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Building Better Functional Training Workouts

sandbag training

Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Creator DVRT Restoration Certification, Knees Over Toes Course, DVRT Rx Shoulder, Knees, Pelvic Control, Gait Courses, & Better Backs, Knees, & Shoulders Programs)

sandbag workouts

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together to create really effective workouts is probably the biggest challenge for people. I can’t tell you how many disappointed lifters and coaches have come to me that they work really hard in their workouts, but aren’t getting the results they want. Sure, lifestyle has a big influence, but so does how we put together our workouts in the first place. Just because you sweat a lot doesn’t mean you are creating an effective training program. Fortunately, our Dynamic Variable Resistance Training system (DVRT) provides us the outline to change workouts from a “shock to the system” form of training to something far more beneficial and comprehensive.

I wanted to use this blog to help people better understand how to piece together these concepts to construct highly effective functional workouts. The goal of DVRT is to increase strength, stability, power, and mobility all in an order to create greater movement efficiency. While “functional” training tends to be a debated term, we can all agree that the desired end result is to increase the efficiency in which people move in both sport and daily life.

functional training
The success of any program lies in knowing where to start and how to progress the different training variables. Since DVRT expands the options of functional training workouts, we must know how to manage them. It is worth  noting that there is a difference between teaching and programming different functional training exercises. When we teach the various progressions in the system, we teach less complex drills first and then layer complexity through speed, load, body position, plane of motion, holding position, and/or stability  (details will be discussed later).

The reason we teach from foundational to complex is to make sure the individual engrains good movement patterns. After all, each exercise is simply made up of various movement patterns – each one needing to be performed safely and proficiently. If the stress added by any form of complexity compromises the desired movement, it is considered too intense for the program at the time.

hiit workouts
Programming, on the other hand, requires us to place the most neurologically demanding exercises toward the beginning of the workout. I want to clearly differentiate between “neurologically demanding” and “heaviest load.” For many years, strength programs have seen exercises such as bench press, squats, and deadlifts emphasized over lunges, step-ups, multi-planar movements, etc. These movements had long been emphasized because these types of movements typically allow us to use the greatest loads.

Unfortunately, high/heavy load does not automatically relate to the most neurologically demanding. If we look at a squat versus a lunge pattern, we can see that the squat gives us a very stable body position and with the load often performed on the back, we have a very stable holding position of load. Even if we load the lunge on the back, we have horizontal as well as vertical forces being produced by the movement, along with the need to resist frontal and transverse plane actions. It is rather obvious that a lunge is more complex than a squat and, therefore, should actually be considered to be performed first in a training session. Additionally, this concept is similar for upper body dominant exercises.

sandbag lunges
Once we understand the priority of movement we can start looking at the movements themselves. In DVRT we look at movement patterns that are natural to the body. After all, as you can see above the heaviest weight doesn’t necessarily mean the exercise that stresses the body the most.

While this may not appear dramatically different from many popular functional fitness programs, we do have to acknowledge that most sandbag workouts involve multiple movement patterns at once.

For example, an Arc Press is a combination of vertical pushing AND pulling, anti-rotation, anti flexion/extension. A Sprinter Clean involves a hip hinge, anti-flexion/extension, anti-rotation, and horizontal pulling (deceleration of the load coming downwards is partly done by the braking of the upper back).

Therefore, we don’t need to go down the line and train movement patterns separately. This allows us to actually keep most sandbag workouts to approximately 4-6 exercises. That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider how the body is taxed both from a muscular and neurological perspective, such DVRT programs are incredibly demanding.

Understanding how we see movement allows us to then look at the organization of the exercises and determine the progression of each movement. Much of determining the proper progression of DVRT exercise relates to the individual’s fitness level, needs, and goals. The good part is that with the same load, we have the potential of training three different levels of ability, simply by changing some of the other DVRT principles. Below are two examples:

functional training workouts

Based upon the two examples above, you can see how we emphasized either body position or holding position of the load to increase intensity. This is helpful from a variety of perspectives:


Our philosophy in DVRT is that strength is not just measured by the load one can lift, but also by the load one can resist! Therefore, we still regard load as a factor in challenging movement, but we add in the different positional work to challenge the ability to produce force in different environments. This allows us to develop strength, stability, and movement integration all at once – in essence, building a more well-rounded form of functional strength.


