Why You Should Be Training Farmers Walks & Carries

 

By Tammy Kovaluk, MTI Contributor

Providing total body strength and conditioning, the farmers walk (farmer carry) maybe one of the most useful exercises out there. The farmer carry is efficient and effective, with multiple benefit. It challenges the whole musculoskeletal system as a unit in terms of strength, stability, and physiological demands, requiring a very strong grip and dynamic core stability along with “forceful triple extension of the ankle, knee and hip in the lifting and walking phase” (12).  

The historically underappreciated farmers walk is now receiving the recognition it deserves amongst strength and conditioning professionals and rehabilitative practitioners. For example, farmers walks are being used for both shoulder injury prevention and return to sport, especially amongst throwing athletes. Farmer walks also enhance overall strength and improved posture, balance and stability – all of which also improves performance for sport and life, while reducing risk of injury. 

Although there are many additional benefits that other strength coaches and trainers may include, from claims of decreasing fat and getting jacked to improving V02 max…I narrowed down some of the many benefits to my “Top 5” as related to performance in the real world and backed by research, with a training approach for maximal performance.  

For anyone who have performed farmer walks, some of these listed benefits may be obvious. Some may not be. Following these “top 5,” are some assessment and programming examples.

Top 5 Benefits of Farmer Walks

(1) Posture

Farmer carries reinforce correct posture, translating to both better performance and reduced risk of injury. They strengthen your posterior chain, helping to offset what we commonly see as slumped shoulders and a rounded spine. Bill Hartman, a prominent physical therapist, has pointed out that heavy farmers walks facilitate pulling down the rig cage while bracing through the midsection, improving diaphragmic position and correcting spinal dysfunction (8). 

Much of the postural correction is due to dynamic core strength and stability. 

(2) Dynamic Core Strength and Stability

A brief review of the core: The core encompasses your entire back, abdominal wall muscles, and glutes (3). It also includes your latissimus dorsi and psoas muscles, linking your core to the pelvis, legs, shoulders, and arms (3,9). You can essentially think of the core as everything aside from your limbs.

It is often said that every action, each step we take is initiated from the core. That power comes from the core. When good technique is used during running or daily tasks, power is generated through the hips and is transmitted through a stiffened or “braced” core (3). Core bracing and dynamic stability is key in both athletic movements and in life, and essential in both strength and conditioning and rehabilitative settings (9). During essentially any sport movement, athletes are required to “maintain dynamic core stability while performing the necessary skill” (9,12).

Unlike your limb muscles, your core muscles co-contract, stiffening your torso so all muscles become synergists in your athletic movements and daily life activities (3). This is important, as this is the reason why training your core needs to be done differently than your limbs to be the most effective (3). 

Farmer carries develop a strong core brace, with the muscles working together to create spinal stabilization, often called “core bracing,” ensuring the spine remains neutral and protects against both shear and compressive forces (2,6). Farmer walks reinforce dynamic core stability, as you must move with load while maintaining a braced core, making this a more transferable exercise to movement in the real world (2,6). 

Farmers walks have also been found to have greater activation of the abdominal muscles as compared to other exercises, with peak erector spinae muscles being engaged during the lift portion (6,12). According to renown back expert, Stuart McGill, both double farmers walks and single arms farmers walks assist athletes in strengthening and training the torso to brace, supporting the hips, pelvis, and creating stability in the spine (6,12). This is important for posture (previously mentioned), enhanced force production and efficiency, as well as injury resilience (6,12).

(3) Injury Resilience

Sport performance and injury resilience go hand in hand, in my opinion. For similar reasons to above (posture and dynamic core bracing), farmer walks have been strongly correlated to injury resilience – especially for the spine and shoulder muscles. 

As mentioned above, farmers walks create stability in the spine, protecting it. One could argue that a stable spine can reduce risk of injury in virtually all areas of the body as everything is connected. If your core cannot sufficiently brace, for example, your knees, hips, or other body parts may take the brunt of the forces, leading to increased risk of injury. 

Farmer walks are also important for shoulder health. Charlie Weingroff, renowned physical therapist, for example, incorporates heavy loaded farmers walks to improve shoulder function (8). They effectively set the shoulder blades into a stable position and stimulate a PNF response in activating the rotator cuff muscles (8). The result? A stronger, more stable, shoulder (8). This is vital, as most shoulder injuries are due to a deficiency in scapular positioning, leading to shoulder instability. Performed correctly, farmer walks (and other carries) reinforce correct positioning and stabilize the shoulder.

In throwing athletes, I have seen farmer walks being implemented more recently by practitioners, rather than focusing on isolated exercises, such as “the thrower’s ten” routine. Besides reducing risk of injury, farmer walks provide a more efficient and effective means of training with a greater transference onto the field. Anecdotally, I have had great success incorporating a few minutes of farmers walks and other carries for years amongst throwing athletes, rather than having them perform 30min of isolated rotator cuff exercises.

