The Benefits of Sandbag Training by Matt Palfrey
As a coach, I’m always looking for ways to give my athletes the edge in training. I know that smart and effective training produces great results and this, in turn, improves performance.
The sandbag is one of the most under utilized training aids for strength, endurance, and power. In this article I’d like to discuss what makes it such an effective tool and how everyone can integrate sandbags into their training regime.
“This thing is awkward to lift”
For me, the greatest benefit of the sandbag is the fact that it is awkward to lift. The load is constantly shifting, or at least requires effort to stabilise, and this produces an effect far removed from conventional weight training. The sandbag is not ergonomically designed to make it easier to lift – it makes you work hard for each repetition. The result is that you build strength and conditioning that can be applied in the real world. Scientists would call this ‘ecological validity’.
This concept of functional strength is heavily touted in modern health and fitness. It’s not uncommon to find classic exercises ‘modified’ to include instability by using stability balls, boards and another equipment. But the sandbag has built-in instability, making it the natural choice to integrate instability training into your programme.
The major advantage of training with an unstable object, rather than on an unstable surface, is that it has greater ecological validity or real world application. Most loads, in real life, are not equally weighted. Therefore, training with the sandbag prepares the body to deal with an unstable load. The ‘craze’ for stability training typically involves making the surface on which you are standing unstable – the complete opposite of most real world situations.
“Talk is cheap – and so is sand”
The sandbag is proudly low-tech and relatively inexpensive compared to other training options. In a comparison of cost between sand and conventional weight plates the sand comes in at around 1/20th of the price. And that’s if you pay for it – sand is fairly easy to come by for free. I have around 350lbs of sand in my garage gym and this cost me about $15 – the same weight in even the most basic plates would have set me back at least $300, and that’s without the bars and collars.
With so many barriers to exercise, the inexpensive nature of sandbag training makes it a great option for everyone.
“Have bag, will travel”
If you travel regularly, as I do, then the sandbag is a great addition to any suitcase. I take mine with me everywhere I go and fill it when I arrive – either at the beach or from a builder’s merchant. It is the ultimate portable gym so you have no excuses not to train again!
“Bend me, shape me”
The sandbag is malleable – it will mould itself to your body and most shapes you can think of. I’ve seen countless attempts to make barbell back squats more comfortable with towels, various ergonomic pads and even extra t-shirts but the sandbag will mould itself nicely across your back – problem solved.
The malleable sandbag also lends itself well to load carries, hill sprints and various sport specific drills. I find it particularly effective with combat athletes as the bag can be used to simulate an opponent effectively.
The sandbag can take the place of a medicine ball for throwing, passing and catching drills – try doing that with a barbell.
“Get a grip”
Most modern gymnasiums are littered with machines that require little to no hand strength to operate them. This causes problems when, outside of the gym, you require hand strength to lift anything. The modern antidote to this problem is to include some additional grip strength exercises to supplement your grip-independent strength workout. The sandbag avoids this unnecessary issue by requiring high levels of grip strength to lift – it builds hand and forearm conditioning naturally.
Grip strength is a vital attribute for all athletes – especially wrestlers, mma fighters and judokas. But it is also important for the population as a whole. You only have to consider the commercial market for grip assistance implements to see how much of a problem this is becoming in modern society. Regular practice with a sandbag would maintain grip strength into old age.
Integrating sandbag training
The best advice for individuals who want to add sandbag training into their existing workout is to simply make substitutions. Take your regular exercises and perform them with a sandbag instead of the regular machine, barbell, kettlebell or dumbbell. Don’t be surprised if your poundage drops, this is natural and is testament to the challenge that the sandbag provides.
Focus on the basic lifts – squats, deadlifts, presses and pulls and begin adding more advanced moves when you feel able.
I love using the sandbag for higher repetition metabolic conditioning drills too. The following workout will do great things for muscular endurance, agility, and aerobic endurance:
5 Sandbag High Pulls
10 Sandbag Push Press
15 Sandbag Back Squats
20 Sit Ups
Complete as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes
Matt Palfrey is a strength and conditioning coach, writer and owner of the Sandbag Fitness Blog. For more information on Sandbag Fitness training check out: