Sandbags: Unconventional Tools for Functional Strength - ITS Tactical

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Sandbags: Unconventional Tools for Functional Strength

By Jake Saenz

Sandbag Training

Not every athlete has the luxury of having a professional coach train them multiple times a week. Location, cost, work and family can all hinder one’s ability to train consistently. The lack of a world class training center and a professional coach is no excuse not to be fit. 3-4 hours a week and a few simple tools can get you to a fairly high level of fitness.

One of the most most amazing tools you can acquire if training solo is a sandbag. They’re cheap, easy to come by, easy to build and their awkward size and shape make them great training tools for the real world. They’re a great piece of equipment if you are on deployment and have limited access to more conventional training tools too.

The best thing about a sandbag is how amazingly hard they are. I’ve seen more then one elite-level garage gym coach or fighter walk into a session and get absolutely crushed by these things. They truly are amazing training tools.

How to Build a Sandbag

Sandbag TrainingThe first thing you’ll need is a good old military duffle bag. We strongly suggest using the cotton canvas ones that you can find at most any surplus store vs. the nylon blend type with the back pack straps. The older cotton canvas ones will take the abuse better and are generally more durable.

The first thing you’ll need to do is cut anything metal and sharp off the bag, such as the hook that closes the bag. You really don’t need to cut out the eyelet, but can if you really want to. If you’re looking for a nicer bag we suggest buying the bag from – they run $50 and are well worth it, this is what we use exclusively in our gym.

Once you get your bag you’ll need to fill it with something. If you live in a cold place the best thing you can use is wood pellets for a stove, down here in Texas it’s a little warm for stoves, so we use a rubber mulch that’s available from Home Depot. We’ve also had good luck with deer corn. Avoid fillers such as pea gravel because they have a tendency to wear holes in the bag from the inside. Absolutely never, ever, use dog food – trust us on this one.

Sandbag Training

We suggest that male athletes start with a 60 lb. bag, females with a 40 lb. bag. As you get stronger you can gradually add more filling and increase the size of the bag. Our stronger males here use the 100lb bag and usually put on a weighted vest or plate carrier to increase the load. Eventually you’ll get to a point where no more material will fit in the bag. ITS Tactical did a great article a while back on how to make a “pill” for weighted rucksack runs, using one of these is a great way to increase the weight of your bag quickly. A 20lb dumbell also works well.

Once you have your bag loaded up with 60lbs of filler it’s time to close it up. Gutted parachute cord works the best. Take a 20” piece of cord, make a loop and then tie an overhand knot. Make sure you have at least a 5” tail on the short side.

Sandbag Training

Sandbag Training

Sandbag Training

Take the longer running end, go around the bag into the loop, then double back on it ensuring it’s tight. You should be able to really crank on it to keep the filler from trickling out. Keeping it tight, wrap the long end several times around the bag then tie it to the other tail with a simple square knot. If you want, you can use 100 mph. tape to double it up. Now you’re ready to play.

Training with a Sandbag

Almost anything you can do with a barbell you can do with a sandbag – cleans, presses, squats, you name it. The great thing about a sandbag is how unwieldy it is. If you ask me, that makes it an even better training too,l since things in the real world are not always perfectly balanced like that shiny new $300 barbell.

  1. The first and most important thing to learn, is how to pick one up correctly.
  2. Straddle the bag with the pigtail facing to the rear.
  3. Set your back by lifting your chest and hinging at the hips.
  4. Squat down and grab the bag keeping your back flat.
  5. Pick the bag up and once it passes your knees explode at the hips.
  6. Receive the bag in the position appropriate for the exercise.

Once you can pick up your bag safely, the fun begins.

Sandbag Training

Sandbag Exercises

Like I mentioned earlier you can do almost anything with a sandbag that you can with a barbell, below is a list of some of the exercises we do here at our facility. We once had a team competition where teams had to transport a 80lb bag 5 miles over uneven terrain so your imagination is the limit.

Here’s a quick video demonstrating the sandbag exercises outlined below:

  • Sandbag Cleans
  • Sandbag Clean Squat and Press
  • Sandbag Front Squats
  • Sandbag Walking Lunges
  • Sandbag Getups
  • Sandbag Burpee
  • Sandbag Curtis P
  • Sandbag Drag

Storage and Maintenance

If you live in a warm climate, your bag will get pretty sweaty every session. Always leave it out to dry or place it in front of a fan. We also spray our bags with a light dose of Lysol to keep the funk off. Every month or so, empty out your bag and run it through the washer. If you bag gets a hole in it, a local sew shop can patch it for you for a few bucks.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Jake Saenz as a contributor on ITS Tactical. Jake is a former Special operations soldier that lives and coaches in Austin, Texas. His gym, Atomic Athlete, is a performance based strength and conditioning company that focuses on making athletes stronger, faster, and harder to kill. Their training focuses on outside performance and uses well thought out programming and periodization to get athletes of all types to elite levels of fitness. As a partner gym of Military Athlete, Jake has the opportunity to travel across the nation assisting Rob Shaul in preparing soldiers for combat deployments and missions.

