Over the last decade, gym culture has been invaded by functional fitness: the idea that what you do inside the weight room should make you better at whatever you do outside the weight room. It seems the pendulum swung a bit too far, though, and soon we had people swinging battling ropes from atop a Bosu ball while standing on one leg. In reality, the exercises that most effectively cross over from the gym to the real world incorporate a simple movement pattern with an added stressor of weight or time … something like a loaded carry.
There are many variations of a loaded carry, but they all share the same premise: moving a heavy weight over distance at speed. This brand of exercise is phenomenal at building work capacity (the amount of exercise volume you can tolerate and adapt to) and helps develop strong legs and hips, a rock-solid core, a bulletproof back and unbelievable grip strength. Best of all, the loaded carry is easy to learn.
“It’s the most basic thing ever. You pick up something heavy and you walk with it,” says Todd Bumgardner, MS, CSCS, a strength coach at Ranfone Training Systems (rtsct.com) in Hamden, Conn. “It’s applicable to anyone across his whole life. It’s a very useful thing to do.”
Locked & Loaded
Strength athletes regularly use loaded carries in their training, but you probably won’t find many pictures of Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler doing a farmer’s walk; bodybuilders prefer exercises that have a range of motion they can manipulate for a desired effect. But just because loaded carries aren’t too popular with the jacked-and-tan crowd doesn’t mean they’ll have zero impact on your physique. They can actually help transform you into a stronger, leaner and overall better-conditioned athlete.
Work capacity. The greatest contribution of heavy loaded carries is the increase in work capacity they engender. Proficiency with them will allow you to operate with a slightly higher heart rate and at a greater level of exertion. You’ll be able to tolerate more volume, crank out a few more reps and recover more quickly between sets. Sure, loaded carries more efficiently target performance and function than aesthetics, but the ability to do more work in the gym means more calories utilized and more muscle fibers activated. That, friends, is the basis for burning fat and building muscle.
Hormonal response. Two of the hormones that athletes seek to maximize during training are testosterone and growth hormone. And guess what loaded carries do? A 2013 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that carries and similar strongman-based activities elevated levels of salivary testosterone much the same way that traditional hypertrophy training does. Heavy carries — when done for 40 to 120 seconds — also place a heavy demand on an athlete’s anaerobic lactic acid capacity, triggering a greater release of growth hormone. This means greater full-body growth and fat-burning potential, simply by carrying heavy stuff from point A to point B.
Core Strength. Not only are loaded carries a great overall exercise, but they’re also deceptively taxing on your core. While most people overuse abdominal flexion movements such as crunches and hanging leg raises, exercises like the suitcase carry test anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion qualities. The ability to brace the spine and maintain an erect torso under stress is a foundation of healthy movement; even such simple acts as carrying groceries or jogging demand this type of core rigidity.
Shoulder Stability.Another surprising benefit of loaded carries is that they actively help chronic shoulder problems. Squeezing something tightly turns on the rotator cuff and acts like a prehab exercise for the shoulder. “You’ll get a lot of rotator cuff and parascapular activation,” says Bumgardner. “And having a really strong grip limits the amount of stress that transfers down your arm and into your shoulder.” You’ll also see gains in your forearms and traps, he adds. “The traps are more of a slow-twitch, dominant muscle, so if you’re challenging them for time, you’ll also see some hypertrophy there.”
Admittedly, loaded carries won’t put peaks on your biceps, but they’ll do the next best thing: allow you to stay in the gym long enough, and with enough energy, to do the work that will build the kind of physique you want. “Even if your goal is to get bigger, loaded carries will add simple, consequence-free volume to your training,” explains Bumgardner. “They can never be detrimental. If anything, they’re always going to help.”
Upload Your Training Program
Loaded carries are highly versatile, and can play a part in almost any portion of your workout. Here are three ways to implement them into your current routine.
Warm-Up (every workout) Use a loaded carry to wake up your central nervous system for the impending workout. Bumgardner likes the bottom-up kettlebell carry in this situation. Use distance as the metric of choice, performing three to four sets of 30 feet.
Conditioning (twice a week) For overall endurance and durability, perform a loaded carry for time rather than distance. (If you’re squatting or deadlifting, perform this drill after the main strength portion of your workout.) Set a timer for six minutes and see how far you can go within that time. The goal is to progressively increase the amount of time you can keep the weight in your hands. If you fail early, put the weight down, shake out your hands and get back to it. If you can carry the weight for all six minutes, increase the load next time.
