Farmers walks and loaded carries are some of the most effective exercises you can include in your workouts. As a bang for your buck exercise, there are few that match them for effectiveness, safety and versatility. All you need is a heavy load and space to walk in.
In this article we’re going to look at a variety of farmers walks and variations of a loaded carry. I’ll explain the scientific rationale behind them, and why they’re so effective as an all-round training tool.
By the end of the article, I hope you’re including loaded carries in your workouts!
What are Farmers walks?
A Farmers walk is an exercise where you walk whilst carrying a heavy weight in either hand. You can adjust the exercise by changing the type of weight or the distance you carry it over.
Why should I do farmers walks and loaded carries?
The short answer is because they’re awesome. The longer answer is because they train huge amounts of muscle. They build strength, endurance and athleticism. They improve your core, rehab and prevent back injuries, and improve your sporting prowess.
There’s also a very low injury risk – you don’t perform complex movement patterns or put your body into dangerous positions, so they’re a really accessible exercise with little technique to learn. It means you can make a lot of progress very quickly, increasing your general strength with a very low risk.
We’ll dig into the different types of loaded carries and farmers walks in greater detail later in the article.
Farmers walks and loaded carries muscles worked
When performing a carry of any form, you switch on muscles all over the body. We know from both anecdotal observation and research that loaded carries in different ways activate the following muscle groups…
- Calf muscles
- Back and core
A 2015 research study by Linwood et al titled ‘A Biomechanical Analysis of the Farmers Walk, and Comparison with the Deadlift and Unloaded Walk‘ concluded…
‘The farmers lift may be an effective lifting alternative to the deadlift, to generating more anterior-propulsive and vertical force with less stress to the lumbar spine due to the more vertical trunk position.‘
This gives it a viable status as an exercise that can be used as both an alternative and a stand alone exercise.
Research shows that the glutes perform more of the work than the quads during the exercise. This isn’t a surprise, as quadriceps activation is dependent the level of knee flexion and extension. During the walking motion, there is little hinge movement at the knee.
Programming the farmers walk or loaded carry
In my work as a personal trainer, and in my own training I program farmers walks and loaded carries as exercises in their own right. I don’t program them as an alternative to deadlifts for example.
The reason I do this is because I think they’re a unique movement pattern and place demands on the body quite unlike anything else. Although similar muscles are used to deadlifts etc, the movements are vastly different, so I don’t see them as a replacement for one another. I still deadlift AND do loaded carries.
When it comes to programming the farmers walk, I always program them as one of the first exercises. I also like to do them on a day where I’m not going to be doing much heavy upper body work. Finally, I never superset them or pair them with anything.
Here’s the three reasons why…
- They’re heavily reliant on grip, so you don’t want to be following them with exercises that require a high degree of grip strength (deadlifts, pull ups, olympic lifts etc).
- When your core muscles are fatigued, lower back vulnerabilities can be an issue. I perform them early so this doesn’t have a chance to become a problem.
- Done properly they’re incredibly fatiguing, so I don’t want to pair them and risk making two exercises poor quality.
The muscle activation is a key reason the farmers walk or the loaded carry variations are such effective exercises. For this reason, I tend to use them in strength and conditioning workouts where I keep the exercise variety to a minimum, and focus on good execution of tough moves.
As a rule, I wouldn’t include them in bodybuilding style workouts. They don’t fit naturally, and I’m not a fan of shoe-horning them into a program.
With an exercise that has such a global (in the sense of the body, not the world!) impact in terms of muscle activation, programming farmers walks or loaded carries into a split routine is a challenge. Do you include them on leg day? What about back day? How do you deal with the impact they have on fatiguing grip? There’s no perfect solution here.
Loaded carry v farmers walk
Technically they’re the same type of exercise. A farmers walk carries the weight at either side of the body (such as in the image above), and a loaded carry can be any form of carrying a weight. Some loaded carries are done with a weight on the front, others with a weight on the back.
Equipment wise, a farmers walk is usually performed with barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells or a trap bar. A loaded carry can be performed with just about anything – barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, sandbags, people, slam balls etc. If it’s heavy and you can hold it, you can perform a loaded carry with it!
