Controlled Chaos: Full-Body Fitness Through Sandbag Training
Posted on 18 November 2011
For thousands of years, humans were intelligent killing machines, and they dealt with chaos… daily. During the last 100 years, most humans have became soft, weak, and injury-prone; victims of a relatively new environment. So what did we do? We trained like robots to use ‘perfect’ form because someone said so a long time ago. Who the hell started this rumor? Why do we follow structured movement just because it is orderly, sounds good, has a label, is popular, or can be packaged into a method, class, or plan? Do we fear or have social issues with chaos? Humans made convenience an attractive priority, and we all bought it. Maybe our easier life made us weaker in several ways and we’re not conditioned to handle physical stress (structured or chaotic) as well? The good news is that it’s not too late. Humans are adaption machines… In a well-intended attempt, we get caught up in analyzing and separating every joint angle, muscles, body-parts, record sets, reps, tempo, and measurements. Many in the fitness industry, honest or fake, are trying to capture ‘lightning in a bottle’ and trying to sell it to help people improve. Often, we unknowing take the wrong path, become bored, or keep chasing another hope because we crave success. Even if the research and data are accurate, maybe we are too smart for our own good sometimes. Maybe we put more into fitness than what’s needed. Why can’t we approach it from a more practical and fun perspective? After all, what did we do before we created technology and discovered anatomy? We took action daily for survival and defense; we picked things up, moved them, and put them down. There is nothing in historic record that tells us that humans hurt their backs often working or playing hard. There are some new exercise tools and toys to train with that can stimulate our genetic potential, especially with sandbags. Using them, exercises are focused on moving around, having fun doing hard work, while engaging every part of your body all the time. We can practice controlling chaos again. That’s why you need to train with a sandbag... Many people get hurt from a variety of activities from doing simple things, like picking up a pencil to being subject to a tackle by an opponent, usually because they haven’t trained in real world functional ways. The good news is, our bodies are still programmed to adapt to vigorous multi-dimensional movement, often while manipulating objects that are irregular, odd, and awkward. There are very few training tools that provide fluid, dynamic, and weight-shifting resistances which we either had or still encounter in life and sports: picking up a crying child, taking down an opponent, tacking in football, carrying laundry, taking stuff out of your car, stopping a criminal, etc. Lately, an unconventional tool people are training with to provide real-life irregular resistance is the sandbag. Available for over 100 years, sandbags are fantastic analog (‘alternative representation of something’) to what humans handled during our primal times, i.e. carrying hunted and gathered food back home. They are usually made of a canvas or leather material. The two types of sandbags available are the classic duffel bag, where the bag is loose and the center of mass shifts depending where you hold it, and the Bulgarian bag, where the bag is curve-shaped like a crescent, is more firm, and the middle portion containing most of the weight. Currently, the duffel bag is most often used, although each has their own features, benefits, and differences. When the duffel bag is filled with a loose, dry, and granular-like substance, they become dynamic internally (unless you overfill it), in which case they’re too rigid and it ruins the training benefits of shifting force. The material that makes up its mass is usually sand, but can also be dry rice (to maintain size, but have less weight), dry peas, coffee beans, or, for you psychos out there, ball bearings. Because of the free space in the bag and the malleable (flexible) material which it is made of, the shape of the bag can, and does, shift while it is moved, thereby altering the distribution of weight. It is a constant game of wresting and adjustment, and therefore the sandbag is infinitely unpredictable.
