A sled is one of the most versatile and unique tools for working out. In this article, I’ll talk about the proper techniques, the low risk of injury and the sleds overall versatility. I’ll also describe how a sled workout will improve on your strength, power, and speed! You will learn how sled training helps you get back to working out if you’ve had certain injuries or problems with your back.

Historically, the sled has been used for recovery, strength, power, & speed conditioning of athletes. Crossfitters borrowed it from weight lifters of the ’70s, and now many trainers have borrowed it from the Crossfitters. The sled can usually be found in gyms that have a functional training area available. A sled is a great tool giving you versatile workouts that aren’t just for elite athletes, but also for exercise beginners, regular & advanced non-athletes, seniors and for those dealing with orthopedic issues.

The Beginning

Now that we’ve got a brief summary and history, let’s take a look at the beginning with some of the important basics you should familiarize yourself with, as well as some of the benefits, and a few workouts to get you started and on your way!

  • Proper techniques
  • The low risk of injury
  • Overall versatility
  • The basics of strength, power, and speed

Technique

Luckily, sled work does not require complex movement patterns that exercises such as power lifts or squats demand. Understanding just a few techniques will get you on your way to your first sled workout.

The sled is very specific in nature to running and carries a big punch in this area. With a sled, you cannot cheat with your form which is unlike actual running where you can. In order to get the sled to even move, you need to perform the exercise with good technique. Don’t worry though, doing it correctly isn’t difficult. As a result, you will establish proper motor patterns and will strengthen the muscles that are critical for running. These muscles include the muscles in the feet and calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and your core.

Grip:

Firmly grip the bars with your hands either high or low on the bars.

I find using my gloves is generally helpful for me and makes me feel more secure. Though, everyone is different. Here is a hint: Gripping lower on the bars tend to work your glutes, quads, and core harder while grabbing higher up will work more of your core strength.

Arm Position:

For newbies: It’s a good position to hold both arms bent and push through your chest or for those who have just added heavier weights for the first time and need to build up to the weight. If you want to get more out of your push, do it with your arms straight instead.

Having your arms straight out in front of you with your body in a horizontal position will make the workout more “full body” and raise the level of difficulty (think of yourself as a bridge between the sled and the floor).

Pushing Weighted Sled “making a bridge”

Feet:

Set your feet up so they are the same width as your running stance. During the stride your feet should remain the same width apart the entire time – no pretend walking on a tight wire.

It is also important that you drive through your forefoot, and make sure that all of your toes remain in contact with the ground. This will provide you with a much sturdier base and with the stability and balance that you need to generate more power.

Whole Body Mechanics:

Make sure that your body remains in alignment from your head to your feet. Your spine (from the lumbar to cervical region) should remain in neutral alignment and your torso and pelvis should remain stacked and straight while you face ahead.

Your knees should remain in line with your feet the entire time (imagine running with a straight body rather than flailing around doing a funny chicken run, don’t do that)! Lastly, do not forget to breathe, to brace your core, and drive with your legs.

Choosing Weight:

Select a weight that will help you to reach your goals while maintaining proper form. For instance, if you are training for strength, heavier weights closer to your 1RM might be a good goal. If you are doing sprints and you’re looking for speed, you may be closer to around 25-35% of your 1RM. Be mindful when you are loading the sled, if your mechanics are breaking down, your load is too heavy for you and that’s okay! On the flip side, if you aren’t breaking a sweat after a few passes, you might want to work a little harder. If this is the case, add more weight to the sled, do it more quickly, add more reps, or reduce your rest time in between runs. We are all on our own journey.

The Risk Of Injury Is Relatively Low

The lack of eccentric movements and joint loading that comes from sled training makes it ideal for injury prevention or rehabilitation training for lower-body focused athletes and also regular people. Eccentric muscle movements or contractions cause muscles to elongate in response to a greater opposing force. A concentric contraction causes muscles to shorten, thereby generating force. As a result, when pushing a sled there is much less wear and tear on the body and recovery comes quicker.

In fact, when I’m done pushing and pulling a sled I feel as if I’ve almost died (okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration!), but in truth, I am rarely sore afterward and usually surprised that I’m not!

Joint Loading

When you use the sled with weights, the heavy nature of it will limit you to low-speed and/or low-duration efforts. This by nature reduces the loading on the joints and muscles. It provides a means of conditioning without beating your body down or requiring huge periods of recovery. This not only affects you physically but also mentally.

For some reason, I can’t seem to go very heavy on a barbell squat. It tends to hurt my hips before I can go as heavy as I think I should be able to go. I know of others who have pain in their trapezius area (back of the neck where the barbell rests) and can’t quite get their squats to where they know they can lift. If an exercise hurts, you need to stop.

