Over recent years, strength and conditioning professionals have placed greater emphasis on functional training—training that mimics the demands of a given physical activity or individual need (2,10). In an effort to optimize strength and conditioning practices, individuals have looked to alternative training approaches that optimize available time and resources, without compromising fitness. Sandbag training has emerged as a popular, practical, and productive option that encompasses these training considerations. The use of sandbags as training tools is an approach that falls under the heading of “free-weight implement training” (4,7). Lifting or moving odd-shaped dynamic (e.g., water- or sand-filled) implements requires muscular activation and input from many, if not virtually all, of the major muscle groups throughout the body. Consequently, this form of training is a potentially more transferable training approach to physically exertive sport- and occupation-specific tasks requiring multiplanar movement.
The most popular documented uses of sandbag training are for strength and conditioning in the athletic arena, for tactical populations, and for strongman events. Sandbag and implement training in general has become popular for athletes pursuing sport-specific training modalities. Sandbag training can reflect the unpredictable resistance provided by many of the situations inherent in sports and strongman events and will consequently help generate beneficial and event-specific neurological training adaptations. Furthermore, sandbag weights (specifically tubes) have been incorporated into training to supplement or replace traditional barbells because they are less expensive and more reflective of the hand grip and stance used in competition (9). This rationale is supported by exercise professionals and researchers, such as Waller et al. (9), who suggested that “… the specific movements that are used in the sport, occupation, or activities of daily living must be used in the exercise selection” (p. 48).
However, sandbag training has gained credibility and popularity among a variety of other populations, such as children, nonathletic, and clinical populations (4,6). Teixeira-Salmela et al. (8) used low-intensity training programs that incorporated sandbag weights to improve gait performance in middle-aged individuals under rehabilitation for poststroke hemiplegia. Sandbag training was incorporated into an exercise and dietary program for obese children that improved lean mass and bone mineral integrity (11). Although not attributable to sandbag training alone, this latter study highlighted that with the appropriate precautions in accordance with youth resistance training guidelines (3), sandbag training can be safely used by younger populations.
Sandbag training may also provide a functional substitution for traditional weight room-based machines or supplemental training approach for tactical athletes, such as Emergency Service or SWAT personnel. The dynamic and unpredictable resistance provided by sandbags forces the body to continually adjust position to maintain stability during given functional movement patterns. This variable resistance highlights the potential ability of this type of training to mimic occupational tasks like climbing over obstacles and lifting or dragging victims. Furthermore, sandbag training demands continuous activation (and thus training) of the stabilizer muscles through the body, improvements in which can significantly reduce risk of injury if trained through movement patterns reflective of occupational tasks.
SAMPLE SANDBAG TRAINING PROGRAM
Table 1 presents a 4-week training program that incorporates sandbag training appropriate for intermediate-level resistance trainers and/or individuals with some resistance training experience. The sandbag, barbell, or dumbbell weight is not presented in the table. A sandbag weight that allows for the completion of the suggested sets and repetitions should be chosen initially. It is important to remember that this weight may be different for men and women of different ages and levels of lifting experience. In accordance with the established guidelines (5), increases in weight lifted should be conducted in a progressive and gradual manner, with smaller increases for upper-body and isolated lower-body exercises. The exercise should be stopped and a physician should be consulted if pain presents during any exercise. As mentioned earlier, sandbags have been used safely by clinical populations, but even asymptomatic healthy individuals using this type of training for the first time should be supervised by a certified exercise professional. This decreases potential safety issues and increases the likelihood of correct form as the lifter adapts to moving the possibly unfamiliar dynamic resistance generated by the sandbag.
The program presented emphasizes a whole-body, multijoint, and multiplanar workout on each day of the 3-day-per-week program. The exercises were selected to focus on activating and strengthening muscle stabilizers and movers. The program starts with simple familiar movements, such as a bicep curl and seated front squat, and moves progressively onto exercises that require more complex movement or necessitate greater stabilization. Each exercise should be completed with correct form (Table 2), through a full range of motion, and while maintaining an appropriate breathing pattern. Exhalation should occur during the positive movement or when the greatest effort is being exerted (1).
Descriptions for exercises not involving sandbags are not presented in Table 2, but lifters are directed toward the National Strength and Conditioning Association Web site for information and videos on correct form (http://www.nsca-lift.org/videos/displayvideos.asp). If a sandbag is the only piece of apparatus available, each exercise presented in Table 1 can be modified to use a sandbag for resistance.
The volume of exercise and rest periods between sets is influenced by several factors, including but not limited to training status, experience with implement and sandbag training, and overall resistance training goals. For example, the volume of exercises presented in Table 1 is designed for an intermediate lifter interested in enhancing muscular strength and endurance, and therefore, rest periods between sets may last between 40 and 60 seconds but may vary to reflect the musculoskeletal goals of the client (1). For example, decreasing rest periods to 20-30 seconds will help maintain an elevated heart rate and possibly incorporate an aerobic component in a similar manner to that inherent in circuit training approaches. An alternative program design that manipulates the rest periods, the sets and repetitions, or the exercise choices presented in Table 1 may be appropriate depending on the client's training goal (6).
