Humans, You Must Be Able to Carry

You can carry sandbags, kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, or anything. The more awkward the better but do loaded carries as part of your training.

You bench press, do push-ups, and maybe even military press.

You bench press, do push-ups, and maybe even military press. You squat, lunge, deadlift, glute bridge, pull-up, row, and have tried countless “ab” variations. You’ve likely hit the treadmill, the air bike, and even tried battle ropes, but do you carry? The reality is you do.

Carries, or walking while holding a load, is done by almost everyone at varying intensities throughout their day. You pick up your baby boy and walk him over to his mother (carry). With a kiss and a handoff, you grab your briefcase and lunch box (carries) and head out the door. Both are placed safely in your car before you head back to the garage to lug out an industrial-sized trash can (carry). After work, you stop by the grocery store to get more dog food and water. With one in each arm (carry) you head back into the house.

It would take me all day to count up all the carrying a moderately active person does in a week, yet training these carries usually does not rank high on our exercise priority list. Sure, we know that strength coach legend Dan John ranks carries as the most important movement.

Still, we’ve always considered that more of a quirky twist than the guiding directive of someone who knows it best. In reality, locomotion, or moving from point A to point B, is the most important movement. Loaded carries are the loading of locomotion to make it stronger. With John’s endorsement and our daily walking needs, we must all be adding carries into our weekly training, right?

The Trouble with Loaded Carries

I’m as guilty as anyone. If I add carries to a team’s exercise program, I put them last. Odd placement for a “priority.” When they are added, I’ve noticed a very interesting trend. I talk it up—I explain relevance, coaching cues, and most importantly that athletes need to walk until technical failure (until they could no longer keep the bell neutral in their grip with the thumb over finger and shoulders squeezed down and back).

Only then should they safely bring the weight to the ground. Yet, invariably every athlete would start at the same place and stop at the same place. Usually, they had no idea what size dumbbells they carried and were using different weights from set to set. Usually, the weights were far too low—what I began terming “a lunch box.” They’d never approach squat so mindlessly, but there is something about loaded carries that people don’t take very seriously.

I found that I had to coach these up very hard. I was ruthless about sending athletes back to get a more appropriate weight. Or, if they chose a “lunch box,” I’d follow them around not allowing them to put the weight down for the entire, ridiculous distance it took for them to truly approached technical failure. In my football and baseball programs, I was able to shift the culture by incorporating heavy carry challenges that created a degree of pride about carrying capacity.

For most, the loaded carry is an afterthought, but it truly is the best method I know to train grip, core, and work capacity. These three factors have a broader carryover to every other exercise and performance goal than any other. The grip connects us to our environment. The core connects each piece of our body and, with grip strength, allows us to utilize every part of our body in manipulating the environment.

Finally, work capacity stretches our ability to do work longer. It is very important to carry hard to stay healthy. Despite a far less active and physically demanding upbringing, wrist fractures are 50% more common today in our youth than in the 1950’s. Nearly half of all boys and a third of girls will fracture their wrist during childhood. We are missing out if we continue to dismiss and disrespect the loaded carry’s power.

How to Develop the Loaded Carry

You’re convinced. Now how exactly do we go about intentionally developing this skill? It is a broad question that speaks to the ambiguity that causes many to coast through their carries. You can carry sandbags, kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, or anything.

The more awkward the better. You can hold them by your side, in a bear hug, in a Zercher, in a kettlebell rack position, overhead, or any combination. Dan John even does them up hills while pulling sleds. You can go heavier for shorter distances or lighter and longer. Your imagination is the only limitation.

I recommend including loaded carries daily, but with different variations and goals throughout the week. Here are some of my favorite protocols:

  • Time Intervals – 6-10 Rounds of 30 seconds of work and 30 seconds of rest.
  • For time – Set a clock for 5 minutes and do one arm carry variation like the suitcase carry. Move constantly, switching hands as needed.
  • For technical failure, go as far as possible until perfect technique is maxed, then immediately put them down.
  • Superset them with bear crawls. Set a distance and go for speed!
  • Program them for distance – Pick a distance and go! Any variation works. Simply put the load down when you’ve hit technical failure. Rest and repeat the process until you’ve eclipsed the distance. In a lot of ways, this is a heavier version of what anyone who goes backpacking is doing every time they set out on an adventure.
  • Take your carries outside and hit uneven terrain. Go up hills and around obstacles. The variation is functional and fun.

Now that you have your protocols, get good at a few different methods. Start simple and add more over time. The possibilities are endless, but here are some of my favorite variations:

  • Farmer’s Walk
  • Suitcase Carry
  • Rack Walk
  • Waiter’s Walk
  • Cross Walk (one arm pressed into a waiter’s walk and the other in a suitcase carry or rack hold)
  • Bottom’s Up Kettlebell Walk
  • Loaded Walking Lunge
  • Zercher Carry

So what are you waiting for? The sky is the limit. Pick up something heavy and get going!