WHY YOU SHOULD BE DOING HEAVY SLED DRAGS
5 Major Benefits of Pushing & Dragging Heavy Sleds
by Alec Enkiri | 12/14/20
The Sled is Just Special
There is simply something special about pushing or dragging a heavy sled - something that cannot be replicated with a barbell or dumbbell or any other traditional weight room exercise. It's difficult to articulate just exactly what that something is, and I think that is because the reality of it is that there are multiple unique aspects converging into this one single modality that make it perhaps one of the most effective exercises we can possibly do. In the end, spending an earnest amount of time and effort pushing or dragging heavy sleds is going to make you stronger, more powerful, more muscular, and overall much fitter than you otherwise would have been able to become simply through traditional weight room and cardio modalities alone. Today I'm going to present the top 5 reasons why you should make this exercise a staple part of your training routine, and hopefully I can convince a few you to get dragging!
And before we jump into it I just want to highlight my DIY Workout Sled Post. Here you can easily build a sled for heavy dragging workouts and it should only take you about 1-2 hours to build and run you about $50 in supplies. Really not too shabby! And in a few short weeks you will be very glad that you made this investment. I use my homemade sled for heavy drags as well as resisted sprinting.
And if you don't have standard weight plates at home to load it with then just use an old tire as the body to hold heavy objects in place instead of the pipe that I use as a weight sleeve in my blog post. That way you can load anything you want into it, such as bricks, big stones, bags of sand or salt, etc. So there really are no excuses not to be performing this exercise religiously!
DIY Dragging Sled
5 Major Benefits of heavy sled drags
1. Functional Leg Strength
Yes, I know, I use the term "functional" these days like I'm studying for my NASM cert, but there is a message to be conveyed here: there's a difference between the sort of "raw" leg strength that is built in the weight room through squat variations and hip hinge exercises, and the sort of leg strength that is involved in developing smooth and efficient movement capacity. The latter is not fully cultivated in the gym. The gym can help you to build the raw material necessary to increase your potential in regard to the latter, but other work must still be eventually be done in order to shape that material and nurture that potential. That's where the sled comes into play. The sled helps you to bridge the gap between that "raw" leg strength built in the gym and the real world, "functional" leg strength displayed in your environment.
The sled can be used to develop acceleration capacity (a topic I discuss in depth in this article), it can be used for general power development, it can be used for brute strength, and it can be used for improving deceleration efficiency, which can enhance agility. Honing in on that final point more closely, observe the action of the knees and hips during a heavy backwards sled drag. Now observe the action of the knees and hips during rapid deceleration in a sprint gait. The patterns are quite similar. Thus, we can use the action of heavy backwards dragging as a means of overloading and strengthening the deceleration pattern. This will enhance resilience during deceleration, which is very stressful on the knees and hips, as well as strengthen those muscle groups at those specific joint angles and for that specific action.
Backwards Sled Drag & Rapid Deceleration Mechanics
By doing so you will be able to more easily overcome the force of your own body weight, thereby halting your momentum more abruptly and stopping faster, which is the first step (no pun intended) in changing direction more quickly (enhanced agility). This is just one extrapolation and one example, but properly implemented sled work has a myriad of other similar benefits. The point is it can help you move with more power, more precision, and more speed. It also just makes your legs dummy fucking strong in general, and if that's not "functional" then I don't know what is.
2. Increased Work Capacity
The term "work capacity" refers to your body's ability to tolerate, recover from, and adapt to a given amount of stress. It is generally accepted that the more stress we can impose on our systems - while optimally recovering from that stress - the more gains we will ultimately be able to make in the long run. Muscle, strength, power, conditioning, general fitness, or whatever you are seeking - all of these things are a product of repeated applications of stress; repeated bouts through the stress, recovery, adaptation cycle. The more times you can efficiently run through this cycle the more gains you will make because your body has adapted to a greater volume of stressors. The tricky part here is ensuring that the entire cycle takes place - not just the imposition of "stress," but then also recovery from that stress and subsequent adaptation to it.
This is part of the reason why steroids are so effective and so popular amongst elite athletes. When you have an individual who is willing and committed to putting in basically an infinite amount of work to become the absolute best that they can become, the limiting factor invariably becomes the body's ability to recover from all of that intense work. Well, steroids increase your body's ability to adapt to stress. Allowing you to impose that stress more frequently, or more intensely, or in greater amounts then the body would be able to handle without them. Thereby, potentially creating many more successful stress, recovery, adaptation cycles and leading to much greater absolute gains in the long term.
1,080lbs Sled Push!
