4 Sandbag Exercises to Get You Stronger.

4 Sandbag Exercises to Get You Stronger.

Can Sandbag Exercises Build Strength?

Sandbag Exercises for strength training.

“someone who is strong under one set of conditions is not necessarily strong under another set of conditions” [i]

If your goal is getting stronger, your training should include and exclude those things that promote this. Additionally (and of equal importance) we should understand how we perceive strength and how we plan of evaluating its acquisition.

The essential point above is: not necessarily strong under another set of circumstances. It’s our view that sandbag training - with a specific sandbag exercise selection and outcome based exercise execution - can increase strength applications in more sets of circumstances than if you did not train with a sandbag. 

Wait a second.

Sandbag training is not magical and will not create unique outcomes by simply picking it up. Similarly, performing an exercise with a fitness sandbag instead of a barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells will not, necessarily, get you stronger, either.

Sandbag training allows for – and almost relies on – creativity in moving.  If you are coaching someone in lifting a sandbag bag for the for the first time, sandbag exercises and sandbag training might be presented as a movement puzzle where our fundamental movement patterns and safe movement principles are the constituent parts.

Training with sandbags for its own sake can be fun. However, introducing sandbag exercises because they will improve task performance in daily activities should be the major consideration. This approach can make learning specific sandbag exercises rewarding because they will be relevant in the context of daily living.

What is “strength” and how it is measured?

When we think of strength (muscular strength), it might be seen as synonymous with muscular power and/or muscular endurance. Understanding each of these will let us understand what we need to acquire; what we want to acquire; and how we can acquire it.

We might think that strength is evaluated and exhibited in a task that requires lifting; however, we should consider:

  1. How much force is exerted during a lift;
  2. our body position during the lift;
  3. what we are lifting (shape, size etc)
  4. the place of the load during the lift;
  5. the duration (speed) of this lift; and

Getting a sense of these factors will assist in determining if we are evaluating of our muscular strength, muscular power or muscular endurance.

Muscular strength, muscular power and muscular endurance are defined as:

Muscular strength is the ability to exert maximal force in one single contraction, such as lifting a weight that you could lift only once before needing a short break. [ii]

This definition can be complemented by including this:

“the more precise definition of strength is the ability to exert force under a given set of conditions defined by body position, the body movement by which force is applied, movement type (concentric, eccentric, isometric, plyometric) and movement speed.[iii]

Muscular power and muscular endurance are defined as:

Muscular power refers to a great force production over a short period of time, such as first leg kicks and explosive jumping. Muscular endurance is one less force is staying over a longer period of time such as skipping.[iv]

Our daily activities may require that we lift objects in relatively unstructured ways when compared to resistance training exercises. Think of a conventional or sumo barbell deadlift. The starting point of the barbell deadlift is almost always the same (unless programmed otherwise): in front of your shins and approximately six inches off the ground (standard hole height for bumper plates and Olympic Plates) with a bar that has a twenty eight or twenty nine millimetre diameter.

Picking up a couch, a case of bottled water or a ninety four pound bag of cement (PICS)

off the ground for example, may “look like” a deadlift (or maybe a squat) but any of these activities into either category might be a stretch because so many factors are different if the activities are closely compared. A great to question to ask: will any strength, power and endurance acquired from deadlifting or squatting directly transfer to couch lifting?

When consider a task that requires us to pick something off the ground, secure it and carry it from one place to another, things become more interesting. Think of this example: we need to pick up our forty pound dog from the ground and carry them. We might be able to deadlift forty pounds  and perform a barbell bicep curl with 40lbs but the requirements for picking up and carrying the dog requires more than those two movements.  

How can we prepare for tasks like this and others?

The Training Context of Life

Although we might not be lifting and carrying dogs or lifting couches on a daily basis, we can identify movement patterns and loading options that closely resemble some tasks that we frequently repeat. Subsequently, we can use this information to create task-specific training that can be rewarding because the outcomes might be realized on a regular basis in daily activities outside of training.

Resistance training with a specific performance task in mind will most likely bring out measurable outcomes in strength and ability. Sandbag training for its own sake can be fun; however, introducing sandbag exercises because they will improve task performance may maintain interest in the training and be more rewarding.

Activities that require us to move something from the ground and load it onto our body (as well as carry it or move it overhead) are great examples that can be brought over into sandbag exercises and sandbag. The reward from creating this parallel between a sandbag exercise and a daily task is that you might see a noticeable improvement in executing your day-to-day activities (ie “this is getting easier to do because I am training with a sandbag in a similar movement).

Life is a sport, so train like it

"The concept of specificity, widely recognized in the field of resistance training, holds that training is most effective when resistance exercises are similar to the sport activity in which improvement is sought (the target activity). Although all athletes should use well-rounded, whole-body exercise routines, supplementary exercises specific to the sport can provide a training advantage. The simplest and most straightforward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercises similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movement occur and the direction of the movements. In addition, joint ranges of motion in the training should be at least as great as those in the target activity."[v]

If we approached our resistance training as described above, would we introduce other movements (and their loading options) into our training so we could execute our daily tasks with a higher degree of safety, efficiency and vigor for as many times as required?

What is a daily task? It is an activity -with recognizable starting and finishing time - that we are required to complete on regular basis within day-to-day. This might also be extended to included foreseeable activities given our life circumstances, such as being a pet owner (with an example in the following section).

