Is the Prowler a Good Tool for Strength?
“Is the prowler a useful tool to improve top-end leg strength, or is it only useful for conditioning?”
Really good question. Using the prowler, and to understand our use of the prowler we need to understand a little bit about the mechanics of muscle contractions. We’ve talked abut this before, but it’s worth revisiting. Three types of contractions. You can have a concentric contraction where your muscles are shortening. You can have an eccentric contraction where your muscles are lengthening and breaking a load. And then you can have an isometric contraction where your muscles are staying still and maintaining good joint position.
The best form of contraction to create strength, and to increase that cross sectional area of the muscle is an eccentric contraction. In an eccentric contraction we create a lot of muscle damage. There’s small micro tears in the muscles, which then force our body to respond by increasing protein synthesis and laying down more muscle. Now, using a prowler, we don’t get these eccentric contractions and this can be both a positive and a negative, so let’s unpack this a little bit, and work out why. Because you don’t have these eccentric contractions with a prowler, because there’s no breaking action, there’s no slowing down the movement of the load, you’re not closing these micro tears in the muscles. Therefore, you’re not in an optimal state to generate strength.
However, this can also be a positive. Having only a concentric contraction means that you’re actually able to generate some strength, and generate some power with a lot less of those short term negatives. These acute changes in muscle chemistry caused by these micro tears, and caused by inflammation, so you’re not getting the same degree of soreness. Now of course, soreness can be a good sign that we have created some favourable muscle damage here, but there can be times when it’s good not to create that muscle damage.
So, if you’re looking at a population of exercisers who like to train a lot, they like to do a lot of training, and you’re struggling to get them trained less, you can actually have more bouts of training using a prowler without as much longer term damage, and there’s much less of a chance of over training. So, we’re actually able to train for longer, and you’re able to train with more frequent bouts of exercise. A lot of the best research that’s come out on using the prowler will actually show that three hours post training all these muscle markers are starting to return to normal, so you’re looking at almost a full recovery after just three hours. So, for people who are training multiple times a day this can be an effective method, and an effective mode of exercise to be using.
If you’re using this earlier in the day in your first training session you’re still able to then work very hard in the second part of the day. If you’re using this in the second part of the day you’ll absolutely have full recovery for the next day’s training. Now, the advice here based on this research is that using the prowler in part one of your training session, maybe in your a.m. training can be a really good strategy because then you have full recovery three hours later when you go into part two, and you can even strength train then and not have too many negative effects of that first piece of training.
Now, even though we’re getting these changes and these recoveries in your muscles in that short amount of time, it’s actually been shown that 24 hours post training you still have elevated levels of testosterone in the body, and elevated levels of growth hormone. So, from the point of view of having this time under tension causing some sort of chemical or hormonal change in the body, which puts you in a state conducive to improving muscle strength and size, there is an argument to say yes this is an effective way to do this. You’re still getting some of these positives. That being these hormonal changes while you’re starting to minimise some of these negatives, or things that could be perceived as negatives for people who are looking to train across multiple areas of fitness, and look at multiple bouts. So, really good for people who have a fixation on training a lot, and as you’re working on changing that psychology that more is better, this is a great tool to be able to work with that psychology and meet an athlete where they are.
Another real good benefit of working with a prowler is that there’s very little technique needed. It’s very hard to do this movement incorrectly. And if you do it incorrectly it results more in a loss of efficiency and in a loss of effect, as opposed to doing something like a heavy back squat incorrectly, which can cause a lot more long term overuse, or acute, and chronic issues in the body. So, very hard to do it incorrectly, so extremely low injury rates with a movement like this.
Talking about injury, this is a great tool to use for people who are injured to be able to replace some of their standard training and the standard stimuli with a less injurious, or an easier on the body form of exercise. This is because we don’t have the eccentric muscle damage. So, for people who are suffering from some sort of soft tissue injury be it a muscular, a ligament, or a tendon based injury, this could be a really effective way because it still allows your muscles to recover from the injury itself, and you’re not placing too much more muscle damage, and therefore too much more stress, and stimulus to your body as having to recover from.
From a joint point of a view if it’s more of a musculoskeletal type issue, again, very low impact. You’re not loading the joints too much and there’s a shorter range of motion, which means that you’re able to avoid those injurious ranges in the muscle.
So how do we do this? What does the actual practical application of this change look like? Well, if you’re looking to substitute something that’s quite anterior chain dominant, so let’s say you’re trying to substitute for a front squat for an athlete who has knee issues. What you would then do is something with the prowler, or with a sled where you are moving backwards. So, either with a strap around your waist where you’re dragging you walking backwards and you’re facing the sled, or prowler, or holding onto handles, and again, walking backwards. That would be an anterior trained dominant movement as a substitute for something like a front squat.
If you’re looking to substitute for something that’s more posterior trained dominant, maybe a dead lift, so let’s say we have an athlete with a lower back issue, and we are looking to not do dead lifts, and replace it with work on the sled or the prowler, we would be looking for some sort of forward push, or forward drag. So, either using low handles on the prowler pushing it forward, or walking forward with your back to the prowler, so you’re moving forward, again, with a strap around your waist, or holding the rings out behind you.
So, to answer your question, is this as powerful for creating strength as doing something with eccentric loading? In one about of exercise the answer is no. It’s not going to have the same effect. If you do 10 minutes of strength training and working on squads, and 10 minutes of strength training working on the prowler, the squats would give you a lot more benefit. However, there are other confounding variables in there like the time taken to recover, and the benefit for people who are injured, and also this fact that you still get these changes in hormonal levels 24 hours post exercise. So, my advice would be to incorporate both elements into your training. They both play a part, as long as you’re using them both where they’re most effective.
Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology. He has worked with many thousands of individuals along the full spectrum of health, and has coached at The CrossFit Games. He regularly presents to corporate and fitness industry groups and mentors Fitness Professionals.