There’s a lot of fitness gimmicks out there. The thing that always irritates me is whenever a new trend comes around there is always some group that says it’s the only thing you’ll ever need to do. You could replace everything else you’re doing with this magical activity and you’d be the fittest and healthiest you’ve ever been.
Again, I’m not a fitness expert but I’ve spent a bit of time learning and doing things. My view of fitness has really evolved to mean a combination of different elements. Strength is a major component of that, but so is endurance, stamina, speed, and mobility.
Today I want to talk about sandbag training. You’ve probably seen some Crossfit video out there of a superfit human doing
The sandbag is one of my more recent additions to my fitness regime. I’ve gone through spurts of kettlebells, barbells, TRX bands, medicine balls, and others. Every one of these was “trendy” at some point.
Here’s the thing though, I don’t view any of those as fads. They are all tools in the toolbox of fitness.
Putting Sandbag Training in Context
Let’s get this out of the way. Matt Palfrey, in an article over at T-Nation, put it pretty simply:
Is the sandbag the key to elite strength and conditioning? Probably not. It isn’t a miracle tool and likely not the missing link between you and strength training glory. However, used properly, sandbags can certainly be an effective adjunct to a solid resistance-training program.– Matt Palfrey, Sandbags For Strength
The sandbag, in its proper context, is a supplemental training tool. I firmly believe that the most direct route to raw strength is with a good barbell training plan. But there is more to a whole athlete than that.
I got my first taste of what could be while I was going through Mountain Tactical Institute’s ‘Waylon’ plan. But the sandbags at my gym were too light to get the intended effect of the program. I bought my own bag to bring to the gym with me shortly after (I’ll get to that in a moment).
The mistake that most people make is trying to treat sandbag training as a variation of barbells or dumbbells. Josh Henkin at Breaking Muscle had this to say:
Most people try to implement sandbags in the same scope as barbells. They squat, clean, press, row, and maybe lunge.They do it for shock value and end up seeing little value because they treat the sandbag like a barbell. It isn’t a barbell. It functions by a completely different set of principles and overall thought concept.– Josh Henkin, Sandbag Misconceptions: The Truth About Effective Sandbag Training
In other words, stop using the sandbag like it’s an awkward barbell or dumbbell.
Benefits of Sandbag Training
I’m not denying that deadlifting or pressing a sandbag feels different and a little harder than doing it with bars, it does. Sandbags feel different because your hands are offset from the weight’s center of gravity. That makes it feel less stable and increases the challenge, but ultimately means you will lift less weight.
But you can do so much more than do the same movements that you’ve always done.
Working with sandbags for their unique properties has real benefits.
- Improved grip strength: The sandbag has over ten different ways to be held, from bear hugging it to pinching material. Working with it and it’s shifting mass has direct benefits to building grip strength.
- Mimics real-life movement: Picking up a bulky mass from the ground and carrying it over your shoulder is a much more “relatable” movement than a strict barbell deadlift or clean. That means it will train a lot of the other stabilizer muscles you might otherwise miss during Olympic-style lifts.
- Develops core strength: Rob Shaul calls this “chassis integrity” in his plans, but it means core strength. The shifting weight and malleable nature of the sandbag means that your body has to work harder to stabilize and counter it. That translates to a more powerful core.
- Works in multiple movement planes: Most weightlifting in a single plane of movement like forward-back (bench press), up/down (squat), or rotational (Russian twists). Because the sandbag is bulky and awkward, you’ll be moving through several of these planes at once.
- Asymmetric loading: Most sandbag movements emphasize one side of the body at a time. This is both more realistic to human movement and has huge benefits to performance.
The best way I’ve found for adding sandbags to my fitness regime is to build them into my grind days.
I usually dedicate two days per week to Olympic-style lifting. At least one additional day gets dedicated to conditioning with a grind. If you’re not familiar with it, a
According to my tracker, I typically burn about 700-900 calories per hour and my heart rate averages between 140 and 160 during these days. Sandbags are almost always involved in some capacity. These days also usually include either some plyometric work (jumping or step ups on a box), or rucks, or both.
My 5 favorite sandbag training exercises
Now we get to the fun part: the work.
Below are some of my favorite movements with sandbags. I’ll usually do two or three of these during any given grind workout.
The Sandbag Get-Up
This is similar to the classic Turkish Get-Up performed with kettlebells, except we’re using a sandbag laying across our chest. From a strict strength standpoint, the sandbag get-up is slightly easier than the kettlebell version since the weight is closer to our center of gravity. That means you can probably use more.
