Sandbag Training and Isometrics – Working Out Without Weights

Photo of author

By David Thoreau

Updated on

fact checked

Working out without weights can be very rewarding in terms of muscle gains. It is full body conditioning. Throw Isometrics into the equation for static muscle tension and you have a full workout regime with a dumbbell or rowing machine in sight!

sandbag training
Sandbag training

First I will talk about sandbag training and then go on to elaborate further on isometrics for full body conditioning.

Training with sandbags can be rewarding for so many reasons, and considering its simplicity relative to other forms of exercise, it’s one of the best ways to train that we can thing of.

Here’s the quick run down of what you’ll need for sandbag training:

  1. A sandbag

…and that’s it.

Hence, the ‘simple’ side of it. Now let’s look at the benefits:

  • Full body conditioning – there’s no area you can’t hit with a bag full of sand
  • Aerobic, Anaerobic and Muscular development/improvement
  • Power and Explosiveness Improvements – where the traditional gym workout might not always give you this, sandbags can – and will
  • Versatility – you can do it anywhere you have room to swing a cat!
  • Time Effective – just half an hour on the sandbag can be an extensive workout; it’s perfect for busy people and new parents
  • Inexpensive – see equipment needed, and no gym memberships (if you don’t want)
  • Supplementary or Complete – you can supplement your existing workout schedule or you can make sandbags your life’s training

The more I think about it, the more I can come up with benefits to sandbag training.

One of the best is from a health perspective for people that don’t normally add much metabolic conditioning to their regular workout.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to do strength sets and move between each one slowly and methodically, but there is not much advantage to your CV system.

Because sandbag training lowers the overall weight being lifted, you can compensate with intensity and stamina.

The results are often unexpected, as you tend to improve your other areas of training in the process.

Buying a sandbag for training

Buying a Sandbag

You don’t have to get one of the expensive military-spec sandbags to get into it, but there are some advantages to getting a decent one.

If nothing else, getting a poor quality one that either breaks or has no hand holds is going to put you off before you get into the real golden period of sandbag training.

It’s true that you don’t know if you are going to like it, but going in half-assed is just another way to not commit.

I do recommend buying a purpose-built training sandbag, but I won’t recommend one particular type.

There are a few manufacturers and you can find something that suits.

However, if you do decide to go the route of duct-taping up a bag of industrial sand then be aware that your range of exercise movements might be limited.

Women and sandbag training
women can also workout using sandbags

Sandbag Weight

The weight you begin with is another decision you will have to make based on your experience and fitness so far.

It is also something that will grow almost organically as you do. Some people have several sandbags for different things but I think that actually removes some of the appeal.

For me, chucking the bag over my shoulder and walking over the road to the little park is great. With that one bag I can do a complete workout, then throw it back over my shoulder and walk home.

If you’ve been working out for a while then you might be able to start with something around 50 to 60 lbs – or – a quarter to a third of your bodyweight.

If you are new to working out then perhaps go with a lighter 30 to 40 lbs. There’s no point in starting too big, you will only impede your own progress.

Exercise Movements

From my own experience, I’ve found that multi-joint movements and ‘power-lifting’ movements elicit the best muscle, metabolic and neurological conditioning results overall.

What that basically means is that I don’t envisage using my sandbag for single isolation exercises like curls.

If you are the type to concentrate a large portion of your workouts to developing large biceps then sandbag training is going to be either a disappointment, or a welcome change.

Sure, you may want to really ‘finish off’ the muscles with a few reps of isolation exercises (rows and military presses are particularly awesome with a sandbag) but the major portion of your workout should have many muscle groups and both upper and lower body engaged.

Examples of sandbag movements include:

  • Powercleans
  • Squat Cleans
  • Jump squats
  • Thrusters
  • SB Burpees

Switched-on people will already realize this but if you’re like me then you need to be told: all these exercises are open to variation, and a lot of them can be bolted together – combo style – to create strings of exercises within a set.

The longer you go the more tired you will be of course but it adds to the sandbag’s versatility.

As you get into the more dynamic movements where you let go of and catch the bag or bounce it from shoulder to shoulder, you’ll start to get the uniqueness of this type of training, and that you simply can’t cover it all in the gym with a barbell.

courtesy of - sandbag training
courtesy of

Set Workouts

I don’t exactly go out there with my SB, mindless of what I’m going to do, but planning it down to the letter just isn’t my style.

The beauty of the sandbag is that, depending on how you are feeling physically, and what sort of mood you are in, you can have two completely different workouts.

Unlike at the gym when it’s probably better to be more structured, even though the availability of equipment sometimes dictates that, the sandbag gives you a lot more freedom.

I found 30 minutes to be a good duration. You can really get a good workout in in half an hour.

In that time, I tend to do as much as I can, while trying to last the duration and no have too much ‘downtime’. It’s a skill in itself to fill that time as well as possible without overdoing it.

