People don’t always think about the foundation of a strong lift – the requisite grip strength, core tension, breathing mechanics, and full-body stabilization that contribute to super-human displays of strength and power on the platform.
But that’s a major mistake.
Enter the humble farmer carry. This underappreciated accessory lift is the simplest and most effective way to build iron-crushing grip, a bulletproof core, and nerves of steel.
Strength guru Dan John and movement expert Grey Cook agree – the farmer’s carry or farmer walk is one of the best exercises to strengthen your entire body and prevent injury without tasking your recovery too badly.
The benefits of this simple lift are numerous. Farmer’s carries will:
- Improve your posture. Carrying heavy weights teaches you to engage your upper back muscles and to pack your shoulders down and back.
- Enhance shoulder stability. Building on the point above, keeping your shoulders packed will fire your upper back and rotator cuff muscles, enhancing shoulder stability and preventing the shoulder pain typical of bench press aficionados.
- Enhance hip stability. Each step taken in a farmer’s carry forces your hips to stabilize your body in a loaded single-leg stance. This will fire up your hip stabilizing muscles and carry over to a stronger squat and deadlift.
- Improve core strength. You’ll be forced to brace your abs tightly to make it across the room without buckling under the weight of heavy dumbbells.
- Boost breathing mechanics. Since you’re standing upright during carries, you’ll be able to take deep belly breaths that brace your core and teach you to breathe under load.
- Reduce injury risk. Farmer’s walks are among the safest exercise you can perform, and they can be loaded heavily without creating sheer force on your spine (unlike the squats and deads that make up most of your training).
- Test your grit. This exercise is dead simple, but hard as hell.
Skip this lift, and you risk missing your heaviest deadlift because you can’t grip the bar through lockout; buckling under your bench press when your shoulders give out; or collapsing under a heavy squat from lack of core engagement and bracing.
Again, this accessory lift is simple as all get-out, but it pays back big benefits when programmed alongside your powerlifting-focused strength training program.
How to “walk the walk” with loaded carries
Pick up the heaviest weights you can hold in each hand. Half your bodyweight (per hand) is a good target to build up to, but start with whatever your grip can manage. The weights should be heavy enough that you feel your core engaging and your shoulders burning as you walk, but not so heavy that you can’t walk in a straight line without compromising your form.
Squeeze the weights like you’re trying to choke them. Pull your shoulders down and back, keep your abs braced and your chest tall. Then, simply walk across the room, focusing on maintaining your posture. Walk 30-40 paces (as space allows) before turning around and returning to your starting point. If you can’t make the full lap, the weights may be too heavy. If your gym lacks adequate space for you to take 40 steps, do two laps per set.
Once you’ve mastered the basic farmer’s carry, there are several carry variations that will add challenge to this foundational movement pattern.
Essentially a one-sided farmer carry, the suitcase carry involves holding just one weight. This will torch your obliques as they fire to keep you from leaning to the side in an attempt to counterbalance the weight in your working hand.
Pro tip: imagine crushing the handle of a weight in your empty hand. This exercise should look and feel exactly like a farmer carry, despite holding only one dumbbell.
Front rack carries
These work best with kettlebells, rather than dumbbells, but work with what you’ve got. Grab two heavy bells and clean them up into the front rack position, with the bells resting between your biceps and forearms, elbows tucked and pointed down towards the ground, and a neutral wrist.
Just as with the farmer carry, you’ll walk 30-40 paces while focusing on maintaining an upright posture. Each step should be mechanical and deliberate. Breathe deeply while keeping your chest up and shoulders packed.
The front rack position emphasizes your upper back muscles, so this accessory exercise will carry over to your ability to stabilize the bar on all three of the big lifts.
Okay, technically none of the big three involve overhead strength, but this carry variation will develop your rotator cuff muscles, translating to injury-free bench pressing.
This bad boy is also known as a “waiter’s carry” when performed with one weight. I recommend beginning with only one weight before progressing to a double overhead carry. This is simply a less stressful starting point from a mobility and stability standpoint.
