Co-authored by Patrick McHenry, MA, CSCS*D
Keeping your workouts original while achieving results will prevent burnout and maximize results. To add variety to your workout, you can use Strong Man training, dumbbells, functional training (i.e., med ball, bands), plate work or kettlebells. All of these workouts are highly motivating and produce results. This article will discuss and demonstrate how one single piece of equipment can encompass all of these training modes. Sandbags allow you to perform dumbbell, kettlebell or traditional lifts with the benefit of unilateral training, inside or out, while making your lifting program sport specific.
Figure 1 - Various Sandbag Sizes and Weights
Variety Adds New Element
When designing your program and choosing specific lifts, applying variations of lifts is often an overlooked variable that can make a positive difference in training. In 1981, Yessis stated that, “One way to alternate the program is to do a different exercise to develop the same muscle.” Machines are often an option, but they can be expensive and can take up huge amounts of functional space. Free weights allow for a greater variety of exercises, especially dumbbells. However, dumbbells cannot be thrown if you are trying to do explosive exercises. Strongman equipment takes up a lot of room in the gym and is hard to find.
According to Siff, “The impact of changing and/or varying exercises can be immense. These changes become particularly evident if one is exposed to a sufficiently enriched environment providing novel, complex and cognitively challenging stimulation, a finding in which stresses the importance of not limiting one’s training to simple, largely unchallenging repetitive patterns of training with exactly the same weight or machines. This is one of the main reasons why I emphasize the importance of planned variations utilizing numerous different means, methods and exercises, which draw on integrative whole-body disciplines.”
Sandbags provide this “sufficiently enriched environment” to train in by taking an old exercise and adding a new element of stability and unilateral movement, which will tax the musculoskeletal and nervous system at higher levels.
Sand bag training creates a multitude of program design options that incorporate Strong Man, kettlebell, dumbbell and plate work training with traditional lifts as well as plyometrics. This allows for neuromuscular adaptation because a new training stimulus is implemented (18, 32). Use of a single bag in each hand allows for unilateral training, which maximizes neural drive (21, 24).
Bag design and use has grown and improved immensely in recent years. Some coaches utilize very rustic bags such as army surplus bags filled with sand or firearm shot with varying amounts of weight. Some of the first produced bags made commercially were different variations of these types of bags that incorporated different shapes, liner types, zippers, etc. We have made and used different types of bags to varying degrees of success. In using various styles of bags, the most effective, diverse and “user friendly” bags are those that have numerous handles, come in various weights and can be filled easily.
In order to avoid training plateaus, we like to vary the program every three to four weeks to avoid staleness. One way to change your program is to change the exercises within the program. For example, a supine bench can be changed to dumbbell bench or push up pull (see Figures 2a and 2b), kettlebells swings (see Figures 3a and 3b) for cleans and alternate dumbbell jerks for military press. If you are looking for a change, perform an Olympic lift such as a clean with the bags (see Figures 4a-c) or an overhead squat (see Figures 5a and 5b). To incorporate Strongman training, you can load the bags up and do a Farmer’s walk or lighten them up and do a two hand overhead toss (see Figures 6a and 6b). Your sets and reps will change, depending on which phase you are working on.
To develop power, use three to five sets of three to eight reps using a weight that allows you to move explosively (30-80% 1 RM). If you are working on hypertrophy, then you will increase the reps to eight to 12 and for strength use two to five reps. The sets and rep ranges can be altered frequently, depending on the goal. Although you can use the bags for any phase, we like to use them mainly during power phases.
Power is the rate at which work is performed, so the faster you move a given load (making sure you use correct form, of course), the more powerful you will be. It is a crucial element to be successful in a wide variety of sports (1, 2, 9, 10). Research has shown that power can be achieved through high velocity/heavy loads or high velocity/light loads. One thing we have found is that technique diminishes rapidly when utilizing high velocity/heavy loads with most beginning and intermediate athletes (our definition of a beginner or intermediate athlete is someone who has less than five years of training). We like to use high velocity/light loads with an emphasis on technique to develop power. An example of an exercise to develop power is a squat jump activity with the sandbag on the shoulders. This adds extra resistance, yet it can be dropped without hurting the athlete or the weight. A kneeling chest press can teach the athlete to explode from the hips and drive the sand bag with the arms (see Figures 7a-c).
