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The Best Sled Workouts for Muscle, Strength, Fat Loss, and Recovery


The humble sled has made its way from American football gridirons, into strongman gyms, through CrossFit “boxes,” and has arrived as a mainstay of everyday training. The sled’s rise to ubiquity is fueled by its versatility and the fact that it’s just plain fun to grind along the pavement or turf.

Credit: UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock

Sleds are commonly used for sprint training (1), and can help build a muscular physique, stimulate strength, and help ramp up one’s conditioning, bolster fat loss, and help recovery. Rein in your gear — a sled, a long and sturdy strap or rope, and some weight plates — and get ready to work.

Best Sled Workouts

Best Sled Workout for Muscle

Building muscle requires adequate volume (sets x reps) with movements that place a significant amount of tension on the target muscles. (2)(3) Most folks may scoff at sled-based exercises since they emphasize the concentric, or positive, muscle contraction compared to free weight movements that allow the user to control the lifting phase and the lowering (eccentric) phase.
But studies show that concentric-only training is effective for stimulating muscle growth. And focusing on just force production can bolster muscle recovery (which is a key for muscle growth). (4)(5)

Build Muscle Without Barbells

If you want to build a big and balanced physique, here’s a sled workout that hits all major muscle groups with emphasis on the arms and legs. If you’re already performing gym-based hypertrophy work three or more times per week, add this sled workout once per week. If you train in the gym fewer than three times per week, add this sled workout twice per week on non-sequential days.

Remember, volume is key for hypertrophy. Use a weight for each exercise that allows 8 to 12 good repetitions. If you go much lighter, your workout duration drags on and can turn into a quasi-cardio session. If you go much heavier, you will not achieve optimal volume. Once you can perform two or more full reps past your repetition target on the final set, it’s time to increase the weight by five to 10%.

Each rep should be performed with intent to maximally “flex” the target muscles. This can improve the mind-muscle connection and help to trigger growth. (6) Also, for efficiency and effectiveness, this workout is structured as a series of supersets.

Sled Pull-Through

  • How to Do it: Face away from the sled holding the rope or straps in front of your thighs. Hinge forward at the hips, reach back between your legs, and step into tension. Drive your hips forward and stand tall by contracting your glutes and hamstrings.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Backward Sled Drag

  • How to Do it: Face the sled while holding the rope or straps at arm’s length. Lean away from the sled and take small steps backward, intentionally flexing the quad with each step and extending each leg to complete lockout.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12 per leg.
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Sled Push

  • How to Do it: Load the sled moderately heavy — approximately 85% of your back squat one-rep max (1RM) (sled weight plus weight plates total) is a good place to start, although the ground surface and sled design will affect the amount of ultimate amount of weight you will need to use to hit the rep target. (7) Grasp the vertical or high handles on the sled with your elbows bent, crouch down in a lunge stance. Drive through your front leg to move the sled. Step through with your other leg and repeat.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12 per side
  • Rest time: Rest two to three minutes before repeating the first exercise.

Sled Hand-Over-Hand Row

  • How to Do it: Attach a rope or strap to the sled and load it moderately-heavy — 100% of your barbell bent-over row is a ballpark estimate. Plant your legs wider than shoulder-width in a semi-squat position and grab the rope tug-of-war style. Pull the sled toward you. Focus on pulling primarily with your outstretched arm by drawing your elbow and shoulder blade back. Rotate your torso and reach with your opposite arm to reset for the next repetition.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12 per side
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Sled Chest Press

  • How to Do it: Remove the rope and adjust sled weight as needed. Dig into a stable, staggered stance with your hands on the upright posts. Push the sled as if performing an incline bench press. Keep your hands on the sled and take one step forward to stretch your chest and shoulders for each rep.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest time: Rest two to three minutes before repeating the previous exercise.

