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Building an Iron Core With Sandbags

By Josh Henkin

Planks, reverse crunches, woodchoppers – all great exercises for improving the strength of one’s abdominals. Except, do these drills really answer our needs of core strength? Sure, at a fundamental level these are great movements, however, people often miss two key aspects of proper core conditioning:

  1. In most daily activities, the role of the “core” is to maintain proper posture under load or stress. It is often to resist movement rather than producing it.
  2. The core is more than abdominal training. The health and fitness industry has taken the buzz of core training and run with it to become synonymous with abdominal training. However, the core also includes the muscles of the back and the pelvis. All these muscles are important in keeping the back healthy and strong. Often though these muscles are neglected.

If doing these classic abdominal movements aren’t the answer then what is? We can take the page out of some of the world’s best athletes in the sports of wrestling and the martial arts. These athletes have long been known to be very strong as well as phenomenal athletes. If we look at the history of especially wrestlers, there is a great deal of information written on the benefits of one of their favorite training techniques, lifting odd objects.

Many people may be unfamiliar with odd objects. You walk into a nice gym and there will be pretty machines, some free weights, and definitely plenty of aerobic equipment. Odd object lifting really hasn’t hit the mainstream although it used to be just that, mainstream. Before the days of fancy health clubs, a gym would be full of gymnastics types of equipment, climbing ropes, medicine balls, and all types of weights. Oh how times have changed. Everything now is nicely stabilized and balanced for us. Even dumbbells have the perfect handles and weight distribution which takes away from the impressive strength gains our forefathers possessed.

Part of their amazing strength (such as lifting a 300+ pound barbell overhead with one hand) had to do with their growing up in farming communities and manual labor. They would often lift odd, awkward shaped objects all day long. Not easy living at all! Of course I am not asking you to move to a farm in the country, but you can include implements such as sandbags, logs, stones, kegs, and one-arm barbell lifts. Now I know, some of you may think this sounds crazy, but if we examine the science of such lifting you will quickly see many of the benefits of core development.

6 Benefits of Odd Object Lifting:

  1. Creates an unstable environment much different than Swiss balls or sit-fits which force the body to recruit more muscles from the hips all the way up to the arms.
  2. You can perform some unique unilateral loading so the body learns to resist rotation which can help prevent injuries.
  3. It can help lifters who struggle with flexibility in exercises such as front squats to perform the lifts far more comfortably.
  4. Allows all lifters to gain the benefit from classic lifts such as Zercher lifts.
  5. Simplifies great core lifts such as snatches for those that may not possess the equipment or coaching to perform these lifts with a bar.
  6. Provides true functional training that prepares the body for every day life activities such as lifting your child, picking up heavy objects off the ground (i.e. furniture), and dealing with the real demands of life.

Allen Hedrick, Head Strength Coach for the Air Force Academy, has been using odd object lifting for many years. He has written and lectured on the idea of using odd objects (often in the form of water filled kegs) being used to increase performance and decrease the risk for athletic injuries.

“But, applying the concept of specificity, it makes sense that training with a fluid resistance is a more sport-specific method of training as compared to lifting exclusively with a static resistance, because in most situations, athletes encounter a dynamic resistance (in the form of an opponent) as compared to the static resistance. Further, because the active fluid resistance enhances the need for stability and control, this type of training may reduce the opportunity for injury because of improved joint stability.” (NSCA Journal, Vol.25 Number 4)

Great benefits, but why was odd object lifting such a favorite of wrestlers and combative athletes? Odd objects such as sandbags help really prepare the body for the demanding nature of these sports. 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.”

I know, you may not be a wrestler or a martial artist, but you can incorporate a lot of the same types of lifts to help you perform everyday activities without the risk of injury and help your gym lifting. Your bench press, squat, deadlift, and everything in between would become stronger because you built a better base of stability.

In the classic book, Dinosaur Training, Brooks Kubik relives his first experience with lifting sandbags. “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.” You could use cables, bands, dumbbells, and every machine possible, but there is no way you would be able to replicate the demands of odd object lifting.

Of course not everyone is going to be able to bring stones, logs, and kegs into their local health club or gym. This is one main reason I have gained such favor with sandbag training. A single sandbag gives you all the best benefits of odd object lifting as is easy to implement into any program. They are not intimidating and can be stored very easily. They also lend themselves perfectly for group or class training.

Sandbags are also unique from all other odd objects. Sandbags are the only implement that alters its shape while you lift it. This calls on far more demands from the entire body especially the trunk muscles to help stabilize the weight. Trying to press a sandbag overhead, hold it in the crooks of your arm while you squat, and performing Turkish get-ups are a few of the amazingly effective core exercises you can perform with sandbags.

Not only do these drills help improve core strength, but they burn an immense amount of calories. You aren’t going to lose much body fat performing crunches or hanging leg raises. But just try five shouldering Turkish get-ups and you will feel as though you sprinted a mile! The key to great abs, burning body fat and getting stronger, good deal?

There are so many sandbag exercises that you will never get bored. The combinations and options are really limitless. However, I will give you a few to try for your own routine. You can use sandbags as the only tool in your program or easily implement them into your current training substituting them for exercises such as lunges, overhead presses, clean, and many more. I hope you enjoy the exercises listed below.

Sandbag Clean and Press

Sandbag Clean and Press

Begin the lift by grabbing the sandbag by the ends. With the hips set back and the chest tall explosively pull the weight to the shoulders. From the shoulders tighten the torso and hip and drive the weight above the head.

Sandbag Shoulder Get-ups

Sandbag Shoulder Get-ups

Lie completely on your back with the bag on one shoulder. Roll to the opposite shoulder and drive the opposite arm into the ground. Slowly drive yourself up to a lunge position aiming to keep the chest very tall. Push through the ground to get to a standing position. Very slowly return to the original on the ground position without looking downwards.

Sandbag Zercher Squats

Sandbag Zercher Squats

Hold the bag in the crooks of your arms. Keeping the chest tall slowly squat downwards by placing your bodyweight on your heels. Try to squat deep in between your legs keeping the elbows up and don’t let the chest sink down. Drive through your heels to come back to the start position.

Sandbag Overhead Lunges

Sandbag Overhead Lunges

You may clean and press or snatch the bag overhead. Once overhead lock your arms in place and make sure the bag is over the crown of your head. Take a long lead step with one foot and lunge down, but stick the chest outwards to maintain stability. Drive through the front heel to the beginning position.

Sandbag Half Moon Snatch

Sandbag Half Moon Snatch

Begin with the bag on the outside of your legs. Squat down to grab the bag by the ends. Explosively rip the bag up above your head while transferring your weight to the opposite side. Repeat back to the original start position.

About The Author

Josh Henkin

Josh Henkin is owner of Innovative Fitness Solutions in Phoenix, Arizona. For the past ten years he has created effective training programs for a wide array of clients. Josh is a graduate of Arizona State University where he received his Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science/Physical Education. At Arizona State, he was also a member of the Men’s Basketball Team. Josh is an NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist, certified club coach with USA weightlifting, and certified Russian kettlebell instructor and a certified corrective high performance exercise kinesiologist. Coach Henkin is well known nationally as an expert in fitness and sports performance training and has been invited to appear at national conferences and write for numerous fitness magazines.


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