Loaded Carries

Loaded Carries

By Chris Carlsen


To paraphrase Gray Cook, "we need to build strength endurance and stability with simpler movements  before we try more complex movements and repetitions." This statement sums up the importance of carriers (simple movement that builds strength endurance and stability). Loaded carries, such as farmer’s walks and variations with kettlebells, are excellent strength developing tools and should be included in anyone’s training program. Not only do they prepare the body for future loading, they will immensely improve grip and core strength. Kettlebell carries, in particular, challenge the stabilizers of the shoulder and core, and require a strong grip to properly execute. Each carry variation will challenge certain stabilizers more than others.

I use carries in all of my programs, as they create a seamless progression for the next kettlebell size or weight increase. They can also be performed with a variety of equipment (e.g. dumbbells, farmer’s walk handles). Loaded carries are essentially mobile planks. Once a student has mastered the plank and side plank, we add carries into the programming. Below, I discuss some factors to consider when programming loaded carries, as well as my favorite variations.

Factors to Consider When Programming Loaded Carries:

1.  Load Amount – When a student begins utilizing loaded carries, the weight of the kettlebell, or other implement, is an important consideration. I typically use a kettlebell that is one size up from what a client can press, squat and deadlift with a single leg. This builds strength endurance and stability before moving onto more dynamic movement (walking) with the heavier load.

2.Distance - I start students off with a 25-yard walk and sometimes progress up to 50 yards. Depending on the distance, certain people may have to place the weight down for a few seconds to reset their grip before making the return trip. This may be necessary until they build stronger grip and stability.

3.  Timing - Loaded carry variations, by nature, require more time than other movements, which makes them more difficult.  They typically last between 30-60 seconds, while a set of five reps on a squat or deadlift will last for 15- 30 seconds. A successful carry proves that a client can stabilize for the duration of more dynamic movements, and that they are ready for the next kettlebell when it's time to progress. Loaded carries also make the weight feel lighter when they deadlift or press.

Recommended Variations:

1.  Goblet Carry - Hold the kettlebell by the horns close to your chest (but don't lean it on against your body). As you walk, think of your posterior core (shoulder blades) pulling down as your anterior core (abs) counteract the tension by pulling down as well. This creates a tug-of-war between the posterior and anterior core and activates all of your stabilizer muscles, keeping the body stacked (hence the comparison to a walking plank). Breathe as your walk and keep tension in your pockets (glutes and hips) as if you were doing band walks. Failure to keep tension will affect the ability to keep your foot under your hip, causing a collapse. Finding balance in tension and core control with this exercise is a game changer, especially for your squats.

*Use one kettlebell heavier than your working set weight for squats, and use two bells as you get stronger.

2.  One-Arm Carry - You must first master the side plank and Pallof press before moving onto single-sided carries. It may be helpful to perform an activation exercise, like a side plank, before the walk to bring awareness to the your obliques.

Think of your body’s right and left shoulder as the pans of a balance scale. The weight of the kettlebell in one hand is going to want to pull that side of the pan (shoulder) down. You have to dial up the same amount of tension in the opposite oblique and scapula to keep the scale balanced. A straight line from shoulder to shoulder will be an indication of solid technique. This is also a great anti-rotation exercise, as the obliques have to stabilize the spine to prevent rotation. Failure to do so by dropping the shoulder will cause a scoliosis pattern and back pain.

*Use one kettlebellup from your single-leg deadlifts. I personally imagine of all of my unilateral exercises (Turkish get-ups, windmills, arm-bars, deadlifts, pistols) as dynamic, single arm walks. I generate the same amount of tension in the opposite as in the loaded side. One-arm walks are also a great functional exercise for women since they usually carry a heavy bag on one shoulder.

3.  One-Arm, Overhead Carries - Since the kettlebell is overhead and thus farthest from the core, this is the most challenging variation. To ensure good form, you first work on overhead stabilization while kneeling and then advance to standing. I also make sure that clients can properly execute the aforementioned carry variations. 

To teach the overhead lockout position, I have clients put their hands on their shirt tags, squeeze their fists and extend their elbows to the ceiling. They can now feel what a packed and stable shoulder feels like and can consistently replicate that feeling. I also cue clients to drive their shoulder blades to the opposite hip while reaching for the ceiling. This creates a balance in tension of all the muscles that stabilize the shoulder and renders the joint centered.  Also, keep the elbow locked out for the duration of the exercise. 

*Use one size kettlebell up from your working weight for presses.

4.  Farmer’s Walk (Double Arm Carry)- Use all of the same cues for a one-arm carry and apply it to both hands.  The traditional farmer’s walk allows for more weight to be loaded, which really develops solid grip and core strength. In addition to kettlebells, dumbells, barbells and yokes can be used for this exercise. 

Loaded carries are one of the best and safest core exercises you can do. Whether it’s a kettlebell or another piece of equipment, the point is to pick up and carry something that is extremely heavy.  This will carry over to other strength exercises and make a huge difference in your overall strength.

If you have questions about these exercises, or coaching techniques, please email our team at Info@IronLionPerformance.com.