The farmer’s carry — a simple exercise that has a person walk while holding two dumbbells — enhances grip and core strength, balance and coordination, posture, and overall total body strength. This loaded carry variation can produce high amounts of fatigue, to boot — making it a worthy exercise to add to most training programs designed to gain muscle and strength.
The increased popularity of the sport of strongman — which regularly features the farmer’s carry as an event — has undoubtedly played a role in the exercise’s overall rise in notoriety. The farmer’s carry may have been made famous by large men running with large weights, but anyone of any skill level can benefit from picking up some dumbbells or kettlebells and taking a stroll. In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the farmer’s carry, including:
- How to Do the Farmer’s Carry
- Benefits of the Farmer’s Carry
- Muscles Worked by the Farmer’s Carry
- Who Should Do the Farmer’s Carry
- Farmer’s Carry Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Farmer’s Carry Variations
- Farmer’s Carry Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
You can use various tools to perform farmer’s carries with — two barbells loaded with weight plates, farmer’s carry handles, dumbbells, or kettlebells. Even a trap bar is a suitable carrying implement. Whichever tool you choose, the base mechanics are the same.
Step 1 — Pick Up the Weights
Stand with the weights (in this example, we’re going with dumbbells) at your side. Hinge at your hips to bend over and grab each dumbbell. Lift with your legs to stand up with the weights.
Coach’s Tip: Be sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together so that your chest remains up for optimal posture.
Step 2 — Walk it Out
When walking with the weight in hand, the challenge is maintaining a steady, upright position and posture and not allowing the weight to move laterally or favor one side over the other. A shorter stride (step) length and increased stride rate (number of steps taken) can help increase the performance output of the farmer’s carry. The more advanced you become, maintaining a normal stride length while increasing stride rate is the most beneficial to maximal output and greatest overall performance. (1)
The goal is to maintain a walking path that is straight, narrow, with load kept close to the body. For an added challenge, try not to let the weight rest on your sides.
Coach’s Tip: To help with grip, use powdered chalk or liquid chalk. Chalk will help with contact between your hands and the bar without artificially augmenting your grip strength (by using lifting straps).
Regardless of the goal or sport, fitness enthusiasts, athletes, and strength and conditioning professionals can benefit from the farmer’s carry. (2) The load, grip width, distance traveled, intensity, frequency, and volume are all variables to individualize to the lifter. Below are a few of the most notable benefits of the farmer’s carry.
Increase Grip Strength
A strong grip has been associated with everything from a better quality of life, lower risk of sarcopenia (muscle loss) and dynapenia (loss of muscle strength and power) in older adulthood, and reduced risk of cardiovascular events. (3) Aside from the benefits of long-term health, athletes with a stronger grip have an advantage across many disciplines, such as grappling, climbing, baseball, powerlifting and strongman, football, and hockey. (4)
The benefits of a stronger grip extend beyond strength, sport, and athletic performance. A stronger grip translates into other lifts, like the deadlift and snatch. It can also improve strength and muscle-building potential in exercises like dumbbell rows, upright rows, and pull-ups.
Enhance Core Stability and Bracing
A strong core translates to increased strength and performance and the ability to brace better for a more stable spine — leading to the prevention and reduction of low back pain. (5) The farmer’s carry can improve overall core strength, the resistance of spinal rotation, flexion, and extension, improved by the challenge of maintaining a rigid spine throughout the exercise — aiding in injury prevention and force production. Additionally, bracing the core and controlling breathing during the farmer’s carry can aid in stronger trunk and hip extension, alongside increasing the strength of the internal oblique muscles. (6)
Strengthens Your Glutes
The farmer’s carry helps improve grip strength and the strength of the glutes — a muscle that helps stabilize the torso and pelvis alongside the gluteus maximus. (7)(8) Stronger glutes will carry over into other big lifts such as the squat and any deadlift variation that you can think of, along with other accessory-based movements like the lunge and split squat.
