Whether you’re carrying groceries, a backpack, a child, or anything in between, you’re likely hauling something around every day. You may not realize how much muscle activation or stability you need when performing these seemingly simple, daily tasks. But your back, shoulders, and even lower body definitely know just how hard they’re working.
Lifting overhead isn’t just about tossing weight up with shoulder and trap strength alone. You also need a tremendous amount of stability from your core and shoulders — not to mention adequate thoracic mobility to ensure you can lock your arms out overhead. The overhead carry can help you develop all of these factors — strength, stability, and mobility — and can carry over both into your gym performance and your weekly grocery runs.
Benefits of Overhead Carries
- Improved Overhead Stability
- Upper Trap and Shoulder Hypertrophy
- Core Strength and Stability
- Strengthen Your Olympic Lifts
- Wrist Strength
- Better Lockout
- Improved Balance
No matter how strong you are, lifting anything overhead can be challenging if you don’t have adequate stability. Whether you’re throwing a ball or pressing a barbell overhead, you need adequate shoulder and thoracic mobility to get into and maintain a stable overhead position. Especially if you work to maintain that mobility, your shoulders can be one of the most mobile parts of your body. But this can come with risks. Injuries related to shoulder instability are common in younger physically active people, who can have a dislocation rate of up to 92 percent. (1)
The overhead carry can help build the kind of shoulder strength and stability that can help reduce your risk of hurting your shoulders when you’re busy doing things like throwing and performing a clean & jerk. And it can help train your mind and body on how to properly move and hold weight overhead.
Holding loads overhead for time or distance increases the amount of tension you’re putting on your muscle. That’s excellent news if you want to build a big upper body.
If you want to maximize hypertrophy, significantly increasing your muscles’ time under tension is an effective way to go. (2) Overhead carries are all about keeping your muscles under constant tension. Your traps and shoulders — two foundational parts of building a muscular upper body — are largely responsible for this dynamic but isometric hold. When you carry a load overhead, as with the overhead carry, you’re increasing your upper trap and scapular activation. That activation makes carrying weights over your head a great way to stimulate muscle growth in your shoulders and upper back. (3)
You use your core for more than just sit-ups. Your abdominal muscles are crucial for maintaining a steady posture and pain-free day-to-day function. Compared to other carries, such as farmer’s walks, the overhead carry places more stress on your core. Why? You’re not only stabilizing the weight overhead — you’re also stabilizing your entire body in order to walk forward.
In order to prevent your entire upper body from swaying back and forth under the heavy load, your obliques need to kick in. The overhead carry offers a greater external oblique activation compared to other carries because of the anti-rotational stabilization you need to move successfully. (3)
Snatches and clean & jerks are Olympic lifts that require overhead strength and stability. Just performing press variations might not be enough. Although getting a barbell overhead does take a lot of strength, you need to be able to maintain the proper positioning to keep it there. Without being able to get the bar in the right place, you’re more likely to miss the rep or even suffer an injury.
The ability to stabilize heavy loads on the platform after a successful barbell snatch is key to both weightlifting and CrossFit. By carrying heavy loads overhead, you’ll be able to build your positional skills and confidence to perform your Olympic lifts with ease.
Wrist strength and mobility can make or break lifts like the overhead squat and front squat. If your wrists can’t support the complex overhead and rack positions you need, chances are good that they might become the limiting factor in your lifts.
The overhead carry allows you to use different types of equipment, like barbells or kettlebells, so you can challenge your wrist strength differently. Looking to give your front rack a boost? Using a kettlebell requires more wrist mobility, because you’re fighting to keep the bell in a good position — this requires you to constantly pull your wrists forward like you’re revving a motorcycle.
The lockout phase refers to the part of the lift where your joints are at full extension — think about your elbows at the top of an overhead press or your hips at the end of a deadlift. If you’ve ever tried to pull or push max weight, you know that this can be one of the weakest parts of your lifts. (5)
For upper body presses, your triceps play a crucial role in locking out a successful lift because they help press the weight up to its final stage. Holding a weight up overhead in a locked out position — i.e., in an overhead carry — helps improve triceps strength and therefore create a better lockout. The overhead squat or the jerk both require a full elbow lockout to help keep the weight in position. Carrying heavy weights overhead helps you practice that position while working to maintain stability.
If you don’t have any sense of balance and coordination, you’re going to have a lot of trouble with most barbell lifts. Your footwork is certainly important when it comes to balance — and overhead carries will force you to be very precise with your foot movements. But that’s not the only way these moves can improve balance.
Core stability training is an important factor in improving balance and overall performance in weightlifters, while helping reduce the risk of injury. (6) The ability to control a loaded barbell overhead is dependent on your overall core strength. The overhead carry challenges your balance and core to help keep your body stable just to hold the weight overhead. And then, you up the ante by walking forward under control. That will challenge and improve your balance in a heartbeat.
How to Do the Overhead Carry
Carrying weight overhead can make you feel extremely powerful — and can forge you into a physically more powerful athlete, too. But for maximum benefit and minimum injury risk, you’ve got to know how to do it right. Make sure your form is locked in, whether you’re using a kettlebell, dumbbell, or barbell.
- Lift a weight directly overhead from the front rack position. Lock out your elbows, so there is no bend in the joint.
- Pull your shoulder blades together and press the weight up. Your armpits should be forward in this position.