Safety is a major concern when training in an unconventional manner, and that is why sandbags are a great choice. As stated earlier, they can be dropped without harming the implement, floor or the lifter. With this in mind, sandbags are a great implement that can be taken to the field or court to be added to plyometric, combination training, or other variations of training that dumbbells or traditional weights cannot offer. Additionally sandbags can be substituted for traditional dumbbells and barbells for pushing, pulling, Olympic or any other type of exercise on benches, platforms, or open space within your existing facility. We have even hypothesized that the sandbag would be a great training tool for adaptive physical education classes as they provide a much safer environment than traditional dumbbells and bars. Due to the variability of the bag to adjust weight and size, athletes can use very specific loads and incorporate progressive increases much like the use of traditional weights and the potential for injury can be minimized. Although the sandbags can be dropped safely, spotters can be utilized in the same manner as you would with any training. Virtually the use of sandbags can replace, add variety to existing routines, enhance the use of functional space in any facility, court, or field, and overall add a new dimension to your training program. They are only limited to the creativity of the user and take up less space than most traditional resistance training implements.
Lifting with a Purpose
Developing stronger, more powerful athletes is often the goal of a program for strength and power sports such as hockey, lacrosse or football. In order to apply this to a year round program that emphasizes these physical qualities at specific times of the year (i.e., pre-season, in season, off-season) specific loads should be implemented. With the versatility of the sandbags, you can work with the specific amounts weight (30-70% of 1 RM) and also incorporate varying velocities as well. Once again having the sandbag will allow you to incorporate versatility and creativity into traditional type training while still maintaining the parameters of your program.
Sport specific skills improve when the athletes train those skills (27). Therefore, putting athletes in a sport specific position(s) will work on their explosiveness through full range of motion. There is even research (21) to show that free weight exercises performed while standing may result in the highest degree of transfer.
The following is a three day a week workout, with Tuesdays and Thursdays being used for speed, agility and/or conditioning. This is an example of a strength/power phase week that lasts three to four weeks. All of the exercises are conventional type exercises but performed with the sandbags. For exercises that you traditionally performance test (i.e., bench press, clean, squat, jerks, shoulder press), you can incorporate specified loads of 40 to 70 percent to target power output. With the remainder of “auxiliary” exercises, we like to incorporate loads that allow the athlete to utilize near maximal exertion to complete the final reps of the last set, initiating the overload principle but always maintaining that the athlete keep proper technique throughout.
You can incorporate sandbags into your regular training as well. Sandbag lifts can be used on lighter training days to incorporate variety into training. This will prevent boredom while giving you new training stimuli.
Sandbags can offer a great new dimension to any program. They are just as versatile and, in many cases, can add new variations to exercises that you may already be utilizing. Try sandbags in your program, and see how your athletes respond to this excellent training tool.
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|| Push up pulls 4x5 each
||Clean w/ Bags 4x4
|| Reverse Lunge 4x5
||Frog Hops 4x5
|Alt Arm Incline Press 4x5 each
||High pull w/ bags 4x5
||Kettle bell swings W/ bag 4x5
|Alt Push Press 4x4
||Supine Pullover 4x5
||Alternating Shoulder Press 4x5 each
|Standing chest press throws 4x5
||Standing chest press 4x5
||Kneeling chest press to push up 4x5
|Standing Shoulder Press 3x6-8
||Overhead tri extension 3x6-8
||1 Arm Row 3x6-8 each
|Alt bicep curl 3x6-8
||Lateral Shoulder Raises 3x6-8
||Good Morning 4x6-8
||1 Leg/1 Arm RDL 4x6-8 each
|Trunk Work (abs/back)
||Trunk Work (abs/back)
||Trunk Work (abs/back)