March 21, 2021
If you want to look like a gladiator, then you need to train like a gladiator. With that train of thought, did you know that some form of a heavy sandbag was part of a gladiator's foundational training for fighting? That's right. Fast forward to today, and sandbags are still go-to for combatants. Sandbags are incorporated into military and combat sport workouts on a regular basis. And while we might be slightly over-glorifying sandbags with the gladiator statement, there is no denying that sandbags are super effective for strength and conditioning. Moreover, they are effective in a very unique way. The benefits of sandbag training are not to be overlooked. There's no other training implement quite like a sandbag.
We are here to tell you exactly why sandbags are so great, so you can decide if its worth incorporating a sandbag into your workout regimen.
An exercise sandbag is a weighted bag that is used for working out. It is typically filled with sand, either through filler bags or directly, hence the name. Sandbag training is a great way to build raw power and strength. A sandbag is one of the best training tools that you can buy for personal use, as not only are sandbags space-friendly and portable, but they are extremely versatile. There is no other implement like a sandbag. Sandbags offer many benefits over conventional free weight equipment, all of which we are going to cover in-depth further below.
There are two main types of sandbags. Let’s go over the differences between the two.
This is the most common type of sandbag. It is horizontally long, sort of like a duffle bag. While fitness sandbags come in various designs - some with more or less handles, some bigger than others, some with more weight capacity - they are used in the same manner. These are the best sandbags for all around use as the handles allow you to do many kinds of exercises, including all of the same exercises you can do with the next sandbag we are going to show you.
If you buy this type of sandbag, make sure it is made of waterproof Cordura nylon and it has heavy duty reinforced nylon stitching. YKK zippers are the best too as they are the most durable.
Fitness sandbags come empty with a certain amount of filler bags. The sand is put into the filler bags and the filler bags are put into the bag. So, you will not dump sand directly into the bag. Each filler bag will be an approximate weight (i.e. 10lbs). So, you can adjust the weight depending on how many of the filler bags you put into the bag.
As for what you can fill the filler bags with, you have some options. Obviously you can fill it with sand. However, pea gravel and rubber mulch is a popular option as they don’t pulverize, make dust, dry up easily, or retain moisture. In any case, play sand, pea gravel and rubber mulch are all quite cheap.
Note: A great mix is 2/3 pea gravel and 1/3 rubber mulch.
Other options are rice, wood pellets, animal feed, garden pebbles and even spare change.
Weight range: Up to 75 pounds.
Pros of fitness sandbags with handles and filler bags is it is easy to adjust the weight quickly, they have many handles so you can do all kinds of exercises, they are better for beginners, and they are cleaner.
Cons of fitness sandbags is they are limited in how heavy they can be (not an issue for beginners). Moreover, you’ll find more people have issues with breakage and leakage with this kind of sandbag than the sandbag we are now going to discuss.
These sandbags have a cylindrical shape and the bags do not have handles. Like all sandbags, you will have to fill them yourselves. To fill them, you dump sand directly into the bag then zip it up and cover the zipper with the flap.
While they are called strongman sandbags, they are often used in cross training as well. The reason they are called strongman sandbags (and are most commonly seen in strongman training) is because they offer a much heavier capacity. Strongman sandbags range from 50lb-400lb, depending on the seller. That said, the loadable weight depends on the contents it is filled with. It may be greater or less than what the bag states. Obviously, the larger the sandbag, the heavier it can be.
Common fillers are play sand, crumb rubber and lead shot, but you have other options if you want to get creative. The weight stated by sellers is based on play sand. So, the crumb rubber will make for a lighter bag and the lead shot will make the bag significantly heavier than what the bag states.
Needless to say, strongman sandbags are very heavy duty. They have a Cordura nylon waterproof construction, funnel-filler technology inside the bag, and the strongest most reliable zipper. If a bag states 100lbs, if it is from a good seller, the testing capacity is actually considerably greater than that.
