Build Your Own Sled

by Tim Henriques

Think pulling a sled is child's play? Get off that motorized hamster wheel and start getting leaner, stronger, and healthier.

I love the sled.

You can use it to accomplish a variety of fitness goals and not be bored as hell in the process. Unfortunately, most lifters don’t think beyond simple, basic sled-dragging, which really limits their potential for awesomeness, which is like winding up in a hot-tub full of lingerie models and striking up a conversation about sanitation, STD’s, and that pesky rash you got from that “lady” in Thailand that just won’t go away.

This article will cover some cool options you can perform with the sled, along with a few programs to give you a new appreciation for this kick-ass training tool.

Why the Sled

The sled is a great tool for a variety of reasons. Of course, it’s good for building GPP (General Physical Preparedness, or work capacity), but it can also burn fat, increase muscle endurance, and even improve your VO2 Max.

Coach Thibs has stated that regularly pulling/pushing a sled can teach the body to store and maintain more muscle, and I agree. But the sled can also be used for rehab exercises if someone has been injured, and for “pre-hab exercises” for those looking to stay injury free.

I’ve found that many who suffer pain – especially knee pain – say that the sled allows them to work the legs with minimal to no discomfort. That’s a huge point in the sled’s favor, but the sled makes this type of work fun.

The number one reason why people do anything repeatedly is because it’s enjoyable. For me, fun is lifting heavy and hard. I know the “pre-hab, stay healthy so you can keep lifting heavy” stuff has merit, but it bores the snot out of me and I often skip it. Using the sled as a means of incorporating this type of work into my program means I’m much more likely to perform it regularly.

Homemade Sleds

A “sled” is anything from a traditional sled to a Prowler or similar device, even a homemade apparatus. Generally the sled will have a loop of sorts that you insert the towing attachment through (the standard sled towing ropes have loops on either end). You can improvise with a TRX system, cable handles, or just make your own loops by folding the rope over and either knotting it or duct-taping the ends together.

Aspiring handymen can likely come up with even better ideas, but here are some simple guidelines for creating a quick and easy homemade sled.

If you’re pulling primarily on concrete/pavement, you’ll probably want to use a tire.

  1. Go get an old, used tire. A worn down tire with holes is fine. These are usually free at tire stores and a slightly oversized SUV tire works very well.
  2. Find some wood that you can lay in the bottom of the tire (it will be on its side when you drag it). The same boards that you can use in a board press also work well here. See pic below.
  1. Buy a large screw eye (a screw with a loop in it) and screw it into the tire. This should be the only hard part of this process. Put a washer and a bolt on the other end so you don’t drag the screw eye out over time.
  2. Get about 25 to 30 feet of rope, the same kind of rope you’d use for boating. A half-inch thick rope works well. Make sure the screw eye is big enough to thread the rope through.
  3. Thread the rope through and pull it halfway. At the end of each side of the rope, loop it over to create the straps that you want – bigger is generally better.
  1. Use a generous amount of duct tape to secure the loop. You may want to use a towel or small pad if you place the straps on your shoulders and pull heavy weights as the rope can dig in. See the pic below of a cheap homemade tire sled.
  1. If you’re pulling primarily on Astroturf, flat grass, or gym carpet, then you can make a very simple sled out of wood.
  2. Take one decent-sized board (2-3 feet wide by 2-6 feet long), and attach at least one screw eye to it and follow the same principles as above.

See the two pics below of a homemade wood sled.

Keep in mind that the surface you pull on and what you’re pulling has a huge effect on how difficult the activity is. Generally, pulling on grass or dirt is very tough, gym carpet moderately tough, and pavement/concrete is fairly easy. Pulling something with wheels is obviously easy, something sturdy but smooth is more difficult, and pulling something with friction is hard.

Regarding weight for both types of sleds, just be creative. Actual weights (old, rusty, or imbalanced ones work fine), kettlebells, cinder blocks, stones, your kids, your fat mother-in-law, etc., all work well. You just need some resistance, and the appropriate resistance will vary depending on what you’re doing and the surface you’re pulling against.

What To Do

Depending on the load, the volume, and how it’s applied, sled work can be used to develop power, strength, muscle size, or conditioning. I usually break down sled work into upper body or lower body focus, but it can certainly have a whole body effect.

Listed below are a variety of moves you can perform with a brief description of their performance and purpose. I highly suggest you get creative, try different things out, and just go by feel – see what works and what doesn’t. Check the videos for a visual guide to performing the specific activity.

Lower Body

  1. Walk forward – Loop the straps around a belt or your shoulders and drag it, walking forward. Makes a great warm-up, good for the posterior chain.
  2. Walk backward – As above, but now drag the sled while walking backward. Focuses more on the hip flexors and quads. Squat down to hit the quads harder. Also makes a good warm-up. Strength levels will be similar to the forward walk.
  3. Lateral movement – Loop the straps around the belt and align them with your side. Step sideways. Works the abductors on the leg closest to the sled. Crouch down to make it more muscular. When returning, face the same direction to work the opposite leg.
  4. Hip flexor, high knee – Loop the straps around your ankles. Walk forward, emphasizing a high knee on each step to hit the hip flexor. Use a light weight, and wear socks if you don’t want the strap to rub your ankles raw. Yes, you’ll look goofy doing this, but it works.
  5. Hip flexor, leg straight – Loop the straps around your ankles. Walk forward, trying to keep your leg relatively straight with each step, as if you were kicking something. Use a light weight. Again, wear socks if necessary.
  6. Bear crawl drag – Loop the straps around a belt or your shoulders (or use a pulling harness). Start on all fours. Rise up on your toes but keep the hips relatively low. Drive the knees toward the chest as you go. You can use this for many purposes – go heavy and short distances for strength; use a medium weight for short distances quickly for power; or use a light to medium weight and go longer for muscle size and conditioning. For the latter, four 30-yard drags with short rest intervals leave my quads and lungs on fire.

