You need to be doing farmers walks and loaded carries. I can think of very few people that wouldn’t benefit from the addition of carrying something from point A to point B in their workouts. But you still don’t see them being done very often in gyms. Loaded carries are great for training the grip, building muscle, work capacity, core strength, coordination, and even improving function of the shoulder girdle. They really do offer something for everyone, and I’m not the only who thinks so.
We all carry things... or should
The act of carrying objects over a distance is likely one of our most functional and fundamental lifting patterns. Strength coach, Dan John is recognized most for bringing loaded carries into more mainstream training circles recently. He claims that they can change your life. However, even before him there were others that knew the benefits of carrying exercises. Brooks Kubik wrote in the Dino Files that “The farmers walk is one of the most productive of all exercises.” And prior to Kubik, strongmen, coaches and strength athletes have long utilized carrying objects as both a training tool and competitive feat of strength. Variations of loaded carries should be implemented for a variety of goals from increasing athleticism to rehabilitation and there are plenty of respected coaches, therapists, and researchers to learn from.
Loaded carries for building muscle mass and hypertrophy
Farmers walks and sandbag carries are an excellent way to produce upper back and trap hypertrophy as they create high levels muscular tension and allow an athlete to maintain that tension for a prolonged period of time. These types of movements work the entire body and have been shown to stimulate an excellent hormonal response for muscular growth. Strongman training incorporating various types of carrying events has been shown to increase salivary testosterone similarly to that of a traditional high volume hypertrophy training program. (3) Strength coaches like Dan john, Brooks Kubik, Jason Ferrugia, Jimmy Smith and many others all utilize variations of loaded carries and farmers walks to help their athletes pack on slabs of muscle to their upper backs and torsos.
Farmers walks for grip training
Farmers walks tax the grip in an excruciatingly brutal way. The movement primarily develops support grip, but grip experts like John Brookfield and others will incorporate pinch grip variations as well. Pinch grip variations can be as specialized as using a “blob” or simply pinching multiple plates together between your fingers and thumb. Additionally, carrying kegs, stones, ropes, and other odd objects all help to develop hand strength and dexterity in variety of patterns. Gripping more weight translates pretty readily into lifting more weight, more muscle, more overall strength, and a more manly handshake.
Loaded carries develop work capacity
Sandbag carries, farmer’s walks and about a couple dozen of their variations are all great ways to improve conditioning, work capacity, and mental tenacity at the end of a workout. Sandbags, kegs, and stones all create some especially nasty conditioning demands when they restrict breathing by creating pressure on the chest and abdomen. Fighters can take advantage of this by using sandbags in conditioning exercises to mimic the demands of training with an opponent that literally works to squeeze the air out of you. Collegiate strength coaches will often use variations to provide variety and keep athletes working together as teams for conditioning finishers and pushing tolerance to lactate and fatigue. Loaded carries are easily combined with other lifts and calisthenics to produce huge conditioning demands and nearly indestructible athletes.
Core strength, coordination, and athleticism
Stuart McGill has possibly done more research on the topic of core function, spine mechanics and strongman training than any other researcher. His research has demonstrated that farmers walks and other loaded carries are great exercises for training abdominal wall, external obliques and quadratus lumborum to created stability in the trunk. (7, 8) Training the midsection through loaded carries results in an efficient synergy of the trunk bracing muscles allowing for greater stiffness and fewer energy leaks for athletes of all kinds. Unilaterally loaded carries such as suitcase carries are an excellent way to train the midsection for athletes that change directions quickly.
Physical therapist, Gray Cook, also includes loaded carry variations in his repertoire of “self limiting” exercises as shared in his book, Movement. (2) These exercises don’t really allow for an extreme amount of cheating or body english, so when the grip or core fails the implement is usually dropped. This requires an athlete to become more mindful of their posture, breathing, and total coordination of the body in movement. Both Cook and McGill have advocated the bottoms kettlebell carry as a way to develop this type of mindfulness and coordination.
Contrary to what many people think of the safety and simplicity of self limiting exercises, Cook warns that there is still ample reason for having proper coaching.
Another prominent physical therapist, Bill Hartman, has also pointed out how carrying heavy loads can facilitate pulling the rib cage down while bracing through the midsection. This action improves the position of the diaphragm and begins to correct excessive extension in the spine. Both of which are important for learning to properly brace, move, and breath at the same time.
Shoulder health through heavy lifting
But wait there’s more! Charlie Weingroff, another awesome physical therapist, has discussed how he uses heavily loaded farmers walks to improve shoulder function. (9) Heavy farmers walks effectively coerce the shoulder blades to set into a stable position and stimulate a PNF “threat” response to activate the rotator cuff muscles. This leads to improvements in glenohumeral and scapular positioning or simply a stronger, more stable, shoulder. Hartman and Weingroff both point out that it is important to make use of sufficiently heavy loads in order to facilitate the PNF response and improvements in shoulder position.
In addition to heavy farmers walks you can also perform overhead carries, like waiter’s walks, to improve scapular positioning and stability. While these carries necessitate less loading they are a great tool for improving scapular stability and positioning, alongside creating a unique trunk stabilization demand. By raising your center of gravity, overhead carries can also facilitate a stabilization challenge which requires you to brace and pull the rib cage down similar to farmers walks and suitcase carries, but under less load.
Go forth and carry things
All this to say, you should be picking things up and carrying them before you put them back down. There’s no shortage of good reasons to include these types of exercises into your training each week. Use whatever implements and heavy objects are immediately available. Push yourself to use heavier loads and maintain posture. Whether you need to rehab, build muscle, increase strength, or develop coordination, athleticism and performance, you should be including more carrying exercises in your training program.
- Brookfield, J. (2002). The Grip Master's Manual. Nevada City, CA, IronMind Enterprises.
- Cook, G. (2011). Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, Corrective Strategies. UK, Lotus Publishing.
- Ghigiarelli et al (2013). Effects of Strongman Training on Salivary Testosterone Levels In a Sample of Trained Males. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(3), 738-747.
- Hartman, B. CORRECTIVE CARRIES: FARMER’S WALK AND SUITCASE CARRY. Retrieved from http://www.billhartman.net/blog/corrective-carries-farmers-walk-and-suitcase-carry/
- John, D. (2012). Intervention: Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer. Santa Cruz, CA, On Target Publications.
- Kubik, B. D. (2002). 100 Dinosaur Training Tips. The Dinosaur Files, 5(12), 1-9.
- McGill et al (2009). Comparison of Different Strongman Events: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 23(4), 1148-1161.
- McGill et al (2012). Kettlebell Swing, Snatch, and Bottoms-Up Carry: Back and Hip Muscle Activation. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 26(1), 16-27.
- Weingroff, C. (2010). Training=Rehab, Rehab=Training (DVD). Aptos, CA, On Target Publications.