Sandbags are an excellent way to transfer what you’ve gained in your strength program to the field. But many guys just aren’t sure how to use them. Here are six ways to easily implement sandbags into your football strength and conditioning program.

1. High rep conditioning work

Running, jogging, or pretending to jog as you shuffle your feet in a lame attempt to convince your coach that you’re running for distance has no place in your football conditioning program. Jogging is best left to the cross country runners and soccer players. You don’t jog on the field ever. So why do it in training?

Well for the most part, coaches who don’t understand how to train for football simply have you do the same things that their coaches made them do when they were young—jog, run laps, “road work,” or whatever lame term they come up with to describe go nowhere conditioning.

Sprinting is a much better option, but it can take its toll on your joints, especially pre- and in-season. Also, for most parts of the country, sprinting outside in the winter isn’t a smart idea. One slip on a patch of ice or packed snow and pop goes the ACL. Therefore, we have to look outside of the traditional “sprinting centric” conditioning. This is where sandbags come in—in a big way.

Using sandbag exercises for higher reps with minimal rest periods can build your base conditioning and, if applied in some of the ways I describe in the rest of the article, your football specific conditioning. Using sandbags for high reps gives you several advantages over using weights or sprint style conditioning for football.

ü      They’re safer than weights for high rep work. If you have to dump a lift, you won’t get hurt.

ü      They’re easier on your joints than sprinting. This is especially true for bigger players like       linemen and linebackers.

ü      They can give you sport-specific conditioning by simulating a live opponent (more on that in             later).

To get started with high rep sandbag conditioning for football, stick with the basic moves.

Clean and jerk

Take a loaded bag from the ground to over your head in any way possible. This isn’t always as clean looking as a barbell clean and jerk, but it will train your body to work as a unit, even when tired. Try five sets of 20 reps. At first, don’t restrict your rest periods. Just take note of them. Work your way down to 45 seconds of rest. Then, when you hit that level, begin to add sets, reps, or weight.

Bear hug squat

Bear hug a heavy sandbag and squat with it held at chest level. Perform as many reps as you can in 20 seconds. Rest for 20 seconds and then go for another round of 20. Do this after your clean and jerks and start with seven sets, eventually working up to 10. When you can get 10 sets, add weight.

Just adding those two simple movements to your football conditioning program will produce phenomenal results. You can add them to the end of your leg training day or use them on their own as a conditioning day. You’ll notice that the entire session is fairly quick. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s easy. If it’s too easy, you’re kidding yourself. Add weight and get to work.

2. Preventing strength leakage

Using weight is the number one way to build your strength for football. Barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells are the foundation of any good football training program. But they do have some limitations when used alone. Yes, they build tremendous strength, but they can leave small gaps between weight room strength and football strength. We call this strength leakage.

We’ve all seen the guy who can bench 400 lbs but can’t block the sun. This guy might even be a decent athlete, so why can’t he dominate on the field? He allowed himself to develop gaps in his strength so that he can’t take what he gained in the weight room to the field. He literally leaks strength from his joints or at his waist and can’t apply his power to an opponent.

Using sandbags, especially when doing cleans, clean and jerks, or any kind of squatting, teaches the body to transfer power from the ground up through the hips and mid-section. You also train the stabilizers, tendons, and ligaments because the bag changes shape on almost every rep. There’s no way to settle into a groove when lifting a sandbag. This is how they prevent leakage. They train you in odd positions and hit those stabilizers in a way that weights alone can’t do.

To ensure that you transfer your weight room gains to the field, sandbags are essential. Work those stabilizers in odd positions from varying angles with an implement that never stays the same shape twice. Sounds like a recipe for football success right there.

3. Live opponent” work

Sandbags are alive. They move, change positions, and fight you every step of the way. Sounds a lot like a live opponent to me. Live opponent work ties in closely with the concept of strength leakage.

Weights are fixed. They stay balanced, evenly distributed, and constant. This is good when it comes to building maximum strength, but it can hinder the transfer of power to taking on a live opponent. Wrestlers, fighters, and martial artists have used sandbags for centuries because of their effect on strength when fighting someone. Football is for the most part a three-hour fight. Every play you line up and fight your opponent. He will not stay in positions that allow you to block or tackle him. No, he wants to make your job as hard as possible.

Your football training should reflect this. Sandbags change shape and force you into positions that would be impossible (and even dangerous) to get into with a barbell. Think about tackling a big fullback. You have to drop really low while still maintaining a power position in the hips and legs. Now you have to spring forward, hit, wrap the arms, and drive your legs to bring the big ox down.

4. Linemen-specific positions

Linemen and linebackers might benefit the most from using sandbags, at least in terms of finding football-specific movements. Linemen, both offensive and defensive, have to be able to keep a low center of gravity and move themselves and their opponent in the direction they want. The linemen’s ability to control their opponents is almost always the difference maker in any game. I don’t care how fast your “skill” guys are. If the line can’t block, they aren’t going anywhere.

Here are a few linemen-specific sandbag exercises.

Bear hug and duck walk

The sandbag bear hug is definitely old school. It’s also widely practiced because of the great training effects on the back, legs, pecs, and grip. While it’s a good exercise, we’re always looking for something more. That’s what this sport is all about—always striving for more.

