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If you train at a gym that’s embraced functional training, you (hopefully) have a dedicated space for sleds — that is, the apparatus with the skis on the bottom, a place to stack weights on the top, and poles to grab a hold of.
If so, you’ve surely seen the most common use of the sled, as someone grunts and groans as they get low and push it down the floor with the power of their driving legs and lower body.
Great exercise? Absolutely! However, you can drag a ton more benefit out of the sled than you might think. “Sled training can be a very effective form of training for everyone from the competitive athlete to the average gym goer,” says Sean Ruff, NASM-PES, a personal trainer and physical education teacher based in San Jose, California (Instagram @officialseanruff). “It can be used to increase athletic performance, improve conditioning, burn fat and build some muscle.”
Here, Ruff shares five favorite variations to put your sled skills to the test.
1. Forward Sled Pull
This exercise flips the classic sled “push” around and makes it a “pull.”
“It improves total body functional strength, performance and speed,” Ruff says.
To do it, you’ll attach yourself to the sled with the accompanying harness — they are designed with a long strap to click onto the sled, with a padded belt and shoulder harness that typically secure via Velcro or snap-together connectors. (See an example by clicking here.)
You’ll be facing away from the sled, assuming a low ready position with your hips low, knees bent and hands on the floor for balance. From there, you’ll lean forward and drive with your legs, planting your feet powerfully on each step as you engage your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes to drag the sled forward, adjusting your pace based on your goals — slower for beginners, of course, but faster if you’re more advanced and looking to increase your speed and conditioning.
2. Reverse Sled Drag
For this variation, you’ll again be in the harness, but instead of facing away from the sled as you drag it, you’ll be facing the sled and backpedaling to move it down the floor. “It’s a fantastic exercise for the posterior chain, with special emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings,” Ruff states, because those muscles maximally engage when you’re positioned in the backward-facing position while pulling the sled. As with the forward pull, you can increase the intensity by adding weight and/or increase your backpedal speed — to focus on the latter goal, have a spotter time your sets and keep track of those results, aiming to re-set your personal best efforts over the course of weeks and months.
3. Sled Row
This is actually a two-step movement, which ratchets up the involvement of your back, biceps and core — “it effectively targets the entire back half of your body,” Ruff points out.
You won’t need the harness for this one but will instead use the poles. Facing the sled, you’ll drop down into a quarter-squat or full-squat (thighs parallel to the floor) position and grasp a pole in each hand so that your arms are straight out. First, you’ll do a row, pulling the sled toward you by bending your arms and engaging your lats and mid-back muscles. Then, you’ll take a backward step so that your arms are once again straight to re-set yourself for the next pull. Keep repeating this sequence down the floor.
4. Lateral Sled Drag
You’ll need the harness again for the lateral sled drag, where you pull the sled down the floor from a sideways position using a crossover step. “Like the other pulling sled moves, this exercise still challenges the posterior chain and really brings the abductors and adductors into the mix,” Ruff says.
With the harness on your upper body and the long strap attached to the sled, you’ll stand sideways, getting into an athletic “ready” stance — knees bent, hips low, upper body tense with your core flexed for stability. “The action resembles a side shuffle, with the leg closest to the sled — your trail leg — crossing over the lead leg,” Ruff explains. “Keep up this pattern, crossing one leg over the other as you pull the sled down the floor, then switch so you’re facing the opposite way on the return trip.”
5. Sled Tow + Battle Rope Slams
Here, you’ll incorporate some additional plyometrics into your set by incorporating a battle rope. “It’s a more complex exercise than the previous four that really challenges the whole body, but in particular the arms, abs, shoulders and back,” Ruff explains.
To set the stage, tie a battle rope around the middle of the sled where the weight it stacked, then fully extend the ropes away from the sled. You’ll start by doing the battle rope exercise: Get into an athletic “ready” stance, knees soft, hips low, core tight, and arms extended while grasping one end of the rope in each hand with an overhand, thumbs forward grip. From here, begin by raising one arm up to shoulder level, then down as you raise the other hand. Develop a rhythm, alternating one arm moving quickly up while the other is coming down, building speed as you go. You can do a designated number of slams (such as 30 slams of the rope to the floor) or for a set time, like 30 seconds.
Immediately after — or following a brief rest, depending on your fitness level — you’ll bring the sled toward you from a quarter-squat or full-squat position by putting the two sides of the battle rope together and pulling hand over hand until the sled is at your feet.