Sandbag training is often viewed as a niche form of exercise, only used in specific scenarios, and is usually associated with military or high intensity training.
However, this guide aims to explain the many advantages of sandbag training for women, as well as anyone wanting to build strength, improve their fitness level, or to mix up their training sessions.
Alongside the pros of sandbag training, it’s important to be aware of the safety precautions to take, as well as knowing how to choose the right sandbag for your goals.
We’ll cover all of these things in this article, including the following topics:
- What is Sandbag Training?
- Benefits of Sandbag Training
- Risks and Safety Precautions for Sandbag Training
- How to Choose the Right Sandbag
- Sandbag Exercises for Beginners
- Advanced Sandbag Exercises
- How Much Weight Should I Use?
- Our Conclusions
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What is Sandbag Training?
Before we explore sandbag training benefits and risks, let’s take a look at what a sandbag actually is. While this may seem simplistic, we’ll be discussing sandbag training in great detail, so it’s important to address any misconceptions, and learn a little more about the diverse exercise.
As the name suggests, sandbags are weighted bags that are typically filled with sand. Their origins can be traced back to the late 1800s, where they were first used as pieces of equipment by Indian wrestlers.
Today, sandbags are a staple training tool used by military personnel, in strongman competitions, as well as in modern wrestling. They’re widely available, and often an inexpensive alternative to more expensive gym equipment.
They also make a great piece of equipment that has benefits for strength training and conditioning, especially for those who exercise intensely, such as CrossFitters.
But using a sandbag for training is fantastic for a regular gym-goer too, who may be bored of traditional free weights.
It also comes with its own unique set of benefits, which we’ll explore in more detail in our next section.
Benefits of Sandbag Training
Now that you know exactly what a sandbag is, let’s explore the benefits of sandbag training!
#1 - Improves Stability
Unlike a barbell or dumbbell, the movement of a sandbag can be pretty unpredictable due to the fluidity of the sand inside of it, which constantly moves as you lift the weight.
This constantly shifting centre of mass can be difficult to control, as it forces you to focus on your balance and form whilst exercising. Maintaining good posture benefits you not only in exercise, but in many other areas too.
Although this may feel difficult, sandbag training benefits you in the long term by providing your body with what is known as ‘dynamic resistance.’ This helps to improve our body’s ability to stabilise itself and hold an object in place.
When using a sandbag for weight training exercises, such as a front squat, your arms will be forced further away from your body compared to when using traditional free weights. This means that the load is further from your centre of gravity, which places more stress on your body.
As well as making the weight feel heavier, this means that you will have to work harder to stabilise the sandbag whilst exercising.
One of the pros of sandbag training, therefore, is that it challenges your stability and balance skills, and helps to improve both your strength and coordination.
#2 - Builds Strength
One of the greatest advantages of sandbag training is that it allows you to build strength. As with any form of resistance training, this is because it forces your muscles to contract and overcome the resistance provided by the sandbag.
As you increase the weight that you are lifting, the higher the resistance and the more force your muscles have to overcome, therefore allowing you to build strength.
If you are using a sandbag for strength training, then be prepared that you’ll only be able to lift around 50% of the weight that you’d lift with a barbell! This is because, as discussed, sandbags are an unstable weight with a shifting centre of mass.
As well as challenging your stability skills, using an unstable weight forces your body to engage more muscles at the same time in order to complete a lift.
This type of lift is called a ‘compound exercise’, which recruits muscles within the core, back, legs and arms to stabilise the weight, allowing you to build more strength than if you were isolating just one muscle.
Alongside building muscle strength, sandbag training benefits grip strength too. Learn more about grip strengtheners, and how having a strong grip can revolutionise your workouts.
When gripping a sandbag without using the handles, the muscles in the hands are forced to activate in order to lift the weight. Grip strength is a factor that is often overlooked during weight training, but is crucial for everyday movements such as opening jars and carrying heavy shopping bags!
