By Vincent Cagliostro
Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach – Rutgers University
I’ve been around some of the top training facilities as an intern and as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. There is one common theme I see wherever I go and that is using the sled to teach an athlete how to generate more speed. However as I have begun digging deeper into developing speed and teaching athletes proper mechanics I begin to wonder if this is an ideal training method.
While there are many great attributes to using the sled for speed work; I fear that some coaches begin to apply the sled the wrong way into a speed program. Today I’m here to help clear the air and hopefully give you some great ideas on how to apply speed work into your program when using the sled.
My first question to you is…if you have a new athlete would you back squat them day one? No, squatting is technique based and skill based. It would be silly and a really bad coaching move for you to squat an athlete on day one. No difference when you look at the sled as an exercise/tool for speed development. Athletes need to progress through a sled hierarchy that is created by a coach.
I may not be a very well-known coach but there is one thing I am pretty good at and that would be developing a speed program that works. I have developed my hierarchy on how I envision a kid learning to crawl, then walk, then jog and run. Applying a sled into speed work is no different.
Progression #1: Learn to crawl: an athlete needs a core to transfer forces when taking part in a speed development program. During this phase the primary purpose are to install bear crawls and wall drills to develop proper core and firing patterns. This phase is usually installed early in their movement training program.
Progression #2: Learn to walk: an athlete needs to continue to develop proper firing patterns while being active. This is where our A “marches” and Technique work is applied during a warm-up. As a secondary progression I begin to apply sled work with NO weight into this portion of the hierarchy. During this phase athletes begin applying the A march with the sled to develop proper firing patterns learned on the wall. The main focus of this phase is proper core firing and hip mobility. The primary form of A march used are what I call A March Holds. This allows feedback on proper firing of the core and glute muscles.
Progression #3: Learn Jog: I will go from A march HOLDS into slow A march into a moderate A March. This continues to develop our skill SPEED. What we are doing during this phase is going from applying low levels of force into high levels of force. Once we know our athlete is comfortable and has proper firing sequence we begin to add weight to the sled. THIS IS NOT ABOUT SPEED. This phase is all about FORCE. We need to teach athletes how to develop force the proper way. FULL TRIPLE EXTENSION. As coaches we tend to get excited when progressing athletes that we go so fast that we lose all our focus and what our goals were to begin with. A common issue I see when athletes begin applying weight to the sled is small choppy steps that don’t have triple extension and lack glute activation. This is waste of energy and poor technique. Our hips are our engines (Glutes). If we have one engine that isn’t firing properly we have ½ the horse power we need. If our athletes continue to fail to activate the glute one great way of creating the firing sequence is loading the sled up and going back to slow A marches.
Progression #4: Learn to Run: This is the final progression in my sled sequence. Learning to run is about applying force as fast as you can. This can be done multiple ways. I like to stay with the A Marches and believe they allow athletes to develop the greatest amount of force during the learning period. As athletes begin loading up the sleds with insane amounts of weight (I have seen 500 + lbs used) we take away the weight and you’ll see what you have after that.
So I just told you that you can use sleds for speed training. However, I have seen many many ways not to use the sled in speed training.
* Use a sled for starts (unless empty or less than 15% of body weight). I have seen coaches load up sleds thinking more weight is better. This will cause the athlete to rise up fast and create improper firing patterns trying to overcome too much weight. My advice…avoid it.
* Sprinting behind sleds…Watch an athlete. How many keep a neutral spine, drive the legs behind their hips, and have proper head placement. NONE. Why put them in these positions if it’s just going to mess up all the technique you have worked on for the past 8-12 weeks of training? My advice on this one? Use 100% sprints without sleds
*Sprinting with a sled around the waist. These can be beneficial if done the right way. The progression is important with this. I would recommend starting with a full harness and progressing to a waist harness teaching them core engagement the entire time. This will again allow for proper firing sequence that so many of us lack.
Once proper technique is acquired the only thing missing is strength. That comes from the weight training and sled pushes with tons and tons of weight. We connect it all by doing 100% sprints. You don’t do it you won’t gain it. You can do all the lifting and all the technique work in the world but if you don’t sprint 100% you won’t be at 100%.