The dark side of the “force”...Sandbags force you to deal with momentum and you’ll almost never have a chance to relax. Timing of movement and restoring disturbed movement back-on-track is a skill gained by training with sand and benefits injury resistance conditioning. All of the described parameters of the sandbag lend themselves to the concepts of ‘inefficient training.’ This is where you must do all the work to perform an activity successfully, efficiently, and safely, instead of having the benefit of level or balanced objects doing some or most of the work for you. Forcing the sandbag to behave according to your will requires more effort and energy than moving an equivalent weight. The benefit here is that you can literally do more with less! The language of the body is challenge and response. So, instead of training on an unstable surface, training with unstable objects creates results that carry over to most real-life activities! You can lift, throw, push, pull, catch, drag, and carry sandbags, but most of the time you manipulate it. Sand is uncooperative and unforgiving, therefore you’ll find yourself having to alter your grip (if you don’t use built-in handles), shuffling it around your body, and occasionally fidgeting during exercise. Sounds obnoxious, doesn’t it? Well, these obnoxious disturbances not only increase the calorie burn during the workout, but add a new, highly valuable dimension to your exercise: perturbation (aka ‘disturbance’). Have someone create purturbance training by shoving you a little, randomly, with your eyes closed while performing your usual push ups. More fatiguing, isn’t it? Ever run in the dry sand at a beach? Whew! The additional energy it takes to correct your movement path adds up quickly. The intent of using sandbags, aside from simply as a weight for strength and endurance training, is to sense and manage the perturbance whether you know it’s coming or not, handle changes to your personal center of gravity, and course-correct your disturbed movement on the fly. Name one time a competitor in sports or objects in your life ever worked, moved, adjusted, or behaved for your convenience? But wait! There’s more! This increased demand to control, balance, and time chaos means the core muscles have to react together, automatically (as in life) to all of this, all the time, to safely and efficiently handle dynamic resistance. 90%+ of this is done while on your feet, using your hands! You pick it up off the floor, using it in your hand(s), cradled in your arm(s), resting on your shoulder, or maybe carried across your upper back (bringing the hunted animal back to the cave to feed the family, you stud!), and then you put it back down. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. The body learns by feeling through a process called proprioception which receives input from various systems of the body (i.e. sight, balance, touch). They tell the brain and spinal cord how the body parts are positioned at every instance and it learns to interpret and react to forces, including when handled objects deform from the original starting shape. Reaction to unanticipated changes to external and/or awkward weight challenges the body’s auto-correction of movement. Hence, sandbag training works the nervous system to better use the senses to improve reaction in movement. Sensors in muscle and tendons become better at handling altered muscular tension experiences and stresses of joint range-of-motion requirements. Additionally, because of the increased demand of control needed to handle, and not drop, a sandbag, stabilizing muscles and synergistic muscles pitch in to work with primary muscles more urgently to fulfill the attempt of successful movement execution. Caution must be used to not allow the synergist muscles to become the prime movers of a given exercise. See a qualified coach or trainer for help on the difference.
Train like a human, not a robot...Sometimes people come up with exercises as if humans fell out of the sky last week and try too hard to sell their fitness tools and methods as ‘the one.’ Functional training is a good buzz word gone bad. In my opinion, functional training can be defined as “a range of successful and efficient non-linear training that conditions the body with movement that is not isolated or grouped, but is integrated, useful, and practical to achieve a specific outcome, result, or duty.” This is different to each person. An MMA fighter has different functional requirements than a senior citizen who wants to be self-sufficient at home. Sandbags, with their variety of sizes, weights, and movement selections can be an optional tool for a variety of uses in functional training programs that carries over into desired activities. Exercise is not supposed to be robotic and linear. It has been for the last 25+ years thanks to marketing, social engineering, lots of mistakes, and a few lies. It does, to be fair, have a range of effectiveness under some conditions. But, come on, how did we ever survive the 5000 years before 1970? I wish we can ask the guys who chased down deer and boars while hungry, carried them far while thirsty, fought off the enemy to protect his family, and had to look over his shoulder constantly. There was no referee, no police, and no bell to end the round. You can ask him while you count your reps in a safe, air-conditioned room with food and supplements in your lunch cooler. At over 95 yrs old, Jack LaLanne can kick your ass because he trained his body to be