The Ultimate Guide to Overhead Carries

Proper overhead position is key for movements like jerks, snatches, overhead presses, strongman lifts, gymnastics, competitive fitness, and daily life. Too often lifters and athletes fail to properly gain awareness and stability in the overhead position (which can be a result of not training in the overhead position, mobility, or both).

In this article, we will go in great detail to discuss why overhead carries are a great moment for strength, power, and fitness athletes (as well as general fitness goers), and we also offer all coaches and athletes a comprehensive how-to-guide to best program and progress safely.

Muscles Worked by Overhead Carries

The below muscle groups are primarily targeted when performing overhead carries of any kind.

  • Traps
  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Wrist Flexors
  • Abdominals, Obliques, and Erectors
  • Scapular Stabilizers

The key here is to remain active under the loads, even when movement is not occuring (isometric contractions). The utilization of muscle contractions, joint stability (by setting the joints in place), and total body control will increase your ability to perform this exercise and create stronger, more stable overhead positions for movements like presses, jerks, handstands, and more.

Who Should Do Overhead Carries

Overhead carries are a very functional movement for strength, power, and fitness sports, as well as general fitness and daily life. In the event someone has shoulder issues, they first should address any limitations in mobility that may limit their ability to assume the proper overhead positioning (see below) necessary and seek a physical therapist/sports professional to ensure they are ready for this movement. They key here is to not load a movement that is incorrect or compromised, which unfortunately is often the case when someone who lacks proper elbow, shoulder, and thoracic mobility.

Solidifying a better overhead positioning, regardless of tool (see variations below) can increase overhead strength, lockout abilities (pressing and jerks), upper back and shoulder strength, and more; all of these are key for movements like pressing, weightlifting, and inverted holds often see in gymnastics and competitive fitness.

Why Should You Do Overhead Carries (Benefits)

In this section we will discuss four benefits coaches and athletes can expect to gain when integrating overhead carries (of any variation) into a training program, whether for functional movement, stability, or overhead strength and performance.

Overhead Stability

Without a doubt, the overhead carry is a key movement to develop overhead stability. Overhead stabilization requires proper joint functioning in the shoulder, elbows, wrists, and thoracic spine, as well as a proper sense of core stability and spinal alignment. By performing overhead carries, you can work to develop the necessary muscle strength, overhead positions, and overhead awareness necessary to strengthen lifts and prevent injury.

Core Stabilization

Lack of shoulder and thoracic mobility and/or positional alignment play a huge role in one’s ability to place loads overhead properly. Often, lifters lack the above abilities, yet manage to create some stability with loads overhead. While this may seem like a great accomplishment, it is often due to compensation patterning in which the lifter hyper-extends their lumbar spine to place the loads over the center of mass (slightly behind the head). This can cause a slew of back issues, lack of bracing capacities, and reinforce positions that are detrimental to performance.

Overhead carries, when properly set up (basics mastered, see below) are a great exercise to challenge a lifter’s ability to remain in control of the loading with the upper body, yet still not allow any excessive extension to occur in the spine. This will strengthen the abdominals, obliques, and deeper muscles of the core; many of which are necessary for movements seen in weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and daily life.

Scapular Stabilization

Overhead carries are a great way to increase scapular stability when an athlete has properly gained the necessary mobility to place loads overhead. When performing carries, rather than stationary holds (which are a regression of this movement) you also force the body to remain stable while in a dynamic environment, which mimics sporting movements (the jerk and snatch) and activities of daily life (lifting objects overhead).

Jerk and Pressing Performance

When the above benefits have been gained, lifters will find that their overhead pressing and jerking performance is stronger, more stable, and sometimes less likely to have technical issues (however not always the case). If someone’s limitation was overhead positioning and/or stability, their body will often compensate to either help them achieve the end goal (place weight overhead, at all costs) or will be a factor in their mental ability to execute a lift (out of fear of poor placement and lack of strength under heavy loads). By adding overhead carries into those training programs, you can instil confidence and build strength in a stable and safe overhead position.

Upper Back, Shoulders, and Triceps Strength

As a lifter develops their abilities to place loads overhead, they will find that they can withstand very high amounts of loads. Muscular strength can be seen during heavier overhead carries (and holds) simply due to the fact that a muscle is asked to isometrically contract to support a load for a prolonged period of time (muscles act to keep the joints extended under load). Easy integrations of this can be done by having a lifter hold a snatch, jerk, or press in the overhead position for time after a lift (more of a hold rather than carry) or simply by performing any one of the overhead carry variations below.

The Basics of Overhead Carries

Proper placement of a load is necessary for optimal performance, strength, and injury prevention. Below you will find four key to attaining proper overhead positioning for not only overhead carries, by for movements like jerks, overhead presses, and snatches. Note, that some of the positions may not be relevant to some overhead movements (such as wrist positioning in the handstand), however the concepts are generally the same across most overhead carry and exercises.

Load Placement

The loads shoulder be placed slightly behind the head so that the line of force is directly above the midline of the body. This means that the major joints of the body should be in alignment under the load (ankles, knees, hips, ribs, shoulders, elbows, wrist, load).

Wrist Positioning

Excessive wrist extension is often a compensation for poor shoulder mobility and/or improper placement of a load overhead. When we allow the wrist to excessively bend backwards, we place unnecessary strain on the tendons and ligaments of the wrist joint (as well as the joint itself). A general rule of thumb is that when you place your hands overhead, the thumb (when in the clenched fist position) shoulder be in line with the forearm, both pointing upwards towards the sky (not backwards). That said, as a weightlifter advances, strengthening the wrist in a slightly extended position is needed to support maximal loads.

