4 Awesome Sandbag Exercises for Grapplers

 

sandbag exercises

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The sandbag is a wonderful tool I’ve written about countless times before.

When I’m coaching, I’m constantly looking for patterns and trends that bring about the greatest successes.

When it comes to the sandbag and grapplers, there are a few big movements that very effectively cover basic movement patterns and have a remarkable effect on grappling specific strength, fitness and toughness.

Here, I have what I’ve found to be the best tetrad (a fancy way of saying “four” I’ve wanted to use for some time…) of sandbag exercises for the grapplers.

Bearhug / Zercher Squat

When it comes to strengthening any athlete, in any sport, squats are a must.

In our sport though, the grappling arts are incredibly tough on the body, especially to the spine.

Barbell back squats for me are generally off the table. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part, they’re not essential. During any given time on the mats, the neck and the lower back are susceptible to injury. The role of strength work is to keep the athlete injury free, safe and healthy. Therefore, using appropriate exercises is a must.

The sandbag offers up a couple of squatting variations that don’t load the spine, but also have the capacity to strengthen and improve mobility, health and performance.

They come in two parts, the bear hug squat and the Zercher squat.

Both variations, because of the front placement of the weight, force the athlete into a cleaner squatting pattern. We’ve all seen the back squat turned into a half squat, half good morning…

Sandbag exercises may be looked down upon in the mainstream fitness world, but for grapplers and MMA guys, there are incredible benefits to using them. The front placement forces the core to work harder to stabilize and the way in which you have to grip the bag works the grips, the lats and the upper back hard – three very essential places that require strength in the grappling arts.

Finally, the sandbag squats are self-limiting in nature. A back squat gone awry can result in an athlete getting crushed and potentially badly hurt. The front loaded sandbag squats end with a dropped sandbag. This is great from a safety standpoint for those who train solo, or for those coaches who have a full room of athletes to strengthen, but can’t watch and spot each individual.

So, with strong squatting mechanics, upper back, lat, grip and core work and a safer squat than the often prescribed barbell squat (a symptom of a very powerlifting focused industry – but, I digress) it makes sense to utilize the sandbag variations.

The squat mechanics are the same for both the bear hug and the Zercher squat, the difference is simply the placement of the bag. The bear hug sees you holding the bag vertically, tight to your chest with arms wrapped tightly around. The Zercher squat sees the bag held horizontally, across the crooks of the elbows.

The squat is then sitting back and down, between the legs and onto the heels.

Some things to look out for:

  • Your knees should stay in line with your toes during the movement.
  • Likewise, your knees must point the same way as the toes throughout – do no let them drop inwards at any point.
  • Keep the weight across the entire foot, driving through the heels and your shins vertical.
  • Your back must stay neutral throughout. No rounding at the top, or allowing the tailbone to tuck excessively under at the bottom.
  • Keep a big, proud chest throughout the movement, especially in the bottom.
  • During the ascent, make sure the hips and the shoulders rise as one.

Shouldering

Spend any time on the mats and there really is no denying just how important strong and explosive hips are. Stand-up, take-downs, throws, bridging, shrimping, hip escapes, transitions, passes and submissions all require the hips to get moving.

When it comes to sandbag exercises, shouldering is the key to developing athletic, strong and powerful hips.

Shouldering is one of the best movements I’ve found for MMA fighters and grapplers. It’s something that no other tool can replicate.

The movement is ballistic, it’s powerful, and a phenomenal expression of strength.

The movement is a technical one. One that needs to be approached like any other technical lift – with respect, time and treated as a skill.

I wrote a full breakdown of shouldering a sandbag for the guys over at TigerFitness so I’ll link you guys there for a read.

Get-up

Ahh the sandbag get-up, the bastard sibling of the Turkish get-up…

There really aren’t too many sandbag exercises, really, any exercises that are like this. The feeling is so similar to that of grappling, it astounds me that so many grapplers miss out on it.

It’s a movement that will strengthen the frame, strengthen the mind, loosen up the joints and send conditioning levels through the roof – Honestly it’s one of the best movements for grapplers out there.

Like being on the mats, this exercise is not limited by a singular body part. It drains the body as one. Forces the body to move as one. Forces the athlete to dig deep mentally and physically and just keep on going – much like grappling for rounds.

It’s a movement that’s the epitome of savage simplicity. No tricks, no cons, no smoke and mirrors. It’s a movement that can be done essentially anywhere and will make you better on the mats – you just have to put in the work.

I’ve written about the technical steps to the get-up before in a post on Savage Simplicity, Here’s a concise how to on the sandbag get-up.

