The Rise of Sandbag Training
By Josh Henkin
Sandbags have a very rich history, maybe more so than any other training implement. For hundreds of years (possibly thousands) sandbags has been an integral training tool for athletes, specifically wrestlers. Why? They are an inexpensive tool that is incredibly versatile and can offer the benefits of unstable training with a challenging load. This is a benefit that many of today’s unstable gadgets can not provide. However, the benefits don’t stop there. Greater stabilizer, trunk, and grip strength can be developed with sandbags as well as sport-specific drills, mobility work, and a great conditioning tool.
Improved Stabilizer Strength
In the famous book, Dinosaur Training, Brooks Kubik states, “You feel sore as you do because the bags (sandbags) worked your body in ways you could not approach with a barbell alone. You got into the muscle areas you normally don’t work. You worked the “heck” out of the stabilizers.” (Kubik, p. 115)
Stabilizer training is not a new concept. Utilizing dumbbells, cables, kettlebells, and one-arm lifts have long been methods of improving the smaller stabilizers. Increasing the strength of the stabilizers can both decrease your risk of injury and improve performance.
Why are sandbags unique though? Sandbags can be thought of as the most “uncooperative” pieces of equipment. They are different because they will change their form as you lift them. Unlike many other training tools, it is almost impossible to develop a specific groove for any lift. This makes sandbags a constant challenge as every repetition will be vastly different.
Improved Trunk Strength
The non-cooperative nature of sandbags makes using every muscle possible to lift it crucial. More stable and predictable implements can cause the body to find a particular groove. Once this groove is established then one becomes more efficient at performing the lift and the body actually decreases the amount of muscles utilized. This becomes especially true of explosive sandbag lifts such as cleans, throws, snatches, and shouldering. The trunk muscles (including those of the low back and abdominal area) have to work harder to stabilize the body against the awkward load while moving very quickly. This is very unique to sandbag training.
Those who have enjoyed kettlebells have also learned of the incredible benefit on loading only one side of the body. One-arm lifts with kettlebells place a torque on the body in both rotation and side bending that the trunk learns to stabilize against. This is a core reason one-arm kettlebell lifting is so beneficial to building a solid trunk. Well, sandbag drills such as the many shouldering exercises and one-arm lifts can offer the same benefits. However, the difference with sandbags is that they actually rest on the body.
Having such a load actually rest on the body forces the deep and superficial trunk muscles work to a greater degree to maintain proper postural alignment, end result? A rock hard torso that is very injury resistant.
With sandbags we can also create amazing rotational drills that place the body into ranges of motion that would normally occur during sport. Working through such ranges of motion with a load prepares the body more appropriately for the demands that sport produces. When we work on in very predictable environments we don’t give our bodies the ability to work through extreme ranges of motions under duress. Exercises such as shoulder throws, half moon snatches, and full body twists just provide a small list of exercises that one can create.
Sport Specific Strength for Combative Athletes
Sandbags have long been a favorite training tool of wrestlers and combative athletes. 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.”
The idea of round back lifting must scare every chiropractor, coach, and athletic trainer out there. However, if introduced properly, round back lifting is one of the best injury prevention techniques available. Most sports and daily living activities call upon us to perform some level of round back lifting. A wrestler may be on the floor in a compromised position, a football player trying to make a play, a parent lifting their child off of the floor are all great examples of round back lifting. Sandbags offer a safe way to start to learn how to use round back lifting, always start on the light side and with low volume (no more than 5 repetitions).
Sandbags may be the perfect tool for combative athletes as they are the only tool that can come close to representing an opponent. The constant shifting weight of a sandbag makes it an ideal training environment for combative athletes as it prepares the athlete for the unpredictability of a fight on the mats on the ring.
Greater grip strength
EVERYONE can benefit from greater grip strength. I have a strong belief that all the carpal tunnel and arthritis problems that our society experience’s is closely related to the lack of hand training. Of course, their only ends up being so many hours in the day to train and if we economize our time then we are more apt to do the smaller detail work that will have a huge impact in our overall training.
If we look at grip strength a little further we can quickly see that grip strength is more than simply how hard you can squeeze your hand (known as crushing strength), rather it also includes pinching, support, and wrist strength. To train all these qualities can seem overwhelming, but again sandbags can be a core tool in developing this well rounded strength. Because of the gripping action of the bag and the fact no one repetition is the same, the hands are challenged in all these ways. The dynamic nature of the sandbag forces the body to use different grip strategies depending upon the lift and the level of fatigue one feels. Getting strong at sandbag lifts means you will find a great transfer of these hand strength to other forms of training.
First and foremost I am a coach. Being a coach I realize a big difference between ideal and reality. Many times I can have a program planned that I see as ideal for my client. However, if they don’t share my same enthusiasm for the program they likelihood of them adhering to the program becomes very low. In addition, we are all more apt to work harder through a program if we find it enjoyable and motivating.
Because sandbags are so different they are often a breathe of fresh air for most people’s training programs. Even taking common exercises such as squats and presses and using a sandbag makes these exercises as though you were performing them for the first time.
Increasing levels of fun may sound like a politically correct thing for a coach to say, but we can not deny the fact that we are all human. We are less likely to do the things we do not enjoy. Making training more enjoyable is what increases our chance of being more productive and consistent. This is why you see people using different training modalities and why many have found kettlebell training to be a favorite. So, don’t sell the fun factor short.
In The End
I always talk to people about the fact that training is dictated very little by the tool rather than the methodologies. Sandbags do open the door for some unique training techniques that will increase your results. Do not think that you have to use them solely as I will later discuss how to incorporate sandbags and kettlebells for different training goals. These are two tools that provide a lot of options and compliment each other well for producing the desired training result. Until then, keep training hard and smart!
About The Author
Josh Henkin is owner of Innovative Fitness Solutions in Scottsdale, Arizona. Coach Henkin has presented nationally in the field of fitness and sports enhancement. He is also the author of High Octane Sandbag Training manual and DVD. For more info, click here.