Sled Push Alternatives: 4 Full Body Exercises (with Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 2, 2022

Among the many functional full-body fitness exercises performed by modern athletes, few are as eye catching and effective as the sled push; an exercise where the lifter will, fittingly, push a weighted sled across a certain distance or for a certain length of time so as to induce more than just simple muscular hypertrophy.

However, due to the multiple requirements for performing the sled push - or other issues related to its performance - many exercises may wish to substitute it with an alternative that retains the benefits they seek in the sled push while also avoiding its many disadvantages.

Despite its rather unique mechanics, equipment and training stimulus, the sled push is actually relatively easy to substitute - with a number of alternative exercises sharing many of its characteristics while still fulfilling the needs of the exerciser, such as the farmer’s walk or mountain climbers.

What is the Sled Push?

In more technical terms, the sled push is a free weight compound exercise that takes aspects from aerobic and functional training exercises for the purposes of developing an athlete in an all-around capacity, with its main requirements being a carpeted or similar length of floor space, a sled, a number of weight plates and an intermediate level of athletic ability in the exerciser.

sled push

Due to its wide-reaching form and numerous utilization of various biomechanics, it is rarely used within any specific training day or training program block, instead being used as part of an athletic circuit or on cardio days as a systemic training modality.

Why Should the Sled Push be Alternated Out?

Though the sled push has been well established throughout many outlets of fitness literature as an excellent exercise for many training programs - several disadvantages or requirements associated with its performance can lead to athletes seeking out an alternative exercise to take its place instead.

The first and most common reason why the sled push is substituted with an alternative exercise is in the equipment requirements that must be fulfilled in order to take full advantage of the exercise; not only does it require (clearly) a weight sled or prowler, but due to the amount of weight most exercisers can move with a sled, it also requires quite a number of weight plates - sometimes more than what is available in a gym.

In addition to this, weight sleds and prowlers generally do not work unless a sufficiently low-friction flooring is present, usually taking the form of a carpeted or lacquered floor, something that is also occasionally not available in commercial gyms.

As such, many exercisers may wish to substitute the sled push for an alternative that is not as equipment intensive or one that is more home-gym friendly.

The second most common reason why the sled push is alternated out is that it lacks specificity of training stimulus, activating muscle groups ranging from the calves and core all the way to the pectoralis major muscle and even the triceps brachii.

While athletes will doubtless utilize all these muscle groups synergistically within their sport, training methodology often dictates that the utilization of high training stimulus specificity is more effective at achieving a goal than simply performing a general functional athletic movement.

In this scenario, the athlete will often substitute the sled push for an alternative that is more in-line with their particular sport or training goals, such as one with greater resistance or a compound exercise with greater constraint on which muscle groups it activates.

Finally, there are also situations wherein an exerciser simply dislikes the sled push, where a history of injury makes performing the sled push dangerous or uncomfortable - or, in rare cases, where the sled push is incompatible with an exerciser’s biomechanics and personal physiology - all requiring an alternative exercise be used instead.

Characteristics of a Sled Push Alternative

As the sled push is such a multi-faceted exercise, its list of possible alternatives is quite numerous, as are the characteristics needed in any potential alternative exercise.

As a general rule, the original purpose of the sled push within an exerciser’s training program will dictate the characteristics of its alternative exercise; if the sled push is used for its aerobic training stimulus or cardiovascular benefits, it should be substituted with a similar aerobic movement, if the sled push is meant to improve the athlete’s explosiveness or power, it should be substituted with a similarly weighted resistance exercise.

In addition to this - while the original purpose of the sled push will dictate the required characteristics of its alternative exercise, said alternative must also meet the requirements of the exerciser’s physiology and training goals, such as avoiding any areas of injury in the exerciser or retaining the sled push’s sports-specific skill development benefits.

Muscles Worked by a Sled Push Alternative

The sled push is a wide reaching compound exercise that trains practically every muscle group in the lower body and core while also training the chest muscles, the triceps brachii, the deltoids and the majority of muscles in the back.

sled push muscles

As such, unless otherwise required by the exerciser, any alternative exercise must also activate the majority of these muscle groups, especially in regards to the leg muscle groups like the quadriceps femoris, calf muscles, hamstrings and gluteal muscles.

1. The Ideal Sled Push Alternative: the Farmer’s Walk

Among the many possible alternative exercises to the sled push, few are as similar yet as effective as the farmer’s walk - a functional exercise wherein the exerciser will carry a pair of weighted implements for a specified length of time, thereby activating much the same muscle groups as the sled push while eliminating many of its unfortunate disadvantages.

benefits of farmers walks

The key difference in the farmer’s walk and the sled push is in the manner of which resistance is achieved, with the sled push combining friction, the relative weight of the plates and gravity while the farmer’s walk solely utilizes the weight of equipment to achieve muscular activation.

This equates to the farmer’s walk often taking a longer length of time or distance in order to achieve the same level of fatigue - though this is made up for by greater activation of the core muscles, trapezius muscles and arm muscles.

In addition to these advantages as an alternative, the farmer’s walk also requires none of the same equipment as the sled push, needing only a pair (or even a single) weighted object. 

Even in terms of space or flooring, the farmer’s walk may be performed in relatively tiny spaces with the exerciser simply moving in circles, regardless of what sort of flooring is present.