For anyone spending a lot of time overhead – holding a boat or a plank overhead, playing lacrosse, basketball, throwing sports, and swimmers for example – farmer carries are important as they also activate the thoracic muscles. This further helps to maintain proper scapulothoracic function, proper subacromial space, and increases shoulder stability (9). 

(4) Total Body strength and Conditioning, Including Grip Strength. 

Grip strength maybe obvious. What might not be obvious, is that grip strength has been extensively researched, with several authors recommending grip strength as a “useful indicator for overall health, a vital sign, and as a biomarker of health status (1). Grip strength has been consistently demonstrated as a measure of overall quality of life and body function. This includes upper limb function, bone mineral density, malnutrition, cognitive impairment and depression, sleep problems, future function such as susceptibility to fractures and falls, and even diabetes and risk of cardiovascular disease, with current research suggesting it maybe a more powerful predictor of cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure (1). Many authors are recommending a grip strength as a bio marker of aging, and as measure for identifying older adults at risk of poor health status (1). 

Grip strength and the benefits aside, farmers walk strengthens and conditions the entire body as a unit: From your neck muscles, traps and shoulders to your entire leg muscles.  There are few exercises out there that tax your entire body like the farmers walks. As mentioned, farmer walks work your entire body as a unit, transferring the benefits onto the field of sport and life.

(5) Toughness (Body and Mind) 

Farmer walks are not comfortable. They require willpower, focus, improving overall conditioning, work capacity, and tenacity (2,6). Performing either a farmers walk for one mile for time, or very heavy shorter walks certainly test one’s will and mental fortitude. 

Example: Ryan Hall, US recorder holder for the marathon, transformed himself from a 125# “skinny” recorder holding marathoner to a 200# strength athlete, with much attributed to farmer carries. Hall designed and completed a “chop wood, carry water” challenge to raise money for increasing water accessibility in Africa. This challenge included carrying 2 x 60# jugs filled with water for 6 + miles out of the Grand Canyon. Hall said the carries was by far the hardest thing he has ever done in his life. Period.

I have also incorporated farmers walks as a team building exercise, especially amongst football linesmen and tactical teams. Besides emphasizing teamwork and cohesiveness with a “team toughness” attitude, team farmers walks provide the added benefits of pushing tolerance and fatigue, often the difference maker in the 4th quarter or when saving a life.

How to 

“How to” is pretty straight forward. With proper form – back flat, chest up, braced core – deadlift two dumbbells, kettlebells, weight loaded buckets, or barbells, and walk. 

It is important to stay tall, maintaining an upright torse. Think “tall and strong.” Walk controlled and avoid any lateral bending of the spine, especially when performing single arm carries (9). Keep your steps shorter. When you want to move quickly, do faster shorter steps rather than big strides. This will keep you centered and balanced. Do not let the weight control you. You control the weight. 

Assessments

Assessments, as well as programming, are typically done for time and/or distance. The assessment should be replicable and reliable, matching your goals.  

Here are three examples. 

  1. Max distance, typically covered in 30 or 60 seconds and scored by distance (2,7).
  2. A single timed event of anything from 10 meters up to 40 meters, scored by time (7).
  3. “The Suck Bucket.” A strength-endurance, mental toughness assessment I have personally done in preps for the tactical inspired “Ultimate SUCK” event and other personal challenges. It is simple, not easy. 1 mile, carrying two buckets with recommended load of weight of 40-45# females/~60# males. Alternatively, this should be ~2/3 of your body weight. I fill the buckets with two homemade sandbags, but it can be rocks, weight plates, or anything available. Wrap the bucket handle with duct tape to help prevent it from breaking. If you do not control the weight, the buckets will beat your legs and cause nasty bruises. Arms must be straight (ie no bending at the elbow).

What is considered a good load? 

Assessments of “adequate strength” also varies widely. Within general athletic population, Tyler suggests: (10)

  • Farmers bars: “Good” = 1.25 x BW for 30sec and “Game changer” = 1.75 x BW for 30sec. 
  • Dumbbells: “Good” = 0.5 x BW per hand for 30sec and “Game changer” = 0.5 x BW for 60sec
Programming/Progressions

With a lack of scholarly articles on both assessments and programming for farmers carries, fitness professionals present the next best evidence (9). Here are some suggestions, based on personal experience and literature found within the world of strongman training. 

Strength-Endurance: 

For the suck bucket 1 mile time trial, using just over 40# in each bucket. 

  • I mixed in heavy short intervals, medium intervals, and longer sets with a lighter load. The result was 20:07 to finally breaking the 20min barrier, at 18:53, following a 6-week block of 2 weeks on followed by a 1-week de-load.
  • Example training week with recommended progressions for “suck bucket”

Day 1: 10 x 30sec heavy (50#+ KBs). Progression: Started with 8 sets, progressed to 12 sets. Then progressed load from 50 to 55#

Day 2: Random light carries (ie when coaching outside).

Day 3: Very heavy within strongman class, per what they dished out. Typically, 4-5 sets of progressively heavier carries until at max or close to max, for ~20 meters using farmers barbells. Lots of rest between reps of ~3min. Progression: Increasing load each class.

