Monday 25 May 2015

The Best Alternative to Farmers Walks

As soon as I start talking about how great farmers walks are, I inevitably get asked, “What if I can’t do farmer’s walks?” It’s an excellent question, but I hate it for 2 reasons: 1) It takes every ounce of self-control to avoid blurting out, “there is no alternative – just find a way to do them!” 2) The farmer’s walk is truly a unique exercise that offers many benefits that no other single exercise can duplicate. However, if you can’t do farmer’s walks because of an injury, equipment limitations or space restrictions, here is the best alternative.
My son getting ready for a big set of farmer's walks while rocking his Thomas the Train PJ's

To find your best alternative to farmer’s walk, you have to ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I'm trying to get out of farmer’s walks?” Then, you can select the best option(s) for you based on your needs, abilities and goals.

Why farmer’s walks rock!
To begin finding the best alternative, you have to fully appreciate why this is such an amazing exercise. Farmer’s walks trains your grip strength, traps, upper back, core and legs. It can build brute strength that transfers over to every-day life. You can also use them to burn fat, build work capacity and improve your conditioning. This is why I personally use farmer’s walks and why I give them to my clients and athletes. Farmer’s walks are truly a time-efficient, big-bang exercise! 

How to get some of the Farmer’s Walk benefits from other exercises
While you will not get every benefit of a farmer’s walk from any other single exercise, here are some alternatives that can help with certain aspects that the farmer’s walk targets. 

  • Some of these exercises will fall into more than one category of benefits
  • Click on the name of the exercise to see an instructional video of how to do the movement

Real-life strength
Few things are more functional than picking up and carrying a lot of weight. Supporting heavy weight in a natural gait pattern builds real “core” or “functional” strength. 

While you won’t get any grip work here, this exercise is fantastic for building your core, upper back and legs. Ideally take the bar from the rack, but you could power clean the bar up if no rack is available.

This is very similar to front squat walk, but it will work the upper back and core even harder. While there is some elbow discomfort, it is a very effective loaded carry variation. Ideally take the bar from the rack, but you can get it into position with this technique.

If you have a safety squat bar, this can be used for a great loaded carry. This will tax the legs and core similar to the front squat, but is more comfortable on the shoulders and wrists.

This has a very similar feel to the Zercher carry. If you have two heavy kettlebells and can safely clean them into position, you are set.
If you don’t have kettlebells, this is the dumbbell version. The down side is that many gyms don’t have big enough dumbbells and it is not that comfortable on your wrists.

You can really load this one up, but be careful. You won’t get the same upper back or core activation as you do with the Zercher carry and there is more direct spinal compression. 

Note: all of these walking barbell variations means you will be moving with a 7-foot long bar – be sure you have the space to do this safely without bumping into someone or something.

High Pulls
Both snatch-grip high pull and clean-grip high pulls are great trap builders. They do require some skill and some time to learn the movements. Also, if you have shoulder problems, they may aggravate them so you may need to leave these. 

Shrugs are a classic trap builder. One of the best variations is the trap bar shrug. However you don't have access to a trap bar, you can do barbell shrug or a dumbbell shrug. Note: do not roll your shoulder on this. Keep chest up, chin and just go straight up and down.

Upper Back & Abs
This is a fantastic exercise I learned from Josh Bryant. While it lacks the gait pattern, it gets you supporting a lot of weight and makes you really strong. Just walk out a heavy weight and hold it while you keep your chest up and abs tight. Note: keep the safety rods of the power rack high in case you need to drop the weight.

Note: many of the previously-given exercises are also fantastic for building the upper back and hitting the core. These include: front squat walk, Zercher carry, double kettlebell racked carry and goblet squat walk.

Fat Loss & Conditioning
If you are training for pure strength, keep your sets to around 10 seconds. If you are training for fat loss or conditioning, just lighten the weight and increase the time to around 20-30 seconds. You can do some 1-2 minute sets, but not that often as they are hard to recovery from if you are really training hard. Many of the exercises mentioned else-where in this post are great for fat loss and conditioning. Just be careful as some will be more technically-demanding than others. Fatigue and high-skilled exercises are a bad mix and increase your risk of injury. 

Sled pushing and pulling exercises are still some of my absolute favourite loaded carry variations for fat loss or conditioning. They are brutal on your muscles and your cardiovascular system while being easy on your joints. They are fast to learn and your technique will hold up better on these than most exercises. 

Sprints & Hill Sprints
These are also fantastic for fat loss and conditioning and require no specialized equipment.

Grip Strength
Farmer’s walks are amazing for building supporting grip strength. If you want to build a rock-solid grip, and can’t do them, here are some other solid alternatives.

If you are doing farmer’s walks for grip strength, you can make dumbbells very challenging for your grip strength by adding Fat Gripz - The Ultimate Arm Builder to a pair of dumbbells.
Dumbbells with Fat Gripz attached
Dynamic & Isometric Gripper
If you have a heavy-duty gripper, you can use this dynamically to build crushing grip strength or do static holds to build supporting grip strength. My favourite gripper is the Ivanko Super Gripper as it allows you to quickly adjust tension from 45lbs to 345lbs.

