The thought of someone hauling a sled behind them conjures up images of rugged arctic explorers battling through horizontal blizzards, with ice encrusted beards, missing frost bitten extremities. But the humble hauling sled is possibly the best bit of training kit that you are probably not using, and you don’t even have to eat your sled dogs or lose a finger to use it.
The training sled comes in a variety of forms from super simple (see below) to ridiculously sophisticated; from pretty much free to remortgaging your house if you want to buy one.
Essentially, it is an object that you can push or pull which creates resistance to the body through it’s mass or via friction from the surface in contact with the ground or breaking mechanisms through it’s wheels (if it has them).
A cheap and simple sled will cost you about £50. A ‘prowler’, the bigger brother of the simple sled, will cost you at least £150, and the ‘Tank’, a wheeled variety will set you back a whopping £1795.
By now you will have realised, I have deep pockets yet short arms and don’t like to pay out for anything unless I have to. So below is my quick and dirty training sled that will cost you nothing but a little effort, or at most, the cost of a posh coffee.
Why use a sled at all, Glenn? Isn’t it just another fitness gimmick?
No. Anything used by rugged outdoormen of old gets the tick of approval from me. The sled is so simple that it fools you into thinking it’s not worth the consideration. But the reality is that it has an absolute bundle of benefits, some of which you would be hard pushed to get from any other single piece of training equipment.
So what are these benefits?
- Low impact/Lower risk of injury – With this type of training we are moving weight without having to directly load up the skeletal and muscular system thereby reducing the wear and tear on the body. You will also never be in a position where you are left holding a weight at the point of failure. This makes the sled really useful for…
- Rehabilitation – This is my favourite use for the sled. Because of the lack of loading it is pretty damn safe for those with a former injury. I use it a lot for people rebuilding themselves from a knee injury, in particular using the reverse drag. I myself have had a few issues with my knee when I squat and the reverse (backward) sled drag has been a godsend for maintaining quad strength. The reverse drag is particularly good for building the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), the muscle that crosses and helps stabilise the knee joint. The next reason the sled is low impact and good for rehab is because it has…
- No Eccentric Phase – When we lift something, regardless of whether its a squat or a bicep curl etc, there are generally two phases to the movement, the concentric phase whereby we lift the weight up, and the eccentric phase where we lower the weight back down again. We can move about 25% more weight in the eccentric phase than the concentric. It is during the eccentric phase of the movement that we incur the greatest damage to the muscle. Through normal progressive overload this damage shows itself as micro-trauma to the muscle fibres, and this micro-trauma is what stimulates the body to repair itself into a stronger, larger version of itself. The micro-trauma is also why we feel muscle soreness after a new workout stimulus; Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Now this micro-trauma isn’t bad, but by reducing it we can train more volume without the soreness and with less risk of injury. It is also advantageous for athletes not wanting to increase body mass while training, and those athletes who want to continue to train without compromising their performance on game day.
- Fat Loss – Concentric only training, as in sled work, has a much higher metabolic demand than eccentric training. This equates to more calories burned. Spend any time doing sled work and you can almost hear your fat cells screaming.
- Full body workout – It literally can do it all. You can primarily work the lower body, upper body, or hit it all in one go, depending on how you use it.
- Mental fortitude – Now don’t let the rehab and low impact stuff lull you into a false sense of security, sled work is hard. There is not another mode of exercise than makes me feel like crying quite so much. Because of this and the fact that you can up the volume means it is a perfect way to build up your mental fortitude and toughness. This really is Harder To Kill territory.
- It makes you look like a total badass – This is obviously the main reason why we train. Sled work makes you look and feel like you are competing the Worlds Strongest Man competition, the best sporting event in the world.
- Real world functionality – ‘Functional training’ is so overused and misinterpreted that I hate using the term. However, sled training is a great example of training with real world application. In the real world, when we lift stuff we generally move it before putting it down again. Sled pulls easily mimic dragging somebody to safety, and sled pushes would mimic pushing an object away from a casualty. Be strong to be useful.