Spinal Alignment

Proper overhead positioning requires that the upper back, shoulders, and arms are in proper alignment. When there are blocks in mobility and joint function of those groups, the body has a the innate ability to compensate alignment at other joints throughout the system to achieve the end goal (placing loads overhead in the correct position). In doing so, lifters typically will allow their lumbar spine to go into excessive lumbar extension which can place great amounts of loading onto the spine and discs. Achieving proper spinal alignment and core stabilization is key for overhead positioning, and should be prioritized throughout any overhead movement.

Active Engagement (Muscle, Mind, and Positioning)

Once you have achieved proper overhead positioning, the final step is to remain active with all muscle groups involved (see muscles worked section above) to produce force to actively keep the joints extended (locked out). Some coaching cues that are commonly said during movements like presses, snatches, and jerks (in the overhead support phase) are “Reach”, “Push Through the Bar/Load”, and even “Shrug Up”.

How to Program Overhead Carries

In the below section we will discuss a few methods you can use to program overhead carries based on your sport and/or goal.

Olympic Weightlifters

When looking to increase overhead stability and performance in weightlifting, we really are looking to do so to directly impact our overhead posting in the snatch and jerk (and all jerking/pressing variations). Failure to have a strong, stable, and elbows extended position not only can lead to shoulder, wrist, and elbow injury, it can also lead to three red lights and bombing out on the platform. Integrating overhead carries in warm-ups and/or accessory weightlifting programs is key to help lifters solidify proper stability and positioning. To start, I recommend performing unilateral movements, like the double kettlebell overhead carry (see below) for 3-4 sets of 20-30 seconds, which can simply be measure out into any distance. The key is to create tension and stability under loads in the correct positions, then progress.

In addition to this, I often have my athletes perform overhead holds with heavier snatches and jerks at the end of a repetition for 5-10 seconds to increase their stability, strength, and confidence under heavier loads (which is very helpful for lifters who lack those attributes and/ro during a competition prep phase).

Strength Athlete

Increasing overhead strength, stability, and press out performance is key for strength athletes. Movements like the circus press and log clean and press both end in the overhead position using very heavy loads. Without proper overhead stability, strength, and alignment, injury to the lower back and joints/connective tissues (elbows, shoulder, and wrist) are sure to occur which will result in nagging injuries and/or long-term setbacks in performance and training.

If you’re new to the world of overhead carries, I recommend you do warm-up or accessory training utilizing overhead carries. Choose any of the variations below (or share some of your favorites that aren’t listed in the comments) for 3-4 sets of 20-30 seconds, building in durations up to 40-60 seconds. Once you have done this, you can manipulate carrie times/distances/loading to diversify your overhead performance.

CrossFit/Competitive Fitness

Seeing that so much of competitive fitness movements include overhead exercise like push presses, jerks, snatches, thrusters, handstands, and more, it is a no brainer as to why you too should train overhead strength and stability. My general recommendations are to perform overhead carries in the identical fashion as I suggested for strength athletes, while also mixing in some time holds on heavier Olympic lifts (snatches and jerks) to solidify stronger overhead position specific to those movements.

General Health

Regardless of if you are an athlete or not, placing your hands overhead under load is a necessary act of life. Failure to maintain proper joint functioning, mobility, and stability of the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and thoracic spine are all potential risks factors for movement compensation patterns. Excessive lumbar extension, hunching of the shoulders, and neck pain/tightness can all be symptoms of poor overhead positions and strength (since the muscles responsible for posture are the ones that are trained by overhead carries). My general recommendation is to first be sure you can support a load overhead with locked elbows, stable wrists, and set your scapulas down the back (see overhead positioning basics section). One you have achieved this, reinforce proper positioning in the same way a strength athlete would (see above).

Overhead Carries You Should Master

Now that you have learned everything you need (and ever wanted to know) about overhead carries and proper overhead positioning for movements like jerks, snatches, and presses, it is time do some carries. The below exercises are some of the most basic (and targeted) overhead carries athletes can do to address many of the benefits discussed above. In the event you come up with a great variation, please share in the comment below so I too can give it a go!

Double Kettlebell Overhead Carries

The double kettlebell overhead carry is a great exercise to establish proper overhead mechanics, core stability, wrist alignment, and unilateral stabilization. I highly recommend this one for all athletes and fitness goers.

Unilateral Overhead Carries

Unilateral carries will help to address any asymmetries you may have overhead, which often goes unnoticed in moments like barbell pressing and jerks. Simply take any weight and place in the proper overhead positing, making sure not to lean excessively or hold the shoulders up. Your position should be identical to one you would assume if you had two loads overhead.

Barbell Overhead Carries

Simply press or jerk a loaded barbell overhead into the correct overhead position. Once you have done so, start my double checking the alignment of the barbell, spinal and core stability, and muscle engagement of the upper back, shoulders, and arms. When ready, take a small step forwards, then another, and so forth. You can get creative with this exercise by adding asymmetrical loads (different weights on each end), bands with kettlebells on the needs of the bar, and more.

Overhead Yoke Carries

Lastly, you can experiment with overhead carries using a yoke to further increase strength and stability of the core and upper body. This is a great way to load up the movement as you do not need to attempt to hoist overhead, but rather simply align yourself under the load and stand up.

Get Stronger Using Carries

Check out some of these awesome articles on other loaded carry exercises!

Featured Image: @doveram on Instagram

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Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.