Weight range: 50-400lbs
Pros of strongman sandbags are they are super durable and made to last a very long time, and, of course, they go much heavier. In fact, they go so heavy that only pro strongmen are using the top weight range of these sandbags. If you want to build serious strength, a strongman sandbag is the way to go.
Cons of strongman sandbags are they are harder to use because they are not only heavier and have a greater volume, but they don’t have handles. This also means you are somewhat limited in the exercises you can do (although there are still plenty of great exercises). Lastly, it’s more time consuming to adjust the weight depending on the exercise, and a bit messy, as you can’t just take out a filler bag like you can with fitness sandbags.
TWO OTHER OPTIONS - MILITARY SANDBAGS AND AQUA SANDBAGS:
The two other options are military sandbags and aqua sandbags.
Military sandbags are similar to the sandbags that the military uses for barracks and to prevent flooding. They are polypropylene or burlap sacks filled with sand and tied off at the top. These are cheap, yet durable, and can be used for training, as many military members do. They are pretty much DIY sandbags. They are more akin to strongman sandbags, but they don’t have as high a weight capacity.
Aqua sandbags are just like the duffle bag type sandbags with handles but they are directly filled with water. These are the least common. They are fun to use and the water slushing around gives it a unique feel. However, the weight load is much lower than the other sandbags.
For beginners or those who don’t need a very heavy sandbag, go with the sandbag with handles as they are the most versatile. This is why you will see these everywhere. They are just more useful for the average fitness enthusiast.
If you really want a heavy sandbag as you are very strong individual, then you must opt for the strongman sandbags. These are definitely the best for building power and strength.
The benefits we are about to discuss are general and apply to both types of sandbags (fitness and strongman sandbags), although there are some benefits that apply to one or the other, but the distinction will be apparent.
Sandbag training is very effective for full body strength and conditioning. One of the reasons sandbags are so effective and useful is that it works your strength in a different manner than conventional lifting does. The awkward, unstable, off-balanced nature of a sandbag places stress on your body in a very different manner. It is called dynamic resistance and it is much more difficult. This is why most people can only lift about 50% of the normal weight they would with a barbell. This is particularly true for strongman sandbags lifts like bear hug squats and deadlifts to cleans.
These are some of the reasons why sandbag training is so popular with the military and combat athletes. It builds “real world strength”, as the world isn’t full of perfectly balanced and stable objects like barbells and dumbbells.
Sandbag training is extremely versatile in both exercises and training variables. This is what makes sandbag training so special and unique.
However, most people just end up using sandbags the same way they would barbells - squats, cleans, presses, rows, and lunges. Those are good, but sandbag training offers a lot more versatility if you know what to do.
While you can replicate your every-day barbell exercises with sandbags, the beauty of sandbag training is you have so many more variables.
Here are the 5 main variables that you can employ in sandbag training and which make sandbags so versatile:
Holding Position: By altering the holding positions, you can completely change the way an exercise places stress on your body. With barbells, you have two to five holding positions depending on the exercise, whereas with sandbags you have up to eleven holding positions - i.e. bear hug, over the shoulder, side handles, middle handle, zercher hold, and so on.
Most people train by simply thinking of an exercise (squat, deadlift, clean) and they never consider where the load is placed in relation to the body. This is unfortunate as by changing things up, you can place stress on your body differently, and that is what makes for well-rounded strength.
Body Positions: This is probably the easiest way to manipulate how an exercise challenges our movements. For example, you can take a sandbag exercise from a bilateral stance to a staggered stance to completely change up how the load targets your muscles. This is pretty standard across different implements, but it is a variable we need to mention nonetheless.
Planes of Motion: If you want to be the most resilient and strongest version of yourself, you must train in all three planes of motion - sagittal, frontal, and transverse. Sadly, most people don’t put emphasis on the transverse plane. With sandbag training, it is easy to incorporate exercises that work you through all three planes of motion thanks to the design of the bag and the handles. What’s more, by changing where you hold the sandbag, you can place stress on multiple planes. For example, a Sandbag Shoulder Lunge is a sagittal plane movement, but it places stress on the frontal plane), or a Rotational Clean, which will place stress on all three planes.
