Savage Simplicity and the Sandbag

Time is precious, so let’s cut right to the heart of this piece. One of my favorite tools of choice is the sandbag. Simple but savage in efficiency and effectiveness.

I’m not sure why, but there is a huge notion that outdoor training, or indeed any training done outside the walls of a commercial gym, is somehow inferior and more often than not, limited to just calisthenics and running.

Clearly, that’s not true.

Me, I train outside, free from walls. But, by no means is my training limited to just bodyweight. I train for performance. Be it in life, sports or in mine and the majority of my trainees’ cases –combat. Enter the sandbag.

Phil Bennett of Complete MMA shouldering a sandbagI’m not even talking the “fitness” sandbags, with handles and all that. I’m talking a literal bag – be it a duffel bag, military bag, post bag, or World’s Strongest Man style bag, simply filled with sand or rubber mulch. No handles, no easy way to move and no quarter given by the bag.

This kind of sandbag sits very low on the respect scale in the fitness industry.

I get it though.

There’s no way to market and, therefore, make money out of a bag of sand. Yet, despite its lowly status, the sandbag is an incredible tool that is capable of producing outstanding results – physically, mentally and aesthetically.

A simple bag of sand is an exceptionally versatile piece of gear. Frequent exposure to its brutality builds power, strength, movement quality, explosiveness, toughness and a full body “tightness” that’s very hard to describe in writing. Dig a little deeper and the benefits continue to mount – grip strength, coordination, mental grind, insane core activation, balance/stability, work capacity, finger strength. It’s cheap, transportable and definitely “real world applicable”.

When it comes to the actual specifics of the strength, conditioning and performance training, keep it simple!

Complexity in a training program is largely asinine. The simple work is always the most effective. Simple, however, should never be confused with easy. A term I like to throw around is savage simplicity – keeping the methods simple and the intensity savage.

What is simple?

It’s the big things. The key stripped back elements that offer up the greatest bang for their buck. All the other stuff is, in reality, a distraction. The world is a very confusing and distracting place at the best of times, and the strength, fitness and health world are amongst the top of the confusion. Sadly it’s driven by clever marketing, greed and the need to continually make a profit – which I guess is another rant for anther day though.

In the spirit of savage simplicity, the training is kept to a handful of exercises. All of which are then drilled to perfection, before ramping up the intensity to levels of a man possessed.

The exercises are:

  •  Zercher Squats
  • Shouldering
  • Zercher/Bear Hug Carries
  • Clean and Presses
  • Get-ups

These movements cover essentially everything needed to perform better.

  •  The Zercher squat covers the squatting pattern.
  • Shouldering the sandbag covers the triple extension and hinge pattern.
  • The carries teach full body tightness. They also demand pulling mechanics in the upper body, isometric strength and core bracing.
  • The clean and press is a grind from start to finish, hitting nearly every muscle in every gruelling rep.
  • And then there are the get-ups. While working every muscle in the body, it’s the mental aspect of them that generally gets tested most.

Trust me when I say sandbags are neither gimmicky, nor a fad.

Putting them together

While it is possible to train the exercises one after the other with a traditional weight room set-up, the beauty of the sandbag is combining the movements together to create a new kind of hell.Phil Bennett of Complete MMA hoisting a sandbag over a fence

As for the weight of the bag, I’d suggest anything around 50% of your bodyweight. For the advanced athletes, I’d say somewhere in the region of 70% of your bodyweight. Obviously this is dependant on a number of factors – age, current level of fitness, experience, training partners, background, weight, etc. You want a weight in the bag that is challenging, one that makes the reps a grind rather than a breeze. The goal is performance, strength and toughness, not to work up a light sweat and head home. Remember though, the weight in the bag is not the only adjustment you can make to increase the challenge the workouts provide. Shorter rest periods, more reps, longer time under tension, more sets, and longer distances travelled are all options to consider in long term progression.

Obviously, it should go without saying, but be sure to warm-up thoroughly before attempting any of the workouts below. The sandbag is unforgiving and should be treated as such.

#1 – Grinding 100 Yards

 1a. Zercher Carry x 25 yards

1b. Zercher Squat x 3

1c. Zercher Carry x 25 yards

1d. Zercher Squat x 3

1e. Zercher Carry x 25 yards

1f. Zercher Carry x 3

1g. Zercher Squat x 25 yards
Repeat Twice. Go home, eat, sleep…

#2 – Just Get It Done

 1a. Shouldering x 50 (25 left / 25 right)

2a. Get-ups x 40 (20 left / 20 right)

3a. Clean and Press x 20

4a. Zercher Squat x 10

5a. Bear Hug Carry x Failure

Work from 1 through to 5 in order and without worrying about sets, just get the reps done. All quality, all identically perfect reps; this is a grinding workout that is as much mental as it is physical.

#3 – 15 mins of Torture

 1a. Zercher Squats x 60 seconds

1b. Shouldering x 60 seconds

1c. Zercher/Bear Hug Carries x 60 seconds

1d. Clean and Presses x 60 seconds

1e. Get-ups x 60 seconds

Rest 60-90 seconds and repeat for three rounds total.  

There it is

 Go make yourself a sandbag. Make it your best friend, your toughest of training partners and your perpetual ass kicker. Let it build your character and soul while hardening your body with muscle.

Training with the sandbag is not a short term process. It’s one that has no end. Success with it demands a relentless attitude to dominate it. It’s meant to be tough. It’s meant to be a grind. It’s surely going to anger and frustrate you. It’ll push you and when you stand up and fight it’ll reward  you with strength, power, toughness, health, muscle and an unbendable character.


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