With all that in mind, it’s a really good idea to know the moves, as it were, and then combine them into a more fluid workout.

Isometrics Training
Isometrics training

Isometrics Training

During many of the dynamic movements you might make in an average session in the gym, there are several muscles which do not contract/extend but still contribute greatly.

An example of this is the use of the core muscles during a squat movement.

The core is engaged though doesn’t move like the quads and hamstrings do around the leg joints.

Another is the forearm muscles while you perform bicep curls. The bicep contracts and extends but the forearm simply grips with no movement.

This static use of muscle is known as isometric exercise.

Though the instances above are secondary to the main dynamic movements, there are many ways to train with isometrics which can help build your strength levels.

Think of an Olympic gymnast on the rings. See the static holds they are busting out one after another. They can hold there body parallel to the ground with their arms at full span. Think that’s strong? That’s isometrics for you.

Dynamic Movement

Whether using additional weight, or simply your own bodyweight, dynamic exercise involves movement. In the case of upper body work, the elbow joints bend in order to lengthen or contract the muscles under load.

During a bench press exercise the elbows straighten and bend for each complete rep. The triceps contract and extend with the movement.

Isometrics – Static Muscle Tension

This involves static muscle tension.

There is no movement of the joints during an isometric exercise and there are two main ways of employing the technique:

Unweighted Isometrics

The name makes it seem like it would be the easier of the two methods but in fact unweighted isometric exercises can necessitate maximal muscle output. This is because you work against an immovable object such as a wall.

Weighted Isometrics

This is where weights, e.g. dumbbells, barbells or even your own bodyweight are held in a static position.

This should only ever require sub-maximal output as any greater force would remove in a dynamic movement and therefore defeat the object.

Why Add Isometrics To Your Training Program?

You know those guys who are always banging on about stabilizing muscles, balance and core strength?

It so happens that isometric exercise can improve all of these areas as well as your overall strength.

Another plus side is the very low injury risk of the static holds. Also, you will start to notice an increase in strength when performing your regular dynamic lifts.

So to summarize the benefits of isometric training, you can:

  • Improve stability
  • Build secondary balancing muscles
  • Strengthen core muscle group
  • Enhance existing lifting program
  • Minimize risk of injury

Isometric exercises such as the plank or other Yoga like positions are excellent ways to complete a training session when you have exhausted your dynamic lifting strength.

Some Examples of Isometrics

The plank position has already been mentioned and in truth, it is one of the best exercises for developing a strong and balanced core group.

Other examples include:

Benchpress - Isometrics
Benchpress – Isometrics

Benchpress – Isometrics

You rarely see someone doing this in the gym but it’s worth doing.

You can even do it at the end of a normal set, though you might have done that to failure and be a little weak.

Try lowering the bar to about 6 inches above your chest and holding it still.

The length of time you can do this will be dependent on the weight and your experience but it’s certainly something you can measure week after week for progress.

Make sure you have someone at hand to help if you plan on taking it to the exhaustion level as you won’t be able to send the bar back up!

Otherwise, you can try 5 or 10 second holds on your own; or any length of time after which you are sure you can raise the bar again.

Shoulder Raise

The shoulders are an area that people underwork anyway.

Back in the day, the main press exercise was the military press, not the bench press.

This is because the shoulders are much more useful than chest muscles. Still, a muscular chest looks good. Even better with round 3D shoulders.

Dynamic shoulder raises are a good exercise because after you have finished your military press (vertical above head shoulder press) then you can ‘finish’ them off with some lighter weight and different movement.

Front raises and side raises are where you keep you arm straight (perhaps a bit of kink at the elbow) and literally raise your arm with the weight in it using your shoulder.

This exercise is often overlooked but your core muscles will love you for it.

Next time you do a dumbbell raise, try to feel all the muscles that are actually engaged throughout your body. It’s incredible.

Now, do this as an isometric and you can send your strength through the roof. I find it’s better with one side at a time as it makes the core have to work harder to compensate for the balance. Raise the weight and keep it there, 90 degrees from the body.

These ones you really can push to the maximum until those shoulders can take no more.

In Summary

So hopefully now you get the idea of isometric exercises, if you didn’t already. Try experimenting with what works, and stick at it.

Like everything else it takes some work to start seeing the results of your labours but it’s well worth it.

The strength you build is that solid, stable type that some of the strongest athletes in the world demonstrate in events like the olympic rings.

When those guys hold a static plank in mid-air, you don’t see their legs shake one bit from the effort.

Photo of author

about the author

David Thoreau is a Biotechnologist with a background in life sciences. He has worked for many years on research projects that have helped people improve their quality of life. David has enjoyed collaborating with other scientists around the world, and he loves sharing his knowledge to help educate others about biotechnology.