Loaded carries are about as functional an exercise as you can get.
They’re both inherently unstable, because you’re walking as you’re lifting. This improves functional strength. In fact, in an article titled ‘Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology position stand: The use of instability to train the core in athletic and nonathletic conditioning‘, the researchers concluded…
‘…the high muscle activation with the use of lower loads associated with instability resistance training suggests they can play an important role within a periodized training schedule, in rehabilitation programs, and for nonathletic individuals who prefer not to use ground-based free weights to achieve musculoskeletal health benefits.‘
In English, this means instability training with free weights helps to build musculoskeletal health. This is fundamental to a strong and healthy body.
Low injury risk
Little technique to learn
Warming up for farmers walks
When you’re performing a farmers walk you have to consider the weight, the movement, the body parts you’re training and any potential vulnerabilities.
For this reason, I warm up in three stages for farmers walks or loaded carries.
- Gentle cardio to improve blood flow
- Pre activations of used body parts
- A light first set of the exercise
Cardio warm up
I always make sure that the cardio element to a warm up is whole-body. This is to make sure that I’ve stimulating as much blood flow around the body as possible. For example, say I was doing an upper body pressing day, I wouldn’t want to just do my warm up on the bike. This just wouldn’t be sufficient to stimulate enough blood flow to my upper body.
When I’m doing any form of farmers walk or loaded carry, I’ll perform the cardio element of my warm up on a rower, an air bike, or I’d do a dual warm up of gentle jogging with ski erg sets as well.
This would last around 5 minutes.
The pre-activation warm up for a farmers walk or loaded carry doesn’t have to be complex. For me, I think the kettlebell swing is a perfect exercise here.
You’re already warm from the cardio element of the exercise, so you can get right into it. As with ay resistance work you’d be wise to start with a light weight then build up. Here’s a pattern of kettlebell swings I would suggest…
3 x 20 Kettlebell swings
3 x 20 (10 per side) Single arm kettlebell swings
3 x 20 American kettlebell swings
Once you’ve done these you’ve warmed up the muscles, got some pre-activation work of the posterior chain, upper back and shoulders in, then you’re ready to go!
Light first set
This is very important when performing a lift. Even though you’re well warmed up by now, the Farmers walk is a tough, heavy exercise. Let your body get used to what it’s doing at a lighter weight before you get into the heavier stuff.
Start with around 50% of the intended working weight for a set.
Move up to 75% of the intended working weight for a set.
Then move up to your working weight for all of the subsequent sets.
You might feel like this is overkill, but I’m interested in getting you to train safely and effectively. If that means taking a few minutes longer to prepare your body for loaded carries, so be it. The alternative is far worse – just ask anyone who has injured themselves because they didn’t warm up properly beforehand.
Different types of farmers walks and loaded carries
There are a wide range of types of farmers walks and loaded carries. They differ because of equipment, weight, distance, terrain, end goals etc. In this section I’m going to run you through some of my favourites, and explain why I like them, and how you can use them.
This is the standard exercise, using specific handles designed for the exercise. As with most of the other types of farmers walk, they’re fantastic for building core, leg, back and grip strength. They can be adjusted in terms of distance or weight.
Lighter weight and more distance is better for endurance, and heavier weight over a short distance is better for strength.
Why I like them…
This version of the farmers walk is the exercise at its simplest and best. There’s an honesty about it. Pick up something heavy. Walk with it. Put it down. Do it again. Nothing fancy, nothing technical. You can use it to suit a variety of training goals.
As an exercise it ticks a lot of boxes, doesn’t take long to learn and it suitable for many people.
Kettlebell or dumbbell farmers walk
This is the same exercise as before, but instead of using the handles, you keep the weight closer by your sides in a smaller package. This reduces the ‘spread’ of the load, reducing the work that the forearms do, but potentially increasing the role of the core, back and legs.
Why I like them…
The kettlebell or dumbbell farmers walk allows you to carry a heavy weight close to your body. You’re not dealing with the weights moving much, so it really allows you to focus on the core engagement throughout the exercise.
