As a member of Naval Special Warfare, I was frequently deployed to austere locations around the globe, and it was imperative that the guys and I maintained high levels of strength, resilience, and stamina.
We often had very limited equipment but needed to come up with good workouts regardless. One of our favorite staples was and still is the weighted carry.
Weighted carries are one of the best ways I’ve found to develop strength, muscle, and real world stamina–the ability to just keep going no matter how much it sucks to do so. This quality alone will help you develop a much more resilient and better-looking body.
So, Just Pick Something Up and Carry It?
There is an important consideration with any of these carries. It’s not as simple as just throwing heavy stuff on your back or picking it up and slogging down the road. With each step and every second that your body is under load, you’re ingraining a neuromuscular pattern and teaching your body how to move. If you teach it poorly, your body is going to recall this and perform poorly in the future.
Your goal here is to develop strength and resilience under stress so that your body will stand tall and unbroken under heavy loads when the undisciplined masses around you would be falling apart.
How Do You Progress?
Progression is based on increasing the quality of movement, but not just by increasing the load, time under tension, or frequency of the movement. It doesn’t matter if you add an extra hundred pounds to the bar if your technique goes to crap in order to do so. Likewise, going from eight to ten reps is irrelevant if you have to reduce the quality of each one of those reps to get there. Leave that nonsense to the tank-top wearing Jersey Shore idiot bench pressing with deadlift straps on. You’re here for a purpose.
The waiter’s walk is a unilateral movement, and like most overhead lifts, it provides a good insight into one’s postural integrity. It is performed by hoisting a single dumbbell or kettlebell overhead with the other arm unloaded. The core musculature must work intensely in order to stabilize the spine and prevent lateral movement. You want your shoulders to stay level and avoid twisting or hiking one shoulder.
If you’re prone to anterior pelvic tilt, have limited ability to extend your thoracic spine, excessively tight lats, or dysfunctional scapular function, you’re likely to see it here. You should be able to hold the weight vertically overhead with your scaps locked down and in. If you cannot set your scaps back, your lower back will arch (compensating for limited thoracic spine mobility, scapular dysfunction, or tight lats) or the weight will continually fall forward, and you need to address some postural imbalances.
Example of a GOOD Waiters Walk
Example of a BAD Waiters Walk
The slosh pipe is an eight-foot PVC pipe, either three or four inches in diameter, filled halfway with water.
It’s unique, incredibly unstable nature makes it demanding on the core musculature. You must keep your abs braced as tightly as possible to prevent unwanted motion and loss of stability at the lumbar spine.
The slosh pipe can either be carried in the zercher position or overhead with a snatch grip. I typically use the zercher carry exclusively when working with women, as the hypertrophy that the overhead carry is likely to induce in the upper traps is great in guys but not so desirable in your girlfriend.
The same postural checks involved in the waiter’s walk apply to the overhead slosh pipe carry. Make sure that the spine is neutral, scaps are locked down and back, and the head and chest are carried high. Pay close attention to pelvic alignment, and don’t allow the pelvis to tilt anteriorly.
Example of a GOOD Overhead Slosh Pipe Walk
Example of a BAD Overhead Slosh Pipe Walk
The farmer’s walk is one of the simplest carries. Take two dumbbells or kettlebells, pick them up, and carry them somewhere.
Simplicity doesn’t mean foolproof though. Postural integrity is crucial here. The weight needs to be carried by a vertical spine and well aligned shoulders. Keep your head and chest up, scaps set down and back, and allow your upper traps to carry the weight. Your lower back, rhomboids, and mid traps should be playing a secondary role only. If they start picking up the majority of the work, you’re caving in and falling forward.
Example of a GOOD Farmers Walk
Example of a BAD Farmers Walk
Single Side Farmer’s Walk
This one is exactly what it sounds like. Pick up a single weight in one hand held at your side and move. The postural checks here are similar to the waiter’s walk, as are the demands on the core. Your abs must work hard to keep your shoulders balanced and your spine level. Do not allow your weighted shoulder to hike up or your spine to flex laterally to the side.
Farmer’s and Waiter’s Combinations
You can also combine a farmer’s walk and a waiter’s walk by putting a heavy weight in one hand at your side and a lighter weight hoisted overhead in a waiter’s carry. This is a great one for simultaneously developing work capacity and postural integrity.
Example of a Farmer’s and Waiter’s Combinations
The Rickshaw is a specialized piece of equipment somewhat similar to a trap bar. We got ours from EliteFts. It is built with fat grip handles and can hold as much weight as you want to throw on it. The fat grip handles provide the main benefit over the standard trap bar.
