Strength-based workouts have often been associated with equipment like barbells and dumbbells… but with the rise of functional training (and the benefits this brings), there’s a new piece of equipment vying for your attention… the sandbag.
But is a sandbag actually better than using a barbell?
This comparison outlines the benefits of both barbells and sandbags and provides recommendations on when you should use each piece of gym equipment, based on common fitness goals.
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Sandbags would fall under the category of “functional” fitness equipment. They are usually cylindrical shaped bags that weigh anywhere between 10lbs and 100lbs.
The bags include handles that allow you to hold, throw, and grapple with the resistance, helping to enhance all sorts of workouts.
Unlike equipment like barbells or gym machines, sandbags are unstable due to the fact the sand can shift and move around inside. This makes for more “functional” workouts, as your body and muscles have to adapt to this characteristic.
The benefits of sandbags for strength workouts is that they open the door to so many functional movements. They allow you to get creative with your workouts and move your body in different ways to normal gym workouts.
They are also very versatile and a great option for working out at home, if you don’t have space (or can’t afford) to stock your home with lots of barbell plates.
Sandbags tend to lend themselves very well to HIIT and circuit training, which are often big on burning calories, so if your goal is weight loss and keeping fit, then that’s something to consider.
One specific benefit of sandbags over barbells is that they can also be dragged… which again, allows you to get creative with your workouts and challenge your muscles in new and exciting ways. Dragging a sandbag, either like you would a sled drag or a bear crawl, are two interesting ways to build functional strength than barbells don’t really allow you to do.
Sandbags workouts will also test and challenge your grip more than traditional barbell workouts do. This is similar to the benefits of the Bulgarian bag (which is similar in design to a sandbag).
Sandbags don’t lend themselves very well for progressive overload training, 1 rep max workouts and those looking to prioritize hypertrophy. The awkwardness of the shape and weight distribution means you couldn’t approach your training like you could with a barbell.
You would also need different weight sandbags during your workout. For example, for sandbag deadlifts, you would likely be able to lift much heavier than if you were doing a sandbag shoulder press. This creates difficult decisions about what weight bag to get.
The uneven weight distribution of sandbags also means you need to be careful if you’re lifting a heavy sandbag as you don’t necessarily know how the weight will distribute during the lift (which could lead to injury if you’re on the upper end of your strength limit).
When To Use
Ultimately, sandbags lend themselves much better to functional, HIIT and circuit training, than traditional weightlifting style workouts.
Sandbags are often used in military drills, and that is perhaps a good way of thinking about the equipment. It will help build functional strength, and also deliver an incredible conditioning workout at the same time.
If you’re short on time and want an effective way to keep it, sandbags are definitely worth considering.
Barbells are one of the most popular and iconic pieces of strength equipment. Barbells are traditionally used in exercises like bench press, deadlifts and squats, providing a simple way to add additional weight to the movements.
Barbells are commonly used in CrossFit, as well as Olympic weightlifting, illustrating the diversity of the equipment for different strength sports.
You can push, pull or simply hold a barbell and perform all sorts of exercises to make them harder. Whether the goal is hypertrophy (building muscle) or absolute strength and power (strongman/powerlifting), barbells are likely going to feature in a list of recommended equipment.
The main benefit of using a barbell for your strength training is that is it very simple and straight-forward to increase the weight. By lifting more weight, by definition, you are improving your strength (which is a pretty good outcome for *strength* training).
But the benefits don’t just stop with strength… this ability to increase and adapt the weight during exercises is also perfect for hypertrophy and building muscle too (i.e. in bodybuilding workouts too).
Barbells can also be used in HIIT workouts, as is the case with many Les Mills classes. By selecting light barbells and opting for high repetitions, the equipment can be used for more conditioning and general fitness goals.
Without plates, barbells can’t live up to their potential, so you need access to a range of barbell plates. This means if you’re exercising at home, it can get pricey.
Similarly, for some exercises, like squats, you really need a squat/power rack too, to ensure you can safely start and finish the movement with heavy weight.
This is perhaps why barbells are so synonymous with the gym, and less so with home workouts.
Determined to use barbells at home?
Check out our guide on weightlifting in an apartment that dives into tips and ideas for using equipment like barbells in very small spaces.
When To Use
Barbells are best suited to traditional strength training programs, that want to focus on compound lifts and the ability to overload the muscles with increasing weight.
Squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, shoulder press, snatch, clean and jerk… the list goes on… barbells are perfect for these sorts of exercises.
Ultimately, sandbags and barbells are both well suited to strength-based workouts… but in very different ways. Your overall fitness goals and preferred workout style will largely influence which is better between sandbags vs barbells.
If you prefer your traditional weightlifting exercises, and using principles like progressive overload training, then you’re best-off sticking with barbells.
If, however, you like the idea of more functional movements that incorporate unstable resistance, sandbags are definitely worth experimenting with.