In that same vein, sled work, though it feels very difficult while you're doing it and in the short period of time afterwards, is actually quite easy for the body to recover from compared to, for example, an equivalent amount of squat volume or sprint work. This is because one of the unique aspects of sled dragging is that there is no eccentric (negative) component to it. There is no loaded lengthening portion that the muscles and joints of the legs/hips are subjected to while pushing or dragging a heavy sled. The entirety of the exercise is positive work - concentric only muscle action. The majority of muscle damage and muscular soreness is created through eccentric action, therefore, by avoiding eccentric action you limit the damage and the soreness.
In addition to this, the piston like leg pumping action that is performed during a heavy sled drag invariably pumps a metric fuck ton of blood into the legs. This blood flow promotes healing and recovery to the involved muscles and joints (ligaments and tendons are notoriously avascular as compared to muscle tissue, which is in part why a muscle strain can heal in a matter of days but tendonitis can linger for years if not rehabbed appropriately. Do not underestimate the restorative value of this type of work, especially as you get older). I also suspect that the lack of spinal loading and compression signals to the nervous system that the stress being imposed isn't that big a of a threat to the body, thus it does not stress the nervous system in the same way as many other traditional exercises or create much of an inroads into the recovery process.
All of this adds up to create an exercise that you can perform a very large volume of at very high levels of intensity, if you so choose. And remember, the more work you can perform, recover from, and successfully adapt to the more gains you are going to make. And this doesn't just apply to working with the sled. Once your body has become acclimated to handling a large degree of "lower" stress work, such as sled dragging, you can then use that as a segue to introduce larger volumes of high stress work without exceeding your body's capacity to recover from that work or running yourself into the ground because your general "work capacity" has now increased - the threshold is further way, the ceiling is higher, the body can simply tolerate more. It's a bit of an art in many respects, but the potential is certainly there. Massively high levels of work capacity is often what makes the best athletes, and the most profound and stable body composition changes, and the just the most generally capable human beings.
There's a reason why guys like Louie Simmons and Dave Tate have been espousing the merits of sled dragging for DECADES now, and even the most dogmatic, crotchety old thing of all, Mark Rippetoe, has been unable to deny it's benefits as well (and I just saw a video of him trashing farmer's walks today, another one of my favorites), and has begun to make use of this valuable tool in his programs. The point is the exercise is INCREDIBLY valuable and really should be performed by just about everybody, regardless of training goal.
Sled work is RIP APPROVED!
3. Bigger Thighs
The sled can go a long way towards adding plenty of fresh meat onto your thighs. The thing about the sled is that it's a fantastic muscle and strength builder, but it's disguised as a conditioning tool - it just depends on the lens you choose to view it from. Most people choose to view it purely as a conditioning device, but that's a myopic viewpoint. You simply have to be willing to load up the heavy weights and suddenly this "conditioning" tool transforms into a powerful strength & hypertrophy tool as well. For a pertinent example here one need look no further than Olympic sprint cyclists. On the whole, these athletes possess some pretty damn impressive quadriceps development, some of them rivaling or surpassing the leg development even of many bodybuilders. Part of the reason for this is that squatting strength directly improves sprint cycling performance, so many of these athletes spend a great deal of time under the bar improving their strength on the squat, and some of them post some incredibly impressive numbers as a result of it.
Robert Förstemann aka "Quadzilla"
That is obviously going to lead to impressive leg development in an of itself, however, there is more to it in this case as some of these sprint cyclists have thighs that are bigger than a lot of Olympic weightlifters, another group of athletes who are gifted for power development and who also squat heavy and squat often.
That extra something is obviously the repeated, maximal, concentric only contractions of their quads against the pedals of their bikes - short, repeated bursts of all out, high intensity effort with plenty of time to recover in between bouts. If you think about it, dragging the heavy sled is almost the exact same type of stimulus. With each step you are concentrically contracting your quads into the ground with as much strength and power as you can muster, with minimal time in between contractions, and each effort in total lasting only about 20-30 seconds. If you perform enough of these brief, but all out efforts then you will undoubtedly see more muscular growth in your thighs than could be had with weight training alone, just as our sprint cyclist friends often end up with bigger thighs than our Olympic weightlifter friends.