The Answer

For me, the answer was to push the sled instead of doing the barbell squats. The sled is a strong quadriceps builder that minimizes those compressive forces, leading to very little stress on the neck, spine, and the lumbar hip complex. If you aren’t going to full depth on a squat right now, the sled may be a better option for you. When you train with heavy weights that aren’t piled on you vertically, you will get a massive full body workout just like a full depth squat, only much safer.

Mental Perspective

From the mental perspective, the sled eliminated a fear factor for me. I was less worried about hurting myself and more able to focus on the task at hand. If you’ve had pain or an injury and squats don’t feel right, placing heavy loads on the sled instead of your back will eliminate the risks and the pain. I feel much more confident and safer pushing and pulling weights rather than trying to carry them on my back. If you are coming back from an injury, make sure to get your doctor’s approval (if that seems like the right thing to do) and if you have any fears surrounding it, read this Don’t Let An Injury Stop You.

Training Versatility

As I’ve explained a bit, the sled is a way to load locomotive and running mechanics in front of the body rather than on top of the body. This is a major advantage to the sled that trainers commonly overlook. The load literally never weighs you down. This allows for a ton of training versatility and variability.

It’s relatively simple to learn and isn’t as technical as many other exercises out there, including running. As a result, it is suitable for virtually all fitness levels. It offers the benefits of extremely advanced forms of training, yet is easy to use.

Loose Body Fat

A sled workout is a fantastic tool for losing body fat. There are many variations of the sled that will kick your metabolism into overdrive and will turn your body into a fat burning machine. When pushing a sled you are able to create power bursts quite easily and effectively, burning fat and calories even after you are done working out. Check out #3 Sled Workout: Power below for a workout to get you started.

Not feeling excited about a power workout? That’s okay! With a sled, you can do a cardio rich high-intensity workout, you’ll want to try out the #5 Sled Workout For Speed: Sprint Pushes. Your heart and lungs will thank you!

Muscle Growth

The sled is also great for muscle hypertrophy and will help you achieve a strong and cut athletic appearance since hits your entire body during workouts. All of this happening while the work is done with ease without compressing your spine!

And More…

I can’t forget to mention that a sled workout can be a real time saver. When I’m short on time, instead of jumping on the Stairmaster for 25 minutes, I’ve often opted for the #1 Sled Workout: Push & Pull “Killer” Ender. This pushes my heart rate up, leaves me gasping for my breath, turns on my sweat valves, and makes my legs unable to move for a brief period of time making me take that 5-minute rest or more at the end! Oh, it burns so good!

You don’t have to do an entire sled workout either. It’s so versatile because you can use it as your workout or choose to use it at different points in time during your workout. Just one example is that you could do a light warm up on the sled, move to free weights, and then finish with:

#1 Sled Workout: Push & Pull “Killer” Ender

Start Here:

Do this after your workout to really kick up your cardio and your body will continue burning calories long after you are done working out. You will need straps or rope to attach to the sled. A TRX works great for this.

Your goal is to push this weight as explosively as possible on one pass and then pull the sled with arms straight holding the straps coming back to the start. Knees are bent as if you are in a squat, now walk backward. Stay in the squat as low as possible and don’t use your arms to pull (just hold on). This is a bit of a quadricep killer!

Tori killing her quads by pulling the sled backwards
Tori killing her quads by pulling the sled backwards

Distance:

Push the sled 20 meters in each direction

Sets:

Perform 6-8 rounds

Weights:

Load approximately 70-85% of your maximum weight to the sled. If you have been doing this for a while, you might be able to use closer 90% of your maximum weight.

Rest:

3-5 minutes between rounds. This longer rest interval will allow for proper recovery, which is imperative if you are training for power.

The Basics of Strength, Power, and Speed

Strength, power, and speed are all forms of muscular ability. While excelling in sports may require a greater proportion of one type of muscular ability, most sports require all three. Your ability to move the weight, move it with speed and continue moving it for extended periods of time will help you be a better all-around athlete. A comprehensive training program includes phases that improve all three.

Training for stregnth, power, and speed

If you aren’t an athlete but are a regular Joe or Juanita, these abilities while not as complex or to the degree as an athlete needs, are all important and imperative to the health and basic functioning in every human being. Your overall enjoyment of life is highly connected to being able to physically carry your body out and about in the world.

What is Strength?

Strength can be measured based on the amount of weight lifted for a single rep. This is referred to as a one-rep max, or 1RM. Upper-body and lower-body strength are measured separately. Strength tests may include the bench press for upper body and squats for the lower body. This will help you figure out your 1RM to determine how much weight you should pull for your goals. Hiring a body coach to help you in this area is a good consideration.

What is Power?

