Any guy can go into a gym, load a barbell, and cycle through some back squats. Rob Shaul, trainer and founder of Military Athlete and Mountain Tactical Institute in Jackson, Wyoming, could care less about that guy. “Just because I’m strong in the gym doesn’t mean I’m going to be strong outside,” Shaul says. Instead, Shaul preaches functional conditioning to help with anything you’re asked to do, whether you’re a firefighter wrangling a hose or a dad wrangling a bunch of kids. Enter the sandbag.
Awkward to grip, it adds difficulty to movements that are more easily done with fixed weights. When the bag throws you off-kilter, stabilizing muscles in your legs and shoulder start to fire like crazy. Do this workout twice a week until you’re nailing all the sets easily. Then up the sandbag weight by 20 pounds. Your goal should be to move swiftly through the movements without rest.
For each circuit, the first move is with the bag, the second is body weight, and the third is a stretch (instead of a pre-workout stretch). Shaul integrates flexibility moves into the routine. It’s a bit of programming genius. Alternating stretching with strength and cardio work can help you maintain form as you cycle through sets, which could stave off injury. It’s also active recovery—you get a breather, but you’re not just standing around commiserating with your gym buddies. Bonus: When you’re done, you’re done. No post-stretch required.
Perform circuits 1 and 2 six times each, focusing on form. For the third circuit, complete 10 rounds as fast as you can. The whole workout will take 45–60 minutes.
Because of the fluid, uneven nature of sandbags, they’re harder to hold on to compared with dumbbells or barbells. As a result, they can be frustrating, especially for newbies. (Prepare for a few missed cleans and some less-than-swift runs.) That’s OK. “The bag will be awkward to get used to at first,” Shaul says. “Stick with it.” For your first jaunt through this workout, focus on form and skip a set or two if you’re so fatigued your technique is suffering. By week two or three, expect to be flying though the sets and ready to up the weight.
All photographs by José Mandojana