There aren’t many movements out there more practical than getting up off the ground. Practicing it under load has absolute benefits to everyday strength.
This is a core killer, though.
The movement is very asymmetrical and combines a lot of elements together. You’ve got the oblique sit up on the side with the weight, you’ve got a tricep extension opposite the weight, and you’ve got a lunge movement to get to standing.
Each of these are good movements in of themselves, but the sandbag get-up combines all three into a single movement.
The first time you do a max rep, 10-minute set is a spiritual event. You’ll be deep down the rabbit hole of suck breathing uncontrollably, seeing tweety birds wondering which side of the Great Divide you’re on. The next time getup day rolls around though you focus on controlling your breathing. It still sucks mightily, but you can control your breathing with the heart rate clicking somewhere north of 180. The tweety birds are at bay, getting up and down and up again becomes the sole focus in this moment. You have control of your response to the suck. Improvement.– Jason Ford, Captain of Houston Fire Department
There are three variations of this. Forward bear crawls, backward bear crawls, and planks. Each one moves the bag in a different direction, and each one works slightly different muscles.
I’ve also done variations of the side-to-side pull-through but holding a plank rather than crawling. It works well with dumbbells, too.
Sandbag Keg Lifts
I first learned about this while working through Rob Shaul’s program, so why not let him explain it?
You can do this one both standing, as in the video, or kneeling. Intensity is changed by altering the height and weight of the bag. I’ve also seen this used with kettlebells if that’s what you’ve got available.
Sandbag Clean, Squat, and Run
Ok, this is cheating. All three of these make a good exercise, but picking this one let me do all three with the same exercise. Bonus.
The nature of the sandbag means you can play with different ways of doing the squat. For instance, some people might sling it over the shoulders as with a back squat. You could do it over one shoulder asymmetrically as in this clip. Another variation is to hold it in front of you either resting in the crook of your elbows, the Zercher position, or bear hugging it.
Each of those variations has their own benefits to different muscle groups.
And Finally, the Sandbag Hold and Carry
One of the best benefits of sandbags is their effect on your grip strength. Most modern sandbags designed for workouts come with handles on them. You can, of course, carry the things around by the handle if you want. But the real challenge comes from not using the handles.
Grab a fist full of loose material and hold the thing as long as you can. Carry if around if you want.
If you need to develop that old man grip strength, this is a sure way to get there. It’s also a very practical movement. I can think of a lot of times in the past, especially during disaster prep before a storm, carrying bags of dog food, or just bags of “stuff” all looked like this.
Choosing a Sandbag for Training
Sandbag training is trendy right now. Like AR-15s, a hot market means there are a lot of people trying to grab your money with relatively similar products.
If you want to be very cost conscious, you can go cheap and follow the DIY route. There are lots of tutorials out there for taking surplus duffel bags and turning them into fitness equipment. You could even take a super cheap sandbag from Home Depot, fill it, and seal it with duct tape.
I’m going to talk about purpose-build sandbag trainers, though.
When I decided to buy my own, the first place I thought was GoRuck. I handled the GoRuck sandbags during my last challenge event. They are well constructed and definitely take a beating. This option is covered in padded handles to grab the bag in all sorts of ways.
The catch is that they are pretty expensive for the bag by itself. The inner liner “filler bag” isn’t cheap, either. By the time you get the exterior bag and the filler, you’re in for a good chunk of change.
Don’t think you can avoid the filler bag, either. The GoRuck bags use nice heavy duty zippers along with velcro closure. In other words, they aren’t going to do well with a lot of loose sand flying around on the inside. The filler bag is there to protect it from the contents.
Another highly rated sandbag company is Brute Force. You can get their equipment on Amazon. At first glance, they appear very similar in construction to the GoRuck bags. Same kind of padded handles everywhere, same filler bag system.
They are also nearly as expensive.
Amazon has plenty of similar knockoff bags, but I’ve never seen one in person. If they’re anything like the no-name brand bags at my gym, the seams started leaking after a fair bit of usage. It gets sand everywhere (cue whiny Anakin).
So I found another more affordable option.
At some point during my search, I noticed a lot of pictures and videos had a different bag that I’d not seen for sale anywhere. It looked like a classic military duffel bag but was clearly a sandbag meant for exercise. It had stitched handles running down each side, and it closed by tying off rather than use any zippers or velcro.