Finisher (twice a week, opposite days of conditioning) To increase work capacity or develop muscular endurance in a specific area, cap off your workout with a complex that involves a loaded carry. It can be as simple as a suitcase carry for distance followed by 20 kettlebell swings and 15 goblet squats. For improved shoulder strength and stability, Bumgardner often has his clients pair a 30-second bottom-up kettlebell walk with incline dumbbell presses.
Select a pair of heavy dumbbells and grasp one in each hand. (Try to use weights that are challenging to carry for the distance selected. The heavier the weight the better, but it will limit how far you can carry them with good form.) Stand up, center your weight, roll your shoulders back, activate your core muscles and begin walking. Make your core rigid enough that the weight does not cause you to veer off course. Taking small, rapid steps will afford you more control over the weight than using a longer stride.
A suitcase carry is identical to a farmer’s walk except you hold the weight in just one hand. Stay as tall as possible with your chest up, squeezing your core and glutes as hard as you can to ensure the weight doesn’t force you to deviate from your path. You can create some tension in your nonworking side by making a hard fist with your off hand and squeezing that lat to help brace your torso. Again, don’t allow the weight to control your path. Give yourself a clear line to follow in the gym, like a line of mats. A more advanced progression is being able to zigzag as you walk: The directional changes require greater control than following a straight line and will further challenge your core. Perform an equal number of sets, distance and/or time on both sides.
Carefully press a dumbbell or kettlebell to full extension overhead, palm facing forward. If using a kettlebell, the weight will rest against the back of your wrist. This variation challenges the opposite-side internal and external obliques, as well as the smaller stabilizers of your working-side shoulder. Keep your grip as tight as possible and your core nice and rigid. Maintain an erect posture as you walk for a set distance or time. Be sure to perform an equal number of sets, distance and/or time on both sides.
Bottom-Up Kettlebell Carry
Grasp a kettlebell by the handle and curl it so it’s upside down, hand close to your chin (or slightly in front of your chin for an extra challenge). Bend your elbow roughly 90 degrees and keep it just slightly below the level of your shoulder, your knuckles pointed straight at the ceiling and your forearm aligned under the kettlebell. Do not allow the weight to pull your arm to one side or the other or to roll over toward your wrist. Focus on bracing your trunk and maintaining a tall posture. Be sure to perform an equal number of sets, distance and/or time on both sides.
This is a classic competitive strongman event, with the load distributed across the shoulders like a traditional back squat.
Instead of testing your grip or the stability of a single joint, it bypasses potential weak links and spreads the challenge over the entire body. There are several ways to perform this exercise. If you have the budget and space, Rogue Fitness makes a combination apparatus called the Y-1 that’s perfect for garage lifters. It combines a yoke, squat stand and sled, all in one device. Bumgardner likes to use a safety squat bar, which encourages thoracic extension and good posture. Another option is to attach heavy kettlebells to the end of a barbell using thick exercise bands. Finally, a simple loaded barbell is the most accessible version of this move. You can place the bar across your traps or in a front rack position, with the latter likely requiring a lighter load.
After building some familiarity with the movement, work up to a weight that’s close to twice your own body weight. Load the bar on the outside j-hooks of a squat rack, at the same height you use for squats. If you’ll be carrying it across your back, consider using the pad or wrapping a towel around the bar. (Strongman yokes tend to be thicker than barbells.) Facing away from the rack, get under the bar, tighten your torso and glutes and stand up. Focus on a spot straight ahead and begin walking, keeping a rigid torso for the duration of the carry.
One-Arm Rack Walk
Clean a kettlebell up into the rack position with your elbow tight to your body and wrist straight. In this position, the kettlebell should be touching your forearm and upper arm (outside of your biceps) and your thumb should come into contact with your collarbone. This asymmetric load places a heavy burden on the opposite-side oblique muscles.
This move can also be performed with two kettlebells, which offers a more equitable distribution of the load, allowing you to walk with more total weight.
The limiting factor for almost all loaded carries is grip strength. If your grip is weak, stick to the farmer’s walk and use as light a load as you need. As your hands get stronger, progress to the suitcase carry and then to the bottom-up kettlebell carry, which is the most demanding on your grip.