While the purpose of any training method is defined by the user and their goals, sandbag training is especially good for functional strength and conditioning.
Unlike other methods that require particular form and technique, sandbags are incredibly simple tools that can be used by almost anyone as long as you know how to pick up a weight properly (i.e. straight back, core tight, knees tracking over your toes, etc.).
The key to the effectiveness of sandbag training has to do with the shifting of the sand itself. During typical sets with other implements like kettlebells, you can get in a “groove” while lifting the weight, making the set easier as you start to flow.
Conversely, the shifting nature of the weight within a sandbag makes that flow impossible; every lift is like the first rep of a set. This makes the workout more challenging by engaging your stabilizer muscles over and over again.
If you’re looking for strength training, you just need to get a heavier sandbag and concentrate on lower rep sets. If you want to add in conditioning, get a lighter sandbag and add reps and intensity. Pretty simple!
The weight of the sandbag depends on several factors including your ability level, training experience, and purpose.
Luckily, sandbags are extremely adjustable; sandbags made specifically for fitness applications usually come with filler bags that you can vary in weight depending on your routine.
Even if you have a homemade sandbag, you can still lighten the load by pouring out some sand (which might get messy, but who cares).
Let’s say you’re familiar with kettlebell training, you use a 16kg (35lb) kettlebell for most lifts, and you’re looking to enhance your conditioning level and fat loss.
In this situation, I would recommend a medium-sized sandbag ( medium being a bag with a stretched length of 20-30 inches) with a capacity of 10-50 pounds.
Unlike your 16kg kettlebell, the sandbag will be primarily lifted with two hands, allowing you to use at least as much weight as you usually would with your kettlebell.
Some of the standard lifts, such as the Clean from the Ground, may be more difficult because of the floppiness of the bag depending on how much you fill it, but not to worry!
Sandbags can hold more than just sand! If you want to make them tighter (making high repetition lifts like Shouldering easier), simply fill the void with other items like old blankets or clothing.
You’ll still get the weight-shift you want from sandbag training without the tendency for the bag to flop onto your back or arms.
Another thing to consider with sandbags for conditioning is whether or not the sandbag has handles.
Since you want to lift with intensity for higher repetitions, I would recommend that the sandbag has at least one set of handles, either at the ends or across the middle.
The handles make gripping and throwing the sandbag much easier, allowing you to concentrate on the full body movement, rather than just your grip.
Let’s say that you’re looking for strength training with your new sandbag. You squat and deadlift heavy; you use 24-32kg (53-70lb) kettlebells for most of your lifts, and you want to increase your core and grip strength with sandbag movements.
In this case, you need a larger sandbag (36+ inches) with a capacity of 70-125 pounds.
With a larger sandbag, you’ll be able to use a bear-hug type hold to lift and carry the weight, allowing for Atlas stone-type platform lifts as well as strongman carries.
Chances are that you will be dropping the weight to the ground as you exhaust yourself, so make sure your sandbag is good enough to handle it (unless you’re outside and you don’t mind sand clouds).
As for whether or not your sandbag needs handles, that’s up to you. I would usually say no (since you’re probably interested in heavy sandbag training for the grip strength benefits), however, if core strength is your goal, they can still come in handy.
Should you buy a sandbag that is made specifically for sandbag training, or should you make one yourself? This is a battle that unconventional gym owners and garage-warriors have waged for years!
Fortunately, fitness-specific sandbags have become much more affordable. The choice is still dependent on what you plan to do with your sandbag training so here are some things to consider with both options:
Homemade Sandbags are cheap and relatively easy to build. The recipe is simple: buy a $3.00 bag of sand from Home Depot, wrap it up in as much duct tape as you can, and that’s it!
If you want to step it up, throw the sandbag you just built into an old duffle bag or backpack. Cheap, simple, easy.
If you want a good “How-to” on making a sandbag at home, refer to this article by My Mad Methods Contributor Alex Zinchenko: How to Make a Sandbag.
The problem comes in the form of durability, longevity, and movement limitations. You will not be slamming this thing on the ground or grabbing handles to help with high repetition sets (even with a backpack, those handles will quickly break).
You will be cleaning up sand, breathing sand dust, and running out of duct tape. If you’re a gym owner, you’ll be busting out the shop-vac often, and if you’re a homeowner, you’ll be getting yelled at by your significant other.
Thanks to the increasing popularity of sandbag training, in general, there are now a variety of vendors that sell sandbags for fitness applications in a variety of sizes, shapes, and even colors.
Again, the one you choose will be dependent on the objectives of your training as outlined above. Type in “buy a sandbag” in google and go nuts.
Well-made, fitness-specific sandbags don’t leak sand or dust, provide a variety of options for handles based on your preferences, and feature filler bags that make them easy to adjust the weight based on the workout (or even during the workout if you want to).
My personal opinion (based on training with sandbags for the last 5 years) is that you should buy a fitness-specific product if you’re serious about adding sandbag training into your standard regimen.
I have a few preferences based on what I use them for, which is high intensity conditioning. I like to have at least two sets of handles, one on each end and two in the middle.
I want the handles to be made of cloth (plastic handles will smack you in the face, neck, and shoulders during lifts and that sucks) and I want the main zipper to be covered by a piece of material so it doesn’t scrape the crap out of me.
This isn’t to say that I’m afraid of a few cuts and bruises, but if the point of your training is to increase strength and conditioning, pain from your training implement is a distraction from the workout itself!