As Seen On

Sandbag Circuits For Combat Athletes


Sandbag Circuits For Combat Athletes

By Dustin Lebel

MMA is all the rage these days and its no surprise that more and more people want to train like their favorite fighters. The only problem is that most great fighters are great despite their strength and conditioning program…not all, but most. While putting together a great program for a combat athlete can be very complex as you have to take into account their technical practice schedules, past and current list of injuries, nutrition, their various coaches, recovery, and oh yeah – we need to get them stronger, more powerful, and in better condition while they concurrently improve their skills in their respective sport. Phew – training for combat sports is tough!

Well, the problem with most athletes is that they often sway too far towards one end of the spectrum or the other. Rarely ever are fighters just getting just enough strength work or just enough conditioning work (which is really what we’re aiming for – just enough). You either have guys running themselves into the ground with their skill practices and daily conditioning (most of it is bullsh#t), or you have guys who think that they are bodybuilders who also happen to box, wrestle, or what have you. The middle of the road is generally where you want to be, but to try and explain this to your typical “type A” combat athlete is near impossible. It has been instilled in our minds that the guy who simply does the most work, wins. While hard work is certainly the backbone for attaining success in anything, it’s important for combat athletes to understand their number one priority – to get better at their sport and compete at the highest possible level. If you are not getting better, then you are spinning your wheels. We’ve all heard the saying – more is not better, better is better. It sounds cliché but it’s true.

What I’m proposing for more fighters is to have more focused, disciplined sessions – not just their skill sessions, but also their strength and conditioning sessions. If more athletes just took what they are currently doing and cut everything in half and just started being more deliberate in their training, they would see twice the results. The fact is that the guys who say that they train 6-8 hours a day are either a) full of sh#t or b) farting around too much or not focusing on the things that deliver the biggest results. While this is tough to control with technical sessions because each coach has a different agenda and different training philosophy, the least you can do is have full control over your strength and conditioning sessions.

With all that said, lets take a look at how you can start to organize your training sessions and maximize your time in the weight room – leaving you plenty of time and energy to get better at breaking people’s arms or kicking them in the teeth.

I think that most fighters who are training for their sport 5-6 days per week need just two, or three days at the most, of strength work per week. Since you will be getting plenty of conditioning from your regular practices, any more than that is overkill. I know that a lot of guys get sensitive when it comes to their daily roadwork, but again, I urge you to drop it and spend that time getting in some soft tissue and mobility work instead. If you are doing the things that you should be in practice – hard, live drilling, lots of live wrestling/rolling, mitt work, bag work, partner drills, and sparring – then you should have very little energy left over for anything else and that energy should be spent in the most productive way possible.

Most of the time, I prefer to use total body workouts and I find that getting in a session in less than 45 minutes (and often even less) is feasible as long as you bust your ass. The key is to use the best movements to get the biggest bang for your buck – that means plenty of pushes, pulls, squats, single leg and posterior chain work. Don’t get caught up in all the hype over “sport specific” training, but rather spend your time fixing your imbalances and getting stronger and in better “fight shape” through more general training.

One of my favorite ways to train is through strength based circuits using a heavy sandbag. This is a great way to maximize your time and get stronger while also improving your strength endurance specific to combat sports. While maximal strength and explosive strength are certainly desirable attributes, in most cases, fighters need to worry about improving their ability to be strong and explosive over many repeated efforts. Because of the awkward nature of sandbag training, every single movement requires tremendous core, upper back, posterior chain, and grip strength – areas that are usually lacking in most athletes – and causes your heart rate to go through the roof very quickly! Not to mention that most movements in the weight room only address the eccentric and concentric contractions, where as combat sports require a huge amount of isometric strength. Many of the movements performed with sandbags will force maximal isometric contractions, only bringing on fatigue that much faster. Sandbag training is not a fad nor gimmicky in anyway, just hard freakin’ work.

Here are 4 of my favorite circuits using a heavy sandbag for developing insane muscular endurance and that raw, rugged strength that will translate on the mat or in the ring. While most programs leave you bigger and stronger in the weight room, training with sandbags will have instant carry over to your sport.

For these circuits, you will want to make a sandbag roughly 60-70% of your bodyweight going towards the higher end if you’re an advanced trainee and the lower if you’re new to strength training. You can always make adjustments if needed, but you want to make a bag that will challenge you for months ahead. Rather than increasing the weight of the bag, you will make subtle adjustments to your sets, reps, total volume and rest periods over time.

For this program, you will pick one circuit per training day and after a warm up, and you will have several options.