Stability vs Instability: You will often read that one of the best benefits of sandbag training is that sandbags are unstable. This may lead you to believe that sandbags are always unstable. The truth is, they can be both stable or unstable depending on the exercise and how you fill the bag.
In terms of exercises, here’s a quick example...
With a bear hug squat, the sandbag is going to be relatively stable as soon as you get the sandbag into the bear hug position, no matter how full the sandbag is. However, if you were to do cleans, forward steps, rear steps, or rotational movements, that sandbag is going to shift and become quite unstable.
As for dimensions, this get’s it’s own variable section even though it still relates to instability and stability…
Sandbags are very unique in that the dimensions of sandbags are not standardized or even set with the same size sandbag. The difference in sizes of sandbags and the ability to alter the dimensions by putting more or less filler allows for purposeful progressions, which can be far more important than one might think.
You could have two sandbags of the same weight, but depending on the size of the sandbags, one may move more or less than the other.
This allows you to adjust where needed.
For example, if you are learning a new movement pattern, you’d want to make the sandbag more stable. You can do this by filling the sandbag (can use a lighter substance like rubber mulch if you want less weight) or reduce fillers bags from shifting (by adding clothing to the bag, for example).
However, an unstable sandbag could be perfect for exercises that move you through a dominant plane of motion, such as the sagittal plane, as this will increase the challenge and work your core and stabilizer muscles to a far greater degree.
As you can imagine, dimensions are a key variable in the sandbag training system.
We absolutely love the role of instability in sandbag training. Depending on the exercise or dimensions of the bag, the bag can shift, move and just overall be unpredictable. This is one of the most intriguing aspects of sandbag training. With instability of the implement comes stability of the body.
And while instability is one of the most unique aspects of sandbag training, and what makes it so great, we also love the fact that you can work with it in a stable manner when needed.
All in all, if you use sandbags as they are meant to be used, employing the many different variables, then you open your training up to a world of possibilities. We are not just talking about variations either, these variables, of which sandbags have many more than your average implement, are all meaningful progressions and muscular stress changers that will positively affect your strength and performance.
Versatility in Weight Too! One sandbag can take on a range of weight. Depending on what you fill the bag with or how much you fill it, you can change up the load based on goals (endurance vs strength) or for different target muscle groups (i.e. for clean presses you’ll need a lighter load than an exercise like a bear hug deadlift).
Sandbag training is the perfect way to fill in the gaps of conventional weightlifting. While the word “functional” training is beaten down, sandbag training is truly functional. The workouts focus on multiplanar movements and like the world that surrounds us, sandbags are not perfectly balanced. This allows us to work our body as a single, stable unit. Moreover, as mentioned, there are so many variables to sandbag training, so we can work our bodies in a way that prepares us for the unpredictable nature of life and sports.
Now, to get more specific…
Works Body as a Unit
Unlike a lot of conventional exercises that people do day in and day out at the gym, sandbag training lends itself to exercises that work the body as a complete unit rather than in parts. Most sandbag exercises are full body and many will work you through more than one plane of motion. This is what we mean by functional.
By working your body as a single unit, you will burn more calories, boost your metabolism, build greater overall strength, and you are teaching your body how to move and function as a whole, which is great for balance and coordination. All of these things will make you a better human and a better athlete.
Barbells and dumbbells are not meant to be used because there are many barbell and dumbbell shaped objects in life. They are effective because of ease of use and the perfectly balanced design allows us to achieve max strength. The point is, we love barbells and dumbbells, but they are not all we should be using.
By training with sandbags, you bring a different kind of strength that relates better to the real world and sports. Sandbags have an asymmetrical load that helps us build strong stabilizer muscles, which includes your core! (considering your core is often the most important stabilizer for big exercises). This will allow you to transfer force better and be more injury resilient.
In the real world, objects are never perfectly balanced. Things are unstable. By training with unstable (asymmetrical loads) we can better prepare for any challenge that comes at us.
