After almost 30 years in the field of rehabilitation and exercise I have become a bit of an exercise snob. I really appreciate the finer things now. I can tell the difference between a well made kettlebell, weight lifting bar, and sandbag. The design of the Ultimate Sandbag (USB) makes it stand out for how it feels, how it works and how it lasts. It’s one of the few tools if I were starting a gym or rehab center tomorrow I would make sure I made space for them in the budget.
Why? Because they work. I love tools that get the job done better than others. What’s the job? Make my patients pain free and resilient to be able to handle all that life throws their way. I want them to be strong, real world strong, functionally strong.
Make no mistake, I’m NOT talking about standing with one eye closed on a ball on a trampoline with a vinyl covered weight. I’m talking drive your feet into the ground, brace hard and move heavy stuff. Strength training, but real world functional strength training.
If you’re a total meathead and you live for the iron, I get it. There’s nothing like it. But the USB is still for you. Just think of the exercises that follow as the best accessory lifts you’ve never tried.
Use the back squat as an example. Using the USB Max lunge (explained below) as an accessory lift for your squat essentially trains the muscles you’re trying to use when you think “spread the floor,” “tear the string between your feet” or whatever cues you prefer. You’re training your cue and you don’t even know it.
The lateral hip muscles that stabilize your stance while you squat get stronger reflexively and automatically with the Max lunge. You still use your favorite cues when you back squat, they will just work better now. If you’ve never done Max lunges before and you add them into your program there’s no way your squats don’t improve. Interested now? Keep reading. I just need to go over some basics first.
We are three dimensional beings in a three dimensional world. The three dimensions/planes are the sagittal plane which is forward and backward, the frontal plane which is side to side and the transverse plane which is rotation. As you move through space you generally look to move in one plane while preventing motion in the others. The Specificity Principle tells us that training movements in one plane will create adaptations for only that plane so has limited usefulness, aka, less functional. Exercises that challenge more than one plane are thought of as being more functional.
People also ask how can I get stronger lifting only slightly more than an empty bar? To understand this – expand your mind a little. Strength gains occur because of a stimulus that requires muscles to create large amounts of tension. For barbells and dumbbells to reach that threshold of tension they have to be heavy and/or move quickly to force your muscles to adapt and get stronger.
The bars are perfectly balanced, easy to hold and usually only challenge one plane at a time so they have to be heavy in order to be a relevant stimulus for strength gains. The sandbags, although light compared to weights used with powerlifting, will challenge you in more than one plane and require tons of tension to move them under control. Fewer pounds but greater tension.
Remember tension is the stimulus. I think it may be impossible to truly understand until you use one with purposeful intent. I see guys all the time with big squats and deadlifts struggle to control a 45 pound sandbag doing a max lunge. The weight is less, the challenge is not. It’s a completely different scale. Don’t compare the numbers, compare the effort. You won’t be disappointed.
There are many choices available to improve your functional strength, each with its’ own pros and cons. Body weight is free and always available but limiting in how you can load it. Bands are inexpensive and portable but only have decent resistance at the end ranges of motion. Dumbbells work well but you need many different weights which adds up in both floor space and dollars.
Kettlebells work well too and you don’t need too many to accomplish a lot but their physical size can be a disadvantage in some circumstances, bad reps can hurt when you’re learning and its’ foundational exercise, the swing, is in double leg stance which limits its carryover to the real world.
ORIGIN OF THE ULTIMATE SANDBAG
CUE THE MUSIC, ENTER THE SANDMAN
The Ultimate Sandbag, as created by Josh Henkin, is a tool with unique qualities that challenge the user to create force and resist force at the same time, in all three planes of motion, using upper and lower body connected via the core. Thus, very functional. There’s nothing exactly like it. They belong in the pantheon of strength training right there with all the bars and the bells. That’s why I learned how to use them and why I think you should too.
There are five sizes of USB, but you don’t need all five. The smallest bag, referred to as the “core” bag, is great for warm ups and smaller people. The next bag up is called “power,” then “force,” “strength,” and “burley.” In my clinic we utilize a 15LB core bag, 30LB power, 45LB force, and a 60LB strength bag. From kids to pro athletes we haven’t needed a burley bag to effectively challenge the people we treat. But I’d say gyms should have them for sure. The burley bag I use at home is 85LB, but some people fill them to 100LB.
Similar to a kettlebell you need a little skill and direction to get the most out of the USB’s. I hope to pique your interest with this post but you’ll want some coaching. Professional coaches need coaching when learning these exercises so you will too.
Depending on the exercise you intend to perform, you’ll be using one of the four handles or maybe even grab the bag itself. The single handle on top is the “suitcase” handle, the “clean” handles are parallel, the “snatch” handles are horizontal and guess where the “end” handles are ?
Each size of bag has a weight range you can fill it to. If you pack a bag tightly full of sand its heavier but not unsteady, so you lose some of its uniqueness. When it has less sand and less weight it has greater instability which forces the user to create more tension to control it. This is where much of the magic happens. I recommend filling the bag to the middle of the weight range that its’ size will hold.
