Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interview with Josh Henkin - Sandbag Expert

Nowadays, there are so many tools we can use to train our bodies: playground equipment, tires, ropes, rings, and even our own bodies. A few years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find an ordinary bag of sand to be useful in any type of conditioning or fat loss training--but strength coach, Josh Henkin found a way. Josh took what he knew about conditioning and building strength; and applied those concepts to sandbag use. Among the many benefits derived from sandbag training (grip strengthening, rotatory training, and conditioning), Josh proved that the sandbag can be an effective tool---a tool that is versatile, inexpensive, and valuable in a group or individual setting. It was my pleasure to get Josh aside to answer some questions about his philosophy and incorporation of sandbag training with his clients and athletes.

JOHN: Josh, before we get into sandbags, can you tell me and my readers how you got started in strength coaching/fitness?

Josh: My journey into the industry actually started back in my early teens. I was a basketball fanatic, often spending six to eight hours a day at the basketball courts. One summer though I landed on a crack in the cement and completely tore all the ligaments in my right ankle.

The injury to my ankle was so bad that the doctors did not think I was going to be able to walk right again, never mind actually play basketball. My older brother started getting me into the weight room because I was unable to do anything else physical. Fortunately he also introduced me to a friend who happened to be the assistant strength coach for the Chicago White Sox, Tim Lang.

So, I had a large advantage as my introduction to Strength & Conditioning was through a well educated coach that saved me many of the common mistakes that many beginning in fitness make.

Eventually I did come back from the injury and my new found strength from training helped me immensely in my performance. I fell in love with both the training and the results. So much so that I actually attended my first Strength & Conditioning seminar when I was 16, it was a NASM program in fact.

I knew this would become my eventual career path and could not help but try to study and learn from everyone and everything I came across in the next 17 years.


JOHN: In my opinion, in our industry your name is synonymous with sandbags. Can you tell me how and why you chose sandbags to be your forte?

Josh: Believe or not, I didn’t sit in my training studio thinking about what I could develop to catch the interest of the industry :) In fact, my introduction to the world of sandbag training was a very selfish one.

My sophomore year of playing basketball at a Division I program, I re-injured a bad back injury that led me to being retired by the program. That didn’t mean my low back pain was gone. I was in such horrible pain 24 hours a day that I pretty much lived off pain killers. I was in physical therapy several hours a day and even went that stopped my pain was not much different.

I was motivated to find a solution so I attended and researched every corrective exercise program you could imagine. I spent thousands of dollars on these programs as well as hours upon hours attending and studying. In the end? I still couldn’t raise my right leg very far without immense trembling occurring because of the low back injury.

More frustrated than ever, I remember being convinced to check out the work of a gentleman named Pavel Tsatsouline. At first I was very cautious, but learning

Pavel’s program and more importantly his techniques, I remember it was the first time my back was showing some signs of stability and strength.

I was so intrigued by these “unorthodox” methods of training that I researched everything I could find that was recommended by Pavel and things that appeared to be similar. A book written by Brooks Kubik called Dinosaur Training really intrigued me. Even though it would appear not to be appropriate for someone with a major back injury, I was really interested in both this style of training I wasn’t familiar with as well as his discussions of using odd objects such as kegs and sandbags to train stabilizer strength.

The simplest implement for me to get my hands onto was making a homemade sandbag. I knew immediately that this form of training was unique as it was nothing like lifting a barbell, dumbbell, or even a kettlebell. It was awkward, moving, and definitely “non-cooperative”. More importantly I found so many of the lifts challenged by body in ways that no other tool had. The biggest difference was what I felt through my midsection, upper back, and shoulders. I knew that this was something that I needed to investigate further and find a way to implement with my clients.

Using such methods eventually allowed me to compete in Olympic weightlifting as well as Strongman. I have to emphasize though,, never was this training meant as a means to be “hardcore” or “ bad ass”, rather I was always striving to improve my quality of life.

JOHN: Can you tell me which exercise is the toughest to transfer over from barbell to sandbag? And what cues do you have to emphasize on when teaching a new athlete this particular exercise from barbell to sandbag?

Josh: To most people’s surprise there are few exercises that we try to transfer from barbell training to sandbag training. The biggest reason is that the implements are significantly different and offer certain advantages and disadvantages for specific movements.

For example, the barbell is great for deadlifting and bench pressing and the sandbag is less effective for such movements. However, sandbags are far more appropriate for shouldering, various squats, rotational movements, get-ups, etc.

The two drills that I would say are similar are the clean and press as well as the bent-over row. The clean and press is a lot more different than the barbell for several reasons.

1. When the lifter tries to clean the sandbag the weight actually sinks away from the rather than being lifted in a uniform manner like a barbell. This means acceleration is required to a higher level to bring the weight up to the appropriate height because the sandbag has a lower center of mass relative to the gripping point.

2. Because the sandbag’s weight and shape can transform while it moves it can be equally difficult to receive the weight, this means a more precise pull from the lifter.

3. Once cleaned into the right position pressing the sandbag can be quite an adventure. Correct “rooting” and pressing posture is critical to maintain balance of the sandbag in both getting the weight overhead as well as stabilizing it in the overhead position.

The bent-over row can be different for some different reasons. This is primarily due to the grip that the lifter takes on the sandbag. Gripping onto the sandbag or end flaps makes grip strength generally a weak link and becomes evident the deficiency many lifters posses in grip strength. If the lifter grabs onto the handles they will find that the weight falls away from them similar to the clean making a familiar weight seem much heavier.


JOHN: What is the biggest mistake people make when they perform with a sandbag?

Josh: The biggest mistake people make with a sandbag is they try to make it into another implement. I always tell people what makes us unique is not the fact that we are using sandbags; it is more that I have created a systematized method for implementing sandbags as their own entity. Don’t make a sandbag into a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. Understanding the unique benefits of sandbags opens up a whole new world of training.

Sandbags provide so many options that it is a shame when people limit them to the scope of lifting that they are familiar with. For example, our Ultimate Sandbag has eight different holding options, this means that there are eight possibilities for every standard strength movement how we can manipulate resistance. This is more than barbells, dumbbells, or even kettlebells. I often have to remind coaches it is “progressive resistance” not necessarily load that causes improvements. Resistance can be manipulated by speed, leverage, or range of motion.
The rotational training we promote with our sandbags also is highly unique. This is the biggest problem for most lifters as they have poor movement skills and getting them out of the standard lifting postures they are often weak and immobile. The purpose of our sandbag training is not to make elite sandbag lifters, but to improve fitness and movement. [END]

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