The performance points here are the same as the farmer’s walk.
Craig performing a Carry with a RickShaw/Trap Bar
Safety Squat Bar
This is another specialized piece of gear and it’s invaluable. We got it from EliteFts as well, although I’ve seen quality ones from several manufacturers.
The main, and substantial, advantage to the SS bar is that its cambered design and yoke allows the weight to be carried further forward than with a standard straight bar, which positions the weight directly over the spine and allows for perfect postural alignment under load. The yoke also allows you to drop your hands from the bar and is fantastic for people limited by shoulder or t-spine mobility issues or injuries.
This one is going to be tough to use inside the confines of the gym and you definitely don’t want to drop it, so have two spotters with you in order to hoist it up onto your shoulders.
Straight Bar Overhead Carry
This is a movement we used quite a bit on deployments in the military when other equipment was extremely limited. Like the other overhead carries, it’s incredibly demanding and will exploit any postural weaknesses, so pay close attention to your performance points. Do not allow your chest to cave, lower back to arch into hyperextension, or shoulders to drift forward, and do make sure your scaps are locked down and back.
Bumper plates are great to have here, as you can just snatch the weight overhead and carry it as far as you can before dumping it to the ground for a rest.
Underwater Rock Carry
This is one move that you’re not going to be pulling off in a commercial gym or any public facility where you’re not sleeping with the lifeguard because it scares the hell out of people and probably violates all sorts of insurance mandates.
If, however, you have an open expanse of ocean with a sandy bottom and a desire to develop anaerobic capacity, comfort under stress (the prospect of drowning is one of those things that tends to raise the heart rate and perturb even normally stoic individuals), and have some fun, it’s a great workout.
A rubberized steel weight or a dumbbell that you don’t mind getting rusty will work, but big smooth rocks are best because you don’t have to worry so much about them if you lose them in the murky water in the surf zone. (I’ve spent some long evenings searching for dumbbells in the ocean after someone panicked and bolted for the surface).
You’re going to need a partner and a decent level of competence and comfort in the water for this. Take your rock, carry it as far as you can into the water from the beach, and then sprint with it under water while your partner swims on the surface. Once you’re out of oxygen, come up to the surface and switch out with your partner. Alternate in this fashion until you reach a set distance, like a depth of water you no longer feel like diving to, and then return.
Another option is to find some calm water about five feet deep and mark off a distance laterally along the shore. Sprint the rock as far as you can before coming up. As soon as your head breaks the surface you’re done and it’s your partners turn to try and beat your distance. Oh, and don’t drown.
Sherpa Skull Carry
Like the underwater carries, this isn’t necessarily something you should try yourself, it’s just something I find interesting.
While backpacking in Nepal, I spent quite a bit of time with the Himalayan Sherpas, and they have an interesting means of carrying double (and sometimes more) their bodyweight up the mountain. Their packs are so heavy that they couldn’t use standard shoulder straps because the weight would pull them over backward. Instead, they run a strap from the bottom of their pack up that loops around the head, and allows them to carry the brunt of the weight using the skull and neck. This helps them to keep the weight centered well enough forward to balance and maintain a steady pace up the mountain.
I tried on one the Sherpa’s packs, and the heavy cervical load was surprisingly comfortable. The Sherpas also have fantastic posture, with none of the kyphosis and forward head posture commonly seen in Western cultures.
I may look a little strange but I have fantastic posture and can carry more than you!
How to Integrate Weighted Carries Into Your Workouts
You can use these carries for a variety of purposes. If your goal is raw strength, load them up with as much weight as you can handle for a short distance and use sets in the five to eight range.
If you’re after a conditioning workout to develop strength endurance, lower the weight a bit and carry the weight for either a longer fixed distance with two to four sets or for intervals. Either way, keep in mind that postural integrity must always come first.
These exercises work great as an outdoor workout, but if you’re confined to a gym, most of them can easily be performed indoors, even in small areas.
If you’re limited to a small, crowded space, pick a course that weaves in and out of equipment and do laps if necessary. The changes in direction will throw an element of instability into the carry and increase the demand on your supporting musculature. Just be sure to walk the course in both directions in order to keep the demand balanced from left to right.
If you intend to integrate the lifts into a full body or upper-lower split program, consider them to be an upper body-dominant, vertical pushing type movement. They will place a significant demand on your upper back as well but don’t quite constitute full range scapular retraction or horizontal pulling. This means that they would work well in a workout that already contains a vertical pull and a horizontal push with a little extra scapular retraction work, like horizontal rows.
Before I get to the sample workouts, I want to go over one more crucial thing: your alignment.
Bare Bones and Core Muscles
The primary concern here is your skeletal alignment, which is reinforced by proper muscular balance. Ever heard about the studies in which you can support a car on the femur of a cadaver? (No? Well, I do read some weird research papers…)
Your skeleton is incredibly strong. It’s the job of your muscles to enable your skeletal structure to carry weight most efficiently. This means that postural awareness must be foremost in your mind, until it becomes second nature. The scapulae must be locked down and back, the chest up and open, head high, palms neutral (not rotated back like Fred Flintstone), and lower back held neutrally with the pelvis cleanly lined up with the rest of the spine.
The strength of your anterior core is crucial here. Pay close attention to the angle of tilt of your pelvis. Most Westerners are prone to an anterior pelvic tilt due to postural imbalances brought on by the egregious amount of time we spend in the seated position every day. This can be exaggerated under load, which weakens your spine and the rest of your body and also limits the ability of your abs to function.
It helps to have a spotter walking with you to shout cues as you move, just like you would do during a heavy squat or deadlift. Your cognitive ability to process information declines under stress so cues should be simple and easily understood. Things like “Shoulders back, head up, chest up, abs tight, flat back” are the most helpful.
Make sure in advance that you and your spotter share an understanding of what each cue means so that there is no need to contemplate when the time comes.
Along with spinal alignment and pelvic tilt, the other crucial postural check is at your shoulders. It’s quite common, especially under fatigue, for the shoulders to start to drift forward, the thoracic spine to flex into kyphosis, the scaps to spread apart, and the chest to cave in. These things all work in conjunction with one another to wreck your body.
As soon as you pick the weight up, your shoulders must be set solidly back in the capsule. With good alignment here, the load is balanced perfectly over your vertical skeleton, which is capable of supporting incredible weight. Your upper traps and delts are the primary supporting musculature with your middle traps, rhomboids, and the rest of the muscles around your scaps, providing a crucial role in keeping your scapulae from drifting forward and collapsing your chest. Your forearms and biceps are also going to take a beating in order to support the weight in most cases.
Option 1 – (preferably following a lower body strength workout):
Select a 25-meter course or route through your gym.
Weight Selection: Use the heaviest dumbbells you can press for a 10-rep max floor press.
- Floor Press – 8 reps
- Single Arm Dumbbell Row – 8 reps per side
- Farmers Walk – 25 Meters
Repeat the course, doing the floor presses and rows every 25 meters for as many rounds as possible in ten minutes. If necessary, cluster the presses and rows into smaller sets with brief rests in between in order to get the necessary number of reps. Do not sacrifice form in order to get all eight in one shot.
Same as above but with a heavy dumbbell in the farmer’s walk position and a lighter one in the waiter’s walk position. Alternate sides every 25 meters and use the heavy dumbbell for single arm rows and single arm floor or bench presses.
For Strength (following any strength workout):
Load a rickshaw or trap bar with the heaviest weight you can handle for ten meters.
- Rickshaw or Trap Bar Carry – 10 meters
- Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
- Rickshaw or Trap Bar Carry – 10 meters (return to start)
- Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
- Overhead Slosh Pipe Carry – 10 meters
- Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
- Overhead Slosh Pipe Carry – 10 meters (return to start)
Rest as much as needed to return heart rate and breathing to baseline and repeat three times.
Weight selection – The heaviest weight you can carry for a waiter’s walk.
- Waiter’s Walk with non-dominant hand* – 10 meters
- Switch hands
- Waiter’s Walk – 10 meters (return to start)
- Single Side Farmer’s Walk with non-dominant hand – 10 meters
- Switch hands
- Single Side Farmer’s Walk – 10 meters (return to start)
*or whichever shoulder is less stable.
Repeat for four rounds.
The basic principles here are easy to grasp. Pick up something heavy and move it, and your body will get strong. Progression is based on your ability to do this with increasingly heavy loads, for greater distances or more sets, while maintaining optimal postural alignment.
This means that you’re free to experiment. As long as you keep those principles in mind, you can grab whatever heavy thing you have available and use it to improve your strength, postural integrity, and work capacity. It’s not complicated, but it can be a brutal, effective workout.
Written by Craig Weller
Discuss, comment or ask a question
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About Craig Weller
Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.
The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.
This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.
You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.