Using a sandbag for strength training not only benefits you inside the gym, but also helps to build functional strength too, which is crucial for everyday movement patterns!
For instance, as an oddly shaped object, lifting a sandbag teaches you how to brace and stabilise your body when moving heavy everyday objects such as heavy boxes or furniture.
#3 - Great for Cardiovascular Health
Not only is it a good form of exercise for building strength, but sandbag training benefits your cardiovascular system too.
The cardiovascular system is the body’s main transport system and is composed of the heart, the blood vessels, as well as the blood itself.
Keeping your cardiovascular system healthy is important to ensure that your body can continue to deliver oxygen, essential nutrients and hormones to organs in order to keep your body functioning properly.
A 2018 study found that when compared to a workout involving kettlebell swings, using a sandbag was a more effective form of cardio. It was found that 7 minutes of sandbag training benefits the cardiovascular system in a similar way to a much longer, more intense kettlebell workout.
Using a sandbag for fitness training, particularly when training for endurance (using a lighter weight for a higher rep range), your heart rate increases. This means that your heart begins to pump faster, allowing oxygenated blood to reach the muscles more quickly.
Not only does this allow for better performance in the gym as your cardiovascular endurance levels increase, but it also has many long-term health benefits. OriGym’s report on the best heart rate monitors aims to help you monitor all your vitals.
According to the British Heart Foundation, 1 in every 5 cases of coronary heart disease is due to physical activity. Also, 7 in 10 women and 6 in 10 men in the UK are not active enough to protect themselves against coronary heart disease.
As an effective form of cardiovascular exercise, sandbag training therefore helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, as well as helping to lower bad cholesterol.
#4 - Useful for Weight Management
Another of the pros of sandbag training is that it is a great way to boost your metabolism and burn calories.
Metabolism describes the processes in the body where molecules are broken down to gain energy for processes such as digesting food, growing, moving, and repairing cells.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of energy needed to fuel these processes. BMR can vary from person to person, depending on factors such as height, weight, age and gender.
The higher your BMR, the more calories your body requires, meaning it’s easier to manage weight without restricting caloric intake. OriGym have also compiled a thorough list of the best foods that help burn fat or help speed up your metabolism.
Sandbag fitness training consists of mainly compound exercises, which, as previously discussed, means that the body works as a single unit. This allows many muscles to be exercised at once, which burns more calories than if a muscle was being used in isolation.
The same 2018 study that examined the effects of sandbag fitness training as a form of cardio also examined its effects on metabolism.
Subjects performed a 16 minute sandbag training protocol, which consisted of 3 circuits of 8 exercises. They performed as many reps as possible for 20 seconds, followed by a 10 second rest.
It was found that when compared to running on a treadmill, sandbag training offered a ‘superior metabolic stimulus’ for at least 30 minutes post-exercise.
Sandbag fitness training has also therefore been shown to help improve the ‘afterburn’ effect of exercise, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
This is the amount of oxygen that is required to return the body to its pre-exercise state, and means that the body continues to burn calories after you have finished exercising.
#5 - Improves Sports Performance
Using sandbags for weight training is a great way to increase the difficulty of staple exercises, but they are also useful for less traditional forms of training, such as sprints, load carries and throws.
This makes training with a sandbag an effective method for any athlete wanting to improve their sports performance.
For instance, exercises such as sandbag carries, and those involving a bear hug grip, can help to improve endurance, as well as grip strength. This is crucial for sports such as wrestling, where bear hug and grip strength can decrease significantly over the course of a match.
One study has even shown that sandbags are one of the most effective pieces of equipment for determining a person’s conditioning level. This is because it is able to provide a more sensitive and accurate result than other testing methods.
The purpose of the study was to develop and analyse a sport-specific conditioning test for wrestling that would incorporate the physiological demands of a match.
To conduct the test, a sandbag was repeatedly thrown over a course of 7 1 minute rounds, and the average time per throw was determined for each round.