Improve Postural Strength and Control
When carrying heavy loads while walking, postural control is necessary to ensure torso-pelvic coordination and the protection of the spine. The farmer’s carry trains muscles deep within the torso — both anterior and posterior — such as the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the erector spinae, enhancing postural strength, and control in movements like squats, presses, and deadlifts. (9)
It’s a Versatile Exercise
The farmer’s carry — a traditional strongman exercise or event — is categorized as “a non-traditional implement integrated into strength and conditioning practice” currently used to improve performance. Among a survey of 220 strength and conditioning coaches, 88 percent of the coaches reported using strongman implements such as the farmer’s carry. (2)
The non-traditional nature of this exercise allows for the training of multiple energy systems and performance-enhancing adaptations. In simpler words: the Farmer’s carry will get you strong. It will get you lean. It will improve your cardio.
Among the 88 percent of coaches mentioned above, they ranked anaerobic/metabolic conditioning, explosive strength and power, and muscle endurance as the three main physiological reasons why they used strongman implements in their athlete’s training.
Another reason for using the farmer’s carry in your training — especially if you’re not a strongman athlete — is to transfer gym-based gains into more functional strength. (Carrying grocery bags in each hand is functionally a farmer’s carry.) If that wasn’t enough, strength and conditioning professionals tout the other beneficial uses strongman-based training has had for their athletes, including improving functional strength, creating competition, enhancing stability, elevating metabolic conditioning, increasing enjoyment in training with a “fun” stimulus, grip strength, mental toughness, and more.
The farmer’s carry is a full-body exercise. This exercise challenges muscles across the upper body from start to finish — such as the arms, shoulders, upper back, and core. It also places large amounts of tension on the muscles of the lower body — such as the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. Needless to say, this is a bang-for-your-buck exercise.
The glutes act as key players in hip stability and strength during walking, jumping, sprinting, and strength training. The farmer’s carry helps strengthen the gluteus medius — a muscle that helps stabilize the torso and pelvis alongside the gluteus maximus — and can help alleviate lower back pain and make everyday movements, such as standing, walking, and climbing the stairs, that much easier. (7)(8)
The muscles of the inner thigh — known as the adductors — help serve as important stabilizers of the pelvis and help maintain the balance of the pelvis during the pattern of movement for locomotion, also known as gait. (11) The adductors are heavily engaged during the farmer’s carry, specifically during the walking phase (essentially the entire movement).
The hamstrings attach to the pelvis and run posteriorly down the leg. These important muscles contribute greatly to your gait cycle, playing a prominent role in hip extension, knee flexion, and extension while also playing an essential role in knee stability. Although you are not dynamically flexing and extending at the hip during the farmer’s carry does not mean the hamstrings are not working hard every step of the way. (12)
The calf muscles — most notably the gastrocnemius and soleus — plantarflex (toes pointed down) the foot and ankle. Functionally, the calf muscle assists in knee flexion and is an important muscle in stabilizing the knee during loaded carries, like the farmer’s carry. (13)(14)
The quadriceps — made up of rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius — play an important role in flexing and stabilizing the hip while also playing a central role in extending the knee. (15) During the farmer’s carry, the quadriceps work double-time to help stabilize the hips while also extending the knee during the carrying stage.
