Normal farmer’s carries might appear to be of no value besides strengthening grip. However, when you pick up weights and walk, you’ll find there’s so much more to it. Taking a weight into an overhead position can take a carry to a whole new level (no pun intended). They stress the shoulders, compel engagement of the core, and burn the lungs with every stride.
Any deviations in your gait will be felt significantly and the discomfort of bearing so much weight can encourage quitting with each step. You should keep walking, though. The benefits are well worth it. We’re going to discuss what those benefits are, as well as a trio of variations you can incorporate in your training.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author. If you have shoulder mobility issues or painful shoulders, please avoid overhead carries.
[Related: 3 Variations to Make Farmer’s Carries More Fun]
Overhead Carry Benefits
When carries are performed regularly, they offer a lot of benefits — some of which are not offered by many other lifts. Below are four of the major benefits that overhead carries can offer you:
Carrying heavy weights without good posture is a sure-fire way to lose balance and get hurt. Maintaining a strong, upright posture is essential when doing any overhead carry variation. Additionally, since every step is functionally a single leg stance, the core and hip stabilizers will be taxed to maintain your upright position rather than fold to the opposing side of each stride.
Encourages Proper Breathing Patterns
It’s difficult to be a chest breather when you’re carrying heavy weights overhead. Having to keep your core taught, your shoulders in proper alignment, and your focus on each individual step, is likely to steer you naturally towards better, more natural breathing patterns. Wheezing through the chest won’t take you very far. Proper breathing patterns can help you walk further and maintain better control throughout.
Your rotator cuffs have to work like crazy to keep your shoulders in proper position — that difficulty scales as the weight increases. The more stable the shoulders, the better the posture, the easier the breathing, the more well-rounded the position, and the better the carry.
Conditioning and Mental Toughness
For those who aren’t yet comfortable walking with weight overhead (no shame in that, it’s not easy), loaded carries will teach you to deal with discomfort of walking with a load so you can transition to overhead positions. According to strength and conditioning coach Dan John, carries will change your life in three weeks. John’s career spans over 40 years, and this is an area of expertise worth listening to him on:
If you’re ready to take your carry game to a whole new level, then overhead carries are for you.
Overhead Carry Primer
There’s no doubt that regular carries (by your side, rack, suitcase, or goblet) are difficult. But walking with weights overhead takes them to another level specifically because of the increased leverage.
[Related: 3 Progressions for Nailing The Single Leg Romanian Deadlift (RDL)]
The further away the resistance is from the working muscles, the harder it is to lift or carry. Overhead is about as far away as it gets.
All the carry benefits above are magnified with overhead carries. Overhead carries put the whole body under tension and every step is a test of single leg balance. This means it’s advisable to start on the lighter side with overhead carries, somewhere between 60-80% of your overhead press one rep max (1RM).
With the use of a trap bar (also known as a hex bar), you will be able to utilize a hammer grip (thumbs pointing behind you). This grip will place less of the emphasis on your back to balance the weight and more on your core and posture.
If your shoulders are healthy, their mobility is good, and you’re ready and willing to get stronger, try these three variations for an overhead challenge you’re sure to enjoy.
1. Trap Bar Overhead Carry
With this and other trap bar variations below, setting up in the squat rack (as demonstrated in the video) is advisable. The hammer grip of the trap bar makes this easier on the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. It is recommended that you start late and perform a turn so you have a sense of how the weight shifts as you do. It may not feel like you assume, so put it into practice before adding a challenging weight.
2. Trap Bar Chaos Carry
A chaos carry involves attaching bands to each side of the trap bar that have weight tied to the other end. As you walk, the weights will swing. The objective is to move as steadily as possible to keep that swing to a minimum. The instability of the bands makes an already difficult exercise much more so.
You’ll need to walk slower to avoid losing balance and to prevent the plates hitting you (please use caution). You should use less weight for this, as it is a more difficult carrry. Don’t worry though, the time under tension will increase alongside the difficulty.
You will notice in the video above that the bands were tied on the inside of the trap bars collars. This is where you should start. You can use both weight plates and kettlebells at the ends of the bands. If you want to add more weight, use more plates, kettlebells, and bands not just one heavy plate and kettlebell on each side.
If you want to further increase the difficulty, you can move the bands away from you on the collars. If you do though, be sure to use a barbell clamp just to ensure that nothing slides while you are mid-carry.
3. Trap Bar Offset Carry
There are two ways to offset the load. Add a load on one side but not the other — as demonstrated in the video below — or use more weight on one side than the other. Remember, the greater the offset, the greater the difficulty of the carry.
This variation focuses on your internal and external obliques due to be weighed down more on one side, along with your anterior and posterior core muscles. Much like the chaos carry, you’ll spend more time under tension because you will naturally need to move carefully to maintain a straight posture.
Form Tips And Programming Suggestions
You will need a lot of space to perform these walks. As mentioned before, setting up in the squat rack makes it easier and is recommended. Sit the handles of the trap bar in the meat of your palm with a neutral wrist for a safe and strong grip. Every step is a test on your single leg balance. If you’re new to overhead carries start with a lighter weight until you get used to the demands.
Overhead carries are physically and mentally demanding and are best performed when you’re fresh, so try to program them at the start of your training sessions. For example, if you like to get your core work done before weights, include it in a core tri-set like this.
- 1A. Trap bar overhead carry — 40 yards (20 yards each direction).
- 1B. Wall press deadbug — five reps.
- 1C. Side plank breathing — three breaths on each side.
Or you can perform a superset with an exercise that doesn’t demand a lot of grip strength. For example:
- 1A. Barbell hip extension — six to 12 reps.
- 1B. Trap bar overhead carry — 40 yards(20 yards each direction).
Feel free to use these as inspiration to come up with your own programming that pairs these trap bar over head carry variations with other exercises that will build you towards your goals. Just remember to pair them with exercises that don’t stress the same muscles or put too much emphasis on your wrists.
Overhead carries work almost every muscle from head to toe and are a challenge to boot. They are not for the faint of heart and require total concentration, as anything less could see you in a workout blooper video. However, these carries are worth your time and effort to master as the crossover benefits to your other lifts — improved posture, more controlled breathing, increased focus, etc. — are significant.
Feature image Dr. Joel Seedman’s YouTube channel.