Option 1 is to go through each circuit for 3-5 sets; resting 60-120 seconds between each circuit (and 30 seconds or less between each movement). Your goal here is to slowly increase your volume by adding a rep to each movement here and there and to increase your sets only when all the reps can completed with good form with the minimum requirement for rest periods.

Option 2 is to set a time limit of 15 or 20 minutes and try to blast through as many sets as possible in that time frame. This form of density training will be a good indicator of the progress you’re making – you either get more work done or you don’t.

I recommend the density option every other time you perform a particular circuit. So if weeks 1 and 2 you performed circuits A-D (assuming 2 sessions/week), getting in just the minimum of 3 sets with the prescribed reps, then on weeks 3 and 4 you would set your standard for a 15 or 20 minute density round and continue to repeat this process.

But remember, the goal of extra strength training is to enhance your performance in your chosen sport, not fatigue yourself to the point where you are getting stale, or worse, regressing and getting worse. Slowly make adjustments to total volume over time and don’t set out to crush your records every single time out – know when good enough is good enough.

So here they are, 4 bad ass circuits that will leave you in a pool of sweat and cramping from your fingers down to your calves…

Circuit A:

1. Sandbag Clean and Press x 6

2. Sandbag Shoulder + Squat x 6

3. Sandbag Rotations x 6

4. Sandbag Bent Over Rows x 6

Circuit B:

1. Sandbag Shouldering x 6

2. Sandbag Power Clean + Zercher Squat x 6

3. Sandbag Zercher Goodmornings x 6

4. Sandbag Bent Over Rows x 6

Circuit C:

1. Sandbag Shouldering x 6

2. Sandbag Zercher Reverse Lunges x 6 (3 each side)

3. Sandbag Power Cleans x 6

4. Sandbag Bent Over Rows x 6

Circuit D:

1. Sandbag Clean and Press x 6

2. Sandbag Zercher Squats x 6

3. Sandbag Pull Throughs x 6

4. Sandbag Bent Over Rows x 6

You will notice that included rowing in every single circuit, and that’s for the simple fact that you can never get enough rowing! Besides the benefit of strengthening your lats and upper back, the sandbag bent over row will challenge your grip and posterior chain in much different manner than any barbell or cable row ever could.

If you’re like most fighters and you’re short on time and energy reserves, then these circuits can make up your complete training program. However, there’s nothing wrong with adding in some sled dragging, weighted and un weighted bodyweight calisthenics, sledgehammer swinging, and anything else you had in mind. Work your ass off, but keep your recovery in mind and do what’s best so that you can become a stronger, faster, more conditioned fighter.

Author Bio: I am a personal trainer and sports performance coach At Integrated Athletic Performance in Watertown, CT and an apprentice International Martial Arts & Boxing instructor under Richard Bustillo. Check out my blog at

More Odd Object Training HERE

The Premier MMA Training Bible – Blunt Force Trauma


How to Build Muscle | Muscle Building Workouts | How to Lose Fat | Six Pack Abs | Build Muscle, Muscle Gaining Workouts | Build Muscle Membership Site

Articles You Might Also Like:


5 Responses to “Sandbag Circuits For Combat Athletes”

  1. Joe Hashey Says:

    Are camo cargos optional? Ha,

    Dustin, nice work brother, you are putting some good stuff out! Glad to see you on the Diesel Crew site.


  2. Dustin Lebel Says:

    Optional? Mandatory! Haha, actually I had my girlfriend just take a bunch of pics one day…I guess I need to get some more!

    Thanks for the props, Joe!

  3. Carisoprodol Says:

    Wow! As much as I’d like to try carrying a sandbag for strength training, I don’t think I can. I can barely lift half a sandbag if my life depended on it. I guess I blame it on my weak arms. But this is a great article, thanks for sharing.

  4. Vince Says:

    At 41 I train and compete in BJJ and have dropped from 255 to 218 in the last 4 months. I have been sprinting and doing Prowler work for most of my conditioning work. I just went through circuits A,B,C&D (110 lb bag)twice with 2 minutes rest, and finished with 8 sets of mixed grip pullups. This is much more taxing than just the Prowler or sprints. I was thinking about staying at 2 rounds for weeks 1 & 2 and adding 1-2 rounds in weeks 3 & 4. What would you reccommend?

  5. Dustin Lebel Says:

    Vince, congrats on the fat loss and I’m glad you “enjoyed” the routines…they are pretty brutal and starting off at 2 sets (especially if you are training BJJ during the week) might actually be a good idea!

Leave a Reply