Farmer Carry Your Way to Better Posture, a Stronger Back and Killer Grip

The farmer carry (also called a loaded carry, farmer walk or suitcase carry) is one of the simplest yet least understood exercises in the gym. It’s something we do in real life all the time. We shlep grocery bags, suitcases, laptops and all sorts of crap all over the place. But how often do we think about our shoulders, scapulae or thoracic spines when we do? Bueller? Bueller? Thought so.

If you’ve ever traveled, gone to the grocery store or have kids you’ve done it (maybe correctly, maybe not). It’s a staple movement in my fitness program and for many of my clients who want better posture, a stronger posterior chain (i.e. back side of your body), solid grip and improved conditioning. But done incorrectly it can lead to back and shoulder injuries and reinforce poor movement patterns and posture. Let’s take a look at this exercise and review some basic cues and variations you may want to try.

Simply put, farmer carries = carrying weights a specified distance. When performing a farmer carry, I like to give clients this visual: pretend you are a hybrid of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Miss USA. “Puff your chest out” without letting your ribs or head jet out (i.e. neutral spine and pelvis) while depressing and drawing your shoulders back. Hold the weights out slightly so they don’t bump your sides and slightly externally rotate your shoulders. You want to feel the muscles of your lats ("armpits") and rhomboids ("between your shoulder blades") engage while keeping your pelvis and spine neutral (engage abs and glutes). Walk smoothly and slowly without stomping your feet and keeping your gate even. Focus on maintaining control (don’t let the weights wobble). Ever seen a debutant walk with a book on her head? Yeah, like that.

Very important, focus on your grip. Most folks will only use their thumbs and first two fingers to grip leaving their ring fingers and pinkies to go limp (like when an aristocrat drinks tea). Make sure all digits are firmly gripping the weights to avoid “claw fingers”. Ring finger and pinky need tp pull their fair share.

The weight you select should be dictated by your goal, current conditioning and distance. If on your own start light and gradually work your way up. In general you want to pick a weight that you can safely pick up and put down without rounding your lower back. You can also set up blocks so you don’t have to pick up or lower the weights all the way to the ground. In general, you want a weight that is heavy enough to challenge your grip. Your grip strengthens significantly slower than your muscles. For most folks, you will want a weight that is uncomfortable toward the end of the walk and that you may feel slipping. “Pump” or “burning” in the forearms is typical but listen to your body and start conservatively or ask for help from a trainer. Distance can be whatever is practical and safe. Try for 25 feet to start and go from there.

In addition to functionally improving your conditioning (it might look easy but you will find it oddly challenging and metabolic) I am a fan of farmer carries for folks who sit at a desk for a living. This movement can help correct the issues associated with poor desk and standing posture. Most folks who sit all day disengage their cores/glutes, round their shoulders/thoracic spines forward and chronically flex their wrists. The farmer carry is the intentional opposite of these things. When part of a balanced training program, those who use the farmer carry correctly and regularly can see improved posture (both in and out of the gym), reduced lower back pain (generally caused by compensations from chronic thoracic spine and hip flexion) and sweet looking backs and arms. Not to mention the gains in their grip! If you want to improve your deadlift, rows or pull ups farmer carries are your friend.

One thing to watch out for: if you tend to carry tension or chronic tightness if your upper traps or neck, start with lighter weight. Remember to engage your lats, rhomboids and mid/lower traps.

Check out the impeccable Marcia Robles performing a heavy farmer carry. (Continue reading below the video insert. Apologies, I misspelled "Farmer" in the video headline as "Fsrmer". I blame it on the fact that I had done farmer carries right before uploading and my fingers were SO SWOL!) 

Notice how she picks up and sets down the weights without rounding her back. See how she holds the weights out so they don’t touch her hips while keeping her pelvis neutral and shoulders back. Here she is demonstrating the basic farmer carry using two dumbbells of equal size. Other variations and progressions include kettlebells, offset (using just one weight or unequal weights) and overhead (both arms overhead or one down and and one up). Typically carries are performed on a flat surface but, depending on the person and their goals, can also be performed up and down stairs/hills or for longer distances.

Don’t have access to weights or a gym? No problem. The beauty of the carry is you can practice it using anything anywhere. Traveling? Use your suitcase. Shopping? Practice with your grocery bags. Playing with your kids? Carry their crap. Just think what would Miss Schwarzenegger do?

If you’re nervous or have questions feel free to reach out to me or ask a trainer at your gym.