Sandbag exercises may also be completed with the bag in a variety of positions depending on comfort level, difficulty level, sandbag size (length and distribution of weight), and even hand size of the client. Common sandbag positions include grippingthe handles of the sandbag (Figure 5), gripping the actual sandbag (Figure 11), and “cradling” the sandbag (Figure 1). Each of these positions places slightly different demands on the wrist and forearm musculature and the muscles stabilizing the shoulder and torso. For this reason, careful attention should always be paid to the choice of sandbag weight used, especially when exploring a new grip position or new sandbag exercise.
As with many forms of resistance training, sandbag training can be easily progressed or regressed in difficulty to accommodate progressive overload or continued inclusion, respectively. The progression of a resistance training program can occur in many ways, such as through the manipulation of sets, repetitions, exercise choice, speed of exercise completion, and frequency of exercise session (1,5). In Table 1, the program includes a sandbag front squat and sandbag overhead (O-) press. These are 2 exercises that can be easily progressed or regressed to suit individual need, training status, or training goal. Table 3 presents a possible progression series using the squat exercise. Holding the sandbag by the handles and away from the chest is more challenging than holding the sandbag close to the chest (as in the “cradle” or “hug” position). Another simple progression involves the sandbag O-press. The sandbag O-press can be combined with a sandbag hang clean for a sandbag clean and press if the program calls for greater complexity and challenge. The sandbag clean and press is a complex movement and therefore requires correct technique execution for both the sandbag hang clean and the O-press independently before the clean and press is introduced. Structural multijoint exercises are typically more challenging than machine-based exercises because they tend to induce activation of the trunk musculature and stabilizing elements to a greater extent.
In the program presented in Table 1, the abdomen-specific exercises listed include sandbag planks and Russian twists. However, the abdominal muscles are used in virtually all the structural exercises presented in this program. Alternative abdominal sandbag exercises may include sandbag crunches, V-Ups, and weighted front planks. Sandbags can be placed across the lower back during a front plank exercise, but the lifter should exhibit sufficient strength in the low back and be free of back pain. Sandbag crunches involve lying in a supine position, with the legs in a hook position and feet held. The sandbag is held across the chest using one of the grip positions described earlier. The upper body is raised up toward the knees until the scapulae are off ground. The upper body is lowered back to the floor in a controlled manner, and the crunch is repeated. Sandbag V-Ups involve lying in a supine position but with both legs kept straight and lifted up toward the ceiling (ankles flexed at 90°). The sandbag is held with the hands gripping the handles or the sandbag, with elbows extended and arms held out toward the feet. Similar to the crunch, the upper body is raised up toward the toes until the scapulae are off ground. The upper body is lowered back to the floor in a controlled manner before the movement is repeated. Sandbag side bends are performed from a standing position. In the starting position, the sandbag is held in 1 hand at the side of body, with the scapulae retracted and the client facing forward. The sandbag is maintained close to the side of the body and gradually lowered toward the floor in a controlled manner and without forward flexion of the torso. The sandbag is lowered as close to the floor as possible without lifting the opposite foot off ground and is then returned to the starting position.
The library of possible sandbag exercises is extensive and a constantly expanding list of possible sandbag usage. This diversity of potential exercises can provide the exercise professional or strength and conditioning coach with an invaluable resource. Clients or athletes unable to complete a given exercise and those needing more of a challenge can be provided with an appropriate alternative, but exercises for a given body region can also be selected based on motivation, enjoyment, and applicability to the individual need.
Sandbag training is not a new or novel modality, having been used by individuals training for strongman events or activities with a similar metabolic and biomechanical demand. However, sandbag training as a primary or supplemental form of training has grown in popularity over the past decade in multiple strength and conditioning settings. An effective resistance training program may use many modalities and devices to achieve optimal gains in strength, power, or functional performance. Sandbag training provides a relatively inexpensive yet effective way to introduce variety and progression to a resistance training program. Commercial sandbags are available for purchase but can also be constructed using canvas military duffel bags, canvas sports bags, potato bags, or any type of bag that is made of rugged durable material (even bedding). This makes the apparatus involved in sandbag training easy to construct, affordable, and resource/storage friendly. As a precaution, the sand can be placed in individual tightly sealed bags before being put into a larger sandbag or duffel bag.
Despite the benefits of sandbag training presented in this article, any strength and conditioning professional must take care to incorporate and implement sandbag exercises in a safe and appropriate manner. Caution should be taken when working with populations other than asymptomatic healthy adults, with current resistance training experience. A different selection of exercises to the program presented in Table 1 may be more beneficial for special populations (e.g., law enforcement officers, bodybuilders, lacrosse players). However, the program presented in this article may serve as a starting point for lifters new to sandbag training or for those looking for a foundation upon which to build a more comprehensive or advanced training program.
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