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The Most Popular Sandbag Exercises You Shouldn’t Do!

pelvic control

The past 15 years have been an interesting journey. For one, I never really expected to be teaching DVRT all over the world and to some of the top organizations in the industry. More so, because my desire was rather simple, I just wanted a solution to a problem. How do I get my clients to move and perform better? I think that is a very relatable issue whether you are talking about helping personal training clients or yourself!

sandbag exercises

I’m teaching at the great Perform Better 1-day in San Francisco if you want to come join us and see how much education we put behind our system!

I didn’t have the DVRT system at first, trust me, I tried to find a book that would tell me how to do “sandbag exercises” and while I found a few there was always the same issue. That issue was the book was basically a collection of exercises. For one, there was really only ONE book I could find that was completely dedicated to sandbag exercises (this was back around 2004). Second, there was no purpose to the drills other than “you can do this, you can do that.”

Doing A LOT of homework I would find some “interesting” sandbag exercises, but nothing that really gave me a great purpose. 

In the end, most books or articles I could find about sandbag exercises related to just poor man substitutes for not having a barbell, or just wanting something different to do that day. There was no progression, purpose, or system, it was just exercises. Now, you wouldn’t think that would be an issue, what’s wrong with learning a bunch of cool sandbag exercises?

Initially nothing. You do them a few times, yea, you find them challenging but because there is no purpose you either get bored, frustrated, or just move on to something else. The point is that no matter the tool or exercise we use, the purpose has to be well established to really build value in what we are doing.

I bring that up because sometimes people tag me in an Ultimate Sandbag post and I privately give them a tip on how to do the exercise better. This is occasionally met with “who are you to tell me how to do sandbag exercises!” Well, I’m just a coach and no matter what you are doing or the tool you are using, we should look for the following…

-Why are we doing this specific movement?

-Is it safe to do?

Many of the most successful people in the world use the very system above that seems super simple, but most people who train rarely ask!

Listen, if you just want to do “stuff” that is cool with me. However, if you want results, you probably want to think about the two points above. This is a long way of wanting to discuss of all the sandbag exercises out there, how one of the most popular one is a drill you will probably never see us do.

What is it? It is the sandbag over the shoulder toss. If you haven’t seen it yet, the name really tells you what it is. One lifts a sandbag from the ground and literally tosses it over the shoulder. Why won’t you see us be doing this lift? Are we too “cool” to do it because I don’t talk a lot about it? Well, let’s look at the exercise….

What’s The Purpose Of These Sandbag Exercises?

It really is a simple system I use for myself. When I am thinking about using any exercise, the FIRST thing I do is ask myself, “what is the purpose?” Now, I am looking for something deeper than “to get strong”, “to develop power” etc. Why? Because that doesn’t explain why I would use THIS exercise that I am thinking about. What type of strength am I looking for? Power for what task?

The thought process even goes to who are we talking about and what are their goals? If we don’t ask these questions then we are like a chef that empties all the food in the fridge into a pot and expect it to taste good because celery and chocolate cake are both food right? We want to be more thoughtful so when it comes to sandbag exercises like the over the shoulder toss, what is the purpose, how specific can we get?

In all honesty, I haven’t gotten much of an answer in this regards when I have looked around and asked some coaches. It typically boils down to three things (if you have another reason definitely drop us an email I would love to hear it!)

-It is “functional”. A reason I hear is that people say you need to be able to lift odd objects like gravel and “bags of stuff” to the shoulder. Okay, well, you might, but do you toss it over the shoulder to the other side? Functional doesn’t mean replicating what we do in life in the gym. As I have written about quite a bit, functional has to do with understanding how the body creates movement and then building the functional capacity of the body. So, that doesn’t really sell the drill to me.

-It is for power. Okay, yes, throwing a weight over your shoulder does require some power. However, is it any better or is it even AS good as being more deliberate with good power based exercises that we show in DVRT? Where in our sandbag exercises when we get powerful and use enough weight, we see the great triple extension that is often associated with power? Very often I see more movement through one’s low back than I do the hips. So, okay, you can do it for “power” but do we have better ways of training power?

sandbag exercises

Strength coach, Joel Gunterman shows we get A LOT of triple extension doing our DVRT Ultimate Sandbag exercises well without having to throw anything. 

-It is for sport. Now THIS is the one that I REALLY think it is about. I have a theory (no proof, just theory) that several things that are done in fitness are just a byproduct of misunderstanding how they are used in Crossfit. How do I mean? Let’s take the overhead swing for example. My theory, like I said no proof, is that this swing is really only done for the competition that Crossfit uses.

If you and I were going to compete and see who could complete a workout the fastest, we need to have standards in the lift. Commonly, the kettlebell swing can be done from belt line to chest height (as it is a projection of weight). So, I could swing low and be done faster than you if you swing higher, yet, I am producing potentially less power, but I’m trying to gain a competitive advantage. You see hopefully, that a lift could be manipulated to just get done faster if we don’t have a standard. If we BOTH have to swing a kettlebell to overhead, we have such a standard.

The same I believe also goes for the sandbag over the shoulder toss. Except, I believe the roots started when people were lifting stones over bars. When it didn’t become realistic or enjoyable to have stones in the gym (I can tell you from experience it can be fun, but it leaves some major marks!) there had to be an alternative. What could people come up with IF they wanted to replace getting stones over a bar? Well, if we take a sandbag (that has more versatility and doesn’t hurt to use like a stone) and just make it over one’s shoulder, then we have a new “standard”.

With all that said, if I am right, does that really explain why we don’t do this lift? Well….

I go back to my priority when I train people, “what are we trying to teach your body about better movement?” In that exercise, the task of getting a weight over the shoulder often leads to excessive movement in the lumbar spine. Listen, I like shouldering sandbag exercises quite a bit. However, there is technique, thought, progression, and greater value in learning how to shoulder and lower a weight correctly.

Why? Shouldering itself is a progression of cleans. It is a more advanced clean because the we start lower to the ground to lift the weight AND the weight travels in a diagonal to one side of our body. While it would be easy to just say “these sandbag exercises show how we lift in life” the greater meaning goes like this…

Having an extended range of motion during a lower body pulling exercise increases the intensity on the glutes and hamstrings. The unstable low of the Ultimate Sandbag requires us to create proper tension, alignment, and an understanding of how to use our body properly. If not, the weight won’t go up or the lift will look VERY sloppy. Moving in a diagonal pattern has relevance to the PNF idea of lifts/chops which shows the connection of our hip, core, and opposing side of the upper body. While my explanation of such Ultimate Sandbag exercises may hurt your head a bit versus “cause we do it in life” it should ultimately give you more value and help you understand where it fits in the scheme of overall lifting.

A good shouldering movement looks smooth, almost easy. Compared to one without proper intent looks tiresome, brutal, and honestly, like it hurts (probably because it does)! Plus in shouldering, compared to an over the shoulder toss, we get to work on deceleration which is such a vital component of building resiliency and power.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to police what you are doing, but I do want you to feel like you are doing the BEST exercises for your body and your goals. If nothing else, if you do through the process of asking “why” before you do either our Ultimate Sandbag exercises or any drill, I know your training will get so much better! As a coach, that’s what I want for you, to get results. So, check out my video below on some progressions and how shouldering and some other Ultimate Sandbag exercises could become your new favorites!

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