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The Bulgarian Bag Workout To Build Functional Fitness

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If your idea of getting adventurous with training gear is to adjust the height of a cable by one notch, it’s time to broaden your gear horizons. Look beyond barbells and machines and you’ll find a range of kit that will get you moving in a way that builds real-world strength and fitness. It’ll also give your brain a boost, by making your workouts more fun – which is one of the keys to sticking to your workout routine.

“Using sandbags, battle ropes and Bulgarian bags is a great way to create a functional workout and introduce more variety to your training sessions so you avoid getting bored,” says Charles Allan-Price from W10 Performance gym. “I like the fact that they’re so versatile and they’re all pretty portable so you can take them anywhere.”

“The Bulgarian bag will work muscles such as the rear delts that often get forgotten about,” says Allan-Price. “The rotational element will also help to open up the shoulder girdle and maintain a healthy shoulder joint.”

Doing moves that involve grasping the bag’s handles will also improve your grip strength, which is often your body’s weak link. If you improve your grip strength you’re likely to see improvements to strength moves such as deadlifts. When you perform moves like halos or swings while holding the straps, you’ll find that your forearms start burning – a sure sign that you’re working your grip strength.

“After a general warm-up, I’ll use a Bulgarian bag for a bit of activation work,” says Allan-Price. “I might do some light rotational swing exercises, then go into my main lifts. Before a barbell squat, for example, you could add in some swing to squat reps with the bag to get the muscles firing.”

Or for a full-body cardio workout, string the exercises below into a circuit, doing each move for 30 seconds and completing three rounds, and bag improved endurance, core strength and grip.

Halo

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Hold the bag overhead and rotate it around your head. When you finish a rotation in one direction, switch directions.

“The bread and butter of the Bulgarian bag,” says Allan-Price. “It’s a fantastic exercise to open up the shoulders and create a stronger core and spine. What I really like about this exercise is the dynamic range of motion and intensity you can hit. As you build momentum, open up your shoulder girdles and squeeze your glutes, keeping your torso upright. Drive the momentum with your hips as you open up your shoulders.”

Rotational swing

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Grab the bag by both handles and swing it around in front of you in a circle, dipping slightly at the knees as it goes through its lowest arc. Keep a steady pace, and change direction after 15 seconds.

“Good rotation strength should be fundamental in everyday life to keep a healthy spine – especially among people who regularly exercise,” says Allan-Price. “This exercise will work the obliques and the shoulders in a very simple side-to-side movement. Focus on strong breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth as you rotate side-to-side. As you build momentum, remember to twist your torso.”

Lateral swing

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Swing the bag up to your shoulder, then step to one side slightly and swing the bag to that side, as if you’re swinging a scythe (if you’ve ever done that). Repeat on the other side. Continue, alternating sides.

“This is a more advanced variation of the rotational swing because you are still using the obliques and shoulders,” says Allan-Price. “With the lateral, when building momentum and twisting, you drive your hips back into a squat, keeping your torso upright. What I love about the Bulgarian bag is that if your form is on point, it really is the pinnacle of functional training. ”

Swing to squat

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Swing the bag between your legs, dipping slightly, then raise it over your head and onto your shoulders. Lower into a squat, then take the bag off your shoulders as you come up and go straight into the next rep.

“This is similar to the kettlebell swing,” says Allan-Price. “The Bulgarian bag swing to squat works the glutes, hams, core and shoulders big time. It is relatively easy to perform and can actually aid people in getting into a deep squat by creating a counterbalance. Like a kettlebell swing, the movement comes from the hip hinge and driving the hips back into the squat as you build momentum. Keep your torso upright as you perform the squat.”

Lateral lunge

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Put the bag on your shoulders, holding it securely at each end. Take a big sidestep and lower until you feel a stretch through your groin. Return to the start and repeat to the other side.

“Lateral exercises are great for the knees because you are training a different angle. Side-to-side movements are also effective at creating stronger spines and glutes as well as more mobile hips,” says Allan-Price. “You can change the position of the bag depending on what level you are at.”

Jon Lipsey
Jon Lipsey

Jon Lipsey worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Jon was deputy editor and editor from 2007 to 2013. He returned as editor-in-chief from 2016 to 2019. He also co-founded IronLife Media (opens in new tab) and the New Body Plan (opens in new tab)