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Farmers Walks - The Most under-rated and Powerful Functional Movement

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 08 October 2019
Hits: 15589

Carrying a heavy load is arguably the most common strength activity we use in in life, and it is also one of the most challenging. Yet, it is highly under-rated and many do not even regard this as an exercise. When you understand just how many muscles and complex interactions are involved to perform this movement efficiently, you gain a better appreciation of how valuable this can be to use in a workout. This is an activity we use every day when we pick up the shopping bags at the supermarket, a suitcase when we go on holidays, lifting a wheelbarrow in the garden, and endless other activities at work and at home. Even in the gym itself we unknowingly require this movement whenever we need to carry our dumbbells or weight plates over to the area we intend to train. When time is designated to this as an exercise, and it is trained correctly, it can provide significant strength gains to the entire body that may protect you from serious harm in life. In this article we will show you how. 

Loaded Carries & Farmers Walks - The Forgotten Functional Movement

I say this exercise is a forgotten one for we spend so much time looking for exercises to enhance muscles or a simple movement that is often performed on the spot that we forget that one of the most difficult exercises is walking with load. If ever there was an exercise to be labelled as functional then farmer's walks and loaded carries are it.

The human gait cycle is a very complicated, coordinated series of movements. You only have to work with people suffering walking impairments (see our article on gait cycle for more on this) to see how difficult it can be to help these people relearn how to walk.

And under load the stability demands are amplified, for the body must provide mobility to joints under extreme stress in order to move your legs. We pay great attention to our technique during exercises like chest press, squats and deadlifts but we don't pay much attention to how we grab the dumbbells, barbells and weight plates. We just assume we are able to it perfectly and that it all is okay.

This is also a common problem outside of the gym too. We take it for granted our brain understands how to coordinate walking with load perfectly, and that our muscles are fully capable to complete the vigorous workload thrust upon them. It is one thing to be able to lift something heavy and another thing altogether to be able to walk with load over a long distance.

You begin to see how people can suffer horrible injuries like bulging discs in their back from carrying an over loaded suitcase as seen below.

The stress placed on the body from this movement is immense, and when you consider we may even need to walk upstairs or downhill with this load how easily problems can escalate. The body is confronted with a huge challenge that it is not capable of performing and is forced to compensate and find another way.

In the gym we practice lifting all the time and subject our body to immense loads to perform great exercises like deadlifts, chin-ups and rows which is great and extremely useful. The deadlift is one of our go to exercises and was actually rated our number two exercise of all time behind the single leg deadlift in our recent exercise rating article.

But training this without also enhancing our endurance means we may have a false sense of strength. Sure, we may be great at lifting heavy things but we may not have the skill or endurance to carry anything. One could argue it would be better to train our ability to walk with load first before spending time lifting heavy loads!

This is an argument renowned Physical Therapist Gray Cook has made many times in his videos and books. Here is a great quote from one of his videos I watched a few years ago that really stuck with me.

"This is one of the central problems in Western fitness: We try to lift things before we have carry capacity. Take the kind of weights you want to lift and carry them. Let’s carry those with alignment and integrity under load. Guess what would happen if we all did more carries than lifts? You wouldn’t be looking for correctives. This can help your endurance.

It can help your core stabilization. It can help your posture.

This is where balance starts—carries, not with deadlifting; not with bench pressing and not with single-leg deadlifts, and not with Turkish getups and swings and push presses.

Balance starts with work capacity. Alignment with integrity is good balance. A balance beam on the floor is a pre-requisite for this, but now alignment with integrity under load is a good rebuttal."Gray Cook.

I remember watching Strongman competitions on TV and seeing huge guys trying to carry safes or huge logs and thought they were crazy guys and these competitions were just for entertainment.

Now that I am much wiser and fully understand the movement I appreciate their skill and ability. I now know that I was the crazy guy with my ignorance as to what this movement really is. I fully understand now just how important the farmer’s walks and loaded carries really are for ALL people, not just strongmen competitions. The strongmen have known this for a long time and is one of the key elements to their training that is essential to their success and also their safety.