The unstable load of sandbags gives you what professionals call dynamic resistance. The real world and sports are full of dynamic resistance. Sandbags will teach you how to brace and stabilize when lifting and moving objects, odd shaped and unstable or not.
As such, barbells and sandbags don’t have to be mutually explosive. The two complement each other beautifully. Barbells build absolute strength, sandbags build “real world strength”.
We’ve already discussed this, but this is a big aspect of true strength. Think about your day to day life, you are moving in all directions and through all planes of motion. If you play sports, this is only amplified via explosiveness through all three planes of motion.
As we mentioned, training in all three planes of motion is often overlooked by most fitness enthusiasts. People’s main focus is the sagittal plane (i.e. squats, presses, deadlifts), with the frontal plane usually getting little attention, and transverse plane even less.
This is a shame as you need to develop strength in all three planes of motion if you want well-rounded strength and durability. This is why you see pro athletes always training in such unique ways when compared to your standard gym rat. They are working their body in all the ways they should.
If you want a body like a pro-athlete, then you need to place equal focus on training all three planes of motion. With sandbag training, you will have no choice. Just look up the best sandbag exercises and you will see that the exercises are very dynamic and mulitplanar. It comes with the territory.
We’ve already mentioned how the unstable asymmetrical nature of the exercise sandbag builds core strength and stronger stabilizer muscles, but these two things really deserves their own point.
It is important to note that your body doesn’t have specific stabilizer muscles. It all depends on the movement at hand. For any given exercise, you have primary movers and primary stabilizers.
For example, during squats your calves, hamstrings and core (abs and low back) are your stabilizers.
For any exercise, your core is the constant. It is always going to be a stabilizer for two of the most important joints in our body, our spine and our hips! It is even more important when we are doing big lifts or explosive movements. You really want a strong core because it protects your spine. Core stability is essential to injury resilience and powerful movements.
As for your other joints, they will be stabilized by various muscles depending on the exercise.
Now, to the point of sandbags, because of the instability of the load, your stabilizer muscles are going to be working at a much higher degree. This is going to strengthen how they function, which will transfer to more power and strength when performing exercises with stable loads too.
As for core strength, because of the holding positions and the dimensions of sandbags, sandbags training is proven to do an outstanding job of strengthening the core and hip muscles, which allows for a great transfer of force to other areas of your body.
An explosive, powerful body starts at the core. You core is what transfers force from your lower body to your upper body!
Needless to say, both core strength and stability and strong stabilizer muscles are essential for real world strength and sports performance. Not only does it make you stronger and more explosive, but it helps protect you from injuries.
There are three types of grip strength - pinch grip, crush grip, and support grip. Not many people have time to focus on all three. With conventional training, you have pull ups for support grip and deadlifts for crush grip, and pinch grip is usually completely neglected. Some people don’t even care about their grip and decide to use wrist straps every time they do exercises like deadlifts…ok, it’s understandable if you are a powerlifter trying to max out, but the vast majority are not and they are missing out on building their grip strength. Your hands and forearms are an important part of your body, just as much as your chest, legs and back! There are so many benefits of having a strong grip.
Now, that we’ve ranted, this leads us to our beloved sandbag. With sandbag exercises, you will be pinching, crushing, and squeezing the sandbag like crazy, which will help you to build serious grip strength (this could have just been added to our real world strength and sports performance point, as grip strength is an essential part of life and sports, but we figured we’d add some emphasis).
If you like a challenge and to get out of your comfort zone, you are going to love sandbag training. First of all, learning how to use a sandbag properly is a challenge. Second, sandbags are much harder to lift than a barbell or dumbbell of the same weight. Pound for pound, sandbags are one of the hardest training tools to use. Most people can only do about 50% of the weight for any given exercise that they can do with a barbell. Lastly, most sandbag exercises and workouts are grueling.
The special forces train with heavy sandbags for a reason - It builds strength and mental fortitude!
You have to appreciate that a single sandbag can take on a wide range of weight load (for example, a single bag can be 10 to 75lbs), it only takes up a very small space in your house, AND it is super affordable.
