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Loaded Carries

Functional exercise at its heart should involve training that improves your ability to perform everyday responsibilities/duties and what you do for fun. From carrying packages to moving your couch, carrying your kids, or just bringing the groceries inside, carrying loads are a part of our daily lives and it’s important to have the confidence to do so without getting hurt or simply being unable to do them.

Put simply, loaded carries are a type of exercise where you add weight to your body and walk. Loaded carries improve your grip strength, shoulder rotator cuff, upper back, and your core muscles while also improving you posture. They also are great for conditioning work without a lot of high impact forces and getting your heart rate up significantly!

Benefits of Loaded Carries:

Connection Between Your Lower and Upper Body

Loaded carries involve exerting force through our hands and feet in a coordinated fashion. When you add significant loads to your gait (the manner in which you walk), you’ll quickly get awareness about how your core works and what it really does for you while walking around! This transfers directly to everyday activities like walking around and carrying lighter loads than in your training.

Automatic Bracing at the Core

One other great benefit to loaded carries is how they take advantage of our bodies’ natural automatic core activation when we walk. There’s quite a lot of research into how our low back and deep abdominal muscles are used in gait, but for our purposes it’s enough to know that when we make sure we keep tall and level as we walk with added loads, we’ll be using our core to stabilize our body. Then, if we wish to further strengthen our core, it’s just a matter of progressively heavier loads and/or an increase in walking speeds.

Practical Strength/Skill Development

There’s a reason why moving boxes out of our houses sucks – we might be pretty strong when our feet are stable but when we have to move around with a load (and especially if that load moves around too) then we have to deal with those shifting forces. This is not a call to squat on Bosu balls or any of that silly stuff, but there’s great value in adding stress to the gait pattern.

Types of Loaded Carries

Farmer’s Walk – The farmer’s walk is the classic carry, with an equally weighted object by your side in each hand.

Suitcase Carry – A suitcase carry is simply a farmer’s walk with the weight in one hand only. Whereas the farmer’s walk builds superior total body strength, the suitcase carry is perhaps more applicable to real world situations. 

Barbell Zercher Carry – The Zercher carry involves carrying the weight in the crook of your elbow.

Overhead Carry – Stabilize the weight overhead and then walk with the bar or dumbbells locked out in that position. This is brilliant for building confidence overhead, the stability to maintain the weight overhead while walking, and the strength to keep it there.

Duck Walk – The appropriately named duck walk involves sitting into a full depth squat and walking forward, this can be performed with a front rack hold or a classic back squat position. You could use a Barbell, kettlebell or a dumbbell for this. 

Sled Pulls & Pushes – Not strictly loaded carries, but often grouped in with them due to with similar advantages and benefits. 

Fireman’s CarryPerhaps the ultimate functional carry for those who train for the unknown and unknowable. Knowing you have the strength and physical capabilities to carry someone out of danger is worth training for. For this, put a Dumbbell on one shoulder.

How to Fit Loaded Carries into Your Training

Different variations or style can be applied to carries and can fit into different routines, the following are some examples:

  • Heavy and short bursts in a strength focused session
  • Lighter and more time/distance in a conditioning focused session
  • Lighter and more complex in a skill based session

How Much Weight Do I Start With?

Pick the carry you’d like to try first – I’d suggest the farmer’s carry or suitcase carry as your first try.

  • Start light and just pick the weight up and simply stand and hold for 30 seconds.
  • Do this a few times with both hands and with one hand, rest a bit and add weight, then note how you feel.
  • Next choose your goal metric, time or distance.
  • Start with half as much as you think you can do and focus on your posture/form.
  • Add a bit of weight over the next 3 or 4 sets and you’ll find a nice place to start.

How Many Sets and Reps?

This is dependent upon the load, and the key formula is more sets of less time, and less sets of more time. A good way to start is to progress with the same weight and do more sets of less time/distance and then move to consolidating the time with less sets of longer duration/distance.

Time frames for heaviest loads would be 20 seconds to a minute, moderate loads for more endurance/conditioning would be 2 minutes to 5 minutes (plus).

This is just one example of a progression, you could do this or anything in between really. For lighter loads and longer durations the concept is the same, for example do 5 sets of 1 minute then progress to 3 sets of 90 seconds, and then eventually to 1 long set of 5 minutes. Be creative!

Loaded carries are a great example of integrated strength development, full body strength that will positively affect how you actually move and use your body.

Written By: Ashley Dunwell, MS, NASM-CPT