The study found that the use of the sandbag helped researchers to better identify fatigue differences for wrestlers in different weight classes. It concluded that training with a sandbag was a reliable, inexpensive and time-efficient method for coaches to assess wrestlers and other athletes.
#6 - Helps to Prevent Injuries
Another of the best pros of sandbag training is that it reduces your risk of suffering an injury in the long term.
As already discussed, one of the benefits of sandbag training is that it challenges stability, which helps to build strength.
This is because training with a sandbag helps to build strong stabiliser muscles. For instance, when squatting, your calves, hamstrings and core muscles act as the stabiliser muscles for the movement.
Because of its instability, sandbag weight training forces these stabiliser muscles to work harder, which strengthens the muscles as you use them more and more.
For most sandbag exercises, the core muscles act as a stabiliser, which helps to strengthen the core in the long term. Strong core muscles are important as they protect and strengthen the spine and hips, which is crucial for preventing injury. Check out our guide to the best ab rollers that are guaranteed to help boost your core strength.
Also, training with a sandbag is a unique form of exercise, as it activates the three different planes of motion that your body moves in, which are the sagittal, frontal, and traverse dimensions.
Although all three are essential for building well-rounded strength and hence avoiding injury, the frontal and transverse dimensions are often overlooked when training with traditional free weights.
Sandbag strength training also builds stronger connective tissues, which includes ligaments, tendons and joints. This reduces the risk of injury from sprains and strains.
#7 - Accessible and Affordable
One of the greatest advantages of sandbag training is its accessibility.
Unlike traditional free weights, sandbags are inexpensive to purchase, and can even be made at home!
Using a sandbag for weight training is great if your goal is to build strength, as it is easy to apply a progressive form of resistance- just add more sand to the bag! This is also much cheaper than investing in heavier dumbbells or weight plates.
As we will discuss in the ‘Sandbag Exercises’ section, sandbags are so versatile that there’s no need for you to invest in a whole gym’s worth of equipment in order to see results!
Whether you train from home, at the gym, or are always on the go, training with a sandbag is great as it is lightweight and portable when empty. This means that you can carry it around with you and fill it with sand upon arrival at your destination, meaning that sandbag training benefits even the busiest of people!
Enjoying this article so far? Here’s 3 more we think you’ll find useful.
Risks and Safety Precautions for Sandbag Training
As with any form of weight training, it's important to consider the risks of training with a sandbag. Alongside the sandbag training benefits that we have explored, here are some risks and safety precautions to consider before you begin.
Sandbags are Heavier than Traditional Free Weights
As already discussed, the perceived weight of a sandbag is much heavier than a barbell or set of dumbbells. When using a sandbag for weight training, you may find that you have to reduce the weight of your sandbag by 50% in comparison to what you would usually lift.
It’s crucial that you don’t try to lift a weight that your body cannot yet handle. Your ego might take a hit, but your body will thank you for it in the long term!
Sandbag training benefits you only if you can safely lift the weight, so choose a suitable weight and you’ll be able to build up your strength whilst avoiding injury.
Sandbags Are Not Stable
Due to the constantly shifting sand inside, the movements of a sandbag can be unpredictable.
It is therefore important to pay attention to your accuracy and control when training with a sandbag, in order to avoid any injuries that may occur when the sand shifts unexpectedly.
When using a sandbag for weight training, ensure that you have a strong base by keeping your core and glutes engaged at all times.
Be Aware of Form
For many regular gym-goers, using a sandbag for fitness training is something that they haven’t done before.
However, you should always be aware of correct form before using a new piece of equipment, in order to avoid injury and feel the full benefits that the equipment can offer.
When picking a sandbag up from the floor, ensure that you bend at the knees, engage your core and keep your back flat, without an arch.
Training with a sandbag also requires a level of grip strength that you may not have from using dumbbells or barbells, so keep in mind that it may be uncomfortable to begin with.