4. Better Conditioning
As I just noted, the sled is a muscle and strength building device disguised as a conditioning tool....which means it's also a fantastic conditioning tool! Pretty much no matter how heavy you go with these sled drags you will still be taxing your cardiovascular system to at least some degree. However, you can also greatly amplify the cardiovascular training effect of this modality simply by altering a few of the parameters. My personal favorite method here is what I call a "density block." To perform a density block you simply choose a predesignated length of time, pick a reasonable weight to load the sled with, and pick a set dragging distance. From there you drag the sled the predesignated distance for as many sets as possible during the chosen timeframe. A typical parameter for me would be a 15 to 20 minute density block using a dragging distance of 20 yards. I would select a weight that I think I can do for maybe 12-15 total sets in that first week, and then I will keep the weight static for the next 2-3 weeks and try to beat the total number of sets performed each time I redo the block. So maybe I'll get 14 sets in week 1, 16 sets in week 2, and 17 sets in week 3. At that point I would add 10-15 pounds to the sled and start the process over.
This allows you to gradually increase the density of the work, forcing you to rest less as your strength endurance and cardiovascular capacity improve, thereby greatly enhancing general conditioning and work capacity. As a bonus, conditioning work performed in this fashion is muscle sparing. Unlike traditional cardio which, when overdone, has the potential to catabolize muscle tissue, conditioning work performed with the sled as previously described runs almost no risk of catabolizing muscle tissue and is actually more likely to help you build some more muscle than it is to burn any of it off. This density block style of sled training can be done in two ways:
Heavy Backwards Drag
It can be reserved for its own dedicated block of training. In this case you would alternate back and forth between conditioning style density blocks with the sled and blocks of HEAVY ASS sled dragging for short bouts of 15-20yds with full recovery in between sets in order to build strength and muscle. Each block would last approximately 6-8 weeks.
Or you can use a shorter density bock as a finisher to a normal training session. So in this case, for example, after a squat or deadlift session you would knock out your accessory work, and then after that spend just 5-10 minutes with the sled doing as much work as possible. You could do that 1-3x per week for long stretches of time and make fantastic conditioning gains that way.
5. Minimal Risk of Injury
Finally, the 5th major reason to incorporate sled work into your training routine has to do with its safety profile. All of these amazing, aforementioned benefits can be had with very little cost. Most things in life don't work like this. Things that GIVE a lot usually TAKE a lot in return as well, especially in the gym and especially when it comes to intense physical activity. But in this case, that notion doesn't seem to hold true. The sled gives and give and gives, but it never really takes. The risk of both chronic, long term injury and acute injury seem to be very low with this modality. Eccentric movement is where most muscle strains and acute joint injuries typically occur, but because there is no true eccentric phase with the sled work these risks are greatly reduced. Dragging a heavy sled behind you also slows things down enough that the risk of hamstring injury is basically nonexistent, as compared to sprinting, which is a violent activity by nature and where the risk is relatively high.
Lastly, sled work, even when done heavy, doesn't really make you very sore at all and it certainly doesn't put that same type of wear and tear stress on your joints that can often come part and parcel with traditional heavy strength training. On the contrary, and this concept is certainly anecdotal, but as I alluded to earlier, in my experience sled work is actually highly restorative for the hips and knees. I know that when I'm doing a lot of sled work my hips and knees actually tend to feel better in general than they typically do when I'm not.
Realistically, the primary risks present with this exercise are going to be Achilles tendonitis and potentially irritation of the metatarsophalangeal joint (the joint at the big toe). There is a lot of force being transferred through the ankle and through the toes on this exercise. If you do too much too soon then you will put yourself at risk of developing these conditions, however, if you adhere to intelligent training protocols and program design and you are sure to BREAK YOURSELF IN PROPERLY, especially if you are unaccustomed to this exercise, then your body will adapt to the additional stress and you will be just fine. Just remember to be smart about things - start off small and work your way up slowly - and you will be able to reap all of the benefit of the sled with a very low risk of injury.
Just by adding this one simple exercise into your training routine you get all of these benefits: increased leg strength, more leg muscle, increased work capacity, and a healthier cardiovascular system, and you get it all with very little risk on your part. To reap all of these rewards you just have to be willing to put in a decent bit of sweat, tolerate a whole lot of temporary pain, and maybe even forgo a little bit of vomit to go along with it. Sounds like a win-win to me! And hey, we could all use a little bit more grit anyway.
As an added benefit, you can't really go wrong with this exercise. As mentioned, the overall injury risk is very low in general and anyone can just pick one of these things up and get right to it. There is almost no learning curve, there is minimal technique involved, and the motor pattern is so simple and so intuitive that even with high levels of fatigue present very little pattern breakdown actually occurs. The only real requirement is the willingness to show up and put in the work - and by no means is that going to be easy. This truly is one of the hardest things you can do in the gym. A heavy sled drag creates a feeling of difficulty that is hard to articulate and incomparable to any other thing, but the temporary pain is more than worth the reward. Now, get your ass to dragging!