Sled training can trace its origins to Scandinavian loggers who developed powerful legs and lower backs from dragging downed trees out of forests all day but the popularity of fitness sleds are a relatively modern phenomenon. One of the first commercial sleds, the prowler, was specifically built to condition football linemen. Today, you will no doubt see sleds in most gyms being used for interval training, speed training, strongman training, fat-loss conditioning, and general cardiovascular conditioning. So, how effective is sled training and when should it be applied?
Giulio Palau - Sleds Are Versatile and Time Efficient Training Tools
The sled is an incredibly versatile and effective training tool. If used properly, the sled can be used for metabolic conditioning, strength training, and hypertrophy.
High intensity interval training has been shown to be much more effective for both anaerobic and aerobic metabolic conditioning than steady state, low intensity training. Because of the increased demand of high intensity training, anaerobic pathways are taxed heavily during exertion. However, research has shown that aerobic metabolism is also taxed heavily during recovery from exercise both between sets and after high intensity training sessions. This increased metabolic demand suggests that high intensity training is more effective for altering body mass composition, increasing VO2 max, and favorably affecting other metrics of fitness, including insulin sensitivity.
Using the sled as a tool for high intensity interval training has the added benefit of increasing strength and adding volume to training sessions without the risk of overtraining. Because sled exercises are typically concentric in nature, they cause less physiological stress on the body and therefore can safely be used with more volume and frequency than other training modalities. Also, sled pulling and pushing exercises mimic the lower body mechanics of sprinting and acceleration to build strength specific to those movements with much less impact on the body.
Because most sports require short and frequent high intensity exertion, sled training can be sports specific, however, the sled is also highly scalable for different populations because the exercises are not highly technical and load and other variables are easily adjusted. There is an intuitive element to sled movements that are self correcting. Inefficient movement is immediately apparent as the sled becomes much harder to move.
That being said, programming for different training goals will require some tweaking of the relevant variables: mainly intensity, rest intervals, time under tension, and distance. Intensity here should be measured relative to how far you can move the sled before reaching failure at the selected weight. Meaning your max load will be different at a 20 yard distance than a 40 yard distance.
Strength training will correlate to higher intensity and shorter distance with moderate rest intervals. Power training should utilize a high intensity with shorter distances and long rest intervals for maximum force output. Lower intensity and moderate distance can be applied to training for speed and acceleration. Endurance will obviously require low intensity with much longer duration. Time under tension can also be relevant in endurance training but should not be underestimated when training for hypertrophy.
While sled movements are mainly concentric, the advantage of adding volume to your workouts without too much stress to the body can be useful for hypertrophy. Overall, the sled is one of the most versatile and time efficient training tools. It's hard to overstate the effectiveness of adding sled routines to a well programmed routine. It may be brutal but it's more than worth it.
Ted Sloan - Sleds Benefit Linear Speed and Cutting Movements
Sleds are an amazing tool for many different purposes. They can be used in a regressed manner for less experienced athletes and they can be used by advanced athletes for more sport specific movements and they come in many sizes and shapes. I personally own a Havyk Sled and it is designed for many purposes, including heavy lifts, such as deadlifts, dragging, pushing, upper body movements such as dips and push-ups and so on.
Athletes come in all shapes and sizes as well and many aspects of the history of training and genetics will affect the current needs of the athlete, particularly strength and power. Methods have been developed to test the needs of an athlete, such as the discrepancy between an athlete’s countermovement jump and non-counter movement jump (if you haven’t researched this yet, I highly recommend doing so immediately!).
Just like many other tools, one can develop a base level of strength with specific movement patterns, such as top end speed strength as well as acceleratory strength, by performing slow, heavy, intentional movement; these can include lateral dragging, forward angular marching, tall marching with a heel strike and backwards dragging, among others. After Strength is developed, if needed in this specific order (one should assess their athletes in order to ascertain whether they would benefit more from power or strength development at a specific point in time), power can be applied by performing similar movement patterns in a rapid explosive manner, such as sled sprinting, or lateral explosive pushes.
These movements can benefit linear speed and cutting movements, such as those often performed by running backs in football, pushing off through the gait cycle used in hockey, or stealing a base and playing defense in the infield in baseball. Sleds can even be used on certain surfaces to develop quick, more fine angular cuts through changes of direction performed sporadically in a prowler push, such as those often performed in basketball, American football and soccer or traditional football.
When focusing on power development, with a sled, it is vital to use straps that give as little as possible, in order to create tension right off the bat. More exercises await to be discovered with the sled and prowler. These two extremely versatile pieces of equipment should be a staple in a coach’s repertoire and included in strength, power and conditioning protocols often.
Antonio Squillante - Train the Movement, Not the Muscle
I still remember the day I was accused of having my 20 years old football players bench pressing twice a week. "There ain't no bench on the football field!" somebody claimed. That day I realized functional training was a double-edged sword.
Today, almost ten years later, I would like to ask "Well.. is there a sled on the football field? Or a tire to flip?" It's a shame how the paradigm of sports specificity had been run down along the path of functionality. In what way is pushing a sled more "functional" than squatting, deadlifting, snatching or tossing a medicine ball?
Anyway, we have to create diversity in the way we train athletes is great, and that's the reason why a lot of unconventional tools such a sleds, prowlers, tires and hammers find their place in the general physical preparation of an athlete. What makes a sled a better solution than, let's say, a battle rope or a pair of sliders is the ability to use larger muscle groups in such a way that promotes synergy among different kinetic chains.
"Train the movement don't train the muscles", someday once said (Vern Gambetta) Is pushing a sled any more beneficial than squatting, running, or jumping? Not at all. Weight distribution in pushing and/or pulling a sled is diametrically different than weight distribution in any other athletic-like activity.
Where is the free falling idea behind running mechanics? Where is the ballistic component of power development? Pushing and pulling a sled is no better or worst than any other more conventional strength training exercise. It's different, and in a world mysteriously afraid of thinking outside the box different is good.