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  • Curtis

    You say in Texas, are all of you on ITS located in Texas? Personally, I live in the Lewisville/Denton area.

  • Some of the best all-around shape I’ve ever been in was when I alternated sandbags and kettlebells in with my regular weight lifting routines. It’s so much fun throwing that weight around, and you can keep it separate in your mind from your regular cardio routines. At least that’s what I do because I hate cardio (boring). I love the idea about the rubber mulch too…. Know I’m thinking I need to get back with the sandbags HAHA. Keep up the good work guys!

  • James Eilers

    Great article and a great concept. I’m a huge fan of workout tools that get me out of the traditional gym.

  • Matt H

    Great article I have never tried the rubber filler. Every bag I have made and use was always with either sand and/or pea gravel. I have only had to replace the inside one. If you double up with heavy duty contractor bags they will last a long time before needing to replace the two bags inside. You can also make heavier bags this way up to 200+lbs. I will have to give the rubber filler a try for fuller/lighter bags though great idea. I enjoy seeing articles like this, its what I preach and how I have train myself and others. Strength, conditioning and combat functionality. Can not wait to see more!

  • Majik hat

    Excellent fitnes article from ITS and a really nice video. I am going to make one of these to replace my sand pill I use for garage exercise.

    Can I request a link to a good source of bags like you did for the ALICE pack in the ruck articles? No good surplus locally…

    • Majik – Although a little pricey I’d buy one from – they’re what we use here in our gym and are very durable and easy to work with.

      – Jake

  • Bulgarian bags?

  • scorpionmedic91

    Great article, I have been doing “functional strength” workouts for about 5 yrs. its about time more people understand the benifit that one can get from a work out like this. Might i suggest another good book of info, it is called “Sand bag Training”, written by Brian Jones. It is a very good but short book it will tell you how to build your bag and what weight to start at, Brian has it set out by the weight of the person male/female then you start with this weight. Ebay has it for $11.00 but that was sometime ago. Another tool I use is called a “Slosh Pipe” easy to build inexpensive and will shred your core down to nothing. Keep up the great work guys.

  • Chris Webb

    Love me a sandbag! I made one with an Army duffel and wood chips per Mountain/Military Athlete. It weighs about 70lbs and being a tall skinny guy it just kicks my ass.

  • Jay

    This is a great idea! Is there a workout routine that you recommend? I am in Kuwait right now, and I absolutely hate having to wait for machines and equipment at the gym. I think I could get more workout time with a sandbag than I would with traditional equipment. Can you give an example of a workout routine that I can utilize? Thank you for a great website as well as your service to our great country!

    • Chad

      Jay, there is one that I have used consistantly and it kicks my ass every time. When you are developing your routine it is good to first figure out what you want i.e.; stamina or strength. Reps higher than 8 with lighter weight are usually the toning area and reps 8 and below with heavier weight equal strength. This is the routine I do, I do it with a 150lbs. sandbag and a 75lbs. bag.

      Basic Sandbag Routine:
      1) Floor Press– 3 sets x 5-8 reps (rest for 20 sec. between sets then get back on it)
      2) Sumo Squat– 3 sets x 5-8 reps ( rest for 20 sec. between sets)
      3) Sumo Deadlift High Pull– 3 sets x 5-8 reps THESE ARE DONE WITH 75 LBS BAG (rest for 20 sec. between sets)
      4) Overhead Shoulder Press– 3 sets x 5-8 reps DONE WITH 75 LBS BAG (keep Abs tight, rest for 20 sec.)
      5) ABS 3 sets x 25 reps ( standard situp, leg leveler, legs up & have a buddy throw them down while you try and keep control of them. Any type of ab work will do just be creative.

      This should take about 25-30 min total. The key is to keep your rest periods short; 20 seconds between sets and 45 seconds between exercies. By keeping your rest periods short and the work load at a high level you are getting a anerobic workout.

      The Sumo Squats are done with a bear hug on the bag and legs wide with toes pointed out letting the bag go between your legs as you squat. The Sumo Deadlift High Pull is done the same way legs wide, toes pointed out bend over grab bag, deadlift and then pull it up to your chin and control back down.

      Hope this helps, if you want more info look up Brian Jones and his book “Sandbag Training”

    • Chad/Scorpionmedic

      Jay another good thing I use and have made is a “Slosh Pipe”. It is a 5 inch PVC pipe about 8 ft. long with 3 gallons of water in it, with both ends glued shut. Then you can do floor press or squats or just stand and try to keep it balanced it make your stabilizer muscles scream.

    • Jay – we never really do the same session twice unless doing a progression within a cycle but a typical strength session using unconventional equipment would look something like this….