Grip strength is another valuable skill from this movement and has been proven in many studies to be a good predictor of future injury and even overall body strength. Therefor it makes sense that we should always be looking at improving grip strength using exercises like deadlifts and farmers walks that are completely dependent on this.

There are many versions of farmer’s walks and carries and we will take a quick look at some of the common versions.

How to Do the Farmers Walk

This is the simplest version and the best place to start. I am always surprised at how hard these are when I do them so make sure you don't start too heavy. Progression can be more than heavy load, it can be distance travelled or time held. It is good to mix up the distance and time to enhance the endurance capacity which is arguably worse than lifting the heaviest load.

Watch the video below of several simple versions of the farmer’s walk.

 

Instructions:

  • Start with 2x100m farmer carries with two minutes rest between with 50 percent of your body weight (25% in each hand). If that goes well, add 10%. If that is still too easy, try the super challenge.
  • Super challenge: 100m body weight farmer carry (50 percent each hand) without putting the weight down.
  • Focus on walking with perfect posture and keep your arms close to your sides.

Remember start with a light load to begin with and build up the distance and intensity as you improve.

The Suitcase Carry

As the name suggests this is basically holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand. This is a highly complex exercise and stresses areas that are known to be very weak in most people, being the glutes and QL (quadratus lumborum).

This exercise activates what is known as the Lateral sling. This sling connects the glute medius and glute minimus of the stance leg to the adductors and with the contralateral Quadratus Lumborum (QL). This sling plays a critical role in stabilizing the spine and hip joint in everyday activities like walking up stairs. This has obvious weakness with almost all back pain sufferers and a program to develop the integration of the inner unit and outer unit is crucial for long term success in getting rid of their pain.

You can read more about the lateral sling and the other three myofascial slings in the article - Core strength training using the slings

You will also find our back pain secrets program valuable if you do suffer with back pain. Click here to find out more about this program.

I watched a DVD by Dr Stuart McGill who spoke about this exercise in depth and why he valued it so greatly in back pain rehabilitation for the huge improvement in core stabilization it could provide.

Earlier this year we mentioned this in our article - Why unilateral training provides greater strength gains than bilateral.

Here is what Dr McGill found out about the suitcase carry.

"I learned such a valuable lesson. When an athlete picks up a heavy load, the force comes up the leg, but in order to allow leg swing, the force has to shear across the pelvis and up the spine. We measured the winning strongman. Believe it or not, he had 500 Newton Meters of strength of hip abduction. I could lie on his leg on the side and he would just pop me up into the air. His strength was mind-blowing. Then we measured him with the Super Yoke. Remember, he had 500 Newton Meters of strength to hold his hip there and hold his pelvis up through hip abduction to allow a leg swing. When we measured World Class level, we showed that he needed 750 Newton Meters. He did something that was impossible—he did something he did not have the strength to do.

Where did the strength come from?

It came from the quadratus lumborum on the other side. The obliques assisted in lifting and keeping the pelvic platform level to allow a leg swing. That’s the type of information we learn when we work with the world’s best. Now let’s go to the world’s worst. Let’s consider a child who has a paralysed QL. What’s the gait pattern? Would you see the paralysed QL on this side? The hips can’t keep up. That’s just a little demonstration of the lessons you learn. For a football player, the ability to do the job is not limited by pull or press strength—it’s limited by being able to hold the pelvic platform up on one leg, plant, externally rotate and go.

The best way to enhance that is a suitcase carry.

How many people have you seen do that in the weight room? The suitcase carry is the number one way to do it. It’s a unilateral exercise.

Don’t do too much. Do perfect quality." - Dr Stuart McGill

The video below gives you a great example of this in action. This shows you how we use the suitcase carry to correct a hip problem affecting the gait pattern.

