Tapping into the right movement for your athletes eliminates pain, improves strength, and builds high performance conditioning to take performance to the next level. I’m sure you’re thinking squats; hip extension exercises like cleans, deadlifts, and the like, right? Well, I don’t disagree on their efficacy, but I have something else in mind – a series of exercises that Stu McGill has praised and Gray Cook considers his “most functional exercise.” A series of exercises that incorporate dynamic trunk stability, anti-lateral flexion, incorporates irradiation for greater rotator cuff engagement, improve grip strength, build an upper back, and even turns Krispy Kreme’s into a health food. Okay, I was lying about Krispy Kreme’s, but farmer carries are the one of the most underrated and underutilized exercise movements for athletes. In this article I will cover the benefits of carries, common cues, concerns and how to optimally program carries for your goals.
Cues and Benefits of Farmer Walks: You only need to try the farmers walk and its many variations once to appreciate how brutally effective they are. From your forearms to your upper back, legs, hips, and trunk every muscle is engaged and scorched for maximal training in strength and dynamic stability.
Furthermore, there are important cues to maximize the effectiveness weighted carries through optimal joint position. Not only will these cues convey important benefits for strength and stability, they’ll combat postural deficiencies and keep you and your athletes healthy.
Shoulders down and back: Keep the shoulders down and back to reinforce good posture by keeping the joints stacked with the upper torso aligned over the trunk. Additionally, keeping the shoulders down and back “sets” the shoulder girdle and combats rounding of the shoulders, which pre-disposes many athletes to shoulder dysfunction.
Bottom line: Keeping the shoulders down and back reinforces optimal posture and keeps the joints stacked, preventing forward flexion during weighted carries.
Chest tall and head back: Keeping the chest tall and head back directly plays off of the “shoulders down and back” cue and is vital to maintaining optimal body position. When looking at typical farmer’s walks, the head begins to inch forward as fatigue sets in. As a result, facet joints in the spine and intervertebral disks rather than the muscles of the neck now support forward head posture, injury cervical stress. While we’re all for hard work, it’s vital that body position is maintained for optimal reward and minimal risk. Keeping the chest tall and head back balances the anterior and posterior weight shift from the cervical spine down through the reminder of the kinetic chain. As a result, this prevents cervical extension, quasi-modo style thoracic spine rounding, and bad posture.
Bottom Line: Joint position dictates muscle function; put the body in a position to the load the correct tissues from the top down, starting with keeping the chest tall and head back.
Squeeze the weight: Beyond improved grip strength, squeezing the weights reinforces the shoulder girdle by packing the shoulder and activating the rotator cuff through irradiation.
Bottom Line: Squeeze the weight as if you’re trying to break it for better stabilization and activation through the shoulder and rotator cuff.
Walk Heel to toe: When most people think of farmers’ walks they picture Strongman competitions on ESPN the Ocho with massive humans carrying giant implements as fast as possible. While this makes sense for Strongman competitors, there isn’t much validation for most other athletes, especially with the loss of optimal body position.
It’s better to drop the weight than to race through the farmers walk: The reason being, racing through farmers walks leads to faulty joint position through the entire kinetic chain. During the he waddle gait prominent in “fast” walks, hip adduction and internal rotation take over movement through the hip, minimizing glute activity and overemphasizing the tensor fascia latae as a hip flexor in uncontrolled movement. Joint position and symmetry are vital in movement, and racing through weighted carries makes these very difficult to achieve.
Bottom Line: Instead of walking as fast as possible, hone in on a slow paced, heel to toe walk to optimize body position and optimize trunk engagement. This forces the obliques, QL, and hip abductors to hold the pelvis and trunk in position while controlling heavy external loads to build a strong, stable, and resilient midsection.
Increase confidence, swagger, and competition: This isn’t a cue; rather, a benefit of weighted carries—there is something special about creating a competitive atmosphere with your athletes and conquering challenges. As it pertains to farmers walk variations, heavy loads provide a significant challenge to maintain focus and body position under stress.
Bottom Line: Coaches, athletes, and teams grow together through adversity. Challenges like weighted carries are a low-risk, high reward exercise for building camaraderie and strong community within training groups.
Time Under tension for Muscle Growth: Not only is muscle growth a secondary goal for many athletes, it’s also a huge source of confidence, enjoyment in training, and in some cases, injury prevention. In the case of weighted carries, long durations of time under tension provide significant stress to the forearms, trapezius, and rhomboids.
