I’m going to open this post by saying that this is not a knock on barbells. I like barbells. They are a great tool for building strength. However, I love sandbags. A lot of you have probably noticed me in the hallway squatting, pressing, tossing or carrying sandbags around for the past few months. The aim of this post is to shed some light on why.
I can pinpoint the moment my affection for sandbags started to the weekend I attended the Strongfit seminar in January. The founder of Strongfit, Julien Pineau, emphasizes the use of sandbags with his clients, and his enthusiasm for them rubbed off on me.
Why do I love sandbags? Two reasons, functionality and simplicity. Throughout this post I’ll go over some of the basic movements we can do with the sandbag and relate them back to these two principles.
Take a look at the picture below and ask yourself which object looks more like something that you would have to lift in real life? Whether it be a piece of furniture, a piece of luggage or maybe your child? The obvious answer is the object on the bottom.
One of the principles of CrossFit is performing functional movements that prepare you for life. When deadlifting with a barbell the weight is loaded outside of your feet. Almost 100% of the objects we have to pick up in in our day to day lives have all of their weight located between our feet. In this way deadlifting the sandbag more accurately mimics a real world object.
A common mistake with the deadlift is pushing the knees forward and dropping the hips in the set up position resulting in more of a squat. I’ve found that the wider base required to deadlift the sandbag more often encourages people to keep their hips high and load the hamstrings and maintain the hinge movement pattern. In my personal experience working a light sandbag deadlift really helped me to start engaging my inner hamstrings while hinging, a muscle often overlooked in the CrossFit gym.
Not only is the carry functional, but as simple as it gets. The aforementioned Julien Pineau gives a great demo on how to pick up and carry the sandbag here. This movement forces you to engage your abs and upper back to secure the bag and when you lean back slightly in the walk your hamstrings are forced to support the bulk of the load.
(The stages of picking up a bag for a carry)
I’ve been doing a 400m sandbag carry at least three times a week since January and I can see and feel a difference in my core, upper back and posterior chain. I suggest starting with the lightest bag (our lightest is 30kg) and walk with it for 400m. DO NOT PUT THE BAG DOWN. If you have to rest, stop moving your feet and secure your grip (I usually readjust my grip every 150-200m). Once you can carry the lightest bag 400m easily without stopping your feet, move up to the next size. If the lightest bag is too much for 400m at first, start with a shorter distance and try to go a little further every week.
The sandbag squat is a variation of the squat that almost automatically forces you into a more natural squat movement pattern. On the way down you will load your internal hamstring and core and then try to explode up and drive the knees out transferring torquing externally as you pass parallel.
As I mentioned, the sandbag squat forces you in a more natural and correct movement pattern. Therefore, it’s a simpler movement than a traditional barbell squat. It requires you to engage your core and upper back in order to secure the bag, so you’re less likely to slouch forward and round your back.
For a real challenge try the sandbag front squat. Here’s a good video explaining how to get the sandbag into a good front rack position. This movement requires even more back engagement (my lats are burning after a set of these) and they are much, much harder. For a point of reference, my max set of normal squats with a 90kg bag is 23, the most front squats I’ve ever done is 7…with a 65kg bag.
(sandbag front squat)
The sandbag press encourages the engagement of the lats and pecs and forces you into internal torque throughout the movement. Pressing is internal torque, so that’s a great thing.
If you take a look at the picture we can see the functionality of the movement at work. The CrossFit standard of “head through” and a straight line from bar to heels when viewed from profile, is just that: a standard. It makes judging a press or a thruster easy for competition, but makes the movement less functional. Which of the two press positions above looks more like the way you would lift an everyday object to a shelf?
In the image on the right you can see the bag is still above the center of my body and you can draw a straight line from the bag down to the middle of my foot. My head isn’t “through,” but that’s because I’m focusing on engaging my pecs and lats. A very common problem we see in CrossFit is athletes defaulting to their traps and shrugging as they press their head through to meet the standard. I can tell you from experience that becoming too reliant on your traps can lead to imbalances in the shoulder and ultimately shoulder pain or injury.
There are several other movements we can do with the bags as well (cleans, lunges, etc.), but those involve a little more skill. If you have any questions about specific WODs or strength work you can do with sandbags do not hesitate to approach me, or contact me. Thanks!
- Coach O’Dons
Sources: The information I used in this post came mainly from listening to podcasts and watching youtube videos featuring Strongfit founder Julien Pineau, notes taken at the Strongfit Seminar I attended and also information included in the Stongfit programming template I subscribe to.
If you’re interested in further information about Strongfit and exactly what Julien and his partner Richard do visit their website: https://www.strongfit.com/