By Alex Walters, USRowing Level 3

Note from Will: “Using Sleds for Rowing Strength Training” is a guest article by Alex Walters, coach of the Gem City Crew juniors program. Alex and I have corresponded for a few years now via my email list. He wrote me earlier this year to tell me about the kind of strength training he was doing with his junior program. He felt inspired, motivated, and informed by my resources to make strength training a part of the team’s development, but lacked the funding for equipment, the space to store and use that equipment, and the ability to instruct a conventional strength training program or hire a strength training professional to do so. Enter the sleds. Alex described these warhorses of plywood to me and showed me some pictures of the movements he used in their training. I loved it and asked if he’d like to share this with the broader rowing world, and this article is the result of his efforts. I think it’s a great example of a coach figuring out how to work with what they’ve got and being willing to start with SOMETHING and improve from there. I hope you enjoy this creative approach to strength training for rowing.

Using Sleds for Rowing Strength Training

sled rowing strength training

I dream of the day our team has a strength and conditioning coach on staff, a state-of-the-art indoor training space, and a budget for resistance training equipment, but our current reality is quite different. We are a small team of about 20 year-round athletes from southwest Ohio. Even the most inexpensive used equipment (squat stands, barbells, iron plate weights, weight mats, and plate carts) in sufficient quantities for a group of 10-40 athletes is outside of our budget. Our students are a wide range of ages (13-19 years old), sizes, physical maturity, abilities, and experience with strength training. All our students are in school and more than one training session per day will be at the expense of sleep time. If we are going to reduce specific training (rowing), we need to make the resistance training worth it. We also need to be able to store our resistance training equipment in relatively little space and they need to be able to be transported relatively easily. We want strength/resistance training simple enough to build physical literacy for novice athletes but effective enough to develop higher performance for experienced athletes.

Sled Rowing Strength Training Principles

We chose to use weight sleds to develop maximum strength in our rowers because it is a concentric-only movement. The two lifting phases are “eccentric” on the lengthening or lowering phase, and concentric on the shortening or lifting phase. Concentric-only movements create less fatigue between workouts, which should make it easier to integrate into training sessions and not negatively impact recovery for rowing-specific workouts. Another benefit of concentric movements for our younger and inexperienced athletes is that they are self-governing; if an athlete is strong enough to move a weight then they can and if they are not strong enough then it does not move. There is risk of injury in all training, but there’s less risk of being injured by a heavy sled sitting on the ground versus exercises where you are lifting weights overhead or off a rack a few feet off the ground.

Commercially available and DIY examples of existing weight sleds are either geared towards resisted sprinting with very light weights or are built primarily for pushing weight plates indoors on an artificial turf surface. After weighing lots of options I decided to design and build weight sleds that met our goals.

Our goals for the sled programming:

  • Get the benefits of the hinge of the deadlift.
  • Get the benefits of the all-round leg movement from the squat.
  • Get the benefits of the shoulder movement and arm flexion of the bent-over row.
  • Develop a robust trunk that will give our athletes a lifetime of injury-free spine/back health.

 Our goals for the sled:

  • Load the sled accurately with a wide range of weight.
  • Build the sled as inexpensively as possible using widely-available/common materials and tools.

The sled we currently use is still a work in progress, but I will share what we have learned, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the sled, and future areas to explore and develop.

Sled Design Considerations

The sled is made of exterior-grade 2x4s, exterior grade ¾” plywood, exterior deck screws, rubber feet, a strap with two handles, and it holds five (US) gallon buckets filled with water. We chose to build the sled out of dimensional lumber and plywood fastened together with screws so it could be easily changed as we developed the sled. We use five-gallon buckets with water (calibrated by volume) as the weight since it is cheaper than metal weights. The buckets are added or removed from the sled to create a wide range of accurate resistance. The overall design is simple, easy to change and maintain, and can be made for a little bit more than one hundred dollars (USD) per sled.

We load the sleds with five-gallon (US) buckets of water. Although there is poetry in moving water on land to become a stronger rower on the water, it is not the most dense material to use as a weight. If an athlete was on the top end of weight capacity for this sled, they would be loading dozens of 5 gallon buckets. Multiply this across dozens of athletes and you can see that just moving the weights can take up precious training time. You could also calibrate 5 gallon buckets to be filled with concrete. This would still be a cheap option and it would cut the number of buckets down because you could now have the 5-gallon buckets weigh 50kg instead of 20kg. Someone with blacksmithing or welding skills could also make weights from scrap metal. Keep in mind what athletes you have and whether they can carry the increments of weights. For most of our young teenage athletes 20kg is a heavy weight to move and a 50kg weight might be impossible to move safely, while some of our older teenage athletes would choose to move 50kg weights in order to save time loading and unloading the sled.