Day 4: 4 x 400m farmers carry with 40# – 400m run. Progression: increased to 4 rounds + 2 x 200m, then to 5 rounds

Day 5: Optional random carries, for approximately a mile as a finisher, or shorter sets within coaching. Used a very light weight, often a sledgehammer or splitting maul between chopping wood, for enhancing stabilizing muscles at the wrist, elbow, shoulder. 

For Maximal Strength:

Again, there is no one set protocol. And as all strength and conditioning considerations, programming is depending upon goals and training status. Training for the CPAT considerations is much different than training for strongman, or if you are building strength to bullet proof your body as a runner.

Unlike training for a strength-endurance event that would entail at least a mile of farmers walk several times, strongman competitors train the farmers carry much less. In a study by Winwood et al. surveying 167 strongman athletes, the majority reported training practice once per week (12). The majority covered 20-50 m with heavy loads as part of their working sets, typically 20 m, of heavy loads that were as heavy or heavier than in competition (12). A local highland games champion commented that he typically includes farmer walks 3-4 times per week, although once or twice is very light with an awkward object such as a Macebell, and only trained them very heavy once per week.

Keeping that in mind, some examples I found in terms of recommended loads and progressions: 

  • Example (by CPAT-New York City Fire Department Recruitment): Start by performing 4 x 50 feet with 2 x 50# kettlebells, working up to 6 reps. Once you are up to 6 reps, increase the weight. 
  • Butcher et al recommends 2 – 4 rounds for 10 – 20 s “with a weight that is challenging” (9. They did not provide recommended rest or progression examples.
  • Morjaria article: Build from a load that is ~75% of your body weight, in each hand, progressing to 125-150% of body weight (7). These load suggestions are using farmers barbells.
  • Brown article: “Most trainers suggest starting at 50% of body weight” (2). This article, however, did not mention the equipment used in this statement and needs to be considered. A farmers barbell is much different than a dumbbell, for example. You can withstand greater load on a farmers barbell than dumbbells and definitely from the often bruise-inducing buckets hitting your legs as you fatigue, as you need to stabilize these. The loads used with carrying dumbbells will typically be over 50% less than farmers bars. 
Some basic take home tips
  1. The actual training programming and progressions would vary greatly depending upon the athlete’s history, current status, and goals. I would not recommend the above “suck bucket” training assessment or program progression for a strongman athlete, for example. Nor for someone rehabilitating from an injury. But would recommend it for an athlete training for a strength-endurance feat, and for overall toughness training.
  1. What are your goals? Do you need to be able to successfully perform a litter carry for miles in a stressful environment? Or are you training for maximal strength over a short distance? If you are training for maximal strength, go short and heavy. You could start with 4 reps of 20m, progressing load to max, for example. Progress to 6 reps, then increase the weight.
  1. If you are new to farmers walks, start light for a couple of sessions to dial in proper form to make the carries beneficial and prevent injury. 
  1. As with all training, consistency is key.  

Farmers carries require focus, discipline, help to bullet proof your body, build toughness, and increase overall strength. Done right, just a few minutes of these can be a game changer in both sport and life performance.  

Tammy is a professional strength and conditioning coach currently coaching in Arizona as well as an accomplish endurance, obstacle race and fitness athlete. 

 


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References

  1. Bohannon, R. (2019). Grip strength: An indispensable biomarker for older adults: Clinical Interventions in Aging, 1(14): 1681-1691.
  2. Brown, S. (2021). Why every athlete should do farmer’s walk. Retrieved from https://www.stack.com/a/farmers-walks/
  3. Ghigiarelli et al (2013). Effects of Strongman Training on Salivary Testosterone Levels In a Sample of Trained Males. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(3), 738-747.
  4. Hansen. J. The farmers walk: How to do farmers carries. Retrieved from https://www.oldschoollabs.com/farmers-walk/
  5. Hartman, B. Corrective Carries: Farmer’s walks and suitcase carry. Retrieved from https://billhartmanpt.com/blog/
  6. McGill et al (2009). Comparison of Different Strongman Events: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research ,23(4), 1148-1161.
  7. Morjaria. C. Strongman series: The farmer’s walk. Retrieved from https://breakingmuscle.com/strongman-series-the-farmers-walk/
  8. Taber, B., The benefits of farmers walks and carrying exercises. Retrieved from  https://strongmadesimple.com/blog/2013/9/farmers-walks-and-loaded-carries-something-for-everyone
  9. Taylor, J., and Reed. M. (2020). Increase hip and trunk stability with loaded carries for injury prevention, rehabilitation, and performance. NSCA Coach, 7(3). 
  10. Tyler, J. (2020). Farmers carry strength standards for athletes. Retrieved from https://jacktylerperformance.com/farmers-carry-strength-standards/
  11. Weingroff, C. (2010). Training=Rehab, Rehab=Training (DVD). Aptos, CA, On Target Publications.
  12. Winwood, P., Keogh, J., and Harris, N. (2011). The strength and conditioning practices of strongman competitors. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(11), 3118-28. 

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