See the following video montage for a demonstration of most of these lower body drills:

Upper Body

  1. Walk forward, arms extended – Hold the straps in your arms, extend them in front of you, and walk forward. Simulates pushing a Prowler but requires more upper body stability.
  2. Walk backward, arms back – Face the sled and row it towards you. Hold your arms in that position and then walk backward. Isometric hold for the lats, biceps, and rear delts among other things.
  3. Walk and press – Face away from the sled, holding the straps. Press the sled with your arms, then walk forward. Press again and repeat.
  4. Walk and fly – Face away from the sled, holding the straps. Perform a dumbbell fly-like motion and bring the arms across the body. Walk forward, fly again, and repeat.
  5. Walk and row – Face the sled and row it to you. Walk backward and repeat.
  6. Walk backward and external rotation – Face the sled with the elbows out to the side, shoulder height, palms down. Externally rotate into the “hands up” position, walk backward, and repeat. Go light until you get used to it.
  7. Walk backward and curl – Face the sled holding the straps, with arms held out towards the sled at about a 45-degree angle. Curl your hands to your shoulders. Walk backward, curl again, and repeat.
  8. Walk backward and front raise – Face the sled holding the straps, arms held out towards the sled at about a 45-degree angle. Perform a front raise and lift your arms above your head. Walk backwards, lifting your arms above your head, and repeat.
  9. Neck isometric hold walks – Use caution with this one. If you’re big into neck training it can be a fun twist. Place the strap around your forehead (you may want to use a towel for comfort). Walk with the sled, keeping your neck straight. Walking forward will emphasize the neck flexors (front of the neck); walking backward will emphasize the neck extensors (back of the neck); and walking sideways will emphasis the lateral flexors. Start very light and see how sore you get the next day before adding significant weight.

See the following video montage for a demonstration of most of these upper body drills:

Sample Routines

Itching to give sled dragging a shot? Here’s an idea of how I’ve incorporated sled dragging into my training.

I do the following as a good warm-up:

  • Sled drag walk forward x 30 yards
  • Sled drag walk backward x 30 yards
  • Sled drag lateral walk x 30 yards each way

I started fairly light on these movements and have been going up about 10 pounds a week.

Tuesday Workout

Exercise Distance Reps
A Bear crawl sled drag 30 yards 4 *
B Sled drag high knee 30 yards **
C Sled drag leg kick 30 yards **

* short rest, additional weight
** very light weight

Proceed to normal lower body weight training exercises.

Thursday Workout

Exercise Distance Reps
A1 Sled drag bear crawl 15 yards 3 *
A2 Sled drag walk backward 15 yards 3 *

* ascending weight. Be sure to rest sufficiently between each part of the superset.

Proceed to normal lower body weight training exercises.

Sled Negatives

  1. As awesome as sled dragging is, it’s not a panacea. I doubt it will do much to directly increase your 1RM on any lift. It probably has the most positive effect on the deadlift, but don’t expect to just hit the sled for three months and then watch your pulling reach Westside levels. What the sled can do is help keep your ankles, knees, and hips healthy and functioning properly, so you can continue to squat and pull heavy with minimal problems.
  2. If you’re always supporting the sled in your hands while pushing, it can be stressful on the shoulder joints and might negatively affect them, particularly if you’re also benching or overhead pressing regularly. The solution to that is to drag or tow it rather than push it.
  3. The sled is good for increasing power when used appropriately, but it likely does little to increase foot speed (stride frequency). Most experts feel you need more specific type of training to do that, such as assisted sprinting.
  4. When you go really heavy with the pulling moves, if the strap is attached to a belt it can put considerable pressure on the core. This can lead to bruising you and make it tough to breathe during the exercise. If this affects you, you might want to get a Draft Horse Harness from Ironmind or some similar type of device. In addition, if you attach your powerlifting belt to the sled and regularly drag heavy weights with it, it’s possible the belt might warp over time. Not good.
  5. Finally, not all gyms want members dragging sleds inside so it can be inconvenient. Of course, that can also be a good excuse to go outside and get some Vitamin D, or find a real gym that encourages hard work, not discourages it. You could also just forget about this idea entirely and go join Planet Fitness. They have free pizza on Monday nights.

Get Dragging!

In closing, don’t get hung up on having exact programming or figuring out precisely where to schedule sled work into your new Eastern Bloc bench press routine. Just pick a surface, distance, sled type, and weight that seems right and go from there. Use the feel test, (not that feel test, pervert) and practice progressive overload. You’re bound to make progress.

If you want to stay healthy and improve your work capacity while working on your weak points – and become more of a bad ass – try incorporating the sled into your workout.

All the awesome people are doing it. Why aren’t you?