Bottom Line: Many athletes aim to build muscle regardless of training protocol —the farmers walk allows you to bridge the gap between aesthetics and performance, training the shoulder retractors, forearms, and trunk with significant time under tension for functional hypertrophy.
Types of Farmer Walks
- Dumbbell farmer walks
Benefits: Dynamic stability through the trunk and hips, stabilization under compressive load, reinforce optimal joint posture through the kinetic chain and improve grip strength.
In other words: Farmer walks make you more resilient to “dumping” under load, such as ground reactive forces when sprinting, stabilize the hips under load, and reinforce optimal posture.
- One Arm Farmers Walks
Benefits: Huge anti-lateral flexion that stimulates the obliques, become tolerant to simultaneous compression and distraction forces on the spine, greater stimuli to the QL, abductors to maintain body position when walking.
In other words: One arm carries don’t need to heavy loading compared to dumbbell farmers walks and provide a more challenging anti-lateral flexion stress.
- Low-High Carries
Benefits: Low-high carries place both compression and distraction stresses on the spine, require overhead shoulder stability, anti-lateral flexion and challenge grip strength.
In other words: Low-high carries use a carry with one arm overhead and another weight by the hip to challenge the trunk to prevent lateral flexion under compressive load while maintaining upper body joint position with a weight overhead reinforcing shoulder stability. Use lighter weights for the overhead carry.
- Trap bar carry
Benefits: Trap bar carries train dynamic stability through the trunk and hips, core stabilization under compressive load, reinforces optimal joint posture through the kinetic chain, and improve grip strength.
In other words: Trap Bar carries can be loaded heavier than most dumbbell farmer walk variations, opening the door for a greater grip strength challenge and loading for stronger athletes.
- Zercher Carry
Benefits: Based on the anterior loading, Zercher carries have a significant anti-flexion stimulus on the trunk under. As a result, athletes become more resilient to shear stress in the spine while reinforcing optimal joint stacking.
In other words: Zercher carries are a front loaded carry, which incorporates anti-flexion stimulus to build a body resilient to shear stress and on the spine.
- Double overhead carry
Benefits: Massive shoulder stabilization and trunk stabilization with a load overhead, stabilization under compressive load.
In other words: A double overhand carry requires two weights held overhead while maintaining proper alignment through the body. While overhead carries aren’t challenging on the grip, they’re significant challenge for shoulder stability and control through the kinetic chain.
How to Program Carries
Weighted carries are a versatile movement pattern with seemingly endless application in training. That said it would be irresponsible to tell you all the benefits (we’re better than that), without showing you a few methods to properly program weighted carries into your training.
Carries in your Warm-Up: Carries as a warm-up before a weight-training session are a great way to activate deep muscles of the trunk, hip, and in the case of overhead carries, the shoulder girdle. In the warm-up the point isn’t all-out effort; rather, activation of tissues needed for the following workout. After a dynamic warm-up, use a submaximal weight (50-75% of what you would normally use) for 2-3 sets of 20-30 second carries. Remember, stimulate, don’t annihilate in the warm-up.
Carries at the End of Training: Carries at the end of a training session are best as an intensive grip exercise, core exercise, or in a metabolic circuit. In this case, place a premium on joint position and optimal mechanics. Farmers’ walks are great at the end of a training session as both part of a metabolic circuit or stand-alone core exercise. Select a weight 75%+ of what you would normally use and carry for 3-5 sets of 30-45 seconds, or until you begin to lose body position.
All exercises are a tool for athletic improvement, not an end all be all for performance.
Wrap Up: Farmer walks are a staple in sound athletic performance programming. Unfortunately, they are often neglected, and misguided when it comes to body position and loading. Instead of maximizing resistance at all cost, focus on optimal body position and joint mechanics for maximum sports specific transfer and minimal risk. Not only will farmers’ walks provide a challenge for your athletes, they’ll reinforce safe body positions, stabilize the trunk under load, build a support system for the spine, and add some high performance strength and size to the traps and forearms.
Loren Landow, CSCS, MAT Specialist, USAW, is Director of Loren Landow Performance, Denver, CO. http://www.speedandagilitycoach.com/ and Director of Sports Performance at Elite Sports Services. http://elitesportsservices.com/ . Eric Bach,CSCS, PN1 is a sports performance coach at Loren Landow Performance, Denver, CO.