Note from Will: Alex designed an additional PDF with instructions and detailed documentation for building the sleds. Check that out here.

Sled Rowing Strength Training Implementation

We started our sled work outdoors. We use land owned by the city we row in (Miamisburg, Ohio) and they have been incredibly supportive of us, so we wanted to be respectful of the space we shared and be safe. This ruled out using the sled on the grass as consistent foot and sled traffic on grass would just destroy it. We have a gravel parking lot, which mostly did not work because we felt we could not safely do work in an area that had motor vehicle travel, no matter how slow they were moving. This led us to using the paved blacktop recreational trail (about 8 feet wide) that runs near our rowing site. The trail is used by cyclists, runners, walkers and others so we needed to allow room for trail users to pass us and not interrupt their activities; therefore our sled width was limited to no more than 4 feet wide. This width would also allow us to transport the sleds in a pickup truck bed or in the back of an SUV with some or all of the rear seats folded down. We also found out that because the sleds are low (most people cycling, running, or walking do not expect to have hazards on the trail that are low; they are looking for people and bicycles), we could not leave sleds unattended on the bike path when switching athletes or loading/unloading weights. Always keeping the sled attended by at least one person, being aware of other trail users, and notifying teammates when there is an oncoming cyclists were the rules we adopted for mitigating the risks of rower/cyclists collisions while doing sled work on the trail. Our bike path has some fairly flat sections, but it is still not as flat or level as you would find indoors. The temperature, humidity and precipitation changes the surface the sled moves on as well. Take the variation of your environment and terrain into consideration when analyzing metrics from outdoor work.

During the winter months we transition indoors because it snows and temperatures regularly get below freezing in the Midwest. We use the same sled in an indoor setting. Our indoor space happens to have industrial wood floors. Most indoor surfaces are going to be virtually flat and level for the purposes of moving a weight sled. Indoor environmental conditions are also much more consistent, with the temperature and humidity remaining almost the same every day. Plus, there is no precipitation to contend with indoors.

The main takeaway is that using the sled indoors will give you more consistent metrics to track because the ground surface and the environmental conditions are more consistent. However, you can find surfaces and conditions in an outdoor setting that will at least give you reasonable reliability and consistency in order to have trackable metrics.

Read More: Alex’s Sled Design PDF

Sled Rowing Strength Training Programming

There is poetry in moving water on land to become a stronger rower on the water…

After experimenting with about a dozen different movements we settled on three exercises. We chose three to keep it simple for teaching/learning and we felt the exercises fulfilled our wants and needs for leg and trunk movement.

The first exercise is similar to a deadlift, we call legs/trunk. It starts in a catch-like position and finishes in a standing position. This is our most important resistance exercise.

sled rowing strength training legs trunkThe next two exercises are leg based, kind of a squat or lunge. The second exercise we call the Lunge Stand Up and is similar to a single-leg reverse lunge or split-squat. We tried another variation where the athlete started low in a pistol squat kind of position but found it was too easy to cheat and push with both legs. By keeping the non-pushing leg behind it was easy to keep the force through just a single leg (the front leg).

sled rowing strength training lunge

The last exercise we call the forward stride. It is similar to a combination of walking forward lunges and a forward march. We focus on beginning the push with the front leg and driving that through the ground during the stride. This keeps the movement more single-leg focused rather than doing a little half step and then pushing with both legs.

sled rowing strength training forward walk

You can also see that all exercises require holding on to the handle and transferring the leg power through the body and arms to the handle. This has benefits of reinforcing connection from the feet to the fingers into the handle, hanging the weight off the handle and increasing shoulder, chest, back, and grip strength.

For all exercises we emphasize range of motion and quality of movement. This is important for creating functional strength that will transfer to actual rowing through the entire stroke cycle. It will be easy to increase weight as you decrease range of motion so be very critical that your students are not cheating the movement in order to increase weight. Get the movement perfect before you add/increase weight.

We also experimented with an arm pull/row movement, but eliminated it early on to simplify the exercises and keep the focus on the legs and trunk. If you are replicating a sculling movement then having the straps cross (strap goes from left side of sled to right hand/grip and right side of sled to left hand/grip) did a decent job mimicking the overlap transitioning into the separated hands at the finish movement.

sled rowing strength training grips

Similar to traditional barbell weight training, we use sub-maximal percentages of a theoretical 1RM as our framework for weights and reps. Our rowers do the same land warm-up regardless of the workout (rowing or resistance training) because the warm-up is about movement. We have 2-4 athletes share a sled and rotate through each set giving each athlete roughly 3-5 minutes rest. We want at least three minutes rest between sets (the time when the other athletes are doing their sets). For bilateral movement we count each movement as a rep. For alternating-leg workouts we count left+right leg as one rep.