The trapezius — commonly referred to as traps — is a large muscle spanning the better part of your upper and mid-back. This large muscle plays a vital role in stabilizing the scapula (shoulder blades) as it is the main muscle producing tension in the upper back while holding the weight in your hands. Each of the three divisions of the traps is hard at work during the farmer’s carry to help maintain tension and stability in the back. (16)
The latissimus dorsi — commonly referred to as the lats — is most commonly known for its role in moving the arm toward and around the back of the body. During the farmer’s carry, the lats play a slightly different role, most notably stabilizing the pelvis and interacting with the abdominal muscles in everything from respiration, maintaining shoulder positioning to protecting the spine. (17)
The core — most notably muscles of the abdominals, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, and others — help stabilize the spine and pelvis during loaded movements, such as the farmer’s carry. The farmer’s carry fits the criteria of being a more advanced core-based functional exercise — it requires acceleration, deceleration, and dynamic stabilization. (18)
Arms and Shoulders
In addition to grip, the arms and shoulders are heavily challenged during the farmer’s carry — especially the forearms. A lesser-known function of the biceps and triceps is shoulder stability. As the long head of each muscle — the biceps and triceps — attaches to the scapula, aiding in humeral displacement. (19)(20)
Additionally, when significant loads are lifted and held, a large amount of strain is placed on the shoulder joint. Muscles like the deltoids help maintain stability around the shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint — or maybe more appropriately described as a ball-and-saucer joint, as it is more shallow than the hip joint. (21)
Here’s a breakdown of the different populations that can and how they can benefit from the farmer’s carry.
Bodybuilding and General Fitness
Training specifically for physique goals — whether for competitive bodybuilders or general fitness enthusiasts — can help build size, strength and improve overall body composition. Still, it can also leave some room for improvement in grip strength, balance, coordination, and core strength.
The farmer’s carry can be used to take the gains you’ve made in the gym using traditional machines and translate that into functional strength. The farmer’s carry can benefit muscles across the upper body — such as the arms, shoulders, upper back, and core. It also places large amounts of tension on the muscles of the lower body — such as the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, helping you grow bigger legs and help increase your strength in hip extension variations, like the deadlift.
Strength and Power Athletes
- Powerlifters and Strongman Athletes: The back squat, deadlift, yoke walk, tire flip, and many other variations demand significant upper and lower body strength. Among other compound and isolation exercises, utilizing the farmer’s carry will help build size and strength to the upper and lower body while having direct carryover to strength sport.
- Olympic Weightlifters: The farmer’s carry is an excellent non-traditional exercise for upper and lower body strength necessary for movements such as the clean & jerk. This variation can specifically help those athletes who lack upper or lower body strength while minimizing the risk of irritating the shoulder.
CrossFit Athletes and Sports Training
CrossFit athletes and those training for sport can use the farmer’s carry within their programming to help increase upper and lower body strength and muscle mass. Strong legs will be necessary for maximizing performance in lower body pressing variations (deadlifts, walking lunge, overhead squats, and Olympic lifts) and bodyweight variations (box jumps, wall ball, and burpees).
Similarly, a strong upper body will be necessary for maximizing performance in upper body pulling variations (power cleans, hang cleans, and clean & jerk). Additionally, strength and conditioning professionals across the nation use the farmer’s carry on average once per week, reaping the benefits such as improved motivation and enjoyment, power and speed gains, exercise variety, metabolic conditioning, mental toughness, core strength, and more. (2)
For More Muscle and Strength
It is suggested to train across a wide range of rep ranges and training volumes to maximize strength and muscle growth. Performing the farmer’s carry for around 20-40 meters with around 75-85 percent of your one-rep max can be a great place to start.
For More Endurance
To increase the endurance — or metabolic demand — of the farmer’s carry, it is suggested to do longer distance carries with lighter loads; or, you could maintain heavier loads and decrease rest times between sets. If your goal is to build up a large amount of metabolic fatigue in the upper and lower body with the farmer’s carry, consider pairing it with another exercise to increase the demand of the stimulus (stress).
There are many ways to spice up your farmer’s carry, and they all typically involve lifting a new object in a new position. Here are four farmer’s carry variations we like.
Also known as the unilateral farmer’s carry, the suitcase carry is a multiplanar exercise that involves a coordinated effort across the core and hip musculature to maintain posture while performing. Despite its simplicity, the suitcase carry requires a high demand for trunk muscle co-contraction, synchronicity, and balance. (22)
Trap-Bar Farmer’s Carry
If you do not have access to specialized farmer’s carry bars, a trap bar — also known as a hex bar — will do the job. Due to the fixed nature of the trap bar, you may be able to load up more weight during your carry. This said, you still want to ensure proper core stabilization to reduce the risk of injury to the low back or spine. This may be a better starting point for someone new to lifting or returning from a long off period due to injury.
