Training with Kettlebells and Sandbags

Functional athletic training with little or no equipment has been making serious leaps in popularity recently. Whether you’re training with your own bodyweight, hefting around a heavy sandbag, or swinging a kettlebell, these workouts combine strength training with flexibility and cardio for killer core workouts that improve your power and performance.  They let you train healthy movement patterns across multiple planes for a functional stability and strength that will see you through your favorite athletic pursuits. Since you’re training movement patterns, there are a few things to keep in mind to avoid injury and to get the most out of your session.

Safely. Setting up a safe environment is key when you’re working with kettlebells. Keep a good amount of space between you and you any training partners (including pets!) and make sure you have a flat, stable floor to work on. Hopefully you won’t lose control of your kettlebell, but it happens…so avoid injury and risk by training in a safe, forgiving space. You should also pay extra attention to picking up your bell or bag with good form. Avoid rounding your back and focus on bending your knees to pick up from a low position. You’ll want to continue this action of lifting low and engaging your core throughout your workout.

Stability. Kettlebell and sandbag training sessions challenge your stability from your ankles up by taking you through a large range of motion with a shifting load. That’s the reason some athletes tackle these sessions barefoot. Avoid highly cushioned shoes or those with elevated heels, which will add instability to your form and reduce the power of your actions. A minimalist shoe designed for weightlifting or cross training is a better bet and will let you use your feet to power through the movement.

Posture. Putting most of the load into your shoulders and upper back is a common mistake made by newcomers. Success in these training techniques requires more action in the lower body. Start with a lighter weight and work into a deeper squat, using the power of your legs and glutes to lift the weight. Press into your heels to lift your hips and focus on stabilizing the weight with your hips and low core as you move the weight to your shoulders (or higher). The kettlebell swing is a good movement to start with as you practice this sequence of actions. As the weight comes low, you should be bending the knees and shifting your weight back into your heels. As you swing the weight back up, you should reverse the process by pressing into your heels to lift your hips, powering the swing from your lower body and core. At this point, shift your weight forward and lift the kettlebell higher.

Finally, there are two are two basic approaches to choosing your swing height. Bringing the kettlebell to shoulder height works your core stability and ensures that you have control of the kettlebell. It’s generally considered to be the safer approach. If your shoulders are healthy and your core strength is good, you can work into overhead swings.This is a bigger cardiovascular and strength challenge, and gives you the opportunity to work in additional movements (such as squats or twists) at the top of the swing. For more training ideas on how to use your kettlebells, kettelbellworks.com offers a great overview of ways to train and tips for getting the most from your training sessions.

In addition to kettlebells, sandbags are another versatile, low equipment option for strength training. A good bag should come with several, well secured handles, allowing you to work even more movement patterns than is convenient with a kettlebell. Men’s Fitness has a nice starting workout, as well as tips for setting up your sandbag. Because of their shifting weight load, sandbags seriously challenge your stability. You can optimize this challenge by including (well-sealed) bags of water in your sandbag, or using a not-quite full bag. Both kettlebells and sandbags can be combined with bodyweight exercises and your favorite Vision Home Fitness equipment to add a bigger challenge to your movement patterns and increase your strength training load, preparing you for nearly anything.

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Is Functional Training Right for You?

Functional training is a very popular term in the fitness community and with the general public these days. Although fitness professionals and enthusiasts are teaching and using the concepts, many in the mainstream population are not that familiar with the potential benefits and actual improvements these training methods could bring to their daily lives.

What is Functional Training?

Functional training has its origins in rehabilitation. Physical therapists developed exercises that mimicked what patients did at home or work in order to return them to their lives or jobs after an injury or surgery. I have come across many definitions of functional training, both in strict literal terms and loose interpretations. As you do your research, I suspect you’ll encounter the same.

Functional training has actually evolved from, and now seems to encompass, some of the terms and benefits of core training. I like the following definition of functional training: A range of total body activities that build strength, balance and coordination for general fitness, and also improves your ability to easily perform day-to-day movements or activities. 

What Are the Benefits of Functional Training?

As with most fitness programs, functional training may be performed using various levels of difficulty and intensity. Although the average person can use it as a tool to help with every day activities, elite athletes and their trainers are using it to gain a competitive edge on the field of play.

To begin to understand functional training and its benefits, we must take a look at how it differs from traditional training methods we have used in the past.

  1. Functional training engages large groups of muscles and multiple joints; not just a single muscle or small group of closely related muscles.
  2. Functional training involves unrestricted, user-defined motion against resistance, which activates the neuromuscular system in ways that increase your balance and coordination.
  3. Finally, many of the exercises involve the core muscles of the body, which when trained properly, provide the strong foundation you need to live a healthy active life, perform activities you enjoy, or compete in your favorite sport.

In functional training, it is as critical to train the specific movement as it is to train the muscles involved in the movement. The brain, which controls the muscular movement, thinks in terms of whole motions, not individual muscles. Exercises that isolate joints and muscles are training muscles, not movements, which results in less functional improvement.

For example, a “non-functional,” single-joint exercise can play a critical role in helping to strengthen a weak link (weaker muscle) that a person may have, in order to restore proper muscle balance. Doing such an exercise can allow an individual to more effectively participate in functional training activities, while also reducing the risk of injury. For strength exercises to effectively translate to other daily movements (example, getting up from a chair), several components of the training movement need to be similar to the actual performance movement. This includes coordination, types of muscle contractions, speed of movement and range of motion.

There is also the “multiple planes of motion” theory many experts adhere to. Although this subject can get complicated in a hurry, it is quite simple in its premise. As we stated above, functional training is a user-defined movement which is not restricted by a predetermined path set by a machine. Therefore, the person working out determines the angles and planes on which to perform that movement. Moving forward and backward is one plane while side to side is another. Experts feel that a person gets maximum advantage through exercises that involve multiple planes of motion.

Is Functional Training for You?

We have all seen the warnings “to consult your physician before undertaking an exercise routine,” or something similar, posted in owner’s manuals of exercise equipment purchased. That’s always sound advice, but I would also advise you to consult a fitness professional if and when you decide to try functional training. User-defined and multiple plane training can open the door to injury if performed without some basic knowledge and direction.

In final analysis, it must be remembered that functional training, when properly applied, can provide exercise variety and additional training benefits that more directly transfer to improvements in real life activities. However, in my opinion, functional training should serve as a supplement to traditional strength training, not as a replacement.

Have you had success with functional training? Share your experience with us in the comments below.

Sources

  • Functional Training For Sports, Michael Boyle, Copyright 2004
  • Wikipedia
  • www.acefitness.org