Proper overhead strength is key for movements like jerks, snatches, overhead presses, strongman lifts, and daily life as well. Too often lifters and athletes fail to properly gain awareness and stability in the overhead position, as a result of not training that posture, inadequate mobility, or both.
To lift up your overhead game, turn to the carry. Overhead carries are a great exercise to build stronger shoulders, improve overhead strength and lockout performance, and reinforce joint integrity.
In this exercise guide, we’ll discuss overhead carries and how you can integrate them into your training program to improve shoulder stability and overall performance while lifting overhead.
- How to Do the Overhead Carry
- Benefits of the Overhead Carry
- Muscles Worked by the Overhead Carry
- Who Should Do the Overhead Carry
- Overhead Carry Sets and Reps
- Overhead Carry Variations
- Overhead Carry Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Do the Overhead Carry
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the overhead carry. This guide will discuss how to perform overhead carries with kettlebells, however you can swap in dumbbells, a barbell, or other piece of equipment if you would like, and perform the movement in the same manner. The only difference would be the first step, which involves getting the load overhead.
Step 1 — Press the Load Overhead
Start with the kettlebells in the front rack position. When you are ready, perform an overhead press, push press, or jerk to get the kettlebells from the shoulders to overhead. Your elbows should be fully extended, wrists relatively straight, and your arm should be vertical.
Coach’s Tip: The kettlebells should be over the traps. Be sure to not allow the kettlebells to fall laterally away from your center. It is helpful to think about touching each bicep to your ear.
Step 2 — Reach Through the Roof
Now that the load is overhead and in the correct position, you need to actively engage the upper back and shoulders. To do this, think about reaching upwards against the downward force of the weight.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your elbows fully extended, and do not let the wrists buckle backwards.
Step 3 — Walk and Reach
With the kettlebells overhead and actively supported, place one foot in front of the other and start walking. Take smaller steps at first to learn how to move with the weights overhead. When you’ve finished your set, slowly lower the bells back to the front rack position.
Coach’s Tip: Resist the urge to hyperextend your lower back. The ribs should not be flared upwards, but kept down to force more thoracic mobility and strength of the upper back muscles.
Benefits of the Overhead Carry
The overhead carry is a movement that can benefit all athletes, especially those in strength sports. Below are just a few of the benefits you can expect to gain when integrating overhead carries of any kind into a training program, whether for functional movement, stability, or strength and performance.
The overhead carry is a key tactic for bulletproofing your stability. Overhead stabilization requires proper joint functionality 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 develop the necessary isometric muscle strength, overhead positions, and overhead awareness necessary to strengthen lifts and prevent injury.
Lack of shoulder and thoracic mobility and/or positional alignment play a huge role in your ability to hold weight overhead properly. A lack of stability throughout the trunk can cause a slew of issues that may be detrimental to performance.
Proper overhead carries are an exemplary way to practice holding a weight overhead while simultaneously stabilizing your core. Forcing the abdominals to brace with a flexed shoulder is a fantastic real-world stimulus for your abs.
Whether you want to build a big push press or need a rock-solid jerk for an Olympic lifting competition, you can hit two birds with one stone with carries. If you have a limitation in your overhead position or isometric strength, you can avoid making unwanted compensations by practicing extended holds overhead. By asking your muscles to contract isometrically for an extended period of time, you’re stimulating strength development and some size gains to boot.
Muscles Worked by the Overhead Carry
The overhead carry is an exercise that strengthens the back, shoulders, and scapular stabilizer muscles. This movement can also be trained with heavy loads, and will produce increased core strength as well.
The scapular stabilizers, such as the rhomboids, serratus, and traps, all play a critical role in stabilizing an object overhead. Even though there is little to no motion involved in the overhead carry, there is a tremendous degree of tension placed on the scapular muscles as they contract isometrically to keep your shoulders in place.
The deltoids contract and are used in an isometric manner to hold the load overhead. Much like the musculature of the upper back, your deltoids come into play isometrically and act on the shoulder joint for the duration of the set.
Abdominals and Obliques
Your abs and obliques have the tremendous task of resisting trunk extension or lateral flexion during the overhead carry. If you lack shoulder mobility, a typical compensation for the carry involves your ribs flaring out as you arch your lower back.
The abdominals have the key job of “clamping” your ribs in place so the stimulus from the weight is directed where it is meant to be — on your upper back and shoulders.
Who Should Do the Overhead Carry
Overhead carries are a beneficial strengthening exercise for strength and power sports, as well as general fitness and daily life. However, you do need decent flexibility. Make sure you address any deficiencies or restrictions before implementing a new movement.
Increasing overhead strength, stability, and pressing performance is key for strength athletes. Standard movements like the dumbbell press as well as strongman techniques like the log clean and press both end in the overhead position, sometimes with very heavy loads.
To ensure you have the power to press whatever you load up on your barbell, working in some isometric training via the overhead carry can get your shoulders where they need to be when it matters most.
