Friday, February 04, 2011

Why I Fecking Love The Sled

Anyone who has ever trained at Aegis Training Studios will be all too familiar with what one of our clients called "the sliding tea tray of death", aka the sled. In many ways it sums up our entire training ethos - the body is made to lift, push, pull and drag stuff, the more you train it for that purpose the better your results will be. The sled is perfectly suited to this philosophy, and lends itself to a training experience that is simple but brutally effective.

However, it recently occurred to me that despite the sled featuring in pretty much every client's training week at some stage, I may in fact have been underusing it. For a long time I had been using the sled as a metabolic tool only, for quick and nasty fat burning sessions. Its is only relatively recently that I've come to view the sled as one of the most versatile pieces of equipment in existence, one that can be used to achieve any fitness goal.

The key to its effectiveness lies in these simple principles -
1- Fat loss, hypertrophy and strength gains rely on the accumulation of mechanical load, put simply ; you need to do WORK to see body composition and strength changes
2- Every bit of work you do requires a certain amount of recovery, the more work you do the more you need to recover. At a certain point the work you do will exceed your ability to recover from it.

With these principles in mind, here's a quick overview of how we use the sled at Aegis to its full potential

Rehabilitation - The sled is an awesome rehab tool, with particular application the the knee. Most knee rehab programs will involve some form of terminal knee extension. Yes there is some debate about the relevance of the VMO to knee function, and yes you need to address the hip, ankle, lumbo-pelvic region and so on, but I think most of us have seen TKE's work enough times not to throw it out of the toolbox. Traditionally machine leg extensions have been used, but there is concern that these can cause excessive sheer forces at the knee and (much as I despise this word for what it has come to represent within personal training) are seen as less "functional". Many trainers now use closed chain variations such as the Peterson or Poliquin step up. These are good exercises, but are frankly a pain in the ass to get clients to perform correctly, and more importantly can be quite time consuming in the context of a full body program. Its also incredibly boring to perform. The backward sled drag, however, targets terminal knee extension in a movement that requires practically zero coaching. It also has the added advantage of integrating the muscle into a movement that more accurately resembles a real world movement such as running, but with less requirement for deceleration at the knee and reduced eccentric load. All of this is good if you have a hurt client. The back sled drag can then be progressed to a forward drag and finally to a crouching sled push. You are progressing the client through greater range of motion at the hip and knee over time, while keeping the actual stress on the knee very low.
We know a big problem with corrective programs is they often aren't challenging enough to create any of the other benefits we would expect from weight training such as body composition changes. Not so with the sled. You can work them harder, sooner.

Hypertrophy - Again, hypertrophy is about accumulating mechanical load without exceeding your capacity to recover. Here's the rub - the most effective exercises for hypertrophy tend to be pretty tough to recover from, and what aspect of training makes the most inroads into your recovery capacity? The eccentric phase. Lowering weights, not lifting them is what makes you sore, eats into your recovery and prevents you from training more frequently. Enter the sled.
As I mentioned earlier the sled imposes very little eccentric load. You can pretty much use the sled every day without worrying about overtraining. If using it as a hypertrophy tool I will use the sled at the end of a session for whatever muscle groups have been trained that day (we usually don't get any more complicated than an upper/lower split, with many clients sticking with full body sessions) or as "extra" sessions within a weekly schedule. The only difference to using it as a metabolic tool would be rest periods and time under tension. For hypertrophy methods I tend to give the client a longer rest, use more weight and use about 30 seconds or so of dragging/pulling time. I love the sled for upper body hypertrophy work, particularly for the upper back. The back will respond extremely well to high frequency sled rows on top of an already sound lifting program.

Strength - Regarding training for strength, no less a clever dude than Vladimir Zatsiorsky said it well; "train as frequently as possible, as heavy as possible, while recovering as much as possible". You need to squat, you need to deadlift, you need to bench. However, if you imagine your capacity to recover as your monthly "wages", and these big lifts as "purchases", they are pretty expensive, and don't leave a lot of cash left for the little things like single leg work, isolation exercises "core" work and so on. So what's the solution? Squat less frequently? I don't believe so. In fact one of the most important changes I've made with training both myself and my slightly more advanced clients is to dramatically reduce, if not eliminate single leg work and focus instead on heavy, frequent sled dragging.
Heavy sled work, done for short distances (avoiding lactate accumulation) and with long recovery periods, accomplishes everything single leg work does. However, it is nowhere near as difficult to recover from and in fact can speed up recovery when done the day after a heavy lower body session. This allows you to focus on where the real money is, (squats and deadlift) while still taking care of the small stuff. I could go on about this but the bottom line is, focus on the big lifts and use sled work often to fill in the gaps rather than wasting time with endless single leg exercises that accomplish little in the scheme of things. By the way I definitely think traditional single leg work has its place, but (to steal a line form Alwyn Cosgrove) we are currently in a period of "overreacting" to and thus overusing it.

Metabolic - This should be pretty self evident as it is how most people currently use the sled anyway. You can do crazy challenges such as the Aegis Challenge (bodyweight on the sled, drag it ten lengths for time) or intervals, reducing the rest and increasing work over time like any other metabolic modality. Again the added benefit is that it is less stressful than something like running sprints, or even current favourites like barbell complexes. Just do some work, keep rest intervals incomplete, and do it a few times a week. Man this training stuff is complicated eh?

So there you go, hopefully that has you raring to buy yourself a sled or train somewhere that has one. Pile some weight on it and drag the mofo. You probably won't thank me but you will definitely see the benefits.