      Warmup: 10 minutes
      Sandbag Getups at moderate pace – shoot for about 50 + reps

      1) 6 rounds
      4x Sand bag Clean + Squat – add vest / armor to increase weight
      3x Burpee
      15 second instep stretch

      2) 6 rounds
      5x Sandbag Lunge each leg – add vest / armor to increase weight
      2x Jumping lunge each leg
      30 seconds y+L unloaded

      3) 6 rounds
      12x pushup
      5x Strict Pullup
      15 second 3rd World stretch

  • Cervantes

    Seems to me like adding dog food would add a new dimension to the workout..The immediate dropping of the bag followed by the swiping of the arms and chest area to clear Solenopsis invicta is a very good isometric exercise.

    Hey, any Jar Heads out there remember holding your foot lockers at arms length and riding the DI carousel? Good times, good times..
    I think I’ll try that with my sandbag.

  • Matt Hunt

    My fav<3 Great article and I enjoyed the video as well... I will be including the last exercise shown in my HIIT/ circuit for Thursday. Some other great ideas for sand bag use include clean and carry for distance, hill sprints with a sandbag, and sandbag drag to carry for distance.

  • Adrian Haggar

    So I decided to make a bag, I went to home depot and picked up some rubber mulch. Problem is the mulch is damp. Pretty sure this stuff was designed to retain moisture as well. Does anyone have any ideas on how to dry it out? I cut the top off the bags it came in and have left them out in the sun for a few days but it doesnt seem to be working. Do any of yall think there will be a problem putting it in my interior trashbags while its still damp? or have a good idea on how to dry it out more effectively?

    • Adrian Haggar

      going to spread it out on a tarp on concrete when it stops raining….. should do the trick

    • Adrian – once dry they’ll stay dry. We actually put it in when it was moist and it was fine. Good to hear you got one built up – try 10 minutes of Sandbag getups for as many reps as possible. If you can get over 60 then you need to increase the weight of the bag!

      – Jake

  • Cervantes

    FIrst day of sand bag drills. Did squats, left shoulder/right shoulder/out front…Overhead press…That along w/ the “hand job” rotator cuff and scare crows…I am out of shape and I KNOW IT RIGHT NOW…… Regrouping, rehydrating…will hit it again tomorrow.

  • Zhimm

    Great great stuff. Going to either build one or buy one this week. Excited about the new possibilities. Thanks for the ideas. Excellent article.

  • I build one of these last night, but instead of simply filling the sandbag with rubber mulch, I created a whole bunch of 20lb small sandbags to go inside of the sandbag. I can then use them for other exercises, like weighted pullups and pushups. Worked out pretty well.

  • Have you ever tried making these out of anything besides canvas with any success? For instance with burlap bags (that transport coffee)?

    Also, have you made any bags with modified end handles to mimic judo throws. I saw a YouTube clip of Andre Galvao doing these but can’t find it anymore. It looked brutal and effective though.

    Brian Dick

  • HatchetJack

    Sandbag Training Misconception

    I see many people making sandbag pills (smaller bags wrapped in tape) and then filling the whole canvas bag with these smaller ones. Other than convenience of changing the weight easily, this defeats the entire purpose of making this type of equipment. 

    The benefit of sandbags training comes from the fact that the sand keeps shifting making it hard to hold onto in one position. Second most people do not leave enough room in the inner and outer bag for the sand to shift. If you fill right up, you also lose the benefit of instability.

    If you doubt me try and see the difference

    • Jakesaenz

      HatchetJack Agreed Hatchet jack – they’re supposed to be awkward and unbalanced.

  • klane_

    Looks like the images went down. Any chance you guys could re-link them? Are the duffles you’re recommending just the rothco cotton-canvas top-folding 25×42″ that are everywhere?

    • klane_ Just fixed the images, thanks for the heads up!

    • Jakesaenz

      klane_ Those work fine, we used that type of bag for quite some time before going to more durable commercial ones.

    • Jakesaenz

      klane_ Those will work fine and are cheap.  Best of luck.

  • Jakesaenz

    @Brian Dick Brian – you can make them out of anything, but you’ll prefer a good duffle after a while. makes ones with handles.

  • Mac Henry

    Just made some of these last night.
    made one large (21×36) duffle 100lbs, and two smaller (don’t know dimensions but roughly 12×36) a 50lbs and 25lbs. filled with a mix of rubber mulch and sand to get desired weights and densities. I lined the inside of each with a couple of contractor garbage bags to help with leaking sand. Did my first workout with these last night, very tough! I loved it!
    If I had to change anything I would decrease the weight of my heavy bag. Its a good weight for squats (I can squat ~350lbs using a barbell) but its very hard to get the bag up to my shoulder without wrenching my back. I’d suggest starting at 70-80lbs.

  • Rucker2424

    Thanks for the sand bag overview. Wanted to share a product with this forum that you might love – Wreck Bags. They are awesome, filled with some type of rubber but the exterior is water proof. It has two handles set at a good width. You can do everything with them that is shown here plus take it outside and/or wash it since it can get wet.

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