In resistance training, our aim should be to maintain our strength (or become stronger) in those daily tasks that are important and fundamental to us. Completing these tasks safely, consistently, independently and frequently is vital for developing, preserving and maintaining self-worth, personal safety, self-esteem and many times, employment/employability.

Sandbag Training Plays its part. Specificity & Training with intention: Pick it up. Carry it.

Specific exercises provide obvious and direct transfer to improved performance and functional capacity because they are based on the principle of specificity.[vi] One goal of your strength training should be to perform your daily tasks safely, efficiently and as many times as required. Therefore, we should incorporate similar movement and their associated loading options.

 A benefit of using sandbags in your training is that you can easily incorporate ambulation (the ability to walk unassisted) and combine it with any lift (lift it and carry it) to create a task that has “real world” application. Although you can perform carries with many training tools (kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells etc.) 

 Sandbags can be used to create a “real world” scenario where a load needs to be lifted from the ground; securely loaded on your body; and moved for a distance.

Sandbags are low to the ground, awkward to lift and create large demands in terms of stabilizing them on your body to move them.

Four exercises that will get you lifting and moving better in your daily activities

Zercher Squat & Zercher Carry 

Both of these exercises can be performed with a barbell  or a sandbag; however, the specific introduction of a sandbag change the demands of the exercise due its shape, weight and your body position while lifting and carrying.


Zercher Sandbag Carry

The Zercher squat and carry shift the load towards the front of the body, stressing the erectors, lats, and core. Using a sandbag and securing it in that position puts the arms further away from the body than a barbell. This further increases the stress on the trunk and makes the weight feel much heavier.

We might carry a number of things in our daily tasks where are our arm position is similar and similar trunk demands are created.

Sandbag Zercher Carries

As we can see in the examples above, the zercher carry can has its place in everyday living; in fact, we have all probably done it at least once but never had a name for it!  This is very important because when we have the opportunity to name an exercise , we also have the opportunity to train the exercise.

The ideal outcome when training in this manner is that when a situation comes up in real life, we can recognize the task as very similar to Zercher squat and/or Zercher carry given the recognition of loads position and the movement pattern.

The next line of thinking should be: "when I do the Zercher Carries in training" I am sure that I follow these steps  to make sure it is safe and effective".  Being able to draw a parallel between a training task in and Real World activity will not only create a stronger sense of confidence when taking on the task but it will also increase the likelihood that the task will be performed safely and efficiently

Half Kneeling Pick Up to Shoulder Carry

The versatility of sandbag training is demonstrated with this pick-up and carry combination.

Imagine if you were required to lift a heavy bag of dog food, a large bag wood chips or a bag of soil and carry it. The half kneeling pick-up to shoulder carry might be an appropriate way to complete this task.

The half kneeling pick up can be performed by getting into the tall kneeling position with the weight load in front of you (#1)

Select one leg as the trail leg (rear leg) and one leg as the lead leg (front leg) then open your hips to position the lead leg perpendicular to trail leg. (#2)

Stand the object upright and pull it in close to your body on the same side as the trail leg. Hinge at the hips and sitting back onto your trail leg with your toes bridged into the ground. (#3)

Place your hands on either side of the object and press into while squeezing your arms into the sides of your torso. You should feel your biceps, pecs and shoulders contracting.  Once the bag is secure, thrust your hips and elevate the bag. (#4) Bring lead over so you are in a split squat position and elevate sandbag onto lead leg. (#5)

The arm on the side of the lead leg is bear hugging the sandbag into your torso while the hand on the side of your trailer leg is placed underneath the sandbag. . Perform a split squat and and while moving into the standing position use the hand that is under the sandbag to guide the sandbag over your shoulder of the lead leg. (#6)

Can sandbag exercises make you stronger

Once the sandbag is loaded and secured onto your shoulder you cannot perform a shoulder carry the same bag to the desired location.


Train with creating intentional outcomes so that parallels can be drawn between training task and Real World activities.

Even though we perform exercises in our basic movement patterns (squats, hip hinge etc,) when we are training in the gym, the weight loads we are lifting are often very standard in structured (think of barbells and dumbbells). The shape and relatively balanced weight distribution of these weight loads is unlike the weight loads that we may lift in our daily activities; additionally, their position on our body may also be different.

Sandbag exercises and sandbag training present the opportunity to lift and carry weight loads of different sizes, using different body positions, force application and movement types.

About the Authors

Ryan Bobychuk B.Kin CSEP-CPT: Performance coach, with an interest in sports specific training, especially hockey.

DJ Guzda, MA : Partner and Co-Founder of White Lion Athletics. Kettlebell coach (Agatsu L1); Steel Mace Flow L1 (Hons); Steel Mace Specialist (Rik Brown).



[i] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/citation/1993/12000/exercise_physiology__strength_and_power__a.3.aspx

[ii]  https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/muscular-strength-power-and-endurance-training

[iii] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/citation/1993/12000/exercise_physiology__strength_and_power__a.3.aspx

[iv]  https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/muscular-strength-power-and-endurance-training

[v] Kraemer WJ, Vescovi JD, Dixon P. The physiological basis for wrestling: implications for conditioning programs.Strength Cond J 26: 10–15, 2004.

[vi] Harman, E. The biomechanics of resistance exercise. In: Baechle, ER, and Earle, RW (eds.), NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. (3rd ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 25-55, 2008.


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