“This thing is awkward to lift”
For me, the greatest benefit of the sandbag is the fact that it is awkward to lift. The load is constantly shifting, or at least requires effort to stabilise, and this produces an effect far removed from conventional weight training. The sandbag is not ergonomically designed to make it easier to lift – it makes you work hard for each repetition. The result is that you build strength and conditioning that can be applied in the real world. Scientists would call this ‘ecological validity’.
This concept of functional strength is heavily touted in modern health and fitness. It’s not uncommon to find classic exercises ‘modified’ to include instability by using stability balls, boards and another equipment. But the sandbag has built-in instability, making it the natural choice to integrate instability training into your programme.
The major advantage of training with an unstable object, rather than on an unstable surface, is that it has greater ecological validity or real world application. Most loads, in real life, are not equally weighted. Therefore, training with the sandbag prepares the body to deal with an unstable load. The ‘craze’ for stability training typically involves making the surface on which you are standing unstable – the complete opposite of most real world situations.
“Talk is cheap – and so is sand”
The sandbag is proudly low-tech and relatively inexpensive compared to other training options. In a comparison of cost between sand and conventional weight plates the sand comes in at around 1/20th of the price. And that’s if you pay for it – sand is fairly easy to come by for free. I have around 350lbs of sand in my garage gym and this cost me about £10 – the same weight in even the most basic plates would have set me back at least £200, and that’s without the bars and collars.
With so many barriers to exercise, the inexpensive nature of sandbag training makes it a great option for everyone.
“Have bag, will travel”
If you travel regularly, as I do, then the sandbag is a great addition to any suitcase. I take mine with me everywhere I go and fill it when I arrive – either at the beach or from a builder’s merchant. It is the ultimate portable gym so you have no excuses not to train again!
“Bend me, shape me”
The sandbag is malleable – it will mould itself to your body and most shapes you can think of. I’ve seen countless attempts to make barbell back squats more comfortable with towels, various ergonomic pads and even extra t-shirts but the sandbag will mould itself nicely across your back – problem solved.
The malleable sandbag also lends itself well to load carries, hill sprints and various sport specific drills. I find it particularly effective with combat athletes as the bag can be used to simulate an opponent effectively.
The sandbag can take the place of a medicine ball for throwing, passing and catching drills – try doing that with a barbell.
“Get a grip”
Most modern gymnasiums are littered with machines that require little to no hand strength to operate them. This causes problems when, outside of the gym, you require hand strength to lift anything. The modern antidote to this problem is to include some additional grip strength exercises to supplement your grip-independent strength workout. The sandbag avoids this unnecessary issue by requiring high levels of grip strength to lift – it builds hand and forearm conditioning naturally.
Grip strength is a vital attribute for all athletes – especially wrestlers, MMA fighters and judokas. But it is also important for the population as a whole. You only have to consider the commercial market for grip assistance implements to see how much of a problem this is becoming in modern society. Regular practice with a sandbag would maintain grip strength into old age.
Sandbag Training For MMA
If you walk through the doors of any commercial gym in the country you’ll be met by row upon row of cardio equipment and resistance machinery. But, is this the best training environment for Mixed Martial Artists who want to build elite strength and conditioning?
The sandbag remains one of the greatest strength and conditioning tools for MMA athletes for one major reason – it closely resembles the demands of the sport.
Ultimate Functional Training
The term functional training has been bastardized heavily in health and fitness. If you ask most trainers and coaches about functional training they’ll have you balancing on a stability ball in no time at all. This always baffles me – if I don’t spend time balancing on a big ball during my daily life then how can training for it be functional? These coaches have typically neglected to examine the variables of function in relation to the individual. Functional training simply refers to matching, in some way, the training to the results required.
MMA athletes need strength, power, speed, agility and endurance. They work with awkward external loads (called opponents) so the training needs to replicate this.
Isn’t MMA the best way to train for MMA?
Strength and conditioning for MMA is designed to support skill development – greater physical development allows the athlete to train harder, manage injury and increase the quality of skill learning. Furthermore, when two opponents of fairly equal skill level are matched – the better conditioned athlete will usually come out on top.
Strength and conditioning is your way of attaining greater physical development in a controlled environment. You can work on specific movement patterns that would not be possible during the demands of high level competition.
Traditional weight training places demands on the grip that aren’t necessarily directly applicable to martial arts and MMA. Barbell and dumbbell lifting, for the most part, allow a ‘closed grip’ – one where you are able to completely close the hand around the bar. While this allows the athlete to lift more weight safely it is a luxury that MMA doesn’t typically provide. Apart from wrist control, this is not a common grip position in MMA.
Gripping something with an ‘open grip’ – where the hand is not able to fully close around the object, has a much greater application. The sandbag is perfect for this as it allows an athlete to grip in a variety of different ways, including gripping the canvas with an open grip. The benefits to competitors who fight with a Gi are also very clear.
The inclusion of handles on your sandbag, also allows the versatility to perform other highly valuable exercise like the Snatch.
The idea of an ‘open grip’ can be further developed. Zercher and Bear Hug grips add another degree of function to MMA strength and conditioning.
It is important to realise that ‘grip’ does not start and finish with the hand. Grip should be classed as the ability to hold onto an external load or to the ability to hold onto a fixed surface. The need to effectively match the demands of the sport with the strength and conditioning is paramount.
Practical Applications for MMA
Besides multi-planar compound movements there are plenty of specific drills for the MMA athlete. The following exercises will help to produce fight-specific strength and conditioning.
1. Bear Hug Load Carry
Holding the sandbag with a bear hug grip, carry it across a set distance. You can practice this with both light and heavy bags, and over short to long distances. Although, a bag the weight of your opponent carried between the cage/ring walls would be highly specific.
2. Sandbag Hip Bridge
Lie on the mat with the sandbag across your hips. Then, in one powerful movement, drive the sandbag upwards by using a hip bridge. This exercise will help develop the power needed to escape from the bottom position. Experiment with different sandbag positions and escaping from under the bag in different ways.
3. Platform Load Shift
Using two platforms, stand in between them and move the sandbag through 180 degrees. Experiment with different height platforms to simulate a change in the centre of gravity of your opponent. This drill can effectively be used to encourage an escape from being pressed up against the fence and general opponent control in the clinch. Again you can experiment with different weights and grip positions.
“Be formless, shapeless...like water”
One of the greatest advantages of the sandbag is its versatility. MMA competition is free flowing so why not match your training to this concept? Have fun and get used to swinging, throwing, pressing and pulling your sandbag in a variety of different ways for some great results.