A machine, conversely, because of its fixed path of travel, is uni-planar in its action.
Holding a large bag of sand whose grains shift from side to side as you perform an exercise, like a reverse lunge or a shoulder squat, adds a whole new component of stability and balance to a traditional exercise. Without question, sandbag training can improve your muscles’ functionality for everything from daily chores to that pick-up game of basketball, from improved performance on the golf course to a solid downhill ski run through powder. And it’ll burn more calories.
For this workout, you can either make your own sandbag out of a small duffel bag stuffed with a sturdy trash bag partially filled with sand, or buy one of Josh Henkin’s Ultimate Sandbags (ultimatesandbagtraining.com), which allows for more grip positions and also comes with sand-fillable bladders. Keep in mind that partially filled bags allow the contents to shift more during movement, increasing the unpredictable nature of each repetition.
Estimate the Weight
The Ultimate Sandbag Strength Package (approximately $130) used in these pictures holds up to 80 pounds of sand. Because it comes with two bladders, you can adjust the weight on the fly whenever the need arises. Simply add or pour off some sand to one or both bladders and you’re good to go.
If this is your first engagement with sandbag training, it’s best to start with a moderate weight (say 20–30 pounds) while you get the hang of the techniques for a safe and effective workout. It’ll take some time to acclimate your nervous system to the fact that the weight shifts around on each rep and bag position during exercise execution. Once you master the form and sensations to the shifting contents, you can fill ’er up a little more to really get the muscle fibers firing.
Do It Right
To maximize your time, this Reps workout relies on six sandbag exercises comprising three moderately modified supersets. Instead of moving without rest from the first exercise to the second as in a traditional superset, here you’ll perform the recommended number of reps for the first exercise, then rest (as indicated in the chart) before moving to the second exercise of the superset. Do the suggested number of reps for the second exercise, and rest again. Follow the same pattern with Superset B and then Superset C. The brief rest after the first exercise helps your muscles resynthesize the contraction chemical, ATP, so that you can step on the gas for the second exercise.
Superset A: Exercise 1
Sandbag Power Clean to Zercher Jump Squat
Target Muscles: Hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, trapezius, deltoids, abdominals, paraspinals, assorted stabilizers and synergists.
How to: Stand behind your sandbag and grip the parallel handles. Tuck your toes slightly under the sandbag and pull it closer to your shins. Your knees should be slightly bent with your hips flexed, back and arms straight and chest out.
Take the slack out of the bag. Explosively extend your knees and hips to accelerate the sandbag upward. Pull upward and sweep your arms under the sandbag to cradle the bag in the crooks of your arms. Your knees and hips should be slightly flexed to help absorb the shock. Stand straight.
Move your feet to shoulder width apart and squat down. Keep your elbows elevated and spine straight. After reaching thigh parallel, explode upward and jump as high as possible. Land softly and roll the bag out of your arms, returning it to the tops of your toes to set up for the next rep.
Tip: Keeping your elbows elevated, or upper arms parallel with the ground, will help you maintain proper spine alignment.
Superset A: Exercise 2
Offset Sandbag Push-Up
Target Muscles: Pec major, triceps, deltoids, abdominals, core, assorted synergists and assistors.
How to: Lay your sandbag lengthwise on the ground. Get into a push-up position with one hand on your sandbag and the other on the ground. Do a push-up. Walk the floor hand onto your sandbag and walk the other onto the floor on the opposite side of the bag, pivoting at your feet. Perform another push-up. Repeat, alternating sides.
Tip: Remember the rules of a perfect push-up: neutral spine, tight abdominals, a squeezed butt and a straight body.
Superset B: Exercises 1 & 2
Sandbag Shoulder Squat
Target Muscles: Hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, trapezius, deltoids, abdominals, paraspinals, assorted assistors and stabilizers.
How to: Straddle your sandbag and grasp the handles on top.
Accelerate the bag upward. Flip it and drape it over one shoulder. Stabilize the bag in place with your hands. Move your feet shoulder width apart. Keep your chest up and lower yourself into a squat. Perform the prescribed number of reps before placing the bag back on the ground. Perform another clean and place the bag on the opposite shoulder to complete the next set. Continue.
Tip: Drape the bag over your shoulder roughly in the middle of the bag or else it may fall off during the middle of your set.
Sandbag Bent-Over Row
Target Muscles: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, spinal erectors, abdominals, assorted stabilizers and assistors.
How to: Slide your toes just under your sandbag while gripping the parallel handles and pull the bag close to your shins. Bend your knees slightly, lean forward from your hips, brace your abs and remove the slack from the bag. Pull the sandbag up toward your stomach while squeezing the muscles in your upper back by retracting the scapulae. Lower the sandbag to just above your toes, and repeat.
Tip: Be careful not to round your back — lock it in! Remember to squeeze your shoulders back and down — you should never shrug your shoulders while performing a row.
Superset C: Exercises 1 & 2
Sandbag Rotational Lunge
Target Muscles: Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, assorted assistors and stabilizers.
How to: Slide your toes just under your sandbag while gripping the parallel handles and pull the bag closer to your shins. Bend your knees and hips while sticking out your glutes and lifting your chest. Stand and lift the sandbag to knee height.
Step your right leg behind you, lunging, as you rotate through your waist to bring the sandbag to the outside of your left knee. Maintain your balance as you return to the upright position. Repeat by stepping rearward with your left leg and rotating the bag to the outside of your right knee. Alternate sides until your set is over.
Tip: It’s very easy to lose your balance during this exercise, so take it slow. Keep your torso upright and try to maintain stability.
Sandbag Overhead Press
Target Muscles: Hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, trapezius, deltoids, abdominals, paraspinals, triceps, assorted stabilizers and assistors.
How to: Stand behind your sandbag and grip the parallel handles. Tuck your toes slightly under the sandbag and pull it closer to your shins; your knees should be slightly bent with your hips flexed, back and arms straight and chest out. Take the slack out of the bag.
Explosively extend your knees and hips to accelerate the sandbag upward. Quickly transition your arms underneath the sandbag and receive it on top of your fists with your elbows pointing downward. Stabilize the bag in that position before pressing the bag overhead. Pop your head forward a bit after the bag passes overhead.
Reverse the sequence. Repeat.
Tip: You can alter your grip to the sides of the sandbag, which will recruit the muscles in a different fashion and fire up different joint stabilizers resulting in a new training stimulus. Set up similar to the parallel handle grip clean, except move your grip to the side flaps or simply grip the sides of the bag. When receiving the bag after the clean, ensure your elbows are pointing downward with the bag resting at chest level.