- Easy to use – Almost everyone can use the sled and it takes very little skill to use it. Whilst good technique is paramount it is difficult to do it wrong. Bad technique will likely just result in the sled not moving
- Variety – You can push it, pull it; go forwards, backwards, sideways; go faster, heavier, further, longer; use a myriad different things attached to it; change hand or body position. There are a seemingly endless number of combinations.
- Great for all goals – By changing how you use it, a sled is great for strength, power, muscle gain, fat loss, conditioning, endurance and general bad-ass-ery.
- Improves speed – Great for runners and other athletes as it has been shown to increase running speed and acceleration.
If that list doesn’t convince you then nothing will. For those that want a piece of the action, keep reading.
The DIY Cheap and Dirty Sled
You will need:
- An old tyre – free from a tyre shop.
- Some kind of anchor bolt – I like the U shaped bolts for about £4 as you can connect a huge array of things to it. The cheaper option is an eye bolt (£1) which is fine for a carabiner clip. The quickest and easiest way is to just wrap a piece of chain around it (2-4 quid).
- Some bits of plywood or other scrap timber to create a platform at the base of the tyre. This allows you to add extra weight on your sled. I cut a circle out of plywood bigger than the inner lip of the tyre, then cut it in 2 to get it inside, and rejoined the two halves again with two battens. (Free bits of scrap)
To attach the anchor bolt you’ll need to drill one or two holes though the tread section of the tyre. Use an old or cheap drill bit. Modern tyres have metal wire running through it which will wreck your bit. Also be aware of the fumes coming off the rubber as the drill bit goes through. Try not to breath it in.
I like to attach the anchor bolt off-centre. The reason for this is to give me more options. If I have the anchor low down towards the ground, the act of pulling on the attached strops lifts the front of the tyre slightly decreasing the friction of the sled to the ground, making it easier. When I flip the tyre over and the anchor is towards the top this doesn’t happen, and the friction is greater making it harder. But you do you.
Next you’ll need some way of pulling or pushing it. The options are many. Here are my favourite ones.
One of the most useful is the suspension trainer, like our diy version. These are great for giving a variety of options, especially useful for ‘pushing’ the sled like a prowler and doing upper body work.
Next up is the lifting strop. These cost about a tenner and can be used on their own or in conjunction with a belt or harness.
For a harness you can buy relatively cheap ones specifically designed for the job, or you can attach your strop/chain etc to something like a weight belt. These two different things have a very different feel. The belt attachment allows for forward, backwards and lateral pulling.
Another great way to use the sled for upper body and grip work is to use a rope for pulling.
So now you have your sled and some way to pull it, you can start to load it up. What you decide to load it with will depend on what you have to hand. Weight plates, kettlebells, sandbags, rocks, bricks, and children all work well.
How heavy do you load it? Well it depends on what you want to achieve. For strength you’ll want to take it close to the max amount you can pull, and pull/push it for a relative short distance, say 10-30m, with 2-3 minutes rest between rounds.
For power, drop the weight to the 70-80% of your max, and keep the distance low (10-20m) but go as explosively as possible. Keep your rest periods even longer (3-5 minutes).
For endurance you can drop the weight further to 20-45% of your max and perform longer sets for 1-2 minutes duration, or even longer for the lighter weights.
Repeat the sets and don’t forget to warm up before hand, maybe with lighter weight sets.
To make progression you can add weight, distance, speed, or time. There are a whole host of online resources for advice on sled work.
That’s it. Sled work is both beautiful and horrific, and once you start seeing the benefits which, in my opinion, happen pretty quick, you’ll become a zealot and start collecting old tyres of varying sizes, which is also a good thing by keeping them out of landfill. Reduce, Reuse, Rehab, Rebuild. So be warned and go forth and become mighty.