Jack Lovett is a S&C specialist, owner of Spartan Performance and two-time British natural strongman champion. He is based in Consett, County Durham.
Loaded carries are now receiving appropriate recognition within the wider strength training community, thanks to renowned coaches including Mike Boyle, Dan John and Stuart McGill, having previously been in the exclusive realm of the The World’s Strongest Man contest. And it’s about time too, because these lifts are simple to perform and extremely effective at providing a multitude of benefits simultaneously.
These include: demanding a strong core brace, which ensures the spine remains neutral by protecting against both shear and compressive forces; enhanced proprioception, because you must move with the load whilst maintaining the above core brace; increased mental capability, because along with heavy prowler work, loaded carries require incredible willpower and focus to do; encouraging increased muscle growth, because of extended muscular tension – a sustained high level of force output from all major muscle groups – especially the upper back, forearms and legs – is required to complete any loaded carry; and they provide a unique conditioning effect, especially when different carries, such as overhead walks into farmer’s walks, are combined.
If you never perform any type of loaded carry then you are missing out on all the above benefits from a single exercise. They are the epitome of training efficiently. In terms of simple impact, Dan John rates loaded carries as the number one ‘game changer’ for athletes. I couldn’t agree more, and they will work just as well for the non-athlete too who wants to increase strength and muscle mass.
Irrespective of training emphasis, all loaded carries should be performed in a controlled yet brisk pace. Long, heavy strides should be avoided. Posture-wise, you should maintain an upright position with hips in line with the shoulders throughout. Failure to do so may result in injury. If either pace or posture are compromised during training, I strongly recommend the load be decreased and correct technique adopted with appropriate resistance.
1 Farmer’s walk
This is the original loaded carry and the easiest to perform. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, regular barbells, a trap deadlift bar or specific farmer’s walk handles, such is the versatility of the exercise. The farmer’s walk is particularly useful at developing vastus medialis (VM) strength. Many individuals display insufficient VM development and strength levels. A stronger VM will help prevent many common knee injuries, such as ACL tears.
How to do it
• The initial pick up is executed in a deadlift style: a straight back with a slight arch to minimise the risk of injury. Because of the placement of the implements either side of the body, there is a reduction in spinal stress compared to conventional deadlifts.
• Ensure your grip is central on the handles to avoid tilting of the weights during the carry.
• Adopt a wrap-around grip with your thumb tight around and securing the index finger.
• Maintain contracted abdominals during lift-off and throughout the carry. Failure to do so will result in the supportive musculature of the spine being required to bear the entire load, increasing the risk of injury.
• Cover the distance/time set by taking short rapid steps. Over-striding will result in unnecessary turning of the hips, which can again risk injury.
Top tip As with all loaded carries these should be performed without the aid of a lifting belt. Using a belt would negate the core strengthening benefits of the exercise. For extra ankle strength, look to perform barefoot providing you have a suitable training surface, such as turf.
2 Overhead carry
A regularly utilised tool in renowned champion weightlifter Vasily Alexeyev’s routine, the overhead carry is a great anti-extension exercise, tremendous at developing the shoulders, serratus and the obliques. I have also experienced great success with these whilst rehabbing shoulder injuries.
How to do it
• Clean a barbell. Less developed athletes can perform these with dumbbells to begin with. I would then recommend a progression to barbells (preferably thick grip), then logs, which require a far greater core and shoulder musculature stabilisation.
• Press it overhead with a slightly wider grip than usual.
• Walk taking short controlled steps. Do not over-stride or look to perform at speed. When turning make sure to do so under control at all times.
• When locked out ensure to consciously shrug the traps upward pushing the bar as far overhead as possible. Maintain this ‘locked out’ position throughout for maximal benefit.
Top tip These exercises can be made more challenging for the advanced individual by incorporating chains to overload the core musculature and increase the need for balance. Caution must be taken with this addition. Along with the greater stabilisation requirement and training effect comes an increased risk of injury.
3 Zercher carry
This move provides a tremendous stimulus for the entire core musculature whilst stressing the upper back and arms. Similar to the overhead carry, it is a great anti-extension exercise, and a smarter choice for individuals who can’t get overhead safely because of flexibility or injury issues.