One consistent devil in the details when training with the USB is your intention of squeezing the handles HARD while also trying to tear them apart. The reason for this is two fold. First, is Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation which says that if you squeeze something really hard muscles in the rest of the body will turn on more than if you don’t. We want to take advantage of this.
When you try to tear the bag you utilize additional muscle, especially the Lats, which connects your shoulder, across your torso, to the glute of the opposite side. Thus, connecting your upper and lower quarters and stabilizing the core. The handles have a little “play” in them to increase this important connection. There is a reason we walk, run, throw, punch etc. with one arm and the opposite leg moving together. Our anatomy is aligned to work that way. The more we utilize this cross body pattern the stronger we will be to hinge, squat, lunge, push, pull, carry . AKA “functional strength.”
To get stronger in hinge movements, the USB good morning allows for safer loading than the traditional bar, is more comfortable and because you’re trying to tear the bag, elicits greater connection of hips and shoulders. In addition, it can easily be performed single leg in all three planes. Of course all those same movements can be done holding the handles deadlift style. That’s packing a functional punch.
SANDBAG BEAR HUG SQUAT
Squats reign king in many people’s minds for getting stronger. The USB allows us to challenge our strength in the squat pattern in some unique ways. I’d like to share three of them. First is “bear hug.” When I have access to heavy USB’s I think bear hug squat instead of goblet squat. Both allow a deep drop with upright posture but the benefit to the USB is that because you are grasping and trying to tear the bag you create that connection between your lat and glute thus better stabilizing your core. Many people who have pain with squatting in other ways bear hug squat comfortably. I like to add a rotation as I stand which, again can be done with other implements but you still lack the glute/lat connection you only get by trying to tear the bag.
SANDBAG SHOULDERING SQUAT
Another advantageous challenge to the squat pattern afforded by USB are “shouldering squats.” Get the bag up on one shoulder and squat with your normal stance or better yet in a staggered stance to emphasize one leg at a time. Try that with a different type of weight and you have to hold it lower down, different leverage, less difficult. You don’t have the tearing the bag advantage this time but you have a unique simultaneous combination of frontal and sagittal plane challenges.
SANDBAG FRONT LOADED SQUAT
But the most challenging squat pattern with the USB is to “front load squat.” Similar to a barbell front squat but because it’s a sand bag not a bar you have a strong lat connection as you try to tear it with your forearms. This is exhausting for the upper back. Like a Zercher squat that is comfortable on your arms and better connects the shoulders to the hips. If you’re really a glutton for punishment you can press it overhead with the bag balanced on your fists then do overhead squats. A significant challenge for sure.
SANDBAG MAX LUNGE
The multiple axes lunge (MAX lunge) is by far the best lunge variation I’ve come across. Just like any lunge exercise its good for you but it surpasses the others because it challenges you in all three planes at the same time. Regular lunges are a great sagittal plane challenge. You have forward and backward acceleration and deceleration. The Max lunge using a USB has the same but in addition challenges you in the frontal plane when the weight is on one side and in the transverse plane as it rotates across the front leg and then back. Acceleration and deceleration of all three planes. Boom, fatigue. If you perform a forward stepping max lunge you’ll emphasize deceleration. If you perform a rear stepping max lunge you’ll emphasize acceleration. I like to combine them and call it a max lunge hybrid. Rather performing max lunges forward alternating left and right and backward alternating left and right, I alternate forward and reverse lunges. Its easier for people to coordinate. Watch the video you’ll see what I mean.
SANDBAG DYNAMIC MAX LUNGE
However, the most functionally challenging lunge variation is when you perform the rear stepping max lunge dynamically. As you speed up the movement the bag begins to swing with a little momentum and you begin to move in a manner that becomes “hingier” and essentially evolve the exercise into a single leg triplaner kettlebell swing hybrid. Its awesome.
SANDBAG CLEAN TO PRESS
The best pushing strength exercise with the USB is the overhead press. You can clean it to your fists then press and continue to clean and press rep after rep if you like your lungs to burn too or you can clean it once then get to pressing. Either way you have to really zip up your core to keep it balanced on your fists as it goes up and down. There is a strong “plank feel” to this press.
SANDBAG KICKSTAND ROW
To me the best pulling challenge with the USB is to row it using the clean handles when you combine it with one of the deadlift hinge variations. Why? Because real world pulling strength is often performed in standing. In order to pull powerfully with my arm I need a strong connection between the arm that’s pulling and the core its attached to and the legs Im standing on while it happens. Perform a single leg deadlift then row from there.
SANDBAG SUITCASE CARRY
The last movement pattern you can use the USB for is a carry. Farmers carry type exercises are well established for their value. Watch this video to see a unique variety of carries you can perform with the Ultimate Sandbag.
SQUAT, HINGE, LUNGE, PUSH, PULL, CARRY. Those are functional human movements and now you know some ways to use the Ultimate Sandbag to improve your functional strength with these movements. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.