Fads or trends? Cynics or innovators? Fitness for MMA

Fads or trends? Cynics or innovators? It can definitely be difficult to distinguish at times. Especially true when you consider the constant bombardment of marketing and information that comes through the fitness and performance industry. Possibly no implement and training system has come under more debate than sandbag training.

It seems to be a polarizing discussion whether or not sandbag training is a valid form of fitness and performance. Even though sandbag training has possibly the longest history of any form of strength training (being traced back to Egyptian times), it still has a tendency to be looked up as a fad or an outdated form of training.

Trust me, just because something is old does not make it good or valid. We have to question if sandbag training does have such a long history why has it never seemed to be a staple of fitness programs over the centuries and especially now why is it necessary, especially for combative sports?

Having been a strength coach for over 15 years I constantly find myself trying to write better programs and develop better solutions for my clients. I was so intrigued by sandbag training because first and foremost it wasn’t “like something else”. Sandbag training itself is very unique from the movement of the weight itself to the drills that could be created. I was also intrigued by the possibilities of sandbag training after reading John Jesse’s landmark book, Encyclopedia of Wrestling Conditioning, where he didn’t just show your standard cleans and squats. No Mr. Jesse was far more innovative and opened my mind to the true functionality and possible benefits of sandbag training.

“The use of heavy sandbags and their large circumference forces the lifter to do his lifting with a round back instead of the traditional straight back lifting with a barbell. It is this type of lifting that truly develops a strong back. It develops the back and side muscles in movements that are identical to the lifting and pulling movements of wrestling.”

These comments didn’t make me want to jump into just doing “rounded back” lifting, but that we could make sandbag training so much more. With our homemade sandbags we could do some good things, but it wasn’t long till I started to find out why sandbag training never really caught on. Besides the obvious of being messy, homemade sandbags lacked true versatility, progression, and lacked the ability to address some key variables that are specific to sandbag training such as controlling the role of dimension. Any GOOD training implement must possess these abilities.

Once we address these issues we can then create training programs that truly address the needs of the combative athlete. For example, most coaches will perform sandbag training exercises such as cleans and shouldering for “power”. While these exercises are great for developing general qualities they lack the recognition that most combative athletes generate power from compromised stances or postures. Sandbag training allows us to transform standard weight room exercises like cleans and shouldering into more specific movements by integrating staggered stance, rotational, and combination movements that train the combative athlete in more functional positions.
Sandbag training allows us to move in new positions and postures, but also allows us to learn how to resist movement as well. In the last few years Strength Coaches have talked a great deal about the ability to resist movements in order to perform at high levels. This is due to the fact that many muscles have a dual purpose in supporting joints by resisting forces imposed by the body and/or opponent. For example the rectus abdominis is typically trained to perform trunk flexion. Yet, this muscle may more important resist trunk extension and help protect the spine.

How does sandbag training accomplish this goal? We can first manipulate holding positions of the sandbag. With most training implements, there are up to four ways to hold a weight to change the perceived weight and stability. In Ultimate Sandbag™ Training we have up to TWELVE options to change stability and perceived load by altering holding positions. If we look at squatting patterns we can use a Zercher squat (which challenges anti-flexion similar to a front plank position) or move to a Shoulder squat which far more greatly challenges the lateral stability system of the body that is crucial for dealing with the unpredictability of combative sports.

When you combine changing the holding position as well as body position you can create some very powerful drills. One of the favorite drills in our Ultimate Sandbag™ system is the Rotational Lunge. Instead of just having the lunge be a dominant Sagittal plane exercise we can create a multi-planar exercise that will address all the needs of the combative athlete from strength, stability, power, to endurance! While the athlete lunge backwards (which is a single leg pulling motion) and will rotate the sandbag from side to side during the lunging motion. So while the athlete is moving in the Sagittal plane the sandbag is moving in frontal and transverse planes.

When you start seeing a system of training with sandbags they become not an optional training tool, but a necessary training tool for great results.

Josh Henkin, CSCS is a faculty member of the MMA Conditioning Association and is the Creator of the Ultimate Sandbag™ Training System. His Ultimate Sandbag™ System has become a highly sought after program in the realm of functional fitness by having Coach Henkin present to over ten countries and numerous US National Conferences. Coach Henkin has worked with SWAT Teams, US Army Special Forces Recruiting Battalion, Professional Athletes, and many fitness enthusiasts. Find out more at www.DVRTFitness.com

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