How to do it
• Squat down to the barbell in the Zercher position with the bar held in the bend of the elbow instead of a standard shoulder position.
• If using an adjustable yoke, set the crossbar no lower than naval height and no higher than the bottom of the sternum.
• Keeping the arms bent at 90 degrees, cross the hands and lock the arms tightly into the abdominals for extra stability.
• Stand up with the barbell held tightly to the body, bracing your core and contracting your glutes. This brace must me be maintained throughout.
• As with all loaded carries, walk in even steps avoiding both heavy footfall and long strides.
Top tip If possible use a thick barbell (2-inch or thicker) over a standard Olympic barbell. There will always be an element of pain holding the bar in the elbow joint between the bicep and forearm when Zercher carrying, but this is far less severe with a thicker bar, which helps distribute the weight more evenly. If you are lucky enough to have access to an adjustable yoke for this even better. The thick yoke bar will be even more comfortable to hold.
4 Yoke walk
The yoke is the most demanding loaded carry variation on this list. It demands both a high level of multiplanar and unilateral proprioception, which requires you to constantly correct your position under the yoke whilst moving forward as fast as possible. In doing so, the core musculature experiences a significant exposure to high-load strength endurance.
How to do it
• Adjust the crossbar to around sternum height (individual preferences vary this slightly). Squat under the bar distributing the weight over the upper back and shoulders.
• Grasp the vertical uprights with your hands level or just below shoulder height. Do so tightly whilst retracting your scapula and keeping the elbows high.
• Brace your core, contracting the abdominals strongly and pushing them outwards. Drive through your heels and squat the yoke off the ground.
• Stabilise the yoke with a strong upper back and torso contraction whilst gripping the frame tightly. Look straight ahead, contract your glutes and keep your hips in line beneath your shoulders. Move forwards with a brisk yet controlled pace.
Top tip It is common to see knee wraps, belts and other supportive gear used by strongmen during competition, but this need not apply when incorporating loaded carries into your routine. Such supportive gear can detract from the greater demands placed upon the core when performed without a belt.
Putting them into your programme
Loaded carries can and should be incorporated into your programme and I advocate performing these at the conclusion of a workout with a strict emphasis on technique and form. Beginners and those new to these exercises should concentrate solely on this aspect, benefiting from lighter weights carried for longer distances/durations and the resulting time under tension. Three separate sets of 60-second carries with between 60 to 75 seconds of rest will tick the boxes for most.
From this you can adjust both load and time/distance of carry to suit your goal. Specific loading and time/distance can vary greatly between lifters. There is no hard and fast rule, but below are my goal-orientated preferences.
Perform multiple sets of up two minutes of work, with 60 seconds of rest.
Muscle building and fat loss
Perform multiple sets of 60 seconds of work with 60 to 75 seconds of rest. The load should be heavier than when training for fat loss only.
Perform multiple sets of short distance (20-40m) with heavier weights, and rest for between 90 to 120 seconds.
When selecting the weight you should carry you should load according to your experience, ability, and within the parameters listed above. Progression is a simple case of adding weight slowly and consistently over time. That said, I do have all my clients strive to carry at least bodyweight in each hand on the farmer’s walk for a minimum of 40m. This would be a reasonable standard to achieve in my facility. Depending upon the client it is not uncommon to witness 1.5 times bodyweight in each hand over 40m. Why 40m? That is the length we have to work with indoors and it is also conducive with strength building, which is the foundation of all my programming.
With the yoke I would expect an average, healthy client to begin by supporting at least their bodyweight as a total additional load. Progressing up to at least the individuals one-rep max back squat should not be an issue if done so smartly. I am personally a lot more conservative when it comes to both the Zercher carry and overhead carry. Load is very much specific to the individual. None of my clients are looking to break the world record in these lifts. That is not the rationale when selecting them.
Reap the rewards
With loaded carries the demands may be high, but so too are the rewards. These lifts transfer very well to both the squat and deadlift, two exercises that are foundations in all serious strength programmes. Combined with the superb core stimulus, developed unilateral proprioception and a positive effect on body composition, loaded carries can be a highly effective tool for all, if used correctly and safely.