Sled Hammer Curl

  • How to Do it: Attach the rope and adjust sled weight as needed. Stand facing away from the sled with your arms at your sides and a neutral-grip on the ends of the rope. Keeping your upper arm stationary, pull the sled forward by curling the ropes toward the front of your shoulders. Take one step forward to reset with your arms by your sides for each rep.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Sled Triceps Kickback

  • How to Do it: Stand facing the sled and hinge forward at the hips while keeping a neutral spine. Hold the ends of the ropes with your hands near the front of your shoulders. Lock your upper arms along your ribcage. Pull the sled toward you by straightening your arms. Step back to regain tension on the muscles and repeat for reps.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest time: Rest two to three minutes before repeating the previous exercise.

Sled Workout for Strength

Developing maximum strength is predicated on moving heavy loads. The sled allows you to transfer kinetic energy between your lower body and upper body. This helps build total-body strength with functional, athletic carryover.

Strength-Building Sled Plan

During this workout, you’ll use leg drive to overcome inertia and friction, which will allow for supramaximal upper body pushing and pulling. Then, finish off the lower body with a heavy sled drag.

Load your sled heavy for each exercise. Performing straight sets with long rests will help maintain intensity for superior strength gains. (8)(9)

Sled Hinge and Row

  • How to Do it: Start facing the sled. Hinge forward at hips with a neutral spine. Hold the rope or straps with arms outstretched overhead and reaching towards the sled. Step back until you feel the muscles under tension. Row the sled toward your body as you extend your hips and stand upright. Think “reach then row” and “long then tall.”
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 5-8
  • Rest time: Rest three minutes between sets.

Sled Push Press

  • How to Do it: Grasp the highest handles on your sled and lean into them with your hips and knees bent. Angle your body so your chest is at a 45-degree angle toward the floor. Your arms should be bent with your hands near your shoulders. Powerfully drive the sled forward with your legs and finish the movement by pressing with your arms. Step forward to reset and repeat.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 5-8
  • Rest time: Rest three minutes between sets.

Heavy Sled Drag

  • How to Do it: If you have a sled harness, now’s the time to use it. If not, face away from the sled and hold the rope or straps firmly over each shoulder. Aggressively lean away from the sled as you walk forward by driving through your hip, knee, and ankle one leg at a time.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 5-8 per leg
  • Rest time: Rest three minutes between sets.

Sled Workout for Conditioning and Fat Loss

Although the sled can be used effectively for building muscle and strength, sleds were originally used for conditioning-type workouts for total time or distance before being adapted to other programming and goals.

shirtless person pushing weighted sled in gym
Credit: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

It remains a highly effective tool for cardio training that can be adapted to lifters of all capabilities and experience levels.

Sprint Interval Training

Sprint interval training (SIT) is a bucked-up type of high intensity interval training. SIT workouts are 30-second max efforts with two to four-minute rest periods. This may be the best way to improve the amount of oxygen the body can take up and use (VO2 max). (10)

In addition to the energy flux that occurs during and after training, SIT can be a wonderful protocol for long-term fat-loss. Boosting VO2 max helps you to become a fat-burning machine because the ability to utilize oxygen is fundamental to aerobic metabolism, which uses fat as the primary substrate.

Intervals should hit a target heart rate of more than 90-95% of maximum, but it isn’t easy to sprint all-out while looking at a heart rate monitor. So, go by feel and shoot for the maximum intensity that you can sustain for the 30-second interval. A healthy and robust cardiovascular system is a prerequisite for this intense style of training, so be sure you’ve received medical clearance if there’s any concern.

Sled Push

  • How to Do it: Load the sled moderately — a total weight 60-80% of your bodyweight works well for most. Grab the high handles on the sled and sprint straight ahead as hard as you can for 30 seconds. Recover with your hands on your thighs or on the sled.
  • Sets and Reps: Begin with 6 x 30-second all-out intervals per workout. Gradually work up to 10 intervals total. (11)
  • Rest time: Rest two to four minutes between each interval.

Sled Workout for Recovery

To be clear, there is no such thing as a “recovery workout” — at least not in isolation. Workouts are a form of physical stress. Physical stress cannot fill the role of rest, nutrition, and sleep. However, swapping a taxing workout with a less taxing one can promote relative recovery. Your recovery status will be better than it theoretically would’ve been had you hammered through the hard workout.