Barbell farmers walk
Essentially the technique here is the same as the other types of farmers walk, but the barbell switches up the challenge somewhat. By having the weight out in front and a long way behind, it makes the forearms do more work so they can balance the barbell properly. This means there is more forearm work than the other variations.
Why I like them…
The additional work done by the forearms is a really effective way of building grip strength and forearm functionality. There’s good crossover into sports like climbing etc too.
Trap bar farmers walk
This is a variation that keeps the weight close to the body, just like the kettlebell farmers walk or the dumbbell farmers walk. This means that you have more control over the weight, reducing the work the forearms do. The weight tight to the body means the core is engaged heavily through the exercise.
Why I like them…
These are a great way to seriously load up the weight on a farmers walk. You’re not likely to have HUGE dumbbells or kettlebells hanging around, but you can increase your farmers walk weight with a trap bar farmers walk.
Loaded carry variations
As we discussed earlier, the loaded carry is different from a farmers walk, in the sense that the weight can be held in any position. The farmers walk has the weight held at arms length down by your side (or sides). It offers more variety and can be tweaked more in terms of muscles and movement patterns used.
That’s not to say they’re better than farmers walks, they’re just different. Here’s a list of some of my favourite loaded carry variations…
Front rack carry
The front rack carry is a great way to train core stiffness, which is a big asset in strength sports. It’s also a good way to prevent and repair back issues. I like the front rack carry for weightlifting conditioning too, because it helps weightlifters maintain a strong spinal position when they stand out of the clean. It also helps with arm position in the rack, and helps establish a good position ahead of a jerk.
Why I like them…
The front rack carry is a way to really add a lot of weight to the lift. It’s also encouraging good positions for optimal back and core function. It’s a simple exercise to learn, as long as you have the mobility. It also helps to build that mobility too.
The sandbag carry falls under that banner of ‘odd object training’ that a lot of functional training specialists like to use. You can carry a heavy sandbag in a variety of different ways, and the way you carry it will determine how it will impact your fitness and strength.
Why I like them…
There’s a lot of variety in the movement, and it’s a truly functional movement. You can adjust your holding position which can make it more back, core, shoulder or arm centric in its effect. You can also use different sizes of sandbag too. This variety means it’s a personal trainer’s dream!
The shoulder carry can be done with kettlebells or dumbbells, and it’s a way of carrying a load at shoulder height. This encourages optimal spinal position as you walk with a load. It’s a great way to build strength in the spinal erectors, and it helps with core stability too. It’s a simple but effective exercise, and is accessible because it doesn’t need much weight to work well.
Why I like them…
Training your core needs a lot of variety. It’s not just about heavy movements and all kinds of strange flexing and bending. Stiffness training, the kind afforded by loaded carries is incredible for core strength. This is a great exercise for it.
This exercise is similar to the farmers walk, but the key difference is that you only carry a weight on one side. This forces the core to engage so that the body remains balanced and the spinal position is upright. It’s an ‘off-side’ exercise, so holding the weight on the right arm engages the left side of the core and obliques.
Why I like them…
Suitcase carries are another great way to train your abs. They’re protective against back issues and they help to repair previous back injuries. They train spinal stability, oblique strength and don’t need much in the way of technique either.
This is another exercise that can be done with a whole load of different approaches. You can perform the exercise with a barbell, kettlebells, dumbbells and the like. Each of them is slightly different, but the end result is the same – a great shoulder, core and back workout. You’re limited here by the weight you can get (and stabilise) overhead, but’s it’s very effective.
Why I like them…
Too often personal trainers and coaches are obsessed with weights and not movement quality. In this case, the amount you can support overhead is likely to be less than your legs could cope with. This means you can focus on shoulder stability, core control and movement quality rather than pure weight.
Single arm overhead carry
This is a chance to combine the shoulder stability benefits of the overhead carry with the core training effects of a single-sided movement. As we discussed in the previous overhead carry, there’s a shoulder stability benefit here, as well as serratus and oblique engagement. On top of that, you’ve got the off-side loading benefits of the suitcase carry.