Take Rest Days
Recovery is important for anyone performing any type of exercise, but it is particularly crucial for those who are new to sandbag fitness training.
When you fall in love with a particular method of exercise it can be tempting to train every day. However, in order to experience the full benefits of sandbag training, you should take rest days in between your sessions to allow time for proper recovery.
It is important to rest, as this is when the body repairs any micro-injuries or tears in your muscles. Resting is also crucial for injury prevention and muscle growth, so be sure to allow enough time for recovery if you’re hoping to make some gains!
Although sandbag training benefits strength significantly, it engages stabiliser muscles that might not be recruited through other forms of training. This means that you may experience delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, when tiny tears occur in your muscles as you exercise.
Despite DOMS being a normal side effect of exercise, it’s important to avoid over-training to prevent these tears progressing into real injuries, and to allow time for them to heal.
OriGym’s comprehensive overview of the importance of rest days & how many you need will dive into much greater detail on resting and it’s vital place in exercise.
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How To Choose The Right Sandbag
Depending on your long-term goal and preferred method of training, there are a few different types of sandbags available on the market.
Whether you’re looking at Bulgarian sandbag training, or you’re searching for the perfect sandbag for strength training, our guide should help you to find the perfect one!
First up is the most commonly used sandbag for fitness training.
Fitness sandbags are the best for general use, and typically look like duffle bags with handles, which makes them versatile and easy to use for the regular gym-goer.
This type comes with filler bags, which the sand should be placed into before placing the filler bags into the main sandbag. Each filler bag is weighted, so you can adjust the weight of the sandbag depending on how many filler bags you use.
Fitness sandbags are often limited in how heavy they can be, so if you’re a competitive strong man then this may not be the sandbag for you.
However, if you’re hoping to use a sandbag for strength training as a regular gym-goer, then this is definitely the easiest and most accessible type of sandbag to use.
As suggested by the name, strongman sandbags offer a heavier capacity in terms of weight than fitness sandbags, and are therefore often used in strongman competitions.
Strongman sandbags are a cylindrical shape and have no handle, meaning that they are harder to grip onto. Our pick of the best weightlifting gloves means you’ll have no trouble gripping onto the sandbags.
Alongside the heavier weight, most strongman sandbags do not come with filler bags, so it is much more time consuming if you want to adjust the weight of the bag.
Strongman sandbag training benefits professionals and those looking to build some serious strength; they are definitely not ideal for beginners or for the faint hearted!
Originally created in 2005 by former athlete and wrestling trainer Ivan Ivanov, using a Bulgarian sandbag for training is designed to help wrestlers with strength and endurance.
What makes the Bulgarian sandbag different from other types is that it is a half-moon shape, made of leather or canvas.
Also, it is more stable than the traditional type, meaning that you have more control during Bulgarian sandbag training, and exercises can be performed with a faster action.
Bulgarian sandbags fit around the shoulder and have easy to grip straps, meaning that they offer a higher level of comfort when compared to fitness sandbags.
The main function of Bulgarian sandbag training is the spin exercise, where you spin the bag around your head and body. This requires strong core engagement and stability, in order to avoid the bag pulling you out of position. OriGym’s ultimate guide on how to engage your core offers tips and tricks to help you strengthen your core muscles.
However, using a Bulgarian sandbag for training may not be for you if building strength is your main goal, as they offer a relatively low weight. This type of sandbag is much better for building endurance, but works as a good substitution if, for example, you experience upper body pain when using a barbell.
Features to Look Out For
Although there are many different types of sandbags available, there are a few common features that you should look out for if you want to experience the pros of sandbag training for yourself.
All sandbags should have a tight seal, perhaps with belted reinforcements, in order to avoid sand leaks whilst training.
This also means that the sandbag should have a strong zip, which should preferably be covered with a strip of material. This is so that the zip does not dig into your body when using the sandbag for fitness training, which could cause unnecessary discomfort.
Finally, the sandbag should be made of a durable material such as nylon, which is essential for longevity, and to prevent rips or tears.