I noticed that many linemen, backs, and linebackers could keep a good football position when in a T-shirt and shorts, but once the pads, helmet, and a live opponent were thrown in, they began to lean forward, get into a bad position, and get beat. Seeing a strong, 275-lb linemen thrown to the ground because he was leaning forward isn’t pretty.

To prevent this, we do a sandbag bear hug and duck walk combination. This is an excellent football training movement that will strengthen the back, legs, and entire upper body for many football-specific tasks (tackling, blocking, pre-jump position). The only difference we make from the standard bear hug is that instead of wrapping our arms around the bag like Ken Patera would, we grab the bag by the handles and hold it close.

From this position, you start duck walking. Shoot for three sets of 10 yards to start and gradually increase the sets to six. Keep your back extremely tight, sit back, and don’t lean forward. If I catch any of you leaning forward during this, I’ll personally throw you down.

Clean and push

This is a cool variation of the clean and press that is perfect for football training because it’s highly specific, especially for linemen. It will require great let strength, transfer of power from the legs through the hips and to the upper body, and muscular coordination. And all you need is a sandbag and a little bit of room.

Load a bag and clean it in any way you see fit. Use the various handles or mixed grips or just grab the bag itself. Now clean it to chest height. When I say clean it, I don’t mean end up in one of those “split the legs eight feet apart” kind of clean positions. No. I mean finish the clean in the good football position just as you would pre-block, tackle, jump, and sprint.

For the first few reps, hold that position. Then pop the hips hard and push the bag as far as you can. Think if it like a standing bench press. It’s the exact motion used when blocking, making it an excellent movement for linemen. It’s maybe one of the most football-specific training exercises in the world.

After you get the motion down, begin to do the entire movement as one complete exercise rather than pausing with the bag at chest height before pushing. This is an ideal time to video the lift or have a coach/teammate watch you and critique your form. There aren’t many guarantees in football or football training, but I can damn near guarantee that this exercise will improve your blocking and tackling.

Use this exercise for conditioning, as a finisher, or as a total body accessory lift. Vary the sets and reps from high to low with appropriate changes in the weight of the bag. Both linemen and linebackers can vary either exercise by moving sideways during the movement. Don’t forget that we need as much, if not more, lateral strength than we do straight ahead speed.

5. Leg exercises

I don’t want all the talk about high rep conditioning and odd position work to leave you thinking that sandbags are only good for specialty work. In fact, quite the opposite is true. You can use sandbags as a great alternative to barbells for strength work in the lower body.

Zercher Romanian deadlifts with chains or bands added

My athletes are sick of hearing this, but most football training programs don’t put enough emphasis on working the hamstrings. Sure, the posterior chain training has gained popularity, but most assume that a few sets of leg curls and some standard deadlifts are sufficient to make the hamstrings and glutes strong enough to make you faster. The truth is that the hamstrings have an amazingly high work capacity. Exercises like deadlift variations, squats, and even leg curls are needed, as the hamstrings must be worked in both of their functions (flexion and extension).

Zercher Romanian deadlifts are a great way to hammer the hamstrings. However, doing these with a bar can be painful, especially when you start using big weight. Using a sandbag is less painful yet harder. Always a good combination. The only problem is if you’re a bigger athlete or you’re using heavy sandbags, it can become difficult to effectively hold the bag in the Zercher position. By adding chains or bands, you can use a smaller sized bag but work the legs and back even harder. Plus, any time you use chains and/or bands, you’re using accommodating resistance, and this is always good for athletes (teaches acceleration).

You can use this as an in the weight room hamstring training exercise performed after your main exercise for the day. Go with a 3–5 sets of 4–8 reps.

6. Build huge arms and a powerful grip

Don’t let any of the strict coaches out there fool you. Arm training is almost as important as working the posterior chain when it comes to training for football. No, arm work won’t directly increase performance. But—and this is one huge but—the way a player feels when he puts that uniform on can take a marginal player and turn him into a stud because of the increased confidence. Football players spend tons of money every season on duct tape, pins, glues, and elastic in order to roll their jersey sleeves up as high as possible, thus giving the fans the added bonus of viewing the gun show. There’s not a player in the world who doesn’t care if he has big arms. So rather than fight it, let’s use it to our advantage.

Weights and dumbbells should make up the bulk of your arm training, but if you want to really go from average to extraordinary, you should seriously consider adding sandbags to your arm training. Simply grabbing the bag will activate the biceps and forearms to a much higher degree than weights alone. Many guys neglect forearm and grip training so they can focus more on the biceps. However, if your biceps progress much faster than the forearms, your progress will stall. The body will inhibit your upper arms from going much farther for fear of injury. Plus, we all know there are times when a strong grip will pay off in a game (carrying the ball, holding an opponent, etc).

Sandbag curls

These are an excellent way to work the forearms and biceps hard. Load up a bag and grab it any way you can with palms facing upward or toward each other. Now curl the bag. It won’t be a pure curl like when using a barbell, but that’s part of the point. Your hands and forearms will become extremely sore when doing sandbag curls so don’t go crazy at first. Go with a traditional 3 X 8 to start and add weight slowly. You can also do sandbag reverse curls by grabbing the bag with your palms facing down.


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