Our periodization plan for the sled was simple. Our effort was focused on the sled design and the movements. We have two resistance training sessions per week, typically Monday and Thursday. We have a loading pattern of three weeks (A, B, C) increasing intensity followed by one week (D) of recovery. For weeks A, B, or C, if the athlete completes the weight at the higher rep count, then increase 1RM by 2.5%. If the athlete can not complete the minimum rep count then decrease 1RM by 2.5%. Week D is effectively a deload week and should be a very easy weight to pull; focus on speed of the movement during this week.

In the outdoor fall season, we split the team into two groups. One group does sled work for one hour while the second group is on the water, then we switch for the second hour of practice. During the indoor winter season, we split long steady erg workouts with the sled training. The workout is two long erg intervals (20-30 minutes long) and one sled session (20-30 minutes long). We divide into three groups, rotating through the groups on sleds so at any given time two of the groups are erging and the other group is doing their work on the sled. Athletes perform the set and reps listed on each exercise in sequence. For example, Week A below of the fall program would be two sets of 14-15 reps at 65% on the legs/trunk movement, two sets of 14-15 reps on the lunge-stand-up movement, two sets of 14-15 reps on the forward stride movement, with three minutes of rest between each set.

Fall (outdoors)

  • Week A – 2 sets, 14-15 reps @ 65%
  • Week B – 2 sets, 12-13 reps @ 70%
  • Week C – 2 sets, 10-11 reps @ 75%
  • Week D – 1-2 sets, 18 reps @ 55%

Winter (indoors)

  • Week A – 2 sets, 10-11 reps @ 75%
  • Week B – 2 sets, 8-9 reps @ 80%
  • Week C – 2 sets, 6-7 reps @ 85%
  • Week D – 1-2 sets, 14 reps @ 65%

Spring (outdoors)

  • Week A – 2 sets, 6-7 reps @ 85%
  • Week B – 2 sets, 4-5 reps @ 90%
  • Week C – 2 sets, 2-3 reps @ 95%
  • Week D – 1-2 sets, 10 reps @ 75%

Sled Training Results and What’s Next?

We collected data (at right, click to expand) on how the athletes improved in sled weight used and saw improvement from all our athletes in terms of overall weight moved. It should be noted that athlete attendance, sled construction changes, exercises, and programming changes make these results more anecdotal and less scientific.

The best conclusion from the weight sled training efficacy would have been our on-water results in the spring, but Covid-19 eliminated the spring season so we can give you some more subjective results. We found the sled to be appropriate for resistance training for students ages 13-19 years old. Since the exercises simulate movement patterns found in rowing it was helpful to work out mechanics in a non-rowing format because it allowed us to be more hands-on in body positioning and sequence of movement. I think breaking up the monotony of ergometer training (during the indoor winter months) with this sled training and some other body weight exercises was welcomed by our rowers. The setup and storage time of the sleds and buckets each day takes time and is probably the least enjoyable part of the process, but it wasn’t too bad to deal with a couple times per week. The rowers were engaged in the sled work and were motivated to get stronger. The format of work, like other station or circuit training, lends itself to facilitate more social interaction between teammates rather than side-by-side stare-in-the-same-direction that exists on the ergs. The athletes liked interacting more with each other in this environment. It was also interesting to have a metric to evaluate strength. Relatively strong athletes get motivated by their ability and relatively weak athletes get objective feedback on an area improvement. Some athletes that may not have great fitness or rowing experience may really excel in the area of strength, and it is helpful to know your team members’ assets so you can plan for their future development and best utilize them for the success of the team.

This article represents the majority of our experience with a sled for less than a year and still has a lot of room for improvement. The advantage and the challenge of the sled is that there is not much information out there so you have a blank slate; you are both limited and supported by your own knowledge and creativity. In the coming year we hope to integrate more functional movement exercises as assistance movements that support the sled work, and continue development of the “feet,” weighted buckets, and strap system. Please contact me with any questions about our sled experience or if you use a sled incorporated into your resistance training:

Get Rowing Stronger!

“Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” is the comprehensive guide to strength training for rowing, from first practice of the off-season all the way to peak championship race performance, and for everyone from juniors to masters rowers. The second edition is available now in print and e-book.

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