All these benefits combined create an exercise that not only shares the same benefits and uses of the sled push, but also surpasses it in certain aspects - making it the ideal alternative for athletes and regular exercisers alike.

2. The Plate Push - a Sled Push Alternative for Novices or Low Equipment Gyms

Functionally and mechanically similar to the sled push, the plate push is a suitable alternative for individuals without access to a weight sled or for those who find the weight of the sled to be too heavy for their own physical strength levels.

The plate push involves placing a weight plate on the ground and pushing it forward while in a bear crawl position, recreating the lower body muscular activation of the sled push while reducing the involvement of the triceps brachii, pectorals and back muscles.

Such a change in muscular activation also aids in the specificity of training stimulus of the alternative, allowing athletes of leg muscle intensive sports to isolate their lower body and achieve greater training of such areas without the involvement of their upper body.

The sole disadvantage of using the plate push as a sled push alternative is that it is often limited to approximately twenty kilograms or fourty-five pounds at maximal resistance (the heaviest standardized plate weight).

This, of course, is unless the exerciser stacks multiple plates atop one another - a solution that, unfortunately, will alter the mechanics of the exercise and make the movement somewhat more unstable.

3. Kettlebell/Plate/Dumbbell Sled Drags - a Sled Push Alternative for Similar Muscle Development

The drag exercise is the opposite of the sled push movement, where the exerciser attaches a rope or similar implement to a kettlebell (or any other weighted implement) in order to pull it across the floor, thereby providing significant resistance and inducing a similar number of developments as the sled push.

sled drag

Despite its name, the sled drag does not necessarily need to involve a weight sled, and may be performed with practically any item compatible with a rope or other pulling implement.

Not only is the sled drag exercise far looser in terms of equipment requirements, but so too is it in terms of muscle group activation, with the muscle groups being worked by the exerciser changing depending on where the weights are attached along the exerciser’s body - if held by the arms, the upper body’s musculature is also activated, if attached to the waist, the lower body alone.

As such, regular performance of the sled drag in place of the sled push is suitable for athletes wishing to develop their sports-specific skills despite a lack of an available weight sled, for exercisers that prefer a pulling motion to the pushing motion of the sled push, and for sprinters or marathon runners seeking to improve their capacity for power output while participating in their sport, as the angle of resistance will create a more natural movement than in the sled push.

4. High Incline Treadmill Sprints or Stair Climber Sprints - an Endurance and Explosiveness Alternative

For individuals originally performing the sled push as an aerobic exercise or for athletic training programs that used the sled push as a method of improving sprinting and similar aerobic exercise-related explosiveness, performing sprints on a treadmill set to a high incline or on a stair climber machine should be more than sufficient.

incline treadmill

Though this will greatly alter the muscle group activation, training stimulus and angle of resistance involved, the general purpose of improving sports-specific explosiveness and general aerobic capacity remains the same - all while retaining practically none of the issues normally associated with the sled push.

This shared purpose in training stimulus and subsequent development is achieved by placing enough resistance on the exerciser as they sprint to result in biological adaptations that are also similarly induced by the sled push, such as a heightened VO2 maximum, reduced lactic acid build-up within skeletal muscle, development of the heart’s musculature and improvements in sports specific skills such as proprioception and lower body coordination under stress.

Translating the raw weight of the sled push to a suitable level of incline on the treadmill or stair climber machine is unfortunately difficult however, and as such substituting the sled push with either of these exercises will require the exerciser to perform trial and error in order to reach their desired intensity.

In Conclusion

Though several exercises have been listed in this article as potential sled push alternatives, there are quite a number of other alternative exercises that may even exceed those listed in terms of usefulness, effectiveness or similarity to the sled push.

As such, it is our advice to exercisers that they try as many sled push alternatives (that fit their needs) as possible so as to assess what best aids in achieving their goals.

Regardless of which exercise they choose as a sled push alternative, it is important to preserve the original purpose of the exercise within their training program so as to retain the same end-result, as well as to seek the advice of an athletic coach in the event that they are not entirely knowledgeable about what they are doing.

References

1. Cahill, Micheál & Cronin, John & Oliver, Jon & Clark, Kenneth & Cross, Matt & Lloyd, Rhodri. (2019). Sled Pushing and Pulling to Enhance Speed Capability. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 41. 1. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000460.

2. Sinclair J, Edmundson CJ, Metcalfe J, Bottoms L, Atkins S, Bentley I. The Effects of Sprint vs. Resisted Sled-Based Training; an 8-Week in-Season Randomized Control Intervention in Elite Rugby League Players. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Sep 1;18(17):9241. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18179241. PMID: 34501831; PMCID: PMC8431106.

3. Alcaraz PE, Elvira JL, Palao JM. Kinematic, strength, and stiffness adaptations after a short-term sled towing training in athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014 Apr;24(2):279-90. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01488.x. Epub 2012 Jun 5. PMID: 22672673.

4. Lockie RG, Murphy AJ, Schultz AB, Knight TJ, Janse de Jonge XA. The effects of different speed training protocols on sprint acceleration kinematics and muscle strength and power in field sport athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jun;26(6):1539-50. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318234e8a0. PMID: 21912294.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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