How to Use Heavy Carry Exercises

Preparing for workout

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What if we told you there’s one movment you do on a daily basis that, when incorporated into your strength program, can help you take your strength and lifting abilities to the next level?

Meet the carry. Or, for training purposes, heavy carries.

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Unlike some strength training exercises cooked up specifically to build individual muscles, carries are such a standard, everyday movement you probably don’t even notice when you’re doing them. If you’re looking for a killer all-round workout move to work your whole body, however, there are few that can build all-around fitness and strength the way a heavy carry will.

The Perks of Constant Tension

In order to pull off the move, you have to contract your entire body — and keep it contracted — while you walk to cover the set distance or time. “[The heavy carry] definitely challenges the body to maintain an upright position,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Boston. “It’s basically just a massive isometric contraction for the entire body.”

It’s this constant muscle tension that helps you build greater strength. Sure, you’ll get muscle tension anytime you deadlift a heavy weight — but the effect only lasts as long as it takes for you to pick the weight up and set it down. When you carry a heavy load for an extended distance, your entire body has to maintain that tension with every step you take.

As you might imagine, it takes a ton of effort to sustain this muscle tension, so you’ll end up breathing pretty hard by the time you set the weights down. If your work capacity isn’t well-developed or you leak any of that muscle tension, you’ll either hunch over, sway from side-to-side, or drop the weights.

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Carrying All the Benefits

Another major benefit to doing heavy carries is for grip strength.

According to legendary strength coach Dan John, the ability to actually hold the bar is the number one obstacle most lifters face when they attempt to advance to heavier weights. If you’re chasing a PR, spending some time doing grip-centric exercises like heavy carries can help you push past your sticking point.

Research also shows that grip strength is a good predictor of longevity. One study even found the measure could be a better predictor of heart disease-related death than systolic blood pressure (the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart contracts).

Ready, Set, Carry

Just make sure you’re challenging yourself, once you master the form. When they say “heavy carries,” they mean heavy. For a farmer’s carry (see below), Gentilcore recommends aiming to haul roughly half your body weight, with an ultimate goal of shouldering your full body weight.

Two gym athletes doing Farmers Walk with kettlebells

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If you can’t carry the weight without hunching over or leaning to one side, check your ego and lighten your load. You’ll also want to make sure you’re not speed-walking your way through the set, as this means you’re not fully owning the movement — or reaping the full benefits.

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Gentilcore teaches clients to handle the weight by instructing them to take slow, controlled, heel-to-toe steps. “They learn very quickly that owning the movement is harder than they think,” he said. The slow walk can also be a great option for anyone without a ton of space to carry loads over long distances.

Carry On for More Gains

If you’re new to heavy carries, a good place to start would be to spend two to five minutes practicing one of the carries below. Pause and set the weight(s) down as needed, but try to keep your breaks short. Five minutes might not seem like a big deal, but you’ll probably change your mind once you give it a try.

Just make sure you wait until the end of your workout to do heavy carries so you don’t smoke your grip before your deadlifts, pull-ups, rows, or other grip-dependent moves.

Suitcase Carry

Lift a single heavy dumbbell or kettlebell and hold it down by your side. Engage your core and walk using controlled steps. Keep your shoulders level; don’t lean to your weighted side.

Farmer’s (Double) Carry

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This is the two-handed version of the suitcase carry. Lift two heavy dumbbells or kettlebells and hold them down by your sides. Engage your core and begin walking, making sure to keep your steps controlled. If you feel your back begin to round, or you can’t walk without swaying from side-to-side, choose lighter weights.

1-Arm Racked Carry

Clean a kettlebell or dumbbell into racked position at shoulder-height. Brace your core and begin walking. Press your thumb into your shoulder to keep the weight close.

BONUS: Cross-body Carry

Once you’ve gotten the hang of the other carries, try this more advanced variation. Clean a kettlebell or dumbbell into racked position, then lift another kettlebell. Press the racked weight overhead and hold the other weight down by your side.

Engage your core and begin walking. Keep the arm with the overhead weight close to you; don’t let it sway. How heavy you go with this move will depend on how much weight you can press and control overhead, so you may want to start lighter than you’re used to.

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