Why I like them…
This is an exercise that demands good quality execution of the movement. When you get this right, you correct strength imbalances in both shoulders and improve stability through the thorax. You also build strength, stability and balance in the core. A really good ‘maintenance’ exercise that corrects small issues before they turn into bigger problems.
Slam ball carry
I like slam ball carries so much that I invested in heavier slam balls for the gym that I own! It’s a really accessible form of loaded carry – there’s no technique, little skill, you can adjust them in terms of weight etc. All in all, they’re a great access point to loaded carries for people. Simple and effective.
Why I like them…
Sometimes the simplest exercises are the best. In this case, you don’t need to make it fancy – it’s a simple way to get your core, your back and your legs working without doing too much. Just pick up a heavy slam ball and get to work!
Health and performance benefit carryover of farmers walks and loaded carries…
I’m not a fan of exercise merely for the sake of it. I want to be able to justify can exercise I include in a program. Thankfully, this is easy with loaded carries.
Here are some of the benefits associated with loaded carries…
Core strength improvement
One of the major benefits of loaded carries is the impact they have on core strength. In order to execute good technique with a loaded carry, we need to engage the core properly. In a loaded carry you’ll be lifting a heavy weight most of the time, so the core has to work extra hard. This builds strength and stability.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association ran an in-depth study article on the effectiveness of farmers walks for core training in their December 2020 edition. It’s really informative.
Improves back health
In a 2014 study titled ‘Exercise in the Management of Chronic Back Pain‘ researchers concluded that…
‘Exercise is an important strategy in the management of back pain regardless of whether the pain is acute or chronic. Among the various exercise strategies used, resistance (strength) training is the most efficient.’
Loaded carries are excellent in this regard, because they don’t require the back to be put in compromising positions, and they include the lifting of heavy weights in a very safe manner.
You may think that heavy weight training is all about improving strength, but the reality is that a strong core translates to other aspects of your fitness. In a study titled ‘Effects of 8-week core training on core endurance and running economy‘, researchers noted that…
‘The results reveal that 8-week core training improves static balance, core endurance, and running economy in college athletes.’
There’s more to a strong core than lifting heavy!
Grip strength improves with farmers walks
I don’t need to provide you with research to prove this one – picking up and holding onto heavy things will have a direct impact on your grip strength. That might seem like a big deal, but it really is. Grip strength doesn’t just improve hand, wrist and elbow strength and function, it also makes them less vulnerable to injury.
A strong grip has a huge athletic carryover as well. Sports such as wrestling, grappling, rugby, lifting sports, climbing etc all benefit from an improved grip strength. Improved grip strength is a seemingly small benefit, but it has huge knock-on effects for athleticism.
Full body strength improvement
The final benefit I’m going to cover is the overall strength improvement from farmers walks and loaded carries. By picking up heavy loads and walking with them, you strengthen your legs, your glutes, your back, your core and your shoulders.
When you consider that the body works as a system, this is a massive benefit. You don’t just strengthen the muscles you’re training, you strengthen your body as an entire system. You improve connective tissue health. You improve skeletal strength. You improve hormonal regulation.
I’d argue that as you age, strength training is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Research agrees with me… Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Farmers walks and loaded carries can be the bedrock of your resistance training program.
Which is the best form of loaded carry?
There’s no right answer to this, because it depends on your goals and your capabilities. For example, if you really want to focus on forearm and grip strength, a heavy farmers walk with a barbell in each hand might be best. If you want to work on your core, a suitcase carry might be best. If you want to work on shoulder stability, it’d be an overhead carry.
If you’re injury free and looking for a general strength improvement from your loaded carries, I’d suggest you mix them up. Across three different days I’d do 2 different types per day.
- A heavy day – standard farmers walks
- A day with unilateral loading – suitcase carries for example
- A day with overhead and front loading – overhead carry and front rack carry
To make the most from your carries, treat them like you would any other form of weight training. Mix up the loads, distances, intensities etc. Change the stimuli (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags etc) and keep the demands on the body fresh.
What to do now…
Get yourself into the gym, get those handles loaded, or the dumbbells and kettlebells out and start carrying! You’ll be glad you did!