One of my favourite get-up workouts is from the great guys over at Fight Camp Conditioning titled Workout in the Park – Do check it out!

The brain is a funny thing. It's practical, its pragmatic and reasonable. It functions at a pace technology can only dream of, yet, it has its flaws. It can be lazy, succumb to lethargy and opt for the easy route in decision making. . The body runs differently. It has little will of its own. It's governed by the brains commands. . It's simply a carcass comprised of blood, flesh and bone. . It'll do truly outstanding things though. It'll keep pushing. It'll never stop. It'll be the driving force of your success. . The caveat – it's only as powerful as the mind commands it to be. . For that very reason, mental toughness plays a huge role in my training and coaching. . The sandbag get-up is the bastard sibling of the Kettlebell get-up. . While the Kettlebell version is slow, purposeful and comprised of movement mastery and grace, the sandbag version is smothering, crushing – almost suffocating. . It's a full body conditioner and a mind fucker. . It's about constant movement. Fighting. Grinding. Enduring. . It's about telling the little voice in your head to just shut the fuck up and get out of the way. . It's in this place metal toughness is forged.

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Carries

Carries are somewhat of a pet “lift” of mine – Ever since I first read about them from Dan John in Never Let Go.

All of my athletes have felt the grind of a good carry during every single workout I’ve put them through over the last few years and have seen far too many great things come from them.

Too many of us, find ourselves overthinking. There’s endless analysis over training and as a result, failure to get any notable results – Carries are really as simple as they seem, yet the results are truly profound.

In terms of grapplers, carries offer an incredible bang for your buck – Core strength, grip strength, improved posture, and isometric strength across the upper body, the ability to correct imbalances in the body and my favourite part, the mental toughness they develop.

When it comes to training carries, it’s honestly as simple as pick something heavy up and walk with it. The something can be whatever you want – dumbbells, kettlebells, trap bar, weight plates, a wheelbarrow and here, what I feel works best for grapplers, the sandbag.

The progressions are simple too. Carry it for a longer distance, for a longer time, carry it quicker, carry it purposefully slower, carry something heavier or carry it in different positions or holds.

I’ve been laid back describing carries, so here are universal truths to all of them regardless of the implement or goal.

  • Stand tall. Really, as tall as you can. Envision you’re being pulled upwards from a piece of string attached to the top of your head – Stand that tall.
  • Shoulders back and down. You don’t want to be enforcing that rounded caveman, desk sitting posture during the carry, Think “shoulders in the back pockets” through the carry. Doing so will engage the lats and promote solid posture.
  • Eyes forward. The gaze should be forward, not down at your feet. Again, doing so will prevent rounding of the neck and promote solid posture.
  • Stomach braced. The stomach must be on during the carry. Failure to do so will put undue stresses on the lower back – something grapplers don’t need any more of. Remember – “brace the stomach to take a punch”
  • Finally, keep the strides natural, or at least as natural as possible. No drunk swaying, no toddling, no pseudo running. Stand tall and walk with a purposeful Terminator stride.

Viking Sandbag Workout for Grapplers

Give this workout a go….

– Carry a sandbag for one mile.
– During the walk, intermittently complete the following:
– Clean and Press x 25
– Zercher Squat x 25
– Shouldering x 20 (10 each side)

The aim is to keep moving, really only stopping to complete some reps and then move on again.

Immerse yourself in the process. Experience the burning lungs, heavy limbs and beating heart that it delivers.

Get yourself outside, away from the confined walls of man-made environments, stale recycled air and contrived masses.

Embrace the madness and ignite your own warrior fire.

I’ll be posting more workouts on my YouTube channel over the  coming weeks, so do subscribe so you don’t miss out.

Closing Thoughts on Sandbag Exercises for Grapplers

I’m a fairly simple creature and it comes through in my coaching. I’m always looking to strip things back as much as physically possible and then get the best results I can.

I have a simple ethic I try to live by that is – If you don’t like it, then change it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it – If it is broken, then fix the damn thing. If it’s holding you back, then cut ties with it and if it makes you better, then run with it.

The sandbag exercises above check all the boxes for me.

It’s simplistic, tough and brutal. There’s no room for excuses. The sandbag can be used anywhere and with the four movements outlined above, you’ll build a strong frame, a toughness and a resilience along with strength and elite conditioning.

As always, any question, queries, or coaching needs, shoot me an email.

Train hard all.

Phil.

Ps. If you’d like to see any more sandbag exercises I use frequently with myself and my fighters, just let me know!

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