With the fitness industry moving more and more toward group-based training, the challenge becomes meeting the specific needs of the individuals in such environments. Instead of focusing solely on load or volume, we can use these other strategies (e.g., holding and body position) to quickly and seamlessly provide customization in group-based training.


The thing almost no coach, no matter how resourceful, can replace is space! Using these concepts we can maximize our training space because multiple pieces of equipment are not required for the different fitness levels. Additionally, allowing the coach to address the wide variety of clients without needing an excessive amount of equipment could allow his or her business to be more financially viable without compromising the quality of work being performed.


Probably the most common question asked when it comes to using tools other than a barbell is, “How much weight do I use?” Obviously load is an important part of the equation. However, when we think about it, really only barbells and machines can be incrementally loaded. Most other tools (such as dumbbells and kettlebells) simply have more of these implements to allow for altering of load; while implements such as bands, suspension units, and even body weight training use other mediums to increase perceived load.

Having numerous Ultimate Sandbags is not really necessary. In fact, after ten years of working with so many different types of populations we have found loads and dimensions that cover most of the aspects of training.
Thanks to DVRT Instructors, Steve Di Tomaso and Kari Negraiff, who own Envision Fitness in Maple Ridge, BC, we have come up with a simplified means of looking at load.

It is a “stoplight” system in which green reflects the lighter (beginner) loads, yellow the intermediate, and red the most advanced. Since it is almost impossible to tell the load of an Ultimate Sandbag by just looking at it, having a small strip of colored electrical tape around the handle makes it easier to communicate to both trainer and client. Due to the fact we have both dimension and load to DVRT, this fixes the challenges of quickly communicating to other coaches and clients. Instead of saying, “Grab the 60 pound sandbag” and simply saying, “Please grab the yellow Strength” makes it easier for everyone.

Below I have chosen the four main sizes though we actually have 6 sizes available.

sandbag training

You may ask what do the terms “core,” “power,” “strength,” and “burly” refer to? These are standard dimensions of Ultimate Sandbags. Just as lifting 4 foot, 5 foot, and 7 foot barbells would create a different outcome, so does using sandbags of different dimensions.

You will see there are a multitude of other ways to challenge the intensity or add progression to your workouts.


Traditionally, we have seen workout programs favor the most heavily loaded exercises as the first exercises in a program. In reality, we should be favoring and implementing the most neurologically demanding exercises first, as those require the most demand from the central nervous system. When both muscular and neurological fatigue accumulate, the drills with a higher neurological demand often become exponentially harder to perform; while the drills with a greater emphasis on load are still very possible to perform at a high level due to their more stable nature.

Let’s look at the variables that should determine order of exercise:


Lunging should be programmed prior to Squatting,
Sprinter Stance prior to Bilateral Stance,
Half-Kneeling before Tall-Kneeling, etc.

Shoulder position should come prior to Front Load, while Front Loaded comes prior to Bear Hug.

Transverse plane should be implemented first,
Frontal plane movements second, and
Sagittal dominant movements last.

High velocity movements should come prior to more tension-oriented exercises.
There may be other considerations, but the above guidelines are a great starting point.

When putting a training program together, we can start with a general outline and simply fill in the blanks.
The letters below refer to exercises that should be grouped together.

Since fatigue can be somewhat region specific, by alternating between movement patterns that typically have an upper or lower body dominant region, it makes it possible to build work capacity while keeping the quality of work to a high degree.

This is A LOT of information for people so let me show you how you can put it into practice. On part 2 we will keep discussing how we create better functional training workout programs, but for now check out some great examples.

Save 25% off Ultimate Sandbags and get our recovery and mobility workout bundle for FREE! Just use code “recovery” HERE and all throughout DVRT courses/workouts