The sled is a jack-of-all-trades for just about every physical quality under the sun. It can be used to train strength, speed, conditioning, power, and everything else, for that matter.
Beyond just being versatile, however, sleds have a number of additional advantages over virtually every other exercise:
- They're eccentric-less, which means they cause hardly any soreness. This makes sled work a good option for in-season athletes who can't afford to be sore.
- There's a low learning curve. The sled is simple to use and far less technical than most other exercises, which means they can be performed by athletes at any level.
- They involve actual movement through space. The same can't be said about most of the other exercises that are performed in the gym, which makes sled work nearly impossible to replicate.
- They're low impact and joint-friendly. This makes them a great tool for athletes working around pain and/or injury.
- They can be restorative. Repetitive concentric-only muscular contractions are a great way to pump blood flow into the working muscles, which makes sled work useful for warming up or flushing out soreness.
That being said, sleds are still incredibly under-utilized in terms of their versatility. Most coaches and athletes are familiar with sled sprints, and heavy sled drags – which, for the record, are phenomenal exercises – but they hardly ever use sleds for anything beyond that.
It's time to change that. In order to get even more value out of sleds and take advantage of all they have to offer, check out the following five exercises for some new (and effective) challenges.
1. Lateral sled drag
Sports occur in all three planes of motion, which makes getting outside of the sagittal plane (front-to-back) a must. In particular, training in the frontal plane (side-to-side) is especially important, given that athletes need to be able to cut, change direction, and jump laterally with strength and power. That being said, common frontal plane exercises like lateral lunges and side planks aren't always optimal as neither involves much speed, let alone actual movement through space.
A better option – and arguably the best frontal plane exercise of all – is the lateral sled drag. Here's why:
- It trains single-leg strength and power in a lateral fashion. As mentioned previously, most frontal plane exercises involve zero movements through actual space. The lateral sled drag, on the other hand, combines fast and dynamic frontal plane movement (through space) with the ability to add meaningful load. This makes it especially valuable for athletes, given the lateral demands of the sport.
- It targets "hard-to-reach" muscles. There's a huge hip internal/external rotation component, which is hard to otherwise duplicate with the load. Likewise, it's one of the few ways to build strength in both the adductors and abductors without using machines or doing hundreds of reps of side-lying clams.
- It's a dynamic anti-rotation core challenge. The lateral sled drag challenges the core to resist rotation at the trunk – much like a Pallof press, for example – albeit in a dynamic manner. This challenges the core more effectively than other dynamic movements (e.g., Russian twists) without placing undue stress on the spine.
2. Explosive sled chest press
Although the explosive sled chest press is an upper-body movement at its core, make no mistake about it: it's an integrative, full-body movement that builds strength and power from head-to-toe. The lead leg is pushing into the ground in sync with the upper body, the back hip is extending through following the initial push, and the core has to remain braced to generate maximal force. In a way, this makes the explosive sled chest press a lot like an Olympic split jerk in that it involves similar muscle actions, with the only difference being that it's done horizontally rather than vertically.
Here's why it's so valuable:
- It trains horizontal power. Most power-based exercises that are performed in the gym – like cleans and box jumps, for example – involve vertical movement. The problem is that most sport-specific movements occur horizontally rather than vertically, which means that training power in a similar fashion is a must. This makes the explosive sled chest press especially valuable as it trains horizontal power in a novel fashion.
- It has a direct carryover to acceleration. The explosive sled chest press is a phenomenal way to develop strength and power at acceleration-specific angles. It involves similar muscle actions, a near 45-degree body angle, a powerful drive off the lead leg, and synced up arm action.
- It's a joint-friendly alternative to other explosive upper body movements. The explosive sled chest press involves an explosive push from the upper body – much like a split jerk, as previously mentioned – albeit in a horizontal fashion that's easier on the shoulders. This makes it a useful option for athletes who have pain when performing other explosive upper body movements like any sort of push press or plyo push-up.
3. Explosive sled row
Like the explosive sled chest press, the explosive sled row is more than an upper-body exercise; rather, it's an integrative, full-body movement that builds power throughout the entire kinetic chain. What separates the explosive sled row from its antagonist counterpart, however, is that it trains the pulling pattern. While that isn't significant in and of itself, it does give it two particular advantages over other rowing variations:
- It trains speed in the pulling pattern. The explosive sled row is unlike any other row due to the fact that it places emphasis on power and speed. Think about it: whereas it's "easy" to do speed work when squatting, benching, and/or deadlifting, it's virtually impossible to do so with any sort of row. This gives the explosive sled row an advantage over other pulling exercises as it taps into the central nervous system and provides a unique neurological strength benefit.
- It trains power from a dead stop. The explosive sled row is a power-based movement more than anything else. Going further, what it really hones in on is power from a dead stop. This makes it advantageous for improving the rate of force development (RFD), which is crucial for all athletes regardless of sport.
4. Sled-resisted trap bar carry
The good old-fashioned farmers carry one of the best bang-for-buck exercises that can be performed in the gym. It builds full-body strength, reinforces good posture, exposes weak links, and challenges core stability and muscular endurance, unlike anything else.
In and of itself, that's enough to make the farmers carry a must-do exercise. That being said, throwing a sled into the mix is a fun (and painful) way to make it even more effective. In particular, the addition of the sled ups the ante on the regular farmers carry in three ways:
- It increases the demands on the lower body. The sled-resisted trap bar carry is essentially a combination of a forward sled drag, and a farmers carry. Paired together, it hits all of the same muscles as the regular farmers carry, albeit with the increased emphasis that the forward sled drag places on the lower half.
- It forces pristine form and a proper gait pattern. It's nearly impossible to perform the sled-resisted trap bar carry without dialed in form as it requires a slow and controlled pace, perfect posture, and a strong full-body brace. Moreover, the addition of the sled places an increased emphasis on engaging the glutes and "feeling the whole foot" on each step, which reinforces a proper gait (walking) pattern.
- It teaches maximal tension, unlike anything else. The sled-resisted trap bar carry involves actively pushing into the sled to overcome its resistance, which inherently forces a maximal isometric brace throughout the entire body. If there's any loss of tension – whether it's a breakdown in core stability or a loosening up of the grip – the sled-resisted trap bar carries will expose it.
5. Sled-resisted bear crawl
Bear crawls are the epitome of an exercise that checks all the boxes. When done well, they light up the entire core in all three planes (anti-extension, rotation, and lateral flexion), improve motor control, train reciprocal patterning – meaning the opposite arm moves with the opposite leg – and challenge dynamic stability and mobility throughout essentially every joint in the body.
That being said, adding sled resistance takes bear crawls to a whole new level of effectiveness: Here's why:
- The resistance is only felt while in motion. The idea behind the rear-loaded aspect is similar to that of an RKC plank in that the goal is to alternate between periods of bracing and relaxing. This doesn't necessarily make the sled-resisted bear crawl better or worse than its plate-loaded counterpart, but what it does do is provide time to breathe, reach, and reset on each rep to a greater extent.
- The glutes and legs have to push forward with significantly more force. In and of itself, the bear crawl is already challenging on the lower half due to the hip extension and knee flexion that take place on