A standard sandbags typically costs around 50-$100, which should get you around 75lbs of weight max.
A strongman sandbag can go a little higher because of the larger weight capacity, but even for the biggest one (400lb) you won’t spend more than $150.
A barbell alone cost around $200, and then you have to buy plates. Dumbbells are even more expensive if you want a proper set.
Related: Barbell vs Dumbbell
As for sand or filler, you can likely find free sand, but if you just want to buy some, go to your local home improvement store and get some play sand, it’s like $5 for 50lbs. You can also pick up some pea gravel and rubber mulch to play around with the weight of the sandbag and adjust the instability if needed (rubber mulch is lighter than play sand and pea gravel is heavier).
Note: We also love how sandbags are easily transportable. You can take them on the road and get a great outdoor workout in with just a sandbag. If you are going to the beach for a vacation, we can’t think of a better training tool to take than a sandbag. You will have all the sand you could ask for!
Sandbags can absolutely build muscle. If you go heavy and do explosive movements, you will be building type II muscle fibers, which are the muscle fibers with the most strength and growth potential. Sandbags are also great for building muscle because the exercises are compound and the dynamic resistance will shock your muscles in a different way if you are used to using standard equipment like barbell, dumbbells, cables, and even kettlebells.
If you are really into sandbag training, ideally you’d want both a strongman sandbag and the standard sandbag with handles. The strongman sandbag will allow you to do some serious power lifts and the sandbag with handles will give you more versatility in the types of exercises you can do, including rotational movements. If you can get both, that would be great as the two work well together for all around sandbag training.
For beginner men, a 50lb sandbag is a good place to start. Most standard sandbags with handles go up to 75lbs so you will have some room to grow too. Thus, you can hold off on the strongman sandbag.
For men who are more advanced, then you’d want a standard 75lb sandbag and a strongman sandbag for when you want to do heavy lifts.
For beginner women, aim to start with a 30lb sandbag. If you are more advanced, you can likely start around 50-60lbs for many exercises. You may not actually need a strongman sandbag if you don’t plan to go heavier than 75lbs. So, get the standard sandbag with handles before deciding on a strongman sandbag.
As for what weight for certain exercises, you will just have to experiment and see what works best. Start light and get the form down first.
Note: You probably won’t even know how heavy the sandbag is. You can guesstimate, but unless you weigh it on scale, you can’t be sure! This is not a bad thing. Worst case, if it is too heavy, it is easy to bail on a sandbag lift, unlike a dumbbell or barbell lift, you can just drop the bag down.
Remember, most people can only do about 50% of what they can with conventional equipment, so don’t think the numbers above sound too light.
If you want to test out sandbag training, start with the standard sandbag with handles an be sure to get one that’s heavy duty with the highest weight capacity possible.
Sandbag training will be a great addition to anyone’s workout plan, especially those who appreciate building well-rounded strength, core stability, and injury resilience. Sandbags will not have any conflict with other training tools. They go perfectly with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, battle ropes, steel maces and so on. It is a very unique implement that will fill in the gaps of standard training. Even if you are doing the same exercises with kettlebells or barbells, you will find that doing a sandbag version of the exercise hits your muscles and stresses your body in a completely different way.
Honestly, there’s not much to think about. Sandbags are not a big investment so we highly recommend to just give them a shot.
Mix sandbag exercises into your workouts. If you train from home, you can find ways to use sandbags in all of your workouts. There are no rules for how often. Just like working out in general, if your body is recovered and energized, then you can use sandbags to workout!
Another great thing about sandbags is you can easily take them on the road. If you want to go get an outdoor workout in, simply grab your sandbag and do a sandbag only workout outside!
Obviously, if you have the wherewithal, we recommend incorporating various training tools into your workouts, but if you want to do a sandbag only workout here and there, you will find that it’s really all you need to get a killer workout in.
And if you want a single training tool for your home workouts, a sandbag is actually a fantastic choice. With all the training variables we mentioned above - from exercises, to holding positions, to weight adjustments, it’s truly an all-in-one strength and conditioning tool.
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