healthy and functional, not for big body parts. Stress from exercise replaces what was a daily fight for survival, to which we are designed to do. The people who were unqualified died thousands of years ago. Our current human model is a winner. Only our environment and choices changed. We still adapt well to what we do most often. Sit too much? Move too little? Over eat? Is your fight for survival limited to getting to the take out window of a fast food drive thru before the other guy? You will be rewarded for what you deserve. We will specifically adapt to whatever demand is imposed on us, either by choice or environmental changes. And this change, referred to as Specific Adaption to Imposed Demand (SAID) is always in action, daily. In other words, SAID is there, even training with the ever-altering sandbag. Not all resistance needs to be perfectly measured to yield a training result. The perturbance from sandbags during training happens less and less (but never goes away completely) as you become more movement-aware and skillful in your technique. Irregular surprises from the sandbag also means that each rep may, or may not, be the same. Thus, you can’t always get into a consistent, reliable groove. Your radar has to always be ‘on.’ Fun, eh? As the body becomes smarter, efficient, aware, and stronger, the awkwardness of the sandbag becomes less effective as you become better. Like dancing: you start out rough and sloppy, but become better with instruction, coaching, time, and effort. When SAID occurs from sandbag exercises, you can increase or amplify the effects of sandbag exercises simply by moving the bag faster, adding more sand to increase the load, use a larger bag, or use two bags of equal or different sizes and/or weight. The “specific” adaption in sandbag training is not a fine point skill, like learning to aim a gun, bow, or golf swing. The details of movement skill is not measured in millimeters. It would be more like inches and centimeters, so to speak. Yes, there are little things and nuances happening in the body during training with sandbags, but in this article, we do not want to suffer the “paralysis of over analysis.” We’re generalizing to a degree. The SAID with regard to sandbag exercises is, generally, overall movement conditioning and fundamental stable strength, motion control, mobility, endurance, power, and reactive core development. Often times problems may reveal themselves that otherwise would not be found training with conventional equipment or robotic exercise. Of course, if you require specific strength or skill, you’d need something other, or more than, sandbag training. All people, especially athletes or active people who play sports, may find their current abilities require other tools; since experience varies, so should the choice in training tools. After all, opponents or competitors will certainly be variable and uncooperative (i.e. hitting the tennis ball so you have to chase it, wrestle, or knocking you down with a punch). Everyone will deal with, carry, move, or drag obnoxious forces like groceries, garbage cans, crying children, gym bags, cases of water, backpacks, and the less strength you have, the greater the number of challenges you’ll deal with. Manipulating bodyweight is tough enough on all of the bodily tissues, even worse when you are dealing with sports that require contact! Therefore, sandbags can be the irregular tool to help prepare you for irregular situations.
I got your "cardio" right here...Whole-body exercise with a sandbag has good options for functional training with built in cardio depending on the exercise choice(s), load, speed, attitude, nutrition, and current cardiovascular level of fitness. Think about it: the more muscles involved in a chosen exercise, the greater the need for blood flow for the delivery of fuel, oxygen, and the removal of waste products and carbon dioxide. Although they are effective, why restrict yourself to only leg-based training which travels in one direction and costs thousands of dollars? Jump ropes are the exception! Cardiovascular fitness can be more than simply heart-lung related, it can also be at a localized level: your arms, for example, can always benefit from improved endurance, right? Training it in parts will never be as good as training all the arm muscles together in multiple directions. Is moving in one direction for 30-60 minutes, over and over and over again any fun? For some, with a television, magazine, or music handy, it is. If someone were doing whole-body cardio with a sandbag at a big-box corporate gym near the ‘cardio area,’ I can almost guarantee that the people on the treadmills, bikes, and elliptical machines will watch with amusement (looks fun), admiration (wish they can do it), or confusion (they don’t understand). Why are they looking? Because you are doing lots of things and life is about action. People want to play because play stirs our intrinsic (natural instinct) desire for pleasure. You watch a cat or dog play with a ball? Yep. Do you get involved with them? Yep. How long can you watch a hamster run on the hamster wheel? Not too long. If you need music, television, magazines, or a partner for motivation to do cardio, then your cardio is probably less than entertaining. And fun things do not need motivation. Sandbags can be fun because you can move them and they surprise you here and there when they move you. If your high-tech cardio equipment surprised you like that, you’d probably be in trouble. Need I say more?