Other workout strategies to promote relative recovery involve programming exercises that stress different systems (e.g. aerobic rather than phosphocreatine), train different capacities (e.g. high-rep muscular endurance instead of low-rep strength), or target different muscles (e.g. small muscle groups rather than big muscle groups).

Better Recovery with Smarter Training

This workout accomplishes all the above for most lifters: It’s a different type of stress using different rep ranges targeting different body parts. As a bonus, sled exercises involve minimal eccentric muscle contraction, which is the type of contraction associated with increased micro-damage and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). (12)

person in gym pulling weighted sled with rope
Credit: lunamarina / Shutterstock

This means sled training is likely less disruptive to your muscles. So, when you are beat-up or feel it might take a megadose of caffeine to get you through your planned workout, switch it out in favor of this sled workout.

Zombie Sled Walk

  • How to Do it: Attach your rope or tow strap to an empty sled or a sled with minimal weight on it. Face away from the sled, hold the ends of the rope with your arms locked out in front of you, and walk. By holding the rope or straps high, the zombie sled walk trains your serratus anterior and hits quads harder. (13) As a bonus, it will get you some aerobic cardio, too.
  • Sets and Reps: Three sets, performing each set until your grip begins to fail or you reach 300 total steps, whichever comes first.
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Lateral Sled Walk

  • How to Do it: Stand sideways to the sled and hold the rope at a comfortable height. Drag the sled by sidestepping in a crossover pattern. Your trail leg progresses by stepping in front of the lead leg, then recover the lead leg by uncrossing your legs.
  • Sets and Reps: Three sets, performing each set until your grip begins to fail or you reach 150 steps, whichever comes first. Be sure to complete one set with each side facing forward before moving on.
  • Rest time: No rest before returning to the previous exercise.

Sled Pec Flye

  • How to Do it: Face away from the sled and hold one end of the rope or strap in each hand with your arms outstretched to the sides at shoulder-height. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows and pull your hands together in front of your chest. Step forward, reset the starting position, and repeat.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 15
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Sled Reverse Flye

  • How to Do it: Face the sled holding one end of the rope or strap in each hand with your arms outstretched in front of you at chest-height. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows, pull your hands apart until they reach they are in line with your shoulders. Step backwards, reset the starting position, and repeat.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 15
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Sled Face Pull

  • How to Do it: Face the sled while holding the ends of the rope with a palms-down grip and arms straight and level with your eye-line. Draw the sled toward you by pulling with your shoulders and bending your elbows, so your hands end up near your head. Step back and repeat.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 15
  • Rest time: Rest one to two minutes before returning to the first exercise.

How to Warm-Up for Sled Workouts

Although hauling your sled and weight plates out of storage may be a decent way to increase body temperature, a specific warm-up for sled workouts ensures you are ready to perform at your highest level.

The sled-specific warm-up intentionally takes your joints through movements and positions representative of the various sled exercises included in the four sled workouts above. For example, despite the similarities between sled pushes and squats, pushing a sled is much more ankle-dominant than traditional squats, so  spend some time preparing your ankles and calves.

The hips, knees, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and trunk will all get some attention in this warm-up, which is designed to prepare your body for your best sled workout.

