Monday 24 March 2014

The Magic of Loaded Carries

When it comes to training, I'm always looking for ways to get the best possible results and to maximize training efficiency. With this objective in mind, I have come to embrace a simple yet very powerful group of movements known as loaded carries. If you are not currently adding some form of loaded carry to your training, you are missing out big-time! Here is why this movement is important.

What is a loaded carry?
Coach Dan John doing loaded carries:
sled pulls while carrying a backpack
and doing it in the snow -
now that is hard core!
I first learned the term loaded carry from veteran strength coach Dan John. While he did not invent them, Coach John's work including his excellent 3-part DVD entitled Everything's Over My Head has helped many people realize the importance of this movement. "Loaded carry" refers to the natural human gait pattern with an additional load that is held, pushed or pulled. You can also do combined movements were you carry weight in your hands while pulling a sled with a harness. Before manual labor saving devices were invented, loaded carries were done as part of everyday life (e.g. carrying a pail of water in each hand from the well back to the house). Manual labor such as this helped build incredible strength and work capacity. In today's cushy, sedentary society, we have lost the opportunity to naturally do this movement, so it is wise to add it back in. 

15 Benefits of Loaded Carries

Real-life strength & work capacity
Walking with load is true functional training and a great way to help make sure that you notice the effects of your training in your sport or real life. It is also great for developing work capacity. This is especially helpful for sedentary beginners as they often have limited work capacity which hinders the amount of effective training they can do.

Real "core" stability
For the last few decades the word "core" has become one of the most popular words in the fitness industry. However, most "core" exercises (e.g. sit-up and crunch variations) work the core in the exact opposite way to how it is supposed to work in real life. The purpose of the core muscles is to resist movement in the trunk. This reduces your risk of low back injury and allows the power you generate from your shoulders or hips to be transferred through your trunk without unwanted energy leaks (i.e. some of the power is lost in the unwanted movement of your spine that could be spent moving your body or another object/person). Many loaded carry variations require tremendous stability of the spine from the core muscles. They also teach the core to stabilize while the legs are moving - which as mentioned in the previous point is very important for real-life strength.

Good different
These days gyms are full of clients and athletes demanding their trainers give them something new and different. What many fail to realize is that most "new" exercises are either not new (i.e. simply forgotten and then "re-discovered") or totally inferior to old-school exercises. Loaded carries are not new, but they are very effective and a fresh change for many as most people have missed out on them.

Time efficiency
The single most important thing for time-efficient training is selecting the right exercises. Loaded carries offer a huge benefit for every set you do. Take the farmer's walk as an example. It works the traps, upper back, core, grip and legs. Thus in doing this one exercise, you save the time of doing 5 different exercises.

Easy to learn
While I love barbells, a huge downside to barbell training is that it takes time and coaching to learn how to do the exercises safely and effectively. While this time is well worth it, it can be frustrating and can often leave you feeling like you are not really training. Most loaded carry drills are very easy to learn with just a few simple coaching points. As a result, you can move quickly into hard training. Note: the down side of this is that because skill is not a limiter, you must be careful not to do too much too soon and get injured or over-do it.

Because of the low technical requirements of many loaded carry variations (especially sleds), you can train hard with a lower risk of injury than and you can with higher-skilled exercises.

Huge range of loading options
Because you have so much variability for loading, almost anyone can use loaded carries. Exercises like farmer's walks can be done with light dumbbells for beginners, or loaded up with heavy implements for advanced athletes.

Easy to progress
One of the challenges with many forms of training (especially conditioning work) is the ability to progress your training. With loaded carries, it is easy to progress by just adding a little weight. Do this consistently and this can add up big-time in less time than you would think.

Sled pulling is a fantastic way to improve speed. Heavy sled pulls provide a special strength exercise that builds strength in the sprinting motion. Light sleds are great for acceleration training. Sleds also force you to lean forward and maintain a positive shin angle thus enforcing proper mechanics.

While I do not see loaded carries as a replacement for traditional resistance training exercises, sleds offer a unique opportunity for concentric-only training. This means you do the lifting part without doing the lowering or eccentric part. This allows a higher frequency of use as concentric-only work is easier to recover from. Also, those not trying to get sore (e.g. in-season athletes before a big game) concentric-only work is great because it is the eccentric (i.e. lowering) part of a movement that is one of the main causes of muscle soreness.

With lighter loads, longer lasting sets and shorter rest intervals, loaded carry drills can be very intense interval training. This type of training is fantastic for getting you into game shape. Also, because many drills such as sled pushing and pulling are so simple to do, you can train hard without worrying as much about sloppy technique as you fatigue.

Fat loss
The intense intervals used in loaded carry exercises are a fantastic, time-efficient way to strip off unwanted body fat. Not only do you burn a lot of calories during the training session, but you also produce a huge amount of EPOC and thus you burn extra fat and calories long after the training session is over. 

Shoulder stability
Traditionally many people trained shoulder stability with dynamic rotator cuff exercises. However, in functional movement, the rotator cuff muscles do not dynamically rotate the humerus into internal or external rotation. Their primary purpose is to reflexively contract to properly position and stabilize the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) in the shoulder socket. Doing exercises such as bottoms-up carries or waiter's walks are great ways to build shoulder stability.

Mental toughness
Intense exercises such as heavy sled pushing can be quite a challenge. This allows you not only to build a strong body, but a strong mind. For athletes, hard training makes games easier and gives you the mental edge over the competition knowing that you have already out-worked your opponent.

Tons of variations
The endless options with loaded carries allows a variety of different people with different goals to find an appropriate loaded carry variation for them.

Loaded carries are a fantastic movement that with the right variation can be a game-changer in your training programs. Don't miss out on the magic of loaded carries. For more information on specific loaded carry variations, check out my growing of loaded carry variations on YouTube channel's loaded carries playlist by clicking HERE.


  1. Since this is a concentric only exercise, can this be done almost daily ?

    1. Great question Scott. Some variations like sled pulls can be done quite frequently. However, depending on your strength levels, you could still run into issues if you are too frequent. For example, the bottoms of your feet are rubbed quite hard with heavy sled pulls. Make sure you frequency does not cause pain and allows you to recover to still make progress.

  2. How long and frequent should one be doing this to increase hypertrophy? If I work out three times a week?( diet, rest and good form are in check)

    1. Traditional lifting is still the best for hypertrophy, but loaded carries can be a good addition. For size vs. just pure strength, you want to increase volume. This can be increasing the duration of your sets (e.g. 30-60 seconds vs. 10 seconds) and/or the number of sets (e.g. 4-6 sets vs. 3 sets). If you are training 3x per week, you could add some loaded carry variation in each day, but you may want to vary the type. For example you could do heavier farmer's walks one day, Goblet carries another day and then sled pulling the third day. Thanks for reading Scott - all the best with your training!

  3. Hi Andrew,

    I mostly do kettlebell swings and carries. I was thinking of adding heavy sandbag carries as well.

    1. Great option JoeD! Let me know you it goes.

  4. I guess my question is whether I should really load up on the weight for shorter distances or instead go lighter for longer distance.

    1. That's the beauty of this. You can do either. You can go short and heavy for strength, longer and lighter for endurance or a mix of both. Enjoy!

  5. I will! And I'm working towards the 10,000 swing challenge wit 24kg too. By the way, the "new" gym looks great. It's changed a lot since I graduated in 2003!

    1. Cool! All the best with your goals JoeD! Yes, the new weight room is great!