Welcome to the DIY corner everyone. This is the first of many blog posts covering some cheap but hugely effective training gear that you can make and use at home.
Ever since lockdown started last year, gym equipment has become as scarce as rocking horse manure and the prices have rocketed. If you didn’t get your order in early you were more than likely out of luck to get your equipment needs met. Even finding secondhand equipment felt akin to seeking the Holy Grail.
So what can we do to slow the weakening and softening of our lockdown bodies? How do we train when we have no access to equipment?
As always when pondering one of life’s conundrums, I turn to one of my sage-like mentors for inspiration; Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Chuck Norris, Mr T, and Rocky. I ask myself “What would Rocky do?” And the answer returns to me with the crystal clarity of divine inspiration. Make do with what you have around you. And grow your beard.
Locked down in a rustic cabin in rural Russia, with no training gear and facing the imminent fight with the steroid-riddled, leotard-clad, Ivan Drago, Rocky steps up and makes do with what he has to hand. Behold the DIY gym.
And just like this, you too can MacGyver your way to health greatness with some simple DIY training equipment.
In today’s post we are going to look at the sandbag. Here are some I made earlier.
The sandbag, is a great piece of equipment that has been used throughout history to great effect. But what is it?
It is basically a tough bag filled with sand (or other filling material) that we can lift, push, press, carry, pull, drag, throw, drop, and sit on in a state of smug exhaustion. It is in it’s simplicity that it’s genius lies. Essentially, it is just another form of weighted resistance used for creating strength, like a barbell, dumbell or kettlebell. But it’s true beauty lies in it’s awkwardness.
We now can’t look on the interweb without seeing someone harping on about ‘Functional Fitness’, fitness that relates to the real world. In reality all fitness is functional if it makes you a healthier, stronger, more robust human being. But in the real world, when we need to lift something heavy it almost never has handy 28mm handles like that of a barbell, or lies in a position that we can straddle to lift with perfect form.
Enter the Sandbag
The sandbag is odd. It’s an odd shape. It moves in odd ways. You have to get into odd positions to manoeuvre it. My sandbag has an odd smell. And again, like my mother told me, oddness makes it special.
- Improves grip strength – The type of sandbag we are going to make has no handles, so to grip it requires us to just grab hold and squeeze. This engages the muscles of the entire arm giving you a handshake to make a blacksmith wince. Grip strength has been directly correlated to longevity.
- Increased core activation – When we hold a barbell at shoulder height, the front racked position, the weight lies relatively close to our centre line allowing us to drive our hips beneath it. With the sandbag, the bulk and awkwardness takes this weight much further away from our centre line creating an increased torque and leverage on the body, making the core work much harder than it would with the equivalent weight of barbell etc.
- Improves stabilisation muscles. – When you lift or press a sandbag it almost feels like it has come alive. As you grab the bag the filling shifts making every repetition feel subtly different from the last. This is known as dynamic resistance, and this ever-changing stimulus requires all of your little stabilising muscles to work overtime, creating a far more resilient human being.
- Joint health – Because of it’s awkwardness and mercurial nature the bag feels far heavier than it is and is therefore producing results at a lower weight than many other implements. This means that our joints are benefiting from less force going through them at the same time that those stabilising muscles around the joints are being strengthened.
- Problem solving – Did I mention that sandbags are really awkward yet? This creates the opportunity for our body and mind to solve the problem of how to lift the damn thing.
- Loaded carries – I love a loaded carry, essentially picking something up and moving with it. In the real world, if you need to lift something up you nearly always need to move it somewhere else. Sandbags are excellent for training this.
- Variety of loading – The amount of ways to pick up, carry and move a sandbag are near infinite, keeping training interesting and constantly challenging the body.
- Mental fortitude – Training is as tough as you want it to be, and if you want it tough, the sandbag definitely delivers. I’ve seen many a seasoned athlete cowering in the corner of the gym, like a whippet on a winter’s day, after a sandbag session.
- Real world carry-over – If you need to move odd objects in life, train with odd objects. Great for parents of toddlers and owners of errant dogs.
- Trains all 3 planes of motion.
- Bad-ass – Anyone who doesn’t think it’s cool when someone is throwing around a sandbag in Herculean splendour needs their head examined.
Convinced yet? Good.
There are many good sandbags available to buy, but most are like the first one in the picture above; they have handles. This can add some versatility to the bag but it lacks that awkwardness that I believe makes sandbags great. For this reason I prefer the strongman style bag; a basic sack filled with something to make it heavy.
Some kind of bag. – I prefer a classic military kit bag, strong canvas and cheap to buy. But it could be anything; a feed bag, hessian sacks, an old rucksack, a canvas tool bag. £10-15
The fill. – Despite the name I generally don’t recommend using sand for your first sandbag. It’s very dense and heavy and if you don’t make it just right it spills all over your floor. Other options are rubber mulch, pea gravel and, my favourite, wood pellets. I like wood pellets because they are cheap and bulky but not too heavy. But for a good heavy bag or one that is adjustable, like the one we are going to make, sand is your go-to fill. £5-?? depends on what you use and how much.
Inner bag. – Don’t just fill the kit bag with sand, it will leak all over the place. Using some kind of liner bag will hugely help. I use at least 2. I use a heavy duty contractor/rubble sack or two, followed by a woven ‘feed’ bag for extra durability. £1.50
Cable ties. – Heavy duty zip ties for sealing up the rubble sack and the feed bags. £0.50
Gaffa tape. – If you are making an adjustable bag you will use this to wrap up the bundled fill into a tight weighted ‘pill’. From £2.50
Ratchet strap. – I use this to tie up the kit bag nice and tight. £2
If you are making a loose fill sandbag you can just fill your inner bags with fill to the required weight by sticking a bucket on your bathroom scales and loading it up to the desired load. Cable tie the tops of the liner bags, leaving plenty of space for the fill to move around. Load up your kit bag and ratchet strap the top. Pick it up and down until you cry. Bask in the glory of your bad-assedness.
If you want an adjustable bag you can go the ‘pill’ route. Once you’ve filled and cable tied your innerbags (I go for 10kg per bag but 5kg is a handy size) it’s time to get the gaffa tape out.
Basically, you just tape the whole bundle until it is completely covered, forming it into the ‘pill’. These are great. They don’t shift about like loose fill bags, but there will be movement between each pill. They are also perfect for loading up a rucksack for a weighted hike or as an alternative to a weight vest.
Once you have the required number of weight pills in whatever weight increments you have chosen, you simply load them into your kit bag, ratchet up the top and tie up the loose end.
You now have either a loose fill or an adjustable sandbag to forge yourself into an anti-fragile demi-god of sweat.
There are a huge array of online resources out there to help you on your merry way. I quite like Elliot Hulse’s Sandbag Density Training , DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training, and the Onnit Academy sandbag workouts.
Below is one of my favourite sandbag workouts, my take of the MMA legend, Randy Courture’s ‘Grapplers Complex’. Normally performed with a barbell, this works brilliantly with a sandbag. Start light!
So like Hercules, Atlas, and Milo of Croton, go pick up some awkward heavy stuff so that when the shit gets real you can rise like a hero of old to meet it.
Stay tuned for my DIY kit demo coming soon.