Sled-Specific Warm-Up

  • Supported Squat with Trunk Rotations: Grab the handles of your sled for support as you drop into a deep, “ATG” (ass-to-grass) squat. Release the handle with one hand and reach up and out. As you reach, keep your eyes on your palm by rotating and extending your trunk. Return your hand to the upright and repeat with the other hand. Perform two sets of eight rotations in each direction.
  • Deficit Push-Up: Place two weight plates on the ground slightly wider than shoulder-width. Assume the push-up positioning with one hand on each plate. Keep your trunk and hips braced in a straight line, slowly lower your chest between the plates. Push back to the starting position. Perform two sets of 10 reps.
  • Resistance Band Three-Way Row: Put some weight plates on your sled to keep it in place and loop a light-to-moderate resistance band around your sled. Sit with your legs outstretched and your feet braced on the sled. Perform a low row by pulling your shoulder blades together and drawing your elbows to the sides of your ribcage. Next, perform one mid-height row by pulling your shoulder blades together and drawing your elbows back at mid-chest-height. Finally, perform a high row by pulling your blades together and pulling the band toward your neck. Going through three positions counts as a single repetition. Perform two sets of 10 reps.
  • Standing Dynamic Calf Stretch: Stand facing the weighted sled with a staggered stance. Place your hands on the sled’s highest handles. Keep your back foot flat on the ground and lean into the sled without moving it. Move your shin forward to stretch the calf of your rear leg. Pause for one to two seconds in the stretched position, release tension, and repeat for reps. Perform two sets of 10 repetitions per leg.
  • Pogo Jump: Stand upright and perform crisp, ankle-driven jumps in place. Use the landing to propel you into the next repetition. Imagine jumping rope without the rope. Perform two sets of 20 reps.
  • Broad Jump: Sit back into your hips and knees to create a countermovement for your jump. As you take off and jump forward, throw your arms up and out in front of you. Absorb the landing with a squat. Step back to the starting position and repeat. Perform two sets of five reps.

Push Yourself to Results

The sled is a versatile and fun training tool that can build slabs of new muscle, accelerate your strength gains, support brutally effective sprint sessions, or promote recovery when you’re feeling run down. Stay consistent and soon you’ll become a regular Sled Zeppelin when you find a whole lotta love for these pushing, pulling, and dragging exercises. Just remember, sled training imposes unique demands unlike other weight training movements, so don’t skip the sled-specific warm-up before attempting any of the workouts.

References

  1. Williams, J., Baghurst, T., Cahill, M. J. (2021). Current perceptions of strength and conditioning coaches use of sled tow training. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching16(3), 601-607.
  2. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., et al. (2019). Resistance training volume enhances muscle hypertrophy but not strength in trained men. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise51(1), 94-103.
  3. Wackerhage, H., Schoenfeld, B. J., Hamilton, D. L., et al. (2019). Stimuli and sensors that initiate skeletal muscle hypertrophy following resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 126: 30-43.
  4. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D. I., Vigotsky, A. D., et al. (2017). Hypertrophic effects of concentric vs. eccentric muscle actions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research31(9), 2599-2608.
  5. Carvalho L., Junior, R.M., Barreira, J., et al. (2022) Muscle hypertrophy and strength gains after resistance training with different volume-matched loads: a systematic review and meta-analysis. AppliedPhysiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 47, 357-368.
  6. Schoenfeld, B. J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., et al. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science18(5), 705-712.
  7. Winwood, P. W., Cronin, J. B., Posthumus, L.R., et al. (2015). Strongman vs. traditional resistance training effects on muscular function and performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research29(2), 429-439.
  8. Schoenfeld, B. J., Pope, Z. K., Benik, F. M., et al. (2016). Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(7), 1805-1812.
  9. Keogh, J. W., Newlands, C., Blewett, S., et al. (2010). A kinematic analysis of a strongman-type event: The heavy sprint-style sled pull. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research24(11), 3088-3097.
  10. Buchheit, M., & Laursen, P. B. (2013). High-intensity interval training, solutions to the programming puzzle: Part 1: Cardiopulmonary emphasis. Sports Medicine43(5), 313-338.
  11. Buchheit, M., & Laursen, P. B. (2013). High-intensity interval training, Solutions to the programming puzzle: Part II: Anaerobic energy, neuromuscular load and practical applications. Sports Medicine43(10), 927-954.
  12. Hody, S., Croisier, J. L., Bury, T., Rogister, B., & Leprince, P. (2019). Eccentric muscle contractions: risks and benefits. Frontiers in Physiology, 536.
  13. Lawrence, M., Hartigan, E., & Tu, C. (2013). Lower limb moments differ when towing a weighted sled with different attachment points. Sports Biomechanics12(2), 186-194.

Featured Image: UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock





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