Play hard, work hard with sandbell training

By transforming workouts into play sessions you can help new clients and old get more from their training.

As a trainer you have a huge array of equipment to choose from when training your clients. Things that isolate, things that integrate, things that manipulate and, to quote C+C Music Factory (Google it!), things that make you go hmmmm... So, how do you know what type of equipment to use with each client? How do you know what to use for strength, for fat loss, for overall wellness and for corrective exercises? You may love a specific tool, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the right fit for your client, or that they will even feel safe using it.

Imagine that you’re a current non-exerciser who is thinking about joining a fitness facility. You’ve walked past the gym a few times and thought ‘today’s the day’. You get to the front door but NO – you just can’t do it. You walk past dozens more times over the next few weeks, eventually getting the courage up to walk through the door and, finally, you do it – you join. You set a date with a trainer and you show up. You’re already nervous and intimidated. Then, because you said you’d like to ‘tone up’, you’re in the free weights area lifting a barbell. You’ve never done this before – never even been in this part of a gym before – and the thought of using some of this stuff is actually pretty intimidating. You’re surrounded by sweating, grunting behemoths and apparent fitness models, having your form corrected by your trainer, being given seemingly endless cues to improve your technique, and being bombarded with technical terms such as scapula and glutes – oh, and don’t forget to ‘switch on that core’. The session wraps up and the trainer asks if you’d like to come back and do it all again. You’re still not sure what just happened – in fact you’re fairly certain everything you did was just plain wrong for the past 45 minutes of your life and you’re already starting to feel some discomfort in areas of your body that you haven’t felt in years. Dazed and confused, you decide that no, maybe that area of the gym (and that trainer) just isn’t for you.

What if it didn’t have to be like that? Don’t get me wrong, technique is important and if you love lifting weights, then go for it. Some beginners will enjoy such ‘traditional’ exercises, but for many, this isn’t the best place to start their fitness journey. Although it may not be the only reason, I believe that the intimidating environment of many fitness facilities is part of why only about 14 per cent of our population ever joins a gym.

Let’s change that imaginary scenario: it’s time for your first session, you’re super nervous and your trainer starts you in an area with a bit of free space. He then hands you a wetsuit material bag filled with sand. You love the beach. The thing starts moulding to your fingers, you can grab it, squeeze it, and did the trainer just say throw it? Awesome! Actually, you’ve had a pretty frustrating day, so slamming this thing into the ground feels great. Your heart rate is going up, but this is actually fun! Now you’re catching it and then getting tricky by catching it with alternating hands. You have some control of your range of motion and you’re squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, rotating, hingeing and ‘working your core’, all without knowing it, and without being told that you’re doing it ‘wrong’.

This is where this sand-filled bag – the sandbell – comes into its own. It evokes play. When people pick it up in groups they inevitably start throwing it to each other. It’s smart without trying to be. The change in grip, and the constantly shifting sand, means that your body has to mitigate the applied load across a lot of different tissue fibres in something called vector variation. Not to mention the correlation between grip strength and joint stability in other areas of the body. Perhaps the biggest reason to use the sandbell in early sessions is that people feel physically and emotionally safe when they interact with it. Not to disparage other training tools (I love a good kettlebell session!), but imagine asking a total beginner to swing a kettlebell and alternate hands. Imagine their apprehension. Now picture the same request with a bag full of sand. The benefit of creating a safe environment (physically and emotionally) for your clients is an increase in trust. Trust is the best way to foster this new relationship and that’s what you and your new or potential client are building – a relationship. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (think back to high school!) illustrated the point that people can’t even think about reaching their lofty health and aesthetic goals if their physiological and safety needs are not being met. You need to establish strong foundations before you build.

So, using this type of training tool with absolute novices to fitness makes sense – but what about the weekend warrior or professional athlete? In most sports, athletic pursuits or even daily life, there is a constant element of unpredictability. Sandbells mimic this unpredictability by having a centre of mass that is always slightly changing. The level of uncertainty is not so scary that it induces a stress response, but it is variable enough to elicit different reactions and force mitigation throughout the body. This should help athletes at any level to respond to the fluid changes in their game. The sandbells are also great for mimicking traditional training drills for ball sports. The added extra load (which can start at as little as one kilogram) and variability in flight path due to the shape offer unique challenges. It’s also a lot of fun.

The tools we use in fitness training can be used in many different ways for different individuals. We can train for wellness, we can perform corrective movement to help people move better and we can train for performance. The sandbell enables all of these functions to be performed in a play scenario, so that clients will actually enjoy working towards their goals – not just achieving them. They won’t realise that they’re working hard, and they will feel less intimidated as well as physically and emotionally safe.

As a trainer, this play-based approach to workouts increases your ability to gain, train and retain clients over the long term, making for a fulfilling career.


Andrew ‘Chaddy’ Chadwick has been a PT for over 10 years. He is an International Fitness Presenter, TRX Senior Master Instructor, PTA Global Faculty member, Trigger Point Performance Master Instructor, SandBells Master Instructor and Kettle Bell Instructor. Chaddy’s passion for movement and coaching continue to drive his learning and inspire others to learn more about the human being, not just the human body. ptacademy.edu.au