Towel Grip Farmer’s Carry
For an added boost in grip strength, thread a towel through the handle of a kettlebell and grip either one or two bells in your hand(s). You’ll need to squeeze far harder to sustain a grip on the towels, resulting in bulkier forearms to boot. The one downside is you won’t lift as heavy compared to holding dumbbells or farmer handles.
Strongman-Style Farmer’s Carry
Newsflash: strongmen and strongwomen are really, really strong. Therefore, you can’t toss a pair of 100-pound dumbbells at them and ask them to take a walk — the event would last forever. Strongman competitions typically use special handles with pegs on the front or on top to hold weight plates. These specialized handles can hold a tremendous amount of weight, so athletes typically perform heavy carries for shorter distances. In the clip below, from the 2020 Arnold Pro Strongman USA Qualifier, athletes were tasked with carrying 400 pounds in each hand for a total of 60 feet.
Functionally, it’s the same movement but with much heavier weights.
The traditional arms at your sides farmer’s carry can be altered quite a bit (as shown above). Still, more specific variations work the body differently enough that we’ll refer to them as alternatives — worth adding into your training. Here are three that we like.
This variation has the lifter hold a single dumbbell or kettlebell overhead as they walk. Think about a waiter at a restaurant holding a tray — the movement looks like that. This exercise develops and reinforces shoulder mobility as you sustain an overhead position while holding a fairly heavy weight. If you press a lot, then this variation could bolster your pressing prowess.
You’ll hold a loaded barbell in the crook of your arm and walk forward. Your upper back muscles and core will be firing on all cylinders to maintain a rigid posture. Otherwise, as with a front squat, you’ll drop the bar forward.
Vertical Trap Bar Farmer’s Carry
By turning the bar, so the shafts face in front and back of you, you’re narrowing your grip and creating a lot more instability. To ensure the weight stays put, you’ll need to really squeeze your shoulder blades together and grip the trap bar tightly. Use about 60 to 65 percent of your typical weight for the trap bar farmer’s carry when using this alternative.
Can beginners do farmer’s carry?
Yes, absolutely. Beginners can certainly perform farmer’s carries and other loaded carry variations. As mentioned above, you may want to start out using the trap-bar variation, as it requires less in terms of balance and coordination — which is usually lacking in beginners. Due to the straightforward nature of this exercise, beginners should be able to pick it right up.
What muscles does the farmer’s carry work?
The farmer’s carry works multiple muscle groups across the upper and lower body. Some of the major muscle groups include:
- Arms and Shoulders
What is the difference between the farmer’s carry and the suitcase carry?
The farmer’s carry requires a symmetrical load held in both hands while performing the exercise. The suitcase carry adds a unique, asymmetrical challenge to the body by only requiring the person to carry the load in one hand — creating a high demand for trunk muscle co-contraction and synchronicity, and balance.
Should I use lifting straps or grips to help with my grip strength?
The use of lifting straps or grips comes with its own list of pros and cons.
- You can lift heavier loads for a longer period of time;
- You can worry less about grip strength being the limiting factor;
- You can be worry-free in knowing you are not going to make a mess in your gym with powdered chalk.
- You limit your ability to maximally improve your grip strength;
- You can not use them in competition if you are a strongman or athlete;
- They add a level of setup time before starting the exercise, due to the need to wrap the strap around the bar.
Liquid chalk can be a great alternative to lifting straps or its powdered counterpart — without creating a big mess. Chalk will help with contact between your hands and the bar without artificially augmenting your grip strength (lifting straps).
The farmer’s carry is a functional exercise that increases strength in the upper and lower body while bolstering one’s aerobic capacity. It’s easy to learn, easy to do, and there are many variations one can try for sport specificity and training goals.
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