Sandbag Accessory Lifts

TAGS: sandbags, Matt Palfrey, clean and press, strength development, atlas stones

Sandbag Accessory Lifts

The sandbag is a staple in serious garage gyms everywhere, but it rarely crosses over into commercial gym territory. In fact, it's one of those training tools that people seem to use exclusively or not at all. This article will list some of the benefits of training with sandbags. I'll also give you my (current) top two sandbag exercises and explain how you can add some sandbag lifting into your current program.

I’ve been training seriously with sandbags for a couple years now and they’re a regular part of the coaching that I do with elite athletes. The simple reason for this is that they're awkward to lift and that ability can translate well to athletic performance.

There are a number of sandbag programs out there and many have their merits, but this article will focus specifically on using the sandbag as an accessory to a regular strength training program. Put simply, applying some of the principles in this article to your training can yield dramatically increased strength, power, and sport-specific conditioning.

Sandbags on™

What makes the sandbag unique

It’s important when you’re utilizing a different tool that you know why you’re using it and what results it’s likely to give you. If you currently follow a structured, progressive barbell program and then decide to substitute it for a half-assed sandbag program, your results will suffer. Apply the same time-tested exercise principles to sandbag training and you’ll get good results.

Sandbag benefits:

  • The sandbag has built in instability. It will fight you at every stage of every rep and this is where much of the benefit of sandbag lifting comes from.
  • It’s difficult to lift a heavy sandbag without also having a strong grip. So for those of you who routinely neglect grip training, it’s a simple way to develop a super strong grip without lots of additional work.
  • The sandbag's shape and center of mass isn't too dissimilar from a person. You can use this to your advantage to develop sport-specific strength and conditioning programs utilizing the sandbag. Try replicating some of the athletic movements from your sport with the sandbag.
  • Sandbag lifting is a good value option for those with limited funds. You can either buy a custom made sandbag or make your own. I’ve successfully used a duffel bag filled with three, 55-lb contractor bags of sand. The duffel was free, and the sand set me back less than $10. And lifting 165 lbs of sand isn't any joke.

The lifts

If you’re stuck, you can use a sandbag to replicate just about any traditional barbell exercise, but I prefer to program sandbag lifts as accessories to regular deadlifts, squats, presses, and pulls. And when it comes to the best sandbag exercises, for me, there are two that stand head and shoulders above the rest—the sandbag clean and press and the sandbag bear hug squat.

Why these two exercises? The unstable, awkward nature of the sandbag means that picking it up and lifting it above your head is always going to be one of the most challenging movements. It will tax stabilizing muscles throughout the torso that you’ll struggle to work effectively in a regular lift.

The bear hug grip develops brute strength like few other things. Combine this with a squat and you have a great, all round strength exercise that carries over well into athletic strength and conditioning, especially if your sport involves grappling and controlling and/or picking up an opponent (e.g. MMA, wrestling, rugby, football).

How to perform the lifts

Sandbag clean and press: Grip the sandbag firmly underneath and lift it powerfully upward toward chest height. This should be done by utilizing a powerful extension through the hips. For particularly large sandbags, you may have to lift it in two stages similar to an atlas stone lift.

When the sandbag is at chest height, adjust your grip to ensure that it's balanced. Without any additional assistance from the legs, press the sandbag upward. Be sure to go to full extension in both the elbow and shoulder. Return the sandbag to the ground and repeat.

Sandbag bear hug squat: Take a firm bear hug grip around your sandbag. You may find it easier to elevate the sandbag until you have developed the strength to lift it from the ground in this position. Stand fully upright. Initiate the squat by sitting back into the movement, making sure that you keep your chest high and do your best to maintain a neutral curve in your lower back. Perform a deep squat and return to the starting position.


Adding the lifts to your program

How and why you add sandbag lifts into your program will vary, but I recommend adding them into at least one session per week. You can replicate any existing rep range and set numbers with the sandbag. For example, you might adjust a session in the following way:

Regular session:

  • Back squats, 5 X 5
  • Overhead press, 5 X 5
  • Pull-ups, 3 sets to failure

Sandbag lifting session:

  • Sandbag bear hug squat, 5 X 5
  • Sandbag clean and press, 5 X 5
  • Pull-ups, 3 sets to failure


Sandbag lifting isn't a miracle cure to your training woes, but correctly implemented, it can help you push through plateaus. In addition, it will develop the kind of strength and conditioning that can be hard to develop with other training tools.

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