It turns out that MTI makes these and sends them to gyms all over. At half the price of a GoRuck or Brute Force, without the need for a filler bag, it seemed like a great solution. I’m happy I did.
It’s basically a big open-ended nylon bag. You close it by trying it shut with some 550 cord. Rope sewn into the mouth stops the cord from slipping off the end.
Sandbag Filler Options
Sandbags don’t need to be filled with sand.
In fact, you might not want to use sand at all. I’ve seen all kinds of options:
- Sand (duh)
- Pea gravel
- Wood pellets
- Rubber mulch/ground up tires
The filler you choose is a combination of desired density and movement.
Sand and pea gravel, for instance, is dense. It’s one of the easiest ways to build up a lot of weight in a bag very quickly. These work best on relatively small bags that won’t get ridiculously heavy. With the right amount of sand or gravel, the bag will be plenty floppy but still have heft.
Wood pellets and rubber mulch are a bit less dense and take up more space for weight. With these, you can make a bag very bulky and awkward to handle while still having good weight. The tradeoff is that the extra bulk also makes the bag less floppy. It still molds and conforms to you, but not as much.
Pick your filler based on what you need the bag to do.
I ultimately chose rubber mulch because it won’t leak out of the bag in puffs of dust over time, nor will it slowly grind at the treads of the bag. Wood pellets degrade over time, especially if they get wet.
I picked up rubber mulch for about $6.50 per 20lb bag at Lowe’s. It’s perfect for my uses, as it has a bit of give but makes my 60 lb sandbag really awkward to handle.
Sandbag Training Workouts
One last thing before I end, here are a few workouts to get you started.
“Sandbag Murph” by Stew Smith
Rule: You cannot sit the sandbag down during entire event.
I’ve followed Stew Smith for years and even used his books while preparing for the AFROTC version of basic training. He wrote this workout for Military.com.
Using a bag that weighs 40-50lbs:
- Run 1 mile with the bag on your shoulder.
- 50 push presses taking the sandbag to the left and right shoulder (Left shoulder over the head to right shoulder and then back to left shoulder is one rep).
- 200 steps of lunges (100 per leg). Chest carry the sandbag.
- 300 reps but combine 150 reps of situps (chest carry) and 150 squats of sandbag to complete the 100, 200, 300 rep cycle.
Then run 1 mile again with sandbag on the shoulder.
This one looks like a killer. I would expect no less from a routine bearing the same name as the infamous Crossfit “Murph” workout.
Basic Sandbag Workout by Tom Kelso
This comes from an article Tom wrote on Breaking Muscle
- Lap carry around your training facility x 3-6 laps
- Overhead press x 8-20 reps
- Bent-over row x 8-20 reps
- Squat x 15-30 reps
- Lunge x 6-12 reps each leg
- Repeat the sequence
Sandbag Complex by Mountain Tactical Institute
This is a sequence of movements you can use with the sandbag. The workout is to set a time for yourself, say 15 to 20 minutes, and go through this cycle as many times as you can.
In the same vein, since I mentioned them earlier, set a timer and do as many sandbag get-ups as you can within the time.
Sandbag Smoker by Hard to Kill Fitness
Rory at Hard to Kill Fitness put this one together. Use a 40-65 lb bag and try to take as few breaks as possible. This is a pyramid workout, meaning that you follow a progression. In this case, you start at 10 and work your way down to 1.
This means you do 10 reps of the first exercise, then 10 of the next, then 9 of the first, then 9 of the second, and so on.
Shoulder to Shoulder Sandbag push press
Shoulder to shoulder press
Rest the bag on your left shoulder then push it overhead, bring down to rest it on the right shoulder. Push it back overhead again and move to the original shoulder. That is one complete repetition.
Each rep is done per side. So 10 reps means 10 on the let and then 10 on the right. You can either do all reps on one side first and then the other, or alternate left and right for each one. It’s easier to do all on one side first since the transition takes energy as well.
That about covers it. Sandbag training is a fantastic supplement to your regular strength and conditioning program. The added bulk and instability of the bag helps attack muscles that you might not normally hit during regular barbell or dumbbell training.
Sandbags range in price from very cheap DIY options to “No way I’m paying that much for that.” If you want to give it a try, it’s ok to start cheaper and see how well it works for you. I like to play the middle ground here with something isn’t too expensive but won’t fall apart on me, either.
Choose your filler based on your needs. Sand is the densest and will add up in weight the quickest, but it also produces a lot of mess. Pea gravel is another good option here, but both require you to use a filler bag liner.
As always, train safely.