Thursday, 22 March 2012

Sandbags For Strength - Originally Published On T-Nation

Is the sandbag the key to elite strength and conditioning? Probably not. But, properly used, can it help to develop the strength and conditioning unattainable through regular resistance training? Most definitely.

In this article I’d like to present some of the rationale for using sandbag training as both an additional and stand-alone tool for building strength, conditioning and power.

But, before we go forward, I’d like to make it clear that the sandbag is not a miracle tool. It requires just as much hard work and dedication as any other free weight. There is no substitute for consistent, hard work in the compound lifts, irrespective of the type of weight used. 

As every serious athlete knows, the tools that you utilise are only ever as good as the way that you utilise them (kettlebell Gunslinger anyone?). In this respect, I think the sandbag is often seen as a “poor man’s choice” for strength and conditioning. There is a distinct split between those that utilise sandbags (and other ‘odd shaped’ lifting) and those that train with traditional resistance, principally barbells. You will rarely find people that consistently work at both ends of this spectrum. Why? 

1. It is difficult to “grease the groove” with sandbag training. Although your technique will undoubtedly improve over time you’ll still find yourself fighting for most lifts. And people don’t like this. 

2. Sandbag training, being unstable and constantly-shifting, will invariably prevent you from lifting as much weight as you can on, say. a barbell. This means that most people who are training for absolute strength write it off. 

3. Sandbags aren’t always used for their unique properties. They’re used for sandbag variations of regular barbell exercises and, for the most part, this just means that serious trainees end up lifting less weight than normal. The comparable results between sandbag training and barbell training then don’t look so good. 

So, if you’re considering adding sandbag lifting into your existing training then it’s important to qualify what it will, and won’t do for you. The ever-so-slightly annoying “buzz” for functional training has come full circle. People are now wise to the fact that the modality used (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, sandbag etc.) and exercise selected doesn’t necessarily make it functional. What makes these things functional (and indeed anything) is how they relate to YOU and YOUR individual needs.So, we’re starting to see a return to programs that are (9 times out of 10) more functional for most people. Programs based around good, compound lifts are now common and this is a great thing. 

But, does this mean that we should avoid those other “real- life” lifts altogether? I don’t think so. But we have to realise why we are including them in our strength and conditioning. Most people avoid “odd-object” lifting because it’s tough and they find themselves struggling to make many of the lifts - even at moderate loads. This inevitably causes people to question it - mainly because they find themselves unable to lift as much weight. For individuals aiming to increase absolute strength this can then become an issue. But, what I’m proposing, is that you don’t simply substitute sandbag training for barbell training. You instead use it as an additional tool. Why? 

What Makes The Sandbag A Unique Strength And Conditioning Tool 

  • The sandbag is awkward to lift - this requires that you fight hard to perform exercises with it, just like working with a “real-life” object or person 
  • Sandbags require great levels of grip strength to lift and you’ll find that you naturally ‘grip’ them in positions like the Bear Hug, Zercher or Shoulder 
  • The sandbag is malleable - it will adjust to your body and the way that you are using it. This means it is particularly effective in moulding itself to your body and it is perfect for carrying, dragging and throwing 
  • The sandbag is itself unstable and will develop great ‘core’ strength. This is the polar-opposite of most ‘core’ training where the surface you are standing/sitting on will be unstable. Working with an unstable object is more akin to the demands of real life 
  • Plus, there is the other benefit of sandbags being inexpensive - perfect for anyone on a budget 

The point is that sandbag training should compliment your regular lifting. Get used to lifting a 200 lb. bag of sand above your head and, guess what, you’ll be stronger when you go back to the relatively “stable” barbell. I like to see it as a way to help push plateaus and also as a means to access some of the unique benefits of sandbag training. 

Integrating Sandbag Training 

The simplest way to incorporate sandbag lifting is to use the bag as an alternative to your standard free-weight option for deadlifts, squats, presses and pulls. This, in my opinion, is not the most effective use of the sandbag but it will give you a taste of the benefits therein. 

How you integrate sandbag training into your strength and conditioning will be highly specific to your own individual needs. But the following 3 options will provide you with some starting points: 

1. Substitute an existing session of lifting for sandbag variations. Replace the lifts you would normally do with a traditional free weight with the sandbag. Do this 1-2 times per month. 

2. Add in a unique sandbag lifting session. Using some of the unique sandbag exercises described below, perform a session that is either strength based (high weight, low rep, high rest periods) or conditioning based (light-moderate weight, moderate-high rep, minimal rest periods). 

3. Utilise sandbags for a sport-specific session. Push it, pull it, drag it, throw it - treat it like an opponent and be creative. 

Sandbag Exercises For You To Try 

The following exercises will give you the best of what the sandbag has to offer. They’re exercises that you probably won’t normally do, and that’s a good thing. 

Sandbag Windmill 

If you’ve ever tried a Windmill with a Kettlebell or Dumbbell you’ll appreciate it can be a tough exercise. It requires great flexibility, core and shoulder strength. Do it with a sandbag and it goes to a whole new level. The constantly shifting load of the sandbag will challenge your shoulder stability like nothing else. 

Sandbag Bear-Hug Load Carry 

This is the kind of exercise that the sandbag was designed for. The Bear Hug will develop the kind of strength that is difficult to get from regular lifting. Couple this with a load carry (or sprint for supreme conditioning) for a great strength and conditioning exercise. You could move the bag between platforms (or chairs) or perhaps set out a course to cover. 

Sandbag Floor Press with Bridge 

The Floor Press is a great exercise for developing pushing strength - and the sandbag version encourages greater development of grip strength and shoulder stability. Plus, you can be creative with it - MMA athletes can try escapes and transitions with the sandbag. 

Sandbag Clean and Press 

Yes, the Clean and Press is pretty common so it doesn’t really belong in this list of unique sandbag exercises but it just had to go in. Lifting a bag of sand above your head is no mean feat - and the added challenge from the sandbag is enough to justify it’s inclusion in this list. 



  1. EXCELLENT article! I believe that sandbags should be a tool used to build foundational strength. Many strength & conditioning programs these days are missing the mark as far as correct development of movement patterns are concerned in the realm of functionality; however this is changing today thanks to articles like this one. Thanks!

    Cody R Camp

  2. Matthew Palfrey25 March 2012 at 08:57

    Thanks Cody - glad you liked the article.