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Workout of the Month: Sandbag Brutality

As you know, physical fitness is one of the core pillars here at The Everyday Marksman. This is the first post in a recurring series that I hope you enjoy. Much like the original Marksman Challenges, my goal is to build up a collection of ideas and inspiration for you to draw from in your own Marksman’s Path. Each month, I’ll post a new workout for you to engage with or learn from.

Where do these come from? Over many years, I’ve read, watched, and learned from a ton of coaches and trainers. Their specialties ranged from athletic performance to bodybuilding and longevity. Over time, you notice recurring themes and patterns. As I document these workouts, I’ll also explain the purpose of it and how you can leverage it for your own training.

I plan to post the workouts at the end of each month, with the intent that you can incorporate them into the following month. So here at the end of May 2024, the workout is for June 2024.

First, some housekeeping items.

What Makes a Good Session?

These workouts do not follow the structure of your typical training plan. You should already engage with consistent training for your strength and conditioning as it is. Simply prescribing a few exercises with sets and reps wouldn’t quite cut it. Nor are these sessions a single beat down with a go/no-go standard like some of the fitness-related Marksman Challenges (the Devil’s Mile challenge, for example).

A good Workout of the Month is something that you can use as a metric, scale, and show progress. A good way to do it would be performing it at the start of the month, and then trying to improve on your performance during the rest of the month. That could mean doing it weekly, or doing it again near the end of the month and seeing how you’ve improved. Personally, I tend to do these kinds of workouts on Saturdays, calling them “athlete day.”

The actual format and tasks vary from month to month, but expect there to always be some combination of both strength and conditioning involved. This emulates what you might encounter at an event like the Tactical Games or some other shooting-oriented physical challenge.

With each post, I’ll provide guidance for measuring success and progress.


The June 2024 Workout of the Month

The workout for June is a sandbag complex. Sandbags have been a staple in my workout regime for years. When I first wrote about them, it was primarily as a conditioning tool since the bags I owned weren’t terribly heavy for me. When I built my home gym, I added heavier strongman-style bags that dramatically increased the challenge and turned the sandbags into quality strength training tools in their own right.

I built this workout after spending a lot of time reading and studying the work of several coaches specializing in sport performance. The first time I came across complexes was years ago while performing one of Rob Shaul’s programs from the Mountain Tactical Institute. I later saw several more articles about complexes from Dan John, Geoff Neupert, and Pavel Tsatsouline. Later, while reading a reprint of John Jesse’s 1974 classic, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, sandbag complexes made a prominent appearance.

What is a Complex?

In short, a complex is when you use perform a series of exercises back to back without rest or putting down the implement. You can do this with a barbell, kettlebells, bodyweight, sandbags, and more. Done correctly, complexes are incredible ways to build conditioning and develop “fighting strength.”

Recall that in our hierarchy, fighting strength is a combination of both power generation (moving a light to moderate weight quickly) and strength endurance (moving a light to moderate weight for long periods of time). This is how you convert your foundational strength into something useful for the real world.

A typically complex uses four to six movements arranged in a logical sequence so that they flow from one to the next. You perform each movement for a set number of repetitions before moving on to the next next movement. You use the same weight for every movement. This is not a circuit where you set up different stations with different weights. Again, you pick a weight and use it for everything. Yes, that means that some things will be more challenging than others. That’s ok, because the goal is not about building max strength, but taxing the body’s ability to work under load for extended durations.

One example of a barbell complex posted by Coach Dan John goes as follows:

  • Row: x 8
  • Hang Clean: x 8
  • Front squat: x 8
  • Military press: x 8
  • Back squat: x 8
  • Good mornings: x 8

Notice the pattern. Assuming the barbell starts on the floor, you pick it up and row, then hang clean (ending in the rack position), then front squat (since the bar is already in the rack position), then press overhead (again, starting from the rack position), then bring it down behind your head to you shoulders for a back squat, then do good mornings while it’s on your back already. Do not put the bar down until all movements and repetitions are complete.

This Month’s Sandbag Complex

To start, here’s the actual complex to perform.

