Sandbag Carries: The Secret To Untapped Strength?
14/12/2021 | Andrew Tracey
Andrew Tracey is a long time collaborator with Bulldog Gear. A coach, writer and current fitness editor of Men’s Health Magazine, he has been in and around the fitness industry for the past 16 years. Having enjoyed and endured a number of disciplines from endurance racing, to strongman, to Crossfit AT enjoys getting neck deep in the practice just as much as the theory.
It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of the strongman sandbag here at Bulldog. Representing unparalleled value for money, versatility and the type of carryover into real world tasks that truly earns them the moniker of ‘functional’, we believe they have a place in every trainees toolbox.
Our friend Dr. Ed Caddye, movement specialist and leader in the field of health optimisation, gives us a few more reasons you should consider trading steel for sand.
It seems ridiculous to think that I could write so much about a simple sandbag. It is, quite literally, just a bag of sand. So how do we get from a bag of sand to evolutionary medicine? What even is that? And how can we harness primordial concepts and apply them in a way to optimise our pursuit of strength, fitness, and a fulfilling life?
Is the sandbag missing from your training? How do you know? I think the best way to prove a point in most cases is through experience. So go and find your 1RM clean and jerk with a barbell, and then try and match it with a sandbag. Not keen on olympic lifting? Try a deadlift and a squat. Let me know how that goes. By the way, the sandbag needs to start on the floor. In fact, try any exercise with a sandbag and see how it compares to the barbell...
Why is there such a difference in the way that it feels? And why does the answer open up 100% more capacity in your training that you might be missing or overlooking?
In my practice I look at imbalances, deficiencies and weaknesses that might be holding an individual back from optimal health and performance. I look at three connected elements: the nervous system, musculature and behaviour (and sometimes cells, but that’s another post!). By addressing these things we can improve not just strength but emotional regulation, resilience and our reaction to stress.
So why do I love the sandbag?
Compared to a barbell, where the load is held outside of the centre of gravity (either end of the bar), the load of the sandbag is held between the hands. This requires force, or tension, to be created towards the midline. You have to squeeze that bag hard! This is known as generating internal torque. In contrast, the barbell would tend to promote the generation of external torque at the hands which translates to the rest of the body - promoting explosive movements away from the midline.
So, can you generate internal torque with a barbell? Yes.
Can you generate external torque with a sandbag? Yes.
Does it require less (almost no) skill to generate the correct torque with a sandbag compared to a barbell? Yes. And that’s why I like it.
Why is this important? Well, humans mostly evolved to load, carry and hold items between their hands (there weren’t many barbells around in nature). So in order for the human body to function optimally in the modern day based on their evolutionary path (this being an evolutionary medicine principle) there is likely to be a requirement to balance any external torque work with internal torque work.
Simply? More sandbag work to balance barbell work.
These two types of tension require two different sets of muscles. Without going deeply into that with this article - it’s important to train both sets, particularly as the internal torque muscles provide structural integrity to the body. A lot of the time, particularly in cases of back pain, I see a lack thereof connection to these muscles.
In terms of practical application and benchmarking I can leave you with some constraints that might help you find your own weaknesses to work on:
1. Bearhug carry 50% of your deadlift 1RM for 50 metres.
2. Bearhug carry your own bodyweight for 100 metres. I’m enjoying playing with the 85 kg strongman sandbag in this regard at the moment.
To get better at these? For the next month, or whenever you get your hands on a sandbag, go for a 400m walk and learn to breathe whilst not feeling your lower back or neck. These internal torque muscles respond well to time under tension - get back to your caveman (or woman) roots! Because some people have neglected this work for a long time, they might find that over time their recovery speeds up, their aches and pains improve, and their anxiety towards certain lifts reduces. These two sets of muscles link very specifically to the nervous system, and that means we can influence how we think and feel just by using certain muscles in a specific way. Perhaps a topic for future articles.
In the meantime… Go hug and carry!
You can find out more about Dr Ed's work and training here
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The barbell is the quintessential tool of weight training- perhaps only superseded by the humble dumbbell- but unlike the dumbbell there are a lot of options when it comes to picking the right bar. Let us run you through some of our offerings, so you can make the right decision for your needs.