Grab a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell and clean it to the front rack before pressing it overhead. You want the weight to remain directly above your shoulder joint while maintaining a neutral wrist position and upright posture as you walk. If the weight drifts forward, backward, or off to the side, choose a lighter weight that you can control until your rotator cuff is strong enough to handle additional loading.
Walk across the room, down and back, then carefully lower the weight before cleaning and pressing it above the other shoulder and repeating the process. If you find the single-arm overhead carry easy enough to execute, try the exercise with weights in both hands.
Bottom’s up carries
This is a fantastic drill rotator cuff activation drill. You must use a kettlebell, since dumbbells cannot be held in the “bottoms up” position. So, grab a kettlebell of moderate weight (less than you could press for 10-15 reps). Firmly grasp the handle and curl the weight up toward your shoulder with the bell hovering above your shoulder (get it, bottom’s up?). Maintain a strong front rack position as you walk across the room.
When you feel comfortable with carrying the upside-down bell in the front rack, progress to overhead bottom’s up carries. Again, I recommend starting with just one kettlebell because the double bell carries are more challenging.
As the name implies, you can combine different carry positions to enhance the challenge and benefits of the humble loaded carry. Try these on for size:
- Suitcase carry on one side, front rack on the other side;
- Suitcase carry with overhead carry;
- Front rack carry with overhead carry.
A barbell is great because you can load movements much heavier than with dumbbells or kettlebells, and as a powerlifter, you’re training with a barbell already. Why not add the bar into your farmer carry routine?
If your training space allows, grab a barbell and take a walk. Try front rack, back rack, overhead, or Zercher holds. Just remember, put your ego on a shelf. Only load as much weight as needed for a training effect. If your form is compromised, you’re going too heavy.
One final variation, just for fun: trap bar carries. These are the ultimate farmer carry challenge because you’re not limited to using the heaviest dumbbells or kettlebells offered at your gym.
How to add these carry variations to your powerlifting program
You can play with weight, volume, and intensity when programming loaded carries, just as you would the main lifts in your training plan. Use heavy weights for shorter distances over several laps to build strength. Use moderate-heavy weights for longer distances and fewer laps to work on strength endurance. Or use relatively lighter weights over long distances and many laps to work on your conditioning.
Vary the volume and intensity of carries based on your lifting program. For instance, if you have a very heavy, high intensity deadlift day planned, you may want to go with lighter carries that day. And as with any good training program, make sure you progressively overload your carries. Add weight, distance, laps, or increase the speed at which you walk from week to week so that you continue to benefit from the exercises.
Here’s a sample farmer walk finisher to tack onto your regular powerlifting work:
Complete heavy strength work
Complete accessory work
Heavy double-dumbbell farmer carry, 30-ft down and back, moderate pace, rest 60-sec between sets, complete 4 laps down and back (60-ft)
Complete heavy strength and accessory work
Heavy double-dumbbell farmer carry, 30-ft down and back, moderate pace, rest 60-sec between sets, complete 6 laps down and back (60-ft)
Complete heavy strength and accessory work
Heavy single-dumbbell suitcase carry, 30-ft down, switch hands and walk back, moderate pace, rest 60-sec between sets, complete 4 laps down and back
Complete heavy strength and accessory work
Heavy single-dumbbell suitcase carry, 30-ft down, switch hands and walk back, moderate pace, rest 60-sec between sets, complete 6 laps down and back
In the above example, we add 2 sets/laps each week, and increase the challenge in weeks three and four by subbing the one-handed suitcase carry for the farmer walk we started with. You could just as easily play with different variables, too. For instance, increase the distance from 30’ to 40’ or increase intensity from a moderate to fast-paced walk. If you’re starting with lighter weights, progressively overload the exercise by increasing weight week to week.
If you train hard at the squat, deadlift, and bench press, do yourself a favor and add farmer walks to your training plan. They’ll help you strengthen oft-neglected muscles, create a bar-crushing grip, help prevent injury, and test your grit – all of which will carry over to your performance on the platform.