For Olympic lifters, a solid lockout overhead is critical. Both the snatch and clean & jerk require you to stabilize a very heavy barbell over your head. Practicing that posture with overhead carries can improve your shoulder strength in both movements and help protect against mishaps or accidents that may arise.
Since so many workouts and competitions in CrossFit include overhead exercises like push presses, snatches, thrusters, and handstands, it’s a no-brainer that anyone participating in these challenges should incorporate overhead isometrics.
After all, functional fitness events involve a wide variety of challenges, and you should be prepared for as many as possible on game day.
The ability to raise your arm over your head is a necessary motion in daily life. Unwanted compensations like lumbar extension, cervical spine tightness, or rounded shoulders can be effectively deterred by working on your carry game in the gym.
Even if you don’t compete in a strength sport, holding heavy loads overhead will transfer to your everyday life — getting something from the attic, unloading a truck, or even playing with a child.
Overhead Carry Sets and Reps
If you are looking to increase overhead performance and stabilize your lockout, you can integrate the overhead carry into your training program in a few different ways. Note that some equipment may be better suited for certain types of programming than others.
To Build Stability
If you are looking to build a better overhead position to minimize injury risk and increase performance, you want to first make sure that you have enough control to stabilize any load you have over your head.
Start by performing 2 – 4 sets of holds for 10 – 15 seconds with lighter loads, taking your time to walk slowly and be deliberate about feeling the weight overhead and controlling it.
To Improve Overhead Strength
Increasing strength overhead will make it easier to throw up — and hold onto — big weights, but only if trained properly. To train for overhead strength, you need to train heavy, since there’s no sense in testing your ability to stabilize an insignificant weight.
Start with 3 – 4 sets of carries lasting up to 30 seconds, resting 2 – 3 minutes between sets to allow for full recovery for strength focused sets.
To focus on strength above all, you may consider not taking any steps and simply standing still with the heaviest weight locked out overhead.
Overhead Carry Variations
Below are a couple of overhead carry variations that can be used to progress the kettlebell overhead carry to allow for more weight, develop extra stability, or a combination of the two. You can apply the same progression pathways and set/rep recommendations as well.
Barbell Overhead Carry
If you spend a lot of time working with a barbell, it only makes sense to incorporate it into your overhead carry. What the barbell lacks in single-arm stimulation compared to kettlebells or dumbbells, it makes up for with loadability.
You can also customize your grip width to exactly match how you’d hold an overhead press, split jerk, or snatch to ensure the skills you’re developing transfer smoothly.
Yoke Overhead Carry
Strongman enthusiasts can perform 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 hoist the weight overhead. Simply align yourself under the frame and stand up.
The yoke can be a very beneficial implement for advanced lifters who find it more difficult to get very heavy loads overhead to begin the movement, or are looking to use a more stable piece of equipment in general.
Overhead Carry Alternatives
The overhead carry is a great exercise for increasing upper back strength and stability. You can diversify your training program by adding in some alternatives and still reap many of the same benefits as you would from the original movement.
The farmer’s carry allows you to train with heavy loads to improve posture, upper back strength, and get some grip work in as well. While this movement does not place the load overhead as you walk, it still does a great job of improving core and back strength, especially since significant heavier loads can be used than with the kettlebell overhead carry.
The handstand hold is an advanced gymnastic movement that has you use your shoulders, triceps, and upper back to support your own body weight while inverted. You can do this against a wall to improve stability, or you can work without a support structure to place greater emphasis on stability and balance.
Wall walks are another option and are very similar to handstand holds. In a wall walk, you walk your feet up the wall, becoming more inverted over time. Wall walks do a wonderful job of increasing scapular strength by progressively adding tension to your upper back and shoulders.
Since you can easily control the angle of your body, you can tune the difficulty and stability demand to your liking.
There’s no denying the importance of moving weight. For stimulating muscle growth, developing raw power, and keeping your body healthy and limber, you have to go through complete motor patterns.
However, don’t overlook the utility of a good isometric, especially if it’s relevant to your sport. You spend more time than you think with resistance fixed over your head, so it only makes sense to train that quality from time to time. The overhead carry has a lot of relevance on the competition platform and in daily life, so grab some weights and get to stepping.
If you’re still left with some nagging questions about the nature or benefits of the overhead carry, don’t worry. We’re addressing the most common questions below.
Can you lift too heavy with the overhead carry?
Heavy is a relative term, but you can certainly use more weight than is appropriate. It all depends on your individual goals. If you’re performing carries to benefit you in a strength sport, you should probably not be shy about loading up the weight.
However, if you’re just doing carries to transfer to everyday life and maintain shoulder health, you don’t necessarily need to push things to the limit.
Are kettlebells the best way to perform overhead carries?
No, there is no “best” way to perform the carry. The dumbbell, barbell, and yoke all offer unique advantages and limitations.
Kettlebells are a good way to get started, but for stronger individuals they will be very difficult to get enough weight overhead to be relevant. If you’ve got big shoulders, you might find it a true task to get a pair of 50-kilogram-plus kettlebells overhead in the first place. The barbell might be better in that case.
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