Power is the ability to move the weight with speed. Being strong does not always translate to being powerful. For example, a strong lower body can do a heavy squat slowly, but it can’t necessarily generate the power to do the same lift with speed. Power is essentially explosiveness.

Power = Force x Distance / Time

What is Speed?

Speed refers to how fast an object is moving. Speed can be thought of as the rate at which an object covers distance. A fast-moving object has a high speed and covers a relatively large distance in a short amount of time. Contrast this to a slow-moving object that has a low speed; it covers a relatively small amount of distance in the same amount of time. An object with no movement at all has a zero speed. Simple right?

Distance= Speed x Time
Speed = Distance / Time

Sled workouts will dramatically improve your ability to accelerate in all directions, which improves your quickness, and your acceleration when running regularly. Sled pushing and pulling develops solid strength in your feet, gastrocnemius, hamstrings, quads, glutes, and your overall core.

Not only will you get gains in overall strength, power, and speed with sled work but you will also improve your aerobic and anaerobic conditioning all at the same time. It’s intense, and it will burn so bad…um…I mean good! You will also be building balance into your muscles as you continue training with the sled. You’ll know it too because when you are pushing unbalanced, it is quite noticeable.

#2 Sled Workout: Basic Strength

Start Here:

Begin with basic sled pushes. Your goal is to build strength here.

Distance:

Push the sled 10 to 20 meters each time.

Weights:

Use a weight equal to your one-rep squat max weight.

Rest:

2 minutes between each set.

How to do it:

Leaning forward at a 45-degree angle you will grip the sled with your hands close to your chest (similar to a push-up position).

Then from a staggered stance, drive through the balls of your feet with all toes in contact with the ground. Take large steps forward with each step. As this becomes easier, you can extend your arms and your body to make more of a bridge shape while pushing. This will work your core even harder!

#3 Sled Workout: Upper Body

If you really want to concentrate on your shoulders, chest, back and upper body core, using straps, rope or a TRX attached to the sled is another great way to use the sled while working your full-body power potential. This is a great option to minimize low back stress.

Start Here:

Your goal is to explosively extend the knees and hips while driving the elbows back into a fluid motion pull the weight with as much force as possible.

Distance:

Pull the sled 20 meters at a time

Sets:

4

Weights:

I would estimate approximately 30 to 50% of your maximum weight. If you’re in better shape try 50-75% of your max weight. The stronger you are the more weight you will be able to push at a faster speed.

Rest:

2 minutes between each set

How to do it:

With the TRX hooked to the sled, sit back into a squat position with a tall posture and arms fully extended in front. You should have full tension of the TRX when sitting back into the squat. In one fluid move, explode up and back, extending the hips and knees while pulling the sled directly towards your torso. Once completed, step backward until the TRX again has tension, then repeat.

#4 Sled Workout: Basic Power

Start Here:

Do a few warm-up sets at a lighter weight. Your goal is to push this weight as explosively as possible. This might make you feel your heartbeat in your throat!

Distance:

Push the sled 10 meters

Sets:

Perform 6-10 rounds

Weights:

Load approximately 70-85% of your maximum weight to the sled. If you have been doing this for a while, you might be able to use closer 90% of your maximum weight.

Rest:

3-5 minutes between rounds. This longer rest interval will allow for recovery, which is imperative if you are training for power.

#5 Sled Workout For Speed: Sprint Pushes

This will pump up your cardio really nicely!

Start Here:

Your goal is to go as fast as you can.

Distance:

Perform a 10 to 20 meter sprint.

Sets:

10 times

Weights:

Load a moderate amount of weight to the sled. I would estimate approximately 30 to 50% of your maximum weight. Obviously the stronger you are, the more weight you will be able to push at a faster speed.

Rest:

30-90 seconds (the fitter you are, the less recovery time you will need.)

How to do it:

Start with minimal weight and progress as you are able on a 10-20 meter track. Grab the handles, and bend over so your arms are straight in front of you, head slightly down, and spine neutral.

Then:

Push the sled for the entire distance – sprinting the whole time. That’s one rep. Reverse course and do another sprint with the sled. Do 10 reps a set, making sure to take a minute-rest between each set. Do as many sets as is comfortable, within your normal workout threshold.

Putting It All Together

The benefits of sled workouts are quite vast in comparison to many other exercises out there today. It is versatile to different types of workouts and it will increase your strength, power, and speed. The risk vs. benefits of this apparatus is unique and worth adding to your workout routine. Whether you use the sled for your entire workout or a blow out for the end, the sled will show you many benefits that other tools at the gym just don’t measure up to.

You don’t have to be an athlete in training to incorporate the sled pushes or pulls into your training, you can be anyone! One thing to be aware of though, is that you may feel like a badass as you use it!

Check back for more variations with sled training. More workouts coming soon!

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