Athletes and fighters are constantly looking for ways to vary up their workouts and take their performance to the next level. Ivan Ivanov, a U.S. Olympic wrestling coach and former Bulgarian Olympic athlete, was one of them. Ivanov wanted to find a way for his wrestlers to train their explosive and dynamic movements, and so the Bulgarian bag was born.
What is a Bulgarian Bag and What Can It Do For You?
A Bulgarian bag is currently a niche training tool, but more and more martial artists are incorporating it into their training. Here you can see top BJJ athlete Andre Galvao using it:
Think of it as a souped-up sandbag. But unlike a traditional sandbag, it takes the form of a C-shape, which makes it easier to carry on your shoulders or against your body.
Its "guts" are also made of sand and sheep’s wool instead of just sand. This filling, combined with the unique shape, means the weight of the Bulgarian bag is more stable and doesn't shift as much as a regular sandbag. The extra stability lets you really hone in on your explosive movements.
According to Ivanov, beyond just explosive actions, a Bulgarian bag lets you strengthen and improve your dynamic movements such as:
- Throwing and pulling
- Turning and twisting
In summary, because it's safer and more comfortable than traditional sandbags, you can incorporate Bulgarian bags into lateral and transverse movements that would be harder, or even more injury-prone, were you to use sandbags, dumbbells and and other traditional weighted tools.
Getting Started: Bulgarian Bag FAQ
1. What size/weight do I need for a Bulgarian bag workout?
The original Bulgarian bag ranges in weight from six pounds to 84 pounds. Depending on your fitness level and your experience with sandbag-style training, you may want to begin with a light to moderate weight of 20 to 30 pounds.
You may also want to consider using a couple of different Bulgarian bags to adjust the intensity of your intended workout.
For instance, many athletes use a lighter weight for upper-body or overhead movements, and a heavier weight when doing movements that focus on their lower body (e.g. squats, lunges, etc.), since your legs and glutes tend to be able to carry more weight than your upper body.
2. What type of training is best with a Bulgarian bag?
Further down in this article, we’ll detail specific Bulgarian bag exercises that you can try today.
However, in general, you don't need to overthink it. Complex, multi-joint exercises aren't necessary.
Bulgarian bags are optimal for going back to the basics with traditional exercises like front squats (with the Bulgarian bag resting on your shoulders) or overhead presses (with the bag held up above you) or even sit-ups (with the crescent-shaped bag wrapped around your chest).
3. How should I structure a Bulgarian bag workout?
Once again, sticking with the basics is ideal when trying this unique training tool:
- Do a general full-body warm-up for 10-15 minutes to lubricate your joints, raise your body temperature and heart rate, and prime your muscles for action.
- Complete a full-body circuit, like the one we detail below in this article, or split it up into a upper body day and a lower body day.
- Aim for 8-12 reps of each movement to complete one set.
- Rest for 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
- Complete one full round before starting the circuit over.
- Aim for three full rounds.
- Time yourself from start to finish, then aim to maintain or beat your time the next time you do the circuit.
A Complete Full-Body Bulgarian Bag Workout For You to Try
These nine powerful exercises target your entire body and utilize all the unique aspects of the Bulgarian bag, from its unique C-shape that’s perfect for dynamic twists and turns, to its built-in handles that help to build your grip strength.
If you're a grappler, you will like this exercise as it increases your grip strength. Grabbing the Bulgarian bag by its handles, hold it directly overhead. Then, slowly rotate it in a circle around your head while keeping your arms extended.
Once you complete one full rotation, reverse and go the opposite way. Each rotation counts as one rep.
This exercise builds your entire upper body, especially your core, back, arms and chest while also opening up your shoulder joints.
2. Weighted rotation swings
From your obliques to your spine, every muscle in your trunk will be hit. Simultaneously, maintaining the grip on the bag will build arm and shoulder endurance while your hips expand their flexibility.
Hold the Bulgarian bag a few inches in front of you, with the C-shape forming a “U” towards your torso. While keeping your feet and legs steady and your hips stable, swing as far to the right as possible. With momentum, swing back to the center and continue to the left. This is one rep.
Repeat 10 times.
Be sure to maintain your balance by engaging your core the whole time.
3. Lateral arm throws
This is the perfect example of the type of explosive, dynamic movements that Ivanov was wanting to train his wrestlers with.
While holding the Bulgarian bag by its handles, toss it over your right shoulder so that it swings behind you to the back of your left shoulder. Your hands should now be up by your right shoulder, holding the crescent-shaped bag tightly.
Now, lunge to the side with your right leg while swinging the bag off your shoulder and around to the opposite side. Pause, explode back to your starting position and repeat with the opposite leg and opposite shoulder.
One full round of left and right is one rep. The lunging motion hits your lower body, the aggressive twists and turns target your entire core musculature, the tossing strengthens your entire body, and the explosive movement builds your conditioning.
4. Swing to squats
This is another quintessential Bulgarian bag move. Just like a kettlebell swing, you’re improving overall flexibility, mobility and endurance, especially in the hip flexors, while strengthening your upper and lower body.
Hold the Bulgarian bag by its handles with your feet wide apart. With a slight bend swing it between your legs. With explosive movement of your hips, thrust forward and fling the bag up and over your head to rest on your shoulders.
As it touches your shoulders, crouch down into a low squat. Pause, then fling the bag back up and over to your front, letting the weight swing down between your legs with control.
It’s important to keep your glutes and core contracted and your torso upright through the entire motion.
5. Get-up sit-up
From your obliques to your erector spinae, this move really torches your entire core muscles. You’ll also be hitting your upper body hard.
Lie down on your back facing the ceiling. Hold the Bulgarian bag by its handles and hold it overhead above you with your arms straight. W
While keeping your arms steady, engage your core, tighten your glutes, and press up until you’re in a fully upright, seated position. Then, slowly return to the starting position.
Build strong, powerful chest, arm, shoulder and back muscles with the press up. This is a pushup on steroids.
Position the Bulgarian bag on your shoulders or under your armpits so that the C-shape is wrapped around you with the ends of the “C” facing the ground. Place your arms through the bag’s straps to secure them to your shoulders. The bag will now rest on your lower back.
Get into a push-up position and do a push-up.
7. Iron back (or bulgarian bag clean-and-press)
This is somewhat like a modified barbell clean and press, focusing on your legs and shoulders but also secondarily working your entire upper and lower body.
Hold the Bulgarian bag around your shoulders and get down into a squat position. The lower and deeper the squat, the better.
Press the bag above you so your arms are straight overhead, and rise with control to a standing position. Pause, then lower back down into a squat and bring the Bulgarian bag back to your shoulders.
8. Power snatch
The snatch targets your hamstrings and glutes. Secondary muscles affected include your hips. Crucially, this move also helps with dynamic, explosive movements, which will improve your athletics and martial arts. It is a posterior chain movement so it will help with the back, core, arms, grip, hamstrings, and calves.
Get down into a deep squat while holding your bag in front of your thighs. Drive upward with your knees and shrug your shoulders while throwing the bag above you and straightening your arms. You’ll now be in a more upright position, with your knees gently bent.
Lower back into the starting position.
9. Weighted frog hop (or jump squat)
Wrap up your circuit with a metabolism-boosting, heart rate-raising, fat-torching finisher.
Holding the bag around the back of your neck with your feet a shoulder’s width apart, get into a deep squat. Then, while keeping the Bulgarian bag in place, hop off the ground. Try to hop as high as possible, but at least a couple of inches. Complete 20 hops with no breaks. Alternatively, you can do jump squats in place.