Cameron Conaway talks to Josh Henkin about how sandbag training, entrepreneurship and dispels some myths about fitness training.
While studying exercise science at Arizona State University, Josh Henkin walked on to the men’s basketball team. While this was a feat in and of itself, it was when herniated discs forced him to walk away from the game that he became obsessed with exploring the fields of functional fitness and corrective exercises. Traditional physical therapy wasn’t working to alleviate his back pain, so when he saw some of his military friends training with old leaky duffel bags filled with sand he became intrigued and, after training with a homemade sandbag, he began to feel better.
Here was a way to simultaneously improve flexibility and train the core muscles that are often neglected in traditional weight training. But a few problems existed. Homemade sandbags leaked, plumes of dust went everywhere and they didn’t last long. On top of this, there wasn’t any type of legitimate system that demonstrated sandbag exercise techniques or taught how to progress in sandbag training. Josh set out to fix these problems and over the course of six years created a product, (The Ultimate Sandbag), that is durable and a system, (Sandbag Training), that has some of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country talking about its effectiveness.
What began as a way to help himself has quickly spread into an international training phenomenon that has elite MMA fighters becoming more explosive and everyday Joe’s getting their health and fitness back. He agreed to answer a few questions for us here at the Good Men Project.
Josh, take us back to those days when you were struggling with back pain and using homemade bags. How were you making and training with them?
I used a pretty traditional means of getting some army duffel bags, heavy duty contractor bags, and good ole fashion duct tape. Outside of having read a few very brief articles on the use of sandbags, I simply used them as you would expect to see most traditional strength training exercises – cleans, squats, rows, presses, and carries. That was probably one of the earliest mistakes I would make with sandbag training, not having a clearer vision on what I was trying to accomplish via the use of sandbags.
While I found them to feel very different and work my body to a high level, I also found the results to plateau rather quickly because again, I really didn’t have a plan or a focus of what I was trying to achieve. That also meant that while I knew some of the base limitations of using the sandbags, I really didn’t know the extent till I delve in much further. That made me realize why sandbags had been around for such a long time, but had never become a serious focus upon people’s long-term fitness or performance programs.
When did you begin to have an entrepreneurial sense that it could take off the way it has? And once you had the sense, can you walk us through how you turned sense into something practical and profitable?
Maybe a curse and a blessing at the same time, I never went into this thinking it was going to be a business. My first concern was that I believe sandbag training could be something great and there was more to it than almost anyone had ever really talked about. The problem was the implementing itself, it posed a great deal of issues. Some of these were unique to sandbags and others not.
For example, in sandbag training it is very important to realize the value of dimension in the sandbag you are utilizing. A sandbag, unlike any other implement, can vary its training effect based purely upon its dimension. Meaning there are times that I want to have a very compact and rigid sandbag and I can use the same weight in a larger sandbag to create a far more unstable environment for other training goals.
I wanted to address these types of issues and have something I could use with my own clients, in my own training business. The homemade versions — besides being messy and beyond uncomfortable to use at times — were also not progressive and didn’t adhere to good training principles. The reality is, the only reason I got into this arena was that a good friend saw my passion for sandbag training (I had written an e-book about it prior to actually creating our current system and the Ultimate Sandbag), but also realized my disappointment with the current options. The whole story changed when he uttered the questions to me, “What would you do differently?” and “What if I could get someone to make THAT?!”
I was quite hesitant until I got my first sample. I was so excited about it, after all, how many coaches and trainers get to see a vision come to life? I wasn’t the only one though as some of my colleagues and friends seemed to become equally excited and were actually interested in having some for themselves.
I thought this had the potential to be something, but really didn’t know anything about manufacturing, distribution, or many of the aspects that come with running a business like this. I definitely went to the school of hard knocks for quite some time actually learning on the job. However, any opportunity to do better, we took advantage of it.
Yet, it wasn’t as though things just grew in a linear manner. When I first came out with our first generation Ultimate Sandbags many people thought the whole idea was ridiculous and paying for a specifically designed sandbag sounded crazy! Funny considering that is our expectation for every other piece of fitness equipment.
It was so raw initially that my webmaster told me that there was no one even searching for this type of training. We began trying to go under other fitness and performance terms because basically there were no signs that people had any interest in searching and looking for “sandbag training” information. Kinda crazy to look back and see that we developed an entire specific niche in the fitness and performance industry!
The training looks awesome, but it can also appear a bit extreme even for the health-conscious out there. Why do you think The Ultimate Sandbag and its corresponding system can be for everyone regardless of fitness level?
I don’t know why people think it is “hardcore” or really “extreme.” Truthfully, I don’t know how a piece of equipment can be either –those types of ideas are both based upon attitudes and how people implement it.
I know because sandbag training has a history of both being used by wrestlers, martial artists, and strongmen, along with being a “dirty bag of sand” that it may have some initial image as being “extreme,’ but I couldn’t find anything further from the truth!
We have used our Dynamic Variable Resistance Training system along with our Ultimate Sandbag to help rehabilitate so many low backs, knees, shoulders, etc. The problem lies in the fact that people think the implement (in this case the Ultimate Sandbag) produces great results, but the truth is that the power comes in the training system behind the implement. An implement can be used for great results or be used poorly and be seen as highly ineffective. That really is the difference.
For example, barbells can be loaded on the body only about four different positions, the same for dumbbells and kettlebells. However, Ultimate Sandbags have up to 11 holding positions that can change the perceived weight of the implement as well as varying stability patterns. We use this variable a lot in our programming along with other ones to really get some pretty impressive and unique results.
The general public is bombarded by advice from fitness “gurus” in magazine articles, billboards, television and radio commercials and even books. As a certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA, what are three training myths that you’d like to debunk?
Hard to narrow down to just three. These three could definitely relate to our DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training system or any well thought out fitness program.
Myth #1: “You don’t need a program, your workouts should vary every time to ‘shock’ your body.”
The truth is your body needs to both learn the movements and have some level of adaptation. In the first few weeks of training most people purely see changes in the nervous system as they learn how to coordinate and become more proficient at certain movements. Changing the workouts too quickly keeps the body from learning and really maximizing the benefits of the lifts and the overall scope of the program. Staying on a 4-6 week program is optimal for most people.
Myth #2 “Workouts have to be based around power and speed movements to build strength and cardio.”
The truth of the matter is that we have found that slower drills can often be more beneficial in both building strength and as a metabolic challenge. This is due to the fact that it is very difficult to cheat the exercise when you first go slow. Ironically, just about every sport uses this same means of training to introduce new movement concepts, except for fitness! The goal in sport is the same, to teach the body the right movements, use the right muscles, and gain the benefit meant to deliver by using the exercise. This can be hard though if people are constantly using or prioritizing fast lifts.
Moving slower and being under compression (such as many of our foundational Ultimate Sandbag drills demonstrate), helps teach about people’s weaknesses, muscle balance, and conditioning. Think about it too, what do YOU do when you are really challenged in an exercise? Yep, you will try to speed up to get out of it. Spending time and prioritizing these exercises will go a long way in your long-term progress and ability to be injury resistant.
Myth 3# “You have to do THIS exercise!”
Many people get fooled into thinking that a singular exercise is the reason they aren’t making progress. In the late 1990’s the idea of training “movement over muscles” was quite revolutionary, however, it slowly turned into “exercises over movement.” The reality is that exercises are only parts of a larger puzzle. The individual pieces do not accomplish much in their parts, but if put together the right way allows us to produce the results that many people are looking to achieve!
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