Why Every Athlete Can Benefit From Sandbag Training

Sandbags are underutilized in the gym, but they really shouldn't be! Here's why they're so great for training.

I love odd object training. Things like Atlas Stones, kegs, and sandbags have all gained popularity for training in the general population as of recently, although, they have long been a staple in Strongman training. Sadly, Atlas Stones and kegs can be hard to come by in commercial gyms, so you typically won’t see many gyms with them.

Granted, this lack of commercial gym implements makes sense when you consider the inherent mess that comes with tacky when using the stones/kegs, as well as the damage that they can cause if the training area isn’t properly prepared. But as luck would have it, sandbags bypass all of that and you can usually find facilities that have them.

Reasons Sandbags Are Great for Training

1. Dynamic Resistance

The use of sandbags as a training modality can have a plethora of improvements on your training. One major training benefit when utilizing sandbags is battling the sand that shifts throughout the movement. This is known as dynamic resistance, and it facilitates our ability to stabilize and hold the odd object in place throughout various movement planes.

2. Enhance Core Muscle Use

A second great benefit that comes with sandbag training is the increase in utilization of the core muscles. According to a 2009 study published by McGill et al., they suggested that core musculature usage increased during weighted carry training when one’s hip strength was not sufficient enough when carrying heavy objects (1).

Additionally, researchers noted when hip abduction torque was greater than abductor strength, then torso bracing was naturally increased through the obliques and quadratus lumborum. In simpler terms, lifting and carrying sandbags will do an outstanding job of strengthening the torso and hips, which can facilitate greater force transfer through the body in other lifts.

Sandbag Training
Sandbag Training

3. Real World Functional Carryover

Outside of supporting core strength, picking up a sandbag can have real world applicability, as it is an awkward form of resistance. It will not sit in the most effective lever like a barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell. Using sandbags can help you learn to brace and stabilize when lifting and moving odd objects, which will transfer into daily life where most things lifted are not advantageous to lifting (think: house and yard work).

Sandbag Technique

Sandbag technique is very similar to lifting an Atlas Stone, which is why it is such a great alternative if you can’t find a stone at your gym. To properly lift a sandbag, we’ll break down the process into multiple steps.

Step-By-Step Sandbag Guide

  • Step One: Straddle the bag.
  • Step Two: Place your hands underneath the sandbag and make sure you get a good grip on the canvas sides. You may need to rock the bag back and forth to get enough surface area for a solid hold.
  • Step Three: Lift the sandbag to the lap by pulling with both of your legs and back. Due to the size and oddness of the bag it won’t be easy to just squat it up so you’ll perform a movement more like an RDL.
  • Step Four: Once you pass your knees, sit back and pull the bag into your lap, then adjust your hand position.
  • Step Five: To perform the final clean portion, contract the lats and upper back hard, then set your back.
  • Step Six: Extend the hips and back until they’re at the desired loading height.
  • Step Seven: Repeat this process for the desired number of repetitions.

Using Sandbags for Different Training Purposes

Sandbags for Strength and Power

Training for strength and power with sandbags is easy and adaptable for individuals of all ages and fitness levels. Even if a gym only has lighter sandbags, athletes can still train for strength and power. For your standard strength and power training, one of the best and most basic ways to train will be a sandbag clean and load.

This is one of the most commonly used events in strongman competitions because many companies now produce sandbags for loading that have high amounts of weight. For the clean portion, stick with 2-5 reps for 3-5 working sets. Staying in this rep range can help decreased injuries when using a heavier sandbags in training. For the most part, unless you are preparing for a max sandbag load, which is rarely used in competition, training in this rep range will build consistency with heavier weights. Every time a rep is performed, regardless of the weight, the focus should be on exploding through the triple extension portion. For heavy sets, longer rest should be used between 2-5 minutes so the body is able to recover.

For those who do not have access to heavy sandbags, then another great way to train for power will be sandbag throws. Focus on throwing the sandbag similarly to how you would throw a medicine ball. You can either use the metric of height or distance to measure your throws. Obviously, the higher the point the sandbag has to clear, then the more force that must be applied. This goes the same for distance travelled. Note, while distance and height have different release points you can still train power with these movements.

Sandbags for Conditioning

There are many ways to use sandbags for conditioning. For example, you can do high repetition sandbag extensions, which is the same as a load without releasing the bag. If you train with this method, then you can should work with a higher amount of reps per set — think 12-20 reps. This will place a large metabolic load on the body, and due to the pressure of the continual tension the sandbag places on the body, then catching one’s breath will be more difficult.

When using this training style, it is extremely important to figure out the amount of weight that should be used. Too heavy of a sandbag could result in injury. Make sure to start off easy and light. You will not need many sets to achieve the conditioning benefit, so again, too heavy of a sandbag could increase chances of injury. I’d recommend using this method as a finisher at the end of training doing 1-2 sets.

Another technique is to use a heavier sandbag and perform as many sandbag loads as possible in one minute. As mentioned above, due to the high stress this training style can produce, try to do this with a lower set range like 2-3, then progress to four sets for more advanced lifters.

Finally, the most commonly used training method with sandbags is the sandbag carry. For the first method of sandbag carries, you will bear hug the bag in a vertical position. This this will force you to actively hug and squeeze the bag into the torso throughout the whole carry, as the sand will want to shift below the point of compression.

Another sandbag carry technique involves holding the bag in a similar place as you would have the sandbag during a loading exercise. This means the bag will be held high on the chest and put a considerable amount of pressure on the upper back. Think about pulling the bag into your chest for this method. If you relax too much, then the bag will fold over at the center.

For sandbag carries it’s all about the distance. The longer the distance, typically the less the sandbag will weigh. If you are doing heavy carries for short distances, then stick with distances between 25-40 ft. Do this distance for 4-6 sets. When using longer distances you can select a specific footage based on your fitness level. It’s always important to consider safety. If a lighter sandbag is used, then you can also think of these as speed runs, trying to cut time off each run, perform 2-3 sets.

References

1. McGill S, McDermott A, and Fenwick C. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res 23: 1148–1161, 2009.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Matthew Barker

Matthew Barker

Matthew graduated from Central College with a Bachelors in Exercise Science, and earned his Masters degree in Human Performance from Lindenwood University. He's a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and is a certified National Coach for USAW. He has worked with athletes ranging from youth lifters to Olympians in the sport of weightlifting, professional strongmen, and elite powerlifters. He's currently a private personal trainer and sports performance coach, while also serving as an adjunct professor of Sports Science at Simpson College.

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