- Pack your shoulders by keeping them away from your ears.
- Maintain this position and squeeze your core as you start to walk forward.
- Continue to walk for the prescribed amount of distance or time.
Overhead Carry Variations
An added benefit of the overhead carry is its versatility. As long as you have some type of weights and enough room, you can do this exercise. Different kinds of equipment can provide unique benefits, not the least of which is changing up your workout to prevent boredom.
Kettlebell Overhead Carry
The kettlebell isn’t popular for no reason. It’s a compact tool and gives you the potential to craft high-intensity workouts with little impact on your joints. Kettlebells even have therapeutic and rehabilitation benefits — especially when they’re being used to improve functional balance, coordination, and stability, as you do with carries. (7)
You can perform the kettlebell overhead carry unilaterally, which trains stability and strength on a single-sided basis to prevent and fight imbalances. Kettlebells also force you to keep your wrist stable, in turn allowing for a more ideal vertical alignment of the scapulae, shoulder joints, elbows, and wrists.
Dumbbell Overhead Carry
However, because dumbbells don’t have the off-balance shape of kettlebells, they won’t pull your wrist as much as kettlebells will. You might be tempted to “get away” with less than ideal overhead positioning with dumbbells. The key is to stay focused on your goal to keep your wrists from extending. That will increase your ability to stay active with your upper traps and back.
Unilateral Overhead Carry
Regardless of the implement you use, training both sides of your body equally will fight off bilateral deficits you may develop with barbell training and daily living with side-dominance. (8) The unilateral overhead carry is any variation where one side of your body is loaded overhead and the other is not.
This requires even more core stabilization and anti-rotational control of your spine and supporting muscles. Additionally, this exercise forces proper alignment of your scapulae and shoulders to ensure no unnecessary shrugging or compensation patterns to account for poor stability or mobility overhead.
Barbell Overhead Carry
Compared to dumbbells or kettlebells, the barbell allows you to load more weight and carry heavier loads. When you want to maximize the amount of weight you’re stabilizing overhead, a barbell is one of your best bets.
While walking overhead may not be necessary for overhead-oriented sports like weightlifting, you still want to hone your ability to create stability under heavy loads in dynamic environments. Enter the overhead barbell carry to really max out your gains.
Overhead Yoke Carry
If you thought you could load a lot of weight onto a barbell, just wait until you see the yoke. The yoke walk is popular in strongman competitions because it lets you load a truly substantial amount of weight. And because the yoke falls on both sides of your body — rather than just being above you — it adds immense stability challenges.
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Although famously carried on the back, you can heft the yoke upward to really bring your overhead game to the next level. The overhead yoke carry will also leave you even more gassed than other carry variations, making it a great conditioning tool, as well.
You might want to heft some weight overhead, but a shoulder injury might prevent you from doing so. If you’re able to lift heavy without reaching overhead, you can still reap some of the benefits of the overhead carry with the farmer’s walk.
Similar to the overhead carry, you hold weight in your hands and walk forward. But with this variation, you keep your arms at your sides. The farmer’s walk targets your posture and grip strength, and it’ll fire up both your upper and lower body.
Increasing your upper body strength, stability, and mobility could make all the difference when going for that next PR. Big Olympic lifts can be exciting and adrenaline-inducing, but they’re most effective when you’re confident you can stabilize that weight overhead. Understanding how to properly position your shoulders helps you lift more efficiently — which is the name of the game when you’re aiming to lift heavy overhead. The overhead carry will teach you to do just that — all while activating your muscles from head-to-toe for a full-body workout.
- Srinivasan, Suresh, Pandey, Radhakant. Current Concepts in the Management of Shoulder Instability. Indian Journal of Orthopaedics. 2017; 51(5). doi: 10.4103/ortho.IJOrtho_224_17
- Krzysztofik, Michal, Wilk, Michal, & Wojdala, Grzegorz. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019; 16(24). doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244897
- Bordelon, Nicole M., Wasserberger, Kyle W., & Cassidy, Molly M. The Effects of Load Magnitude and Carry Position on Lumbopelvic-Hip Complex and Scapular Stabilizer Muscle Activation During Unilateral Dumbbell Carries. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2021; 35. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003880
- Jin Seo, Na, Armstrong, Thomas J., & Ashton-Miller, James A. Wrist strength is dependent on simultaneous power grip intensity. Ergonomics. 2008; 51(10). doi: 10.1080/00140130802216925
- Kompf, Justin, Arandjelovic, Ognjen. The Sticking Point in the Bench Press, the Squat, and the Deadlift: Similarities and Differences, and Their Significance for Research and Practice. Sports Medicine. 2017; 47(4). doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0615-9
- Szafraniec, Rafal, Bartkowski, Janusz, Kawczynski, Adam. Effects of Short-Term Core Stability Training on Dynamic Balance and Trunk Muscle Endurance in Novice Olympic Weightlifters. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2020; 74. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2020-0012
- Meigh, Neil J., Keogh, Justin W. L., & Schram, Ben. Kettlebell training in clinical practice: a scoping review. BMC Sports Science. 2019; 11(19).
- Costa, EC, Moreira, A., & Cavalcanti, B. Effect of unilateral and bilateral resistance exercise on maximal voluntary strength, total volume of load lifted, and perceptual and metabolic responses. Biology of Sport. 2015; 32(1). doi: 10.5604/20831862.1126326
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