Although sandbags are inexpensive, having to frequently buy new equipment is an inconvenience that can be avoided if you follow our guide to choosing the best sandbag for you!
Sandbag Exercises for Beginners
Sandbags can also be added to bodyweight exercises such as burpees, lunges squats and press-ups. This is a great method of training if you are a beginner, or simply if you’re looking for a way to intensify bodyweight training.
In our next section, we’ve outlined some of the best exercises for you to try when training with a sandbag:
All you’ll need for this exercise is your sandbag. Make sure that the weight is comfortable, especially as you’ll be predominantly using your legs for this exercise.
- Begin by holding the sandbag across your chest using the straps, with your palms facing outwards. Keep your elbows underneath the sandbag, ensuring that they are pointed down and are kept tightly in.
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart, ensuring that your posture is upright and your shoulders are not slumped.
- To perform the squat, bend your knees to lower your body, making sure to maintain a neutral spine.
- Once your legs are parallel to the floor, use the weight of your heels to push your body back up to the starting position.
Glutes, quads (quadriceps), hamstrings, and core.
You’ll just need your sandbag for this, although your best yoga mat could be helpful for grip.
- Gripping the handles, place the sandbag across your back, resting it on your shoulders. Hold the sandbag by the bottom, with one hand on either side
- To begin, step forward with your chosen foot and bend at the knee.
- You should lunge forward until your thigh is parallel to the floor and your back leg is as close as possible to the floor, without actually touching the floor.
- Placing the weight onto your front leg, drive yourself back up to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other leg.
Quads (quadriceps), glutes, hamstrings, and core.
You’ll just need your sandbag for this exercise.
- Hold the sandbag in front of you in a neutral position, with your feet shoulder width apart.
- As you place your sandbag on the ground in front of you, kick your legs backwards until you are in a plank position. Keep your core engaged and ensure that your back is not arched.
- Pushing your weight into the sandbag, hop your legs towards your chest.
- Pick the sandbag up off the floor, and as you do so raise your body until you are in a standing position.
- Push the sandbag up onto your elbows so that it is in a front rack position, then press it above your head.
- Return the bag to the starting position and repeat for reps.
Pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), abdominals (core), quadriceps (quads), triceps, glutes, hip flexors (hips), hamstrings and calves.
Interested in bodyweight training? Check out our article on the benefits of calisthenics to learn more about how you can maximise your gains.
Advanced Sandbag Exercises
If you’re looking for a new challenge or way to mix up your usual workout, one of the advantages of sandbag training is that they can be used to perform similar exercises to what you would do with traditional free weights.
When using a sandbag for strength training, we would advise you to focus on performing compound exercises.
As they recruit many muscles at once, these exercises are great for optimal performance and help you to build strength in minimal time.
Bent Over Row
You’ll just need your sandbag for this. However, your form here is incredibly important, as you could risk straining or damaging your back.
- Using the handles, grip the sandbag with your palms facing each other.
- Ensuring that your feet are shoulder width apart and your knees have a slight bend, hinge at the hip and lower your upper body forward slightly until almost parallel with the ground.
- Drive your elbows backwards until they are at a 90-degree angle, ensuring that you maintain a neutral spine and that your core is engaged.
- Once the bag has reached your chest, squeeze the lateral muscles in your back, then lower the bag down to return to the starting position.
Trapezius (back), latissimus dorsi (sides), posterior deltoids (shoulders), serratus anterior (sides), rhomboids (upper back), forearms and biceps.
You’ll just need your sandbag for this exercise.
- Starting with the sandbag on the floor, squat down and grip the handles.
- As you hold the bag, ensure that your shoulders are pulled back, chest is up, and that you are looking straight forward.
- As you stand up, keep the sandbag close to your body and ensure that your back does not arch.
- Lift the sandbag to thigh level, take a pause, then return to the starting position to perform more reps.
