Want to improve your speed and power development? The sled can help. Improve your conditioning? Sled exercises will get you there. Build bigger muscles? Better start pushing and pulling a sled.
The weighted sled may be the ultimate training tool for getting maximum results with minimal risk. You can push, pull and drag a sled in ways that translate directly to performance improvements on the field, and you can do so without endangering or harming yourself. If you were lifting a heavy dumbbell and dropped it, it could hit a part of your lower body and cause injury. If you fail while pushing a sled, it just stops moving.
Here are five of my favorite sled exercises along with instructions on how you can use them in your workouts based on your goals.
Sled Exercise #1: Pushes
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I’m quite confident that everyone reading this has witnessed a Sled Push at some point during their training. The Sled Push is a phenomenal exercise, which allows athletes to drive a potentially very heavy load to promote strength development throughout the lower body. It’s also a useful assessment tool for coaches, since the way an athlete drives the sled can reveal potential weaknesses. A good coach can spot those issues and develop an exercise prescription to fix them.
As a bonus, if an athlete or client is suffering from a lower-back or knee injury, the Sled Push allows them to train target areas without irritating those trouble spots.
Tip: Make sure not to take the classic CrossFit position of placing your hands near the base of the sled. Your body angle should be roughly between 45 and 70 degrees for optimal acceleration and speed.
Sled Exercise #2: Side Shuffles
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I like the Sled Side Shuffle for teaching lateral movement prior to high velocity movement. The athlete can focus on proper technique before transitioning to a live environment.
What I’ve also noticed with this exercise is that it’s very difficult to drive the sled much unless you establish proper hip height, rear leg drive and lead leg reachability.
Side Shuffles are also a great tool for teaching lateral stride frequency. If you take too long of a step, the harness will start to slack, causing delays and deceleration. The sled can help athletes self-organize or regulate exactly what they need to do to become more efficient.
Sled Exercise #3: Backpedal
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The Sled Backpedal is another classic move. I use it with my athletes during in-season training, not only to help improve this essential movement (common in most sports), but also to reduce soreness and prevent injury. The Backpedal does a tremendous job of strengthening both the quads and hips flexors to help raise performance and keep this region strong.
Sled Exercise #4: Backward Pushes
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When programmed appropriately, this exercise just flat out sucks (in a good way). Backward Pushes are very challenging, which makes them a great form of lactate tolerance training. Essentially, they help you learn to perform even when you’re feeling drained. Moreover, Backward Pushes place an unmatched load on the quadriceps, since the arms are out of the picture.
Sled Exercise #5: High Frequency Backpedal
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The High Frequency Backpedal is another quad/hip flexor-dominant sled exercise that is quick, convenient and provides a source of training variation for athletes who are training week in and week out. Since the back end of the sled is right in front of you, the drill prompts a faster foot response, which may help ramp up your nervous system.
I love high frequency or fast feet drills for athletes who are naturally wired to move their limbs fast, or for strong individuals who can’t express speed and power very well in movement. They both wind up better after performing this exercise.
Sled Programming Options
The beauty of sled training is that it can be implemented in a number of different ways. How you incorporate it into your program depends on your needs. For example, we primarily program it for anaerobic conditioning purposes, quad development, movement education training, contrast or complex training, and acceleration speed development. We have specific training categories for each of these. Movement education is assumed when we program the sled for one of the other 3 areas of emphasis. Here are some guidelines we use to prescribe it to our athletes.
Program one of the sled variations at the conclusion of the strength portion of your workout 1-2 days per week, with 2-3 days of rest between sessions. Eight to 12 20-yard reps with 0-30 seconds recovery at a load of one to two times an athlete’s bodyweight works great for creating high levels of local muscular and metabolic fatigue.
Program sled work with another quad-dominant exercise (e.g., Split Squats, Walking Lunges, High Box Step-Ups) as a same-muscle group superset, or pair it up with a hip-dominant movement (e.g., Glute-Ham Raises, Hamstring Curls, Swings).
Complex or Contrast Training
Since the sled can replicate several speed-oriented athletic movements, you may get some extra potentiation of the involved muscles if you program a sled exercise before sprinting. The Sled Push and Sprint obviously work great. The research I’ve seen shows greater effects with this type of specialized training in the upper versus the lower body, but it’s great variation that can help an athlete’s confidence, and we’ve had success with it. Loading parameters seem to vary, so play around with the weight and track and collect data with your athletes.
Acceleration and Speed Development
For athletes or ex-athletes who are older and just getting back into training, the sled is a great initial exercise to build a foundation of strength, technique and coordination before progressing to riskier and faster approaches to speed training. Plenty of research shows the sled works well for acceleration and speed.
For more tips on speed training, check out my Speed Encyclopedia, which features a comprehensive research-based speed training system for athletes and coaches.