Whether you’re gearing up to head back to the box, or steadily building your own home gym arsenal, there’s an entire category of largely unsung movements that could be the missing piece of the puzzle in making your training truly functional-
Let’s talk ‘loaded carries’.
No matter what your goals or ambitions are, there really aren’t many reasons NOT to be doing loaded carries.
In many ways it’s bizarre to see how such effective exercises have become seen as ‘specialised’ or even niche, when arguably in terms of learning curve versus pay off, they’re some of the most economical movements you can perform.
In fact, in a time where the term ‘functional training’ has become generalised to the point where it’s lost a lot of it’s potency and it’s definition is the topic of much debate, loaded carries represent a set of movements with so much real world carryover (unintended pun) that they are unarguably, truly ‘functional’.
Perhaps the biggest problem with carries is that over the years they’ve become almost exclusively associated with strongman training. Glued to our TV’s every Christmas watching larger than life giants race down a concourse carrying (quite literally) an entire car on their shoulders, whilst incredibly entertaining, may seem to most to be an unachievable herculean feat.
But if integrated into your current training correctly and appropriately carries can be an absolute game changer. As legendary strength coach Dan John puts it-
‘The loaded carry does more to expand athletic qualities than any other single thing I've attempted in my career as a coach and athlete. And I do not say that lightly.’
If you already experiment with carries regularly to any effect, you’ll understand, but there may be even more variety and subsequent benefits than you realise.
Let’s jump straight into the weeds and explore some of my favourite carries, look at the best ways to incorporate them into your own training, and throw in some example workouts to boot.
The OG, the classic, the Big Mac of carries- the farmers walk.
I personally rank the functionality of an exercise by it’s carryover to life outside of the gym (and subsequently how much easier it can make everyday tasks); most if not all carries rank massively high on this list, but perhaps none more so than the farmers walk.
With the exception of the yoke carry, the relatively ergonomic, straight armed position of a farmers walk means that no other movement will allow you to shift as much weight across a distance. You’re in an extremely advantageous position, where asides from your powerful grip muscles, no other muscles are being asked to flex to overly compromising angles, allowing you to work with some big poundages; with a high pickup relative to a barbell and neutral grip allowing for more quad drive you can pretty assuredly take anything you can deadlift, and more, for a walk.
So what’s the use in pacing up and down with all this iron? Besides the obvious, (moving more weight creates more stimulus), farmers carries provide a relatively safe way to handle this weight. Carrying and walking are incredibly natural movements, with an expedient learning curve, even the most green trainees will get to grips (unintended pun) with taking a set of heavy dumbbells for a stroll on the astro turf, pretty quickly.
The benefits of the instability created by moving quickly with weights, versus just picking them up and putting them down can also not be understated, you can look forward to improvements in strength, endurance and stability throughout your entire posterior chain, trunk, forearms, shoulders and biceps, as well as the postural muscles of your upper back, building and reinforcing a strong chassis on which to continue improving with your other lifts.”
A lesser seen entry, possibly in part due to the fact there’s no competitive strongman event involving the movement, but an incredibly effective accessory exercise nonetheless.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint is the linchpin of upper body movements, very few exercises take place without the express consent of a willing set of shoulders, and no other joint north of your hips is expected to handle as much weight, as often, through a huge range of articulations; keeping them happy and healthy is a major key to training longevity.
Overhead carries, whilst appearing similar to other pressing movements, add an increased necessity for stabilisation in the ever changing environment produced by each step. The adaptations this can bring about (both in your muscles and in how your brain fires up those muscles), can go a long way to creating a stronger, safer overhead position, keeping you pressing, for longer. The lack of eccentric loading also means you can include varieties of overhead carries without the worry of impacting your recovery.
Another huge benefit of taking your max clean and jerk for a stroll is the enormous stimulus it creates between your hips and shoulders; an undulating load pressed overhead has a great deal of leverage, your shoulders aren’t the only muscle group fighting for stability, your erectors, lats, obliques, traps, rhomboids (in fact most of the muscles in your trunk) are forced to get involved- making overhead carries a great choice for building a strong chassis.
Want to double down on the goodness? Then HALF the weight. Pressing one object overhead single handedly creates an even more unbalanced, unstable environment driving up the need for stabilisation.
After looking at overhead carries that can be somewhat technical; it’s time to get into a set of carries that require far less finesse, and may just be the most ‘natural’, albeit brutish, way to transport objects that aren’t designed to be carried- bear hugs and zerchers.
I like to talk about these two movements interchangeably, because the difference in them mainly lies in the object being lifted, but the benefits are much the same.
If you’ve ever lifted something heavy, without handles and had to move it any distance, chances are you’ve tried some sort of bear hug carry- simply picking the object up from the ground and holding it as tightly possible across your torso while you locomote.
A zercher isn’t a million miles away, the only subtle difference being the object your lifting has a profile thats thin enough to sit in the crook your elbows and by flexing your arms you’re able to secure it there.
The benefits of both of myriad; you won’t be able to handle as much total weight as your farmers walk or yoke run- but most people can work to an impressive lift here without much practice required. The load being situated in front of your body (and secured there) hugely increases the demand on your upper back and traps, whilst giving a giving a hefty dose of work to your anterior delts, biceps and forearms.
But one of the biggest benefits of zerchers and bear hugs occurs in your midriff, the massive amount of ‘anti flexion’ required to stop you folding like a pretzel absolutely hammers your trunk, this has huge carryovers to your stability and strength in movements like the deadlift and cleans, building a ‘chassis’ that can effectively stay rigid throughout any of your more technical lifts, helping you to build robust, injury free body.
My personal favourites include the log zercher, atlas ball carries and of course- sandbag bear hug.
With a few more lifts to incorporate into your arsenal now, you may be worried about the best way yo incorporate them; the good news is, with a lack of eccentric loading mitigating a vast amount of the DOMs inducing stress on your muscles, there really is not bad place or time to incorporate carries into your training.
Lighter loads for slightly longer distances work fantastically on active recovery days. Heavier carries can be integrated without too much thought into training days that contain similar movement patterns (ie work your overhead carries into a day that’s more ‘push’ dominant’)
Finally, moderate loads that allow you to move swiftly over short distances are great inclusions in metcons, to up the ante and add a bit of strongman flare.
My personal favourite programming template for integrating carries (that you can read more about here) is the ‘Compound/ Carry/ Condition’ protocol- begin with 5-10 reps of a compound lift, move immediately into a 20-50m carry then polish each round off with a high octane conditioning bout such as a set of burpees or a 10cal blast on the air bike.
Cycle round this circuit as necessary in line with your training goals or work to a measurable AMRAP that you can aim to beat next time!