Core Training: Not just active, but reactive...Weights that are awkward in size or shape impose themselves on the body and demand a response from the core muscles, which are not just the abs and back. They run from the base of the neck, down through and about the trunk, and into the inner thigh and transfer force from the foot to hand and hand to foot. The core’s automatic, subconscious response to movement is ideally suited to maintaining posture that is appropriate for an activity while moving force through the body from hand-to-foot and foot-to-hand. In most cases, the core muscles resist movement more than it creates movement so force can more easily travel from the ground to the hand. Training in positions and actions that are less than optimal, such as training with sandbags, may distort posture, and this usually results in rounding the spine into flexion (a forward curve), bending, twisting, or a combination of different dimensions. Is this bad during training? Performing exercises while the spine is rigid under some loads does not necessarily teach strong, controlled movements in life. You flex and bend forward all day, yet you train with a stiff spine every time? A straight back is warranted when training heavy or learning (or re-learning) the foundation of stability for refreshing the mind-body connection, teaching the nervous systems where your ‘zero point’ or normal point should be, fine tuning motor control, etc., but at some point, people need to be strong, stable, and agile in an incremental variety of directions, especially while on the feet and moving the hands. This requires bending, twisting, and arching the spine in many directions, even when loaded to a degree; and sandbag exercises have these options. Having a supple, mobile spine is natural and required for quality of life. Want proof? Watch children or animals play. Check out construction workers, or anyone playing a sport, especially tennis. Observe the wiggly, twisty, bending, arching, and leaning they do while having fun or working. Sandbags are a good reason to lighten up, literally and figuratively. Just use an appropriate amount of weight and explore cautiously. As with any unstable training, when you increase the instability of the exercise, you should reduce the amount of force you work with. In this case, more is not better, harder is not better; better is better. However, if the exercise is so unstable and the load is reduced to be able to perform the exercise more successfully than not, the amount of weight being used may not result in effective stimulation to yield a training effect on strength. Everyone has a threshold of how much weight is required to obtain an appreciable result in strength and performance. As improvements are made with control, balance, proprioception, and endurance while using sandbags, adding weight in small increments are likely to be a more safe path to working your way up to your personal threshold weight to stimulate a positive physiological response (combined with rest and nutrition of course).
Grip Strength through Sandbag TrainingGrip strength and/or grip endurance, when not specifically trained, is poor in most people. Some are born with it (and we’re jealous). Grip training with sandbags is an option, and it is highly recommended that everyone get some grip strength in their life. On commercially made sandbags, the handles and convenient grips usually available. Also, you can choose to not use the handles and train the grip strength and endurance deliberately by holding onto the bag directly. This may cause you to re-grip it mid-rep or change grips during a set as the hands tire, so watch your ego and manicures. Traditionally designed hand grippers created to train hand strength do not train the ‘pinch grip,’ they only use the first four fingers: pinky to pointer. And, mind you, this is fine and does have value. However, understand that this is a finger curl action, very similar to hanging from a chin-up bar. All gym equipment is guilty of this, including almost all kettlebell exercises (in case you were wondering). When the thumb is involved, such as the grip required in holding the sandbag by the material and not the handle, the action becomes a pinch grip: the force of the thumb is applied in direct opposition to the four fingers to increase friction between your skin and the material of the sandbag to prevent objects from escaping our grasp. Have doubts about grip importance? Spend a full day avoiding the use of your thumb (safely please). See what I mean?
Components of Sandbag Training...Stress is stimulation that is supposed to be shared all over body throughout the joints, muscles, tendons, ligament, facia, bones: all tissues! With the fluid and awkward forces from sandbag exercises, stress is imposed throughout the body. The body feels this multi-dimensional force and responds, under appropriate amount of work and rest, with muscular strength, endurance, coordination, and potentially positive hormonal responses. With a clean and healthy nutrition plan, this can help lead to a leaner body that performs better with some or all of the following potential benefits:
- Increase neuromuscular efficiency: better muscular coordination & graceful performance
- Multi-dimensional strength: train every direction, even weird ones
- Enhanced recruitment of muscle fibers: use more, together
- Real stability training: control moving forces happening in your hands, not under the feet
- Increase caloric expenditure: use a lot of calories
- Versatile: can use exclusively or integrate with other training methods
- Train all energy systems: Anaerobic & Aerobic, together
- Increase structural integrity: better joint alignment, posture control, & energy use
- Increase of muscle density or mass: harder or larger, depending on program
- Perturbance control: Absorb, stop, and redirect/correct disturbing forces & resist injury
- Movement skill: performing gross movements successfully, safely, with resistance
- Dynamic stability: can train with unstable loads at strength development threshold
- Overall and localized cardio: gain endurance in muscles & the heart
- Safety factor: bags loosely packed are less likely to cause damage or harm when dropped
- Fun: c’mon, have you tried using a sandbag?? Its happiness in a bag!