  • Sandbag Row x 6
  • Bear Hug Squat x 6
  • Shoulder + walk x 6 (alternating shoulders)
  • Bear Hug Good Morning x 6

This is one round of the complex. Of note, the third movement is a combination of shouldering the bag and then walking 50 to 75 feet while the bag is on the shoulder. Once done, bring the bag back to the chest, then to the other shoulder, then repeat until you’ve done three on each side.

I did this with a 100 lb sandbag and it took about 2:30 to complete one round while working steadily but not particularly quickly. You can see the sequence in the embedded video I took from my garage. My heat rate peaked at about the fourth or fifth time through the “shoulder and walk” movement, cresting over 170 bpm- something it almost never does even during my hard sprint sessions on the air bike. This is what happens when you’re pushing to work hard for long periods.

I did not include pressing the sandbag overhead when I wrote this one, because I was already doing a healthy amount of pressing in my main strength program, especially on Mondays. Doing this workout with pressing two days before my barbell pressing was too much interference.

Weight Selection

Select a weight that you can do 10-12 repetitions with your weakest lift. I suspect most people will struggle with the sandbag shouldering more than the others. You might think this sounds too easy, especially for the strong movements like rowing and squatting. I assure you, it will add up.

Rounds, Rest Periods, and Progression

Your goal completing this complex three times. Since every session has the same number of rounds and repetitions, the progression method is doing the same amount of work in less overall time. I suggest achieving that not through rocketing through the six movements faster, but by reducing your rest time between rounds.

Starting out, I suggest at least a 1:4 work to rest ratio if you aren’t accustomed to this kind of work out put. That means however long it took you to complete one round of the complex, rest four times as much. So if you did it in 2:00, then rest 8:00 before going again. You want to stay fresh and minimize the risk of injury due to technique breakdown. Then, week to week, reduce the ratio to 1:3, 1:2, or 1:1.

You might be tempted to go by heart rate or breathing. That usually means using a heart rate monitor and setting a “recovery point” where you think you’re ready to go again (i.e. when your HR slows back down to 110 BPM). Alternatively, you could try and judge it by when you can do five full breathes only through your nose and not feel like you’re straining for air. These are more advanced methods, suitable for the long term. I would stick to the set work:rest ratio for now.

Training for Success

There’s not really a better way to train for this workout than to actually do the workout. You could do this up to two or three times per week if you didn’t have anything else you were focusing on. You would definitely see a lot of great benefits from that.

However, if you’re like me and have other things going on with your training plan, then I suggest doing this main workout only once per week. If your main program includes things like rowing, squatting, and hinging, then it will have carryover to the complex.

The best thing you can do is try and enhance your ability to recover between rounds. For that, you need to focus on your aerobic energy system. I suggest 2-3 sessions of easy “Zone 2” cardio per week. Each session should be at least 30 minutes, but better if it’s 45 to 60 minutes. Since you’re looking for general aerobic health, any method will do be it cycling, rowing, running, rucking, etc.

That’s It, Good Luck and Have Fun

I enjoyed this workout a lot. It’s a tough one, for sure.

Now the disclaimers:

Consult with medical professional before engaging in any vigorous exercise regime.

Always use proper equipment and technique when performing exercise. Failure to receive proper instruction and improper equipment may result in injury.

If you need a sandbag, I suggest checking out Rogue Fitness or Rep Fitness. Note that you’re just buying the bag, and you’ll have to get the filler elsewhere (this saves immensely on shipping). You can get 60 lbs of multipurpose sand from a hardware store for $8 per bag.

Be sure to come back and share your results!

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Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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Paul
Paul
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Hey Matt! Looks like a challenging workout! I’m always impressed with the discipline you maintain as a busy working family man! As I get older I find what I call ‘functional fitness’ methods like your sandbag complex, rucking and dumbbell ‘complexes’ not only more efficient but more practical. When lifting weights I try to focus on big movements like clean and presses – after some lighter smaller movements for warm up. Age plays a role – joints wear down and flexibility wanes so I try to keep a twice a week ‘heavy routine’ (always relative) and rely on staying active… Read more »

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