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How A Little-Known Forefather of Functional Training Inspired Me to Recreate Myself Athletically—And Invent The Ultimate Sandbag

John Jesse, inspiration for Josh Henkin and DVRT System

Do you believe in fate?

Very specific things seem to happen for very specific reasons, but are completely inexplicable. Sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time.

The other day I found myself at the doctor’s office for a check up on the hardware in my neck. While I was waiting, I daydreamed about meeting the man who in many ways was the inspiration that shaped my last decade, and led to my moniker as the "Sandbag Guy".

You may have heard others mention him, but my career has been truly IMPACTED by John Jesse and his philosophy.

I sat there daydreaming and imagining what it might be like to meet "the man".

I imagined that he was not tall, but of average height. Not overly muscled, but broad in the shoulders and back, with powerful legs. And if I were to shake his hand, his grip would crush like a gator’s jaws with little to no effort.

He’d be a humble, practical, no-nonsense man, not impressed by posturing or peacocking—a man moved by action, and impressed by WORK!

At the root of my inspiration was Jesse's book, The Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia. This book was first printed in 1974, long before Barnes & Noble, ebooks, and iPads. It was published in a time when knowledge really meant something.
John Jesse Book Cover

It might seem weird that a basketball player like myself would be drawn to a book for wrestlers, but I was. At the time, I was at a crossroads and didn't know what to do—I wasn't an athlete anymore, but I still wanted to feel athletic.

I wanted to be powerful, agile, and strong. Somehow I just knew that chasing "big numbers" in the gym wasn’t going to work for me anymore.


I am not a wrestler, and most real wrestlers would be disgusted to even talk to a basketball player!

But I found out John Jesse also wasn’t just a wrestler. On the contrary, he was a highly decorated all-around athlete. You name it, he played football, rugby, competed in decathlons, and even played handball. Of course, we all know that just because someone is a great athlete doesn’t mean that they know anything about training. But Jesse’s athletic success was just the tip of the iceberg.

Mr. Jesse authored more than 50 articles on strength training and injury prevention in several athletic journals. He also held quite a few accolades from the International Federation of Physical Culture, American College of Sports Medicine, the Australian Sports Medicine Federation, as well as US Wrestling Federation. This article wasn’t mean to be a quick Wikipedia-style story about John Jesse, but after really learning more about him, I had to admit I was a lot more intrigued to hear what he had to say!

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Mr. Jesse’s work. His writings seemed far ahead of his time. When he wrote about developing "balanced total body strength", I was blown away to realize he was referencing the same concepts we discuss today with functional training. Quickness, balance, flexibility, strength, power, and neuromuscular control were all qualities he thought were important to the development of a wrestler, but they are exactly what many current programs also TRY to accomplish. These same ideas were well known and discussed 40 years ago. That realization made me wonder if we have really progressed—or regressed—in how we understand fitness.

What kind of training was John Jesse using to accomplish these lofty goals? Olympic lift variations, circuit training, gymnastic movements, club swinging, and odd object lifting. Hmmm, at the time I had some familiarity with everything in that list except for odd objects. As Mr. Jesse describes how some of the best wrestlers in history used a variety of odd objects, one object in particular caught my attention, "Forms of progressive resistance exercises used by old-time Indian wrestlers were heavy sandbags weighing 40 to 120 pounds…" (p.82)

These weights might sound puny, or more suited to novices at best, but by now I believed in Jesse's philosophy and knew a man with his dedication to work wouldn't let me down.

So I cobbled together my first ragged sandbag. It was a piece of crappy work—I'm not a craftsman, and as a matter of fact I can barely change a light bulb—but I made a sandbag. I was bound and determined to use it, no matter how crappy it was!

But, my sandbag wasn't much different than the bags of sand Jesse describes the old-time wrestlers using. With my ambitious nature, I built myself a 100-pound sandbag to try. "CRUSHING" was the only word I can think describes the first time I worked with that beast. How could something that seems like such a rookie weight make me feel so humbled? To sum up that first experience, sweat was pouring off of my face, my heart rate was sky high, and I was feeling muscles I didn’t know existed!

I knew I had found something significant that couldn’t be tapped into by anything else. That initial experience set a series of events in motion. Ten years later, I am touring the world teaching everyone from the military to regular people wanting to improve their own lives what Dynamic Variable Resistance Training (DVRT) is all about!

As I reflect and think about our growing relationship with Dragon Door, my hope is that if John Jesse were around today he'd be proud to use an Ultimate Sandbag and our DVRT system. My guess is that he'd find they’re not only a terrific tool for training wrestlers, but that they also allow people like me to feel like an athlete once again.

DVRTBookCover thumbnailJosh Henkin is the author of DVRT, The Ultimate Sandbag Training System now available in paperback and ebook format.