Sandbag training originally came into my lifting regimen as a replacement exercise for squats and deadlifts during a deload week. If this already sounds like a great idea and a lot of fun to you, then we are definitely on the same page. If not, read on and decide for yourself at the end of the article if it's worth a try; I made all the mistakes so you won't have to! The only exposure I had to sandbag training came from this deload period and it consisted of loading a heavy duty duffel bag with various sizes of sandbags and loading them onto a chest or neck height platform set up in a squat rack. Think of the atlas stones in Strongman, but with sandbags instead. This exercise loosely mimicked a deadlift, albeit with a much deeper squat position and really taxed starting strength, grip and body positioning. This was a great teaching tool as well because we did not allow ourselves to grip the bag or our arms so it was a massive bear-hug to an ever shifting and awkward implement. Taking a cue from Strongman, once the initial bear-hug deadlift/squat hybrid got the bag off the ground, the bag needed to be rested on the knees in a close stance squat position to adjust the bag closer to the chest and with arms lower on the bag to help toss it onto the platform. From there, we stood up with the bag and explosively heaved it up and forward onto the platform, which usually required some straining and pushing with the arms to get it fully resting on the platform (I can't say that no one tried to use their forehead to push it up when the going got tough!).
I succeeded in getting 240 lbs a couple of times up and down from the platform. This basically feels like putting a large squirming adult into a bag and then trying to lift it, so be prepared to use every single muscle you have to move this thing; as I'm writing, I realize that none of this sounds like a deload session but either way it was fun and a totally new stimulus.
In subsequent weeks I experimented with bear hugging a heavy duffel bag and walking around the house as many times as I could without putting it down. Sometimes this happened at night and I nearly fell multiple times from divots and gutter drains, another lesson learned. What I did take away from this training was that it:
A. Taxed the glycolytic and aerobic systems heavily
B. Worked grip, thoracic extension, core stability and abdominal breathing
C. Was fun, intense and short.
From thereon I decided I needed to have one of these at home at set out to design my own system. I read online through various sources and tried to come up with a practical and economical way to make sandbag training accessible for anyone.
The very first thing needed was a heavy duty duffel bag. I can say after looking at Walmart, Home Depot, Dick's Sporting Goods etc that an Army/Navy Store is the way to go. I found a large, heavy duty duffel bag with a load rating of around 300 pounds, that had inlaid rings through the opening to draw tight with a cord, heavy stitching and a few well-placed straps for carrying. It was only about $25 and met my criteria perfectly.
Thinking the hard part was out of the way, I expected to be carrying sand bags by the end of the day, but this was sadly not my reality. This was the fall season entering winter so my first thought was to try Home Depot for pre-made sandbags. These came in either large squares or long rectangular shapes, usually ranging from 25 to 40 pounds. The square bags were leaking sand right off the shelf so they were immediately out. I chose three 40 pound rectangular bags and brought them home to try loaded carries at a local high school football field.
Upon arriving at the field, loading up the duffel bag with the sandbags and carrying it 50 yards down and back, I probably made two successful runs before one of the bags tore open and spilled into my eye while hoisted on my shoulder. When I dumped the duffel bag to claw at my eyes, the other bags tore open too, so the sand needed to be dumped and I had to start all over.
With the safety of my precious sight in mind, I returned to Home Depot, purchased three new sandbags and covered them in a heavy layer of Gorilla Tape, which is heavier than Duct Tape. The bags seemed impenetrable and unbreakable and if you are at all familiar with foreshadowing, you already know this did not end well. I returned to the football field, made 4 or 5 successful bear-hug carries down 100 yards and was feeling good. Some high school athletes even stopped to ask what I was doing and I assumed they thought it was decently hard-core since it was winter, I had shorts on and I was carrying what looked to be a dead body in a black back on my shoulders. However, when I finished my training session, most of the bags had split open and this really started to frustrate me.
My backup plan was to order some sandbag liners from IronMind online just in case this whole thing failed and I couldn't do it on my own. I ordered a few different sizes and then set to work on finding local, cheap sandbags that wouldn't tear open. Looking around online once more, I saw on a forum that someone suggested using sandbags that your local city workers stack up during flood season. I called my Public utilities and they directed me to my town's Emergency Management services. This department basically helps your town out with flooding, natural disasters, search and rescue etc. I made one phone call, asked them for some sandbags and they told me to stop by and take what I needed, no questions asked. Upon arriving, there was a huge pallet stacked with heavy duty sandbags weighing about 30lbs each. They were perfect. No leaks, tight weaving, pretty consistent sizes and basically an endless supply.
At this point I knew I didn't even need the Gorilla Tape so I loaded a few sandbags into one of the IronMind liners just to be safe, put those into the duffel bag and drew the top tight. I returned to the high school (they must think I'm nuts by now) and proceeded to carry the duffel bag in my arms, across my back and over my shoulder. Just to be sure, I practiced dropping the bag to see if there would be leaks and I was ecstatic to find they held up so well. This was a triumphant day for me and I feel like I found the perfect formula for cheap, easy and accessible sandbag training.
To recap, I ultimately settled on:
- One heavy duty draw-string duffel bag from an Army/Navy Store ($25)
- Three sandbag liners from IronMind ($1.65 each, plus shipping)
- Four or five heavy-duty sandbags from my local Emergency Mgmt. (free)
All told this ran me about $35. I ended up with 150+ pounds of sand and easy access to more if needed. The duffel bag is indestructable, the sandbag liners are tightly woven and don't leak and the sand bags are heavy duty and free.
After much running around, sand in my eye and down my shirt, failed attempts, a bruised ego and stares from on-lookers, the end solution was quite easy. Take a day to order the liners, buy a duffel bag and grab some free sandbags and then get outside and have some fun. You can find articles, especially by Dan John, about sandbag training and how to implement it around your normal training. To be honest, I usually chose 6 to 10 runs of 50 to 100 yards, carried in a bear hug or over one shoulder or two. I kept rest relatively short, stopped when I felt good and had some fun. Try it out and let me know how it goes!