The Sandbag Method by Matthew Palfrey

In strength and conditioning, we can all be found guilty of over complicating our programming from time to time. With the vast array of options available to us it’s hard not to get overwhelmed with what is right for us and our goals. The sandbag is proudly low-tech but high on results. And once you see what it can do for you it may just become your new favourite training method…

Sandbag Training History

Sandbag training has undoubtedly been around for a long time, but it’s perhaps only in the past century when it has been recognised as a legitimate form of strength and conditioning. There are certainly numerous records of the sandbag being used for structured training as far back as the 1890’s, most notably by Indian Wrestlers. They continue to be used by combat athletes today but more and more people, irrespective of any sport specific benefits, are recognizing the sandbag as a serious strength and conditioning tool.

I now train exclusively with the Sandbag Fitness bags but it’s entirely possible to develop your sandbag training program with a homemade bag. The important message here is that you needn’t let your budget dictate your potential results. As a strength coach, this is one of the reasons that I am so passionate about sandbag training – anyone can start right now with the very minimum of investment. I started with an old duffel bag and 100lbs of sand that cost me less than $5.

No matter what type of sandbag you use, the basic qualities remain the same:

  • Sandbags are tough to work with. While you can certainly develop a more efficient lifting style with practice, the sandbag will always punish poor technique. It’s awkward and has a constantly shifting load – this adds up to a serious challenge, even for advanced lifters.
  • The sandbag is a real life object. It can be used as a representation of another person – this is perfect for anyone involved in contact sports and those in the armed forces, police, firefighters and many more occupations.
  • You cannot lift a sandbag without working your grip. In fact, this is what many new trainees notice first. Any sandbag workout is also a grip workout. This further adds to the functional nature of the sandbag as a training tool.
  • Training with sandbags develops mental conditioning as well as physical strength. There are few tools that can break an athlete as quickly as a sandbag. In fact, just getting the sandbag into position or transitioning between exercises is a challenge in itself. This builds serious mental toughness.
  • It’s important to develop strength and competency throughout all three movement planes (sagittal, frontal and transverse). This is an important facet of training for sports and daily life but also as a means to prevent injury and maintain general structural health. Besides movement in these planes of motion, it’s also important to consider the practice of “stressing” these planes. The sandbag and its permanently off-centre load automatically stresses the body in a true multi-planar fashion. 

The Sandbag Trained Athlete 

While body type, diet and a range of other factors will dictate what an individual looks like, there are a number of key competencies that athletes who train with sandbags exhibit.

  • An Iron Grip. Holding onto a sandbag develops an amazing grip, especially if you utilize an “handleless” bag. And grip isn’t just reserved for the hands, wrists and forearms – bear hug, shoulder and zercher grips develop a whole range of “gripping” muscles. If your sport or daily life requires a strong grip then you need to train with sandbags.
  • Brute Strength. Strong legs, shoulders and backs are an unavoidable result of sandbag lifting. It is possible to develop an efficient sandbag lifting style but it will never be an olympic or power lift. The sandbag just won’t allow you to apply the same biomechanical principles. When things start getting tough you’re going to need to dig in and work hard.
  • Serious Stabilizers. Lifting a constantly moving object like the sandbag requires and develops your stabilizing muscles like few other things. You simply cannot underestimate the balance and control required to lift a heavy sandbag overhead. Regular sandbag lifting builds a strong, stable musculoskeletal system.

The Sandbag Lowdown

Like most training tools, you can use the sandbag as a substitute weight for traditional resistance options like barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells. You can follow standard strength programs like Starting Strength or Wendler 5-3-1 with a sandbag. The sandbag works perfectly well for Deadlifts, Squats, Cleans and Presses. But if this is all you ever do with your sandbag then you are missing out on some of the key benefits to this method.

The sandbag is an unstable, awkward load with inbuilt instability. The further away from your center of gravity that load is, the harder you will have to work to stabilise it. So exercises like the sandbag deadlift don’t have that inherent instability factor. My advice is to focus more heavily on a range of “unique” sandbag exercises – things that just aren’t as effective with traditional resistance tools. For me, that means lots of overhead work and utilizing a range of different grip positions.

The key exercises that you need to follow in any sandbag training program are:

  • Sandbag Shouldering
  • Sandbag Clean and Press
  • Sandbag Bear Hug Load Carry
  • Sandbag Overhead Press

These fundamental movements will give you a strong foundation of strength and conditioning. Furthermore, they all combine some of the best that the sandbag has to offer.

For more experienced sandbag trainees, the following advanced exercises will further develop your skill with the bag. And regular practice will build brute strength, agility and an iron grip.

Some advanced sandbag exercises to try:

  • Sandbag Overhead Walking Lunge
  • Sandbag Windmill
  • Sandbag Get Up
  • Sandbag Bear Hug Squat

Beginner Sandbag Workouts – taken from The Complete Guide To Sandbag Training

Beginners Workout 1: Sandbag Basics

  • 800m run
  • 30 Sandbag Clean and Press
  • 800m run

Complete as fast as possible. Men aim for a 60lb sandbag; women aim for 35lbs.

Beginners Workout 2: Jump, Pull, Press

  • 25 Box Jumps
  • 25 Sandbag High Pulls
  • 25 Sandbag Push Press
  • 25 Sandbag Shouldering (alternate shoulders)

Complete 3 rounds as fast as possible. Men should aim for a 60lb sandbag; women aim for 35lbs. 

Beginners Workout 3: The Sandbag Milo Protocol

This training protocol is inspired by and named after Milo of Croton. A greek wrestler from the 6th century BC, Milo was famed for lifting a calf daily until it reached maturity. This was perhaps the first recorded instance of a linear progressive resistance training program.

  • Take a handless sandbag and fill it with between 25-50% of your bodyweight in sand. Perform a single ground to overhead lift. This is probably best achieved as a clean and press.

Repeat this daily, adding 1-2lbs of sand before each lift.

Advanced Sandbag Workouts – taken from The Complete Guide To Sandbag Training

Advanced Workout 1: Legs On Fire

  • 100m Sandbag Bear Hug Load Carry
  • 10 Burpees
  • 10 Box Jumps

Complete 10 rounds as fast as possible. Men should aim for a 100lb sandbag; women aim for 60lb.

Advanced Workout 2: Boulder Shoulders

  • 100 Sandbag Overhead Presses. Take a 100 Skip penalty for every rest that you need to take.

Complete as fast as possible. Men should aim for a 80lb sandbag; women aim for 45lb.

Advanced Workout 3: The Centurion

  • 100 Sandbag Push Presses
  • 100 Sandbag Zercher Squats
  • 100 Sandbag Get Ups

Complete as fast as possible. Men aim for a 80lb sandbag; women aim for 45lb.


The sandbag is an exceptional strength and conditioning tool that, when used effectively, will help you to develop great strength and conditioning. Take a structured approach to its use and include a wide variety of standard lifts (like Deadlifts and Squats) alongside a range of other “unique” lifts like Bear Hug Squats and Shouldering.

Originally published in My Mad Methods Magazine. 


Matthew Palfrey is a strength and conditioning coach, author, consultant to the health and fitness industry and the founder of Sandbag Fitness - a specialist company that promotes the use of sandbag training for fitness. Find out more at

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