Abdominals (stomach), obliques (sides), rhomboids (upper back), trapezius (back), latissimus dorsi (sides), hamstrings, quadriceps (legs), glutes, and erector spinae (back).
Like these exercises? Check out these other options for strength!
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- 13 Best Calf Exercises for Bigger Calves
You’ll only need your sandbag for this exercise, but do bear in mind that you’ll be lifting it above your head, so only use a weight that you’re comfortable with.
- Gripping the sandbag at the sides, hold it at shoulder height and keep your feet shoulder width apart.
- Push the sandbag over your head, until your arms are extended but not locked into position.
- Pause for a second, then slowly return the sandbag to the starting position.
Deltoids (shoulders), pectoralis major (chest), triceps, and serratus anterior (sides).
Training with a sandbag also provides the opportunity to perform exercises that aren’t possible with conventional free weights, which is why they’re a great piece of equipment for those looking to improve sports performance.
Bear Hug Squats
This is an effective sandbag strength training exercise, as this grip places more stress on the core and upper body.
- Wrap your arms around the sandbag and hug it close to your chest.
- Bend your knees whilst keeping your body upright, lowering yourself towards the floor.
- When your legs are parallel to the floor, drive through the heels and push yourself back up to the starting position.
Quadriceps (quads), glutes, hamstrings, and core.
You’ll only need your sandbag here. Another unique sandbag exercise is a strongman carry. Carrying a heavy sandbag engages muscles throughout your whole body, which is great for improving functional strength.
- Either grip the sandbag to your chest in a bear hug position, or place the sandbag onto one shoulder, resting your hand on the top.
- Walk forwards, carrying the bag for a set distance (that you’re comfortable with) as fast as you can.
- Rest and repeat again.
Trapezius (back), rectus abdominus (stomach), obliques (sides), quadriceps (quads), hamstrings, glutes, forearms, calves, and adductors (legs).
How Much Weight Should I Use?
As with traditional free weights, the size of the weight that you should use when training with a sandbag depends on many factors, such as your current fitness level, your weight, and previous experience to name a few.
However, a general guideline for sandbag weight training is to lift around 50% of the weight you’d use with a barbell, to begin with.
If you’re a complete beginner to weight training, then choose a weight that you can lift for 20-30 repetitions, then gradually increase the weight as your strength increases.
The weight that you should choose also depends on your goals. If you’re looking to build strength, then you’re going to want to choose a heavier weight, and perform 1-8 reps in each set.
If the sandbag training benefits you’re hoping to gain are improvements in endurance, then choose a lighter weight for a higher rep range, which should be 12-20 reps.
We’d also recommend making a note of your PBs and how many reps you’re performing - OriGym’s selection of the best fitness journals has options for all budgets and abilities.
Before You Go!
We hope by now that we’ve convinced you that sandbag training benefits everyone- not just strongmen or professional athletes!
Whether you started out looking for tips on sandbag training for women, or advice on how to choose a Bulgarian sandbag for training, we’ve hopefully shown that training with a sandbag is a great way to change up your workouts if you’re bored of your current routine.
Or if you’re already at the peak of physical fitness, a career in exercise could be your next step.
OriGym’s formally accredited personal training courses are the world leaders, offering an unparalleled level of flexibility, affordability and support, with guaranteed post-course interviews and unlimited career advice.
Our comprehensive FREE course prospectus outlines everything we offer, and how it could be the ideal option for you.
Written by Professional S & C Coaches
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- Ratamess, Nicholas A., et.al, ‘Acute Cardiorespiratory and Metabolic Effects of a Sandbag Resistance Exercise Protocol’, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (June 2018: Volume 32, Issue 6), pp.1491-1502, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002415
- British Heart Foundation Leaflet, ‘Physical Activity and Your Heart’
- Wright, Glenn A., et.al, ‘Development and Assessment of Reliability for a Sandbag Throw Conditioning Test for Wrestlers’, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (February 2015: Vol 29, Issue 2), pp. 451-457, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000637