 

Loaded Carries

Another version you can use is the loaded carries with a kettlebell or dumbbell overhead. You can use two weights overhead or even held on the chest. The upside down kettlebell is an excellent exercise to use for enhancing shoulder stability in line with core stability.

Again you need to maintain perfect posture and good stability throughout to complete this exercise. Grip strength will still become a big factor and you will find your non-dominant hand will struggle more due to a lack of motor skills with the fingers and wrist. This is normal.

As with the farmers walk try to walk at least 50 meters without putting the kettlebell down.

There are several versions of this you can try as seen in the video below. This exercise is one of my favourite versions for correcting lateral pelvic tilt problems.

 

Overhead Walking Lunges

Another progression of the loaded carries is the overhead walking lunge. This is a very advanced exercise and requires considerable skill and strength to execute perfectly. If you are good enough to do this exercise this can really challenge your entire body in ways you have never experienced. 

 

Combining Farmers Walks & Turkish Get-Ups in between Sets of Your Lifts

This is something I have been doing a lot in recent weeks and the results are incredible. However I must warn you to not overdo it at first as it can leave you very sore. I would love to take credit for this idea but I got this from Gray Cook who suggested using carries and Turkish get-ups between sets of your workout to enhance the nervous system for your main lifting exercises.

Here is part of his explanation as to the theory behind this.

"If we were going to get into some work capacity or some heavy farmer’s walks or farmer carries, we’d be handing them some really big weight. Work capacity is also about time. Most people, if they go lift for 45 minutes, they’re not really lifting for 45 minutes.

Motor control work is simpler than we make it.

I’m serious. Get your mobility. Start doing get-ups and carrying stuff. Do your goblet squats. Do get-ups and carry stuff. Get up and carry some stuff. Don’t bring bad mobility to it. Then, all you’ve got to do is watch breathing and alignment. They’re getting strong while you’re working on alignment.

Now, introduce some lifts and you’re going to look like a genius because they got stronger the whole time. If all you do is work the extended part of your pull-up and the flexed part of your pull-up in isolation, you’ll go up in repetitions. You will have never done any pull-ups over the course of a month. You’ll just quadruple your hangs and all of a sudden, you’re thinking, “This is a cakewalk.”- Gray Cook

I tried this for a few weeks and feel a huge improvement in my simpler exercises almost immediately!

It is hard to describe but the feeling of holding two 35kg dumbbells for as long as possible and walking with them made all the other exercises seem so light. Mixing with the Turkish get-ups that always demand my full attention was a real shake up to my system. It felt like everything else I did was easy, even though it wasn't.

See our article - Why Turkish Get-ups are the ultimate core exercise

The only problem I had was that I was too fatigued to do deadlifts on the same day. The one time I combined the deadlifts I tweaked my back a bit. I kept my leg exercises to lunges and squats and it worked great. The improvements with the deadlift were seen when I did my next workout a few days later. 

Need More Ideas?

I know that we have only scratched the surface with exercise ideas and how to really maximize everything we have just covered and you must be thinking I need more ideas on how to do this right. Well to make your life easier I have provided you with a Free Report on Functional Training below which is actually just one chapter from our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets that you can get by clicking here or on the image below. This PDF report explains exactly how to train using the slings with chapters on Core Strength and Specific sports such as Football, Golf and Tennis. Plus a chapter for rehabilitation and injury prevention. It really is the ultimate resource tool for anyone wanting ideas on how to train correctly. Remember you can get the Functional Training report for free and The Little Black Book is only $17!

 

Summary

There is no doubting the farmer’s walks, suitcase carry, and loaded carries are all amazing exercises. By including these into your training not only will you preserve your ability to do it for life you will greatly improve your ability across other movements. The increase in strength and stability has to be experienced for you to fully believe how good these exercises really are. Not only will you prevent serious injuries but you will notice other exercises and movements become much easier the stronger you become. 

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Functional Training for Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletic Body Balance by Gray Cook
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist