My foray into the health and fitness world started just around the time when “functional training” and “core” strength became trendy terms. Gunnar Peterson and Mark Verstegen were the hot names in fitness, preaching that the body should be viewed as an interconnected kinetic chain (and trained as such) instead of a series of isolated muscles to be trained individually (as in bodybuilding) and that those “core muscles”, those bracing and stabilizing muscles of the trunk, were just as important (if not more so) than bulging biceps and rippling pecs. I’ve watched as the emergence of CrossFit has taken these ideas to an entirely new level, claiming to “forge fitness” by training whole-body compound movements in diverse conditions, to create strength and endurance that is actually relevant in the real world. As far as I am concerned, I’ve had a front row seat to experience the true golden age of fitness. But, some things are still stuck in the dark ages.
Every time I go to a gym, seek out the largest dumbbells on the rack and proceed to pick them off the ground, brace my core, and walk with them, people stop and stare like I’m 35-year old man at a Justin Bieber concert. It never fails: “Uuhhh, what are you are doing?” The farmer’s carry (or walk) is one of the oldest lifts in the book. Lifting things with each hand and carrying them has been done since the dawn of time—well, before anybody knew what a bench press or concentration curl was. And, if you have any intentions of getting bigger, stronger, better conditioned, and having a beach-worthy set of abs, you should be taking a few tips from your hay-bale-carrying brethren (and sisters) and integrating them into your regular training routine.
What’s more “functional” than picking something off the ground and walking with it?
As the name implies, farmer’s carries evolved from the act of farmers picking up large bales of hay or other implements in their hands and walking. The carryover of this “farm” strength is evident in countless things you do on a daily basis: picking up a bag of groceries, carrying a suitcase, lifting your child to lay them in bed at the end of the day, or if you are a serious strongman, lifting cars and stuff. Heavy loaded carries will make you strong in the ways you need to function optimally in everyday life. From the pre-adolescent gymnast looking for that competitive edge or the grandma who simply wants to continue going to the grocery store on her own, farmer’s carries are the ticket.
It works your “core.”
Contrary to popular belief, the “core” doesn’t refer only to those six muscles located in your midsection that have become the modern-day personification of fitness. While the core does include the muscles of the rectus abdominis, the term actually refers to a complex series of muscles that includes your entire trunk. Along with the abdominals and the internal and external obliques, your shoulders, chest, and glutes are actually “core” muscles as well because they act as isometric (holding a contraction) and dynamic (moving) stabilizers so that force can be transferred and movement initiated. And you guessed it, nothing is better for developing this vitally important system of muscles than squatting down, picking up a load in each hand, and walking. Almost nothing provides a better bang for your buck in developing the musculature of the upper back that stabilizes your neck. And yes, as research has shown, the bracing involved is also great for developing your abs.
They’ll make you strong.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but traditional strongman movements, such as the farmer’s carry, develop strength, serious strength. Research has shown that the anabolic response these movements stimulate is at least as powerful as that of more conventional compound lifts. If one of your goals is to squat, bench press, or deadlift heavy loads or improve your Olympic lifting, loaded carries are a must. Although primarily a runner, one of my wife’s goals was to increase her back squat to improve her movement economy. Farmer’s carries helped her reach that goal and improve her 5K race time.
The limiting factor in pulling movements such as deadlifts or pull-ups often isn’t those pulling muscles of the back (latissimus dorsi) or the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, lumbar) at all, but your grip. Those small muscles in your hands and forearms are the foundation for almost every conventional lift. If you are having trouble making progress in your pulling strength, deficient grip is the likely culprit. While your grip can be trained with a number of interesting gizmos, nothing is more effective than the basic act of picking up a heavy load in each hand and walking. Integrate farmer’s carries into your routine and lack of grip strength will never be a limiting factor.
While I prefer to do them with dumbbells, farmer’s carries can also be performed with a hex bar (often known as “shrug bar”), kettlebells, sandbags, or even suitcases—whatever you have on hand. You don’t need a lot of complex or expensive equipment to perform one of the most effective exercises known to man. Along with developing great strength, they also are great for improving “work capacity,” a trendy term that refers to the ability to perform work as measured by force x distance/time. Ever carried a suitcase or a large duffle bag through an airport? One of the best ways to develop functional endurance is to grab a pair of lighter dumbbells (or kettlebells or suitcases or bags), and just walk. It will be an amazing cardiovascular workout that simultaneously stresses every muscle in your body.
Whether your goal is to get strong, improve endurance, or just be able to transfer your groceries from the car to your kitchen more easily and without pain, try picking something up and walking. Carry on.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.