Hanging from a chin-up bar is great for grip strength. Just be sure you have good t-spine mobility and healthy shoulders. This also offers the benefits of spinal decompression.

This is fast and simple to set-up and you can go really heavy – just be careful.

While this takes more time to set-up, this gives you the feel of a stationary farmer’s walk.

How long do you hold?
For all these exercises adjust hold times for your desired goal. For pure strength, hold for 10 seconds or less. If you want endurance, hold longer as desired.

Farmer’s Walks without Farmer’s Walk Bars
Just because you don’t have official farmer’s walk bars does not mean that you cannot do farmer’s walk where you train. Here are some possible alternatives:

This is a great way to start farmer’s walks. Dumbbells work okay, but have two major disadvantages: 1) most gyms don’t have heavy enough dumbbells (a problem down the road) and 2) they are awkward as your legs will bump the dumbbells as you walk.

Unless you are using competition bells, you will find the thicker handles of most kettlebells excellent to provide a solid grip challenge. Also, the shape of the bell results in less interference with your legs than you get with dumbbells. Like dumbbells the down-side is the availability of heavy enough kettlebells as you get stronger. 

Trap bars are becoming more common in gyms. If your gym has one, take advantage of it for farmer’s walks. While the solid bar gives a different feel than 2 separate handles, it is a great way to do farmer’s walks and allows you to load it up quite heavy. Also, loading up one bar instead of two will be more time-efficient. While narrower than a 7-foot Olympic bar, this is still rather wide so make sure you have enough space.

If you have access to 2 trap bars, they make excellent farmer’s walk handles. We used these with our athletes for years before getting actual farmer’s walk handles. These also offer the benefit of a higher starting height which saves your energy for the actual walking part. Also, with this variation, you will be able to load it as heavy as you would ever want to go. Just be careful putting them down that you don’t get your feet.

Wheel Barrow Walks
This is just what it sounds like. Take a wheel barrow and load it up with some heavy stuff (e.g. bricks) and go for a walk. (Thanks to my fellow Spartan Strength Coach Adrienne for suggesting this one).

My Question to You
Now, that I have struggled through trying to answer this difficult question, let me ask YOU a question: 
Have you truly exhausted all your options?

Ways to actually do farmer’s walks:
Ask your gym to get a pair of handles
The customer is always right!

Ask your gym to get a trap bar
This is a very useful bar that makes deadlifts easier on the low back. It is solid deadlift option for many athletes and every-day folks who are not planning on competing in powerlifting. As mentioned above it also works great for farmer’s walks.

Find a new gym
Find a better gym that is more suited to your training needs

Buy a trap bar
A trap bar is a great investment for deadlifts, bent-over rows and farmer’s walks. Also, you can get one for about $120 on Amazon: CAP Barbell Olympic 2-Inch Combo Hex Bar

Buy farmer’s walk handles
Save up and buy yourself a pair of handles. They run about $200-300 on Amazon. Be sure to get ones with collars. Also some have knurling and some don’t. I actually prefer the non-knurling as it seems to shred the hands less. Here is one option: CFF Strongman Farmer Walk Handles - Pair

Do a strongman day (e.g. Saturday)
If your gym does not have room for farmer’s walks, a great alternative is to have a strongman day. This is great for a Saturday and a fun way to finish off your training week. If you buy a trap bar or farmer’s walk handles, then you can find some used plates on Craig’s list and you are set to go. You can also add other items such as a weighted sled.

Farmer’s walks are an amazing, irreplaceable exercise. However, if you can’t do them because of equipment availability, space restrictions or injuries, you now have some great options.

Have you tried farmer's walks? What about these variations? I welcome you to share your loaded carry training experiences with us below.


  1. how about the Farmer's Walk without the actual walking? Instead of the actual walk, you could do a stationary high knee type of movement. This might be the alternative some individuals require. Lack of space

    1. Steve, yes, that's a good one! Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing that suggestion!

  2. This stuff is so overlooked man, thanks for putting this information out there! If you do a combination of these movements over time, your upper back and traps will practically be bulletproof!

    1. Well said Lonzo - thanks for reading and for your comment.

  3. Doug Brignole says that Farmers Walk so nothing but spinal compression ...

  4. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Yes, there are folks who hold this view on farmer's walks and I respect their opinion. If you are concerned about spinal compression, then feel free to avoid exercises that place compression on the spine. However, it is important to note that where you place the load will impact the level of compression. For example, in a back squat, the bar is placed on the spine and thus you get more spinal compression. If you move to a front squat or zercher squat, you don't need as much weight and the anterior bar placement reduces direct compression on your spine. With farmer's walks and deadlifts, you are holding the weight in your hands. There is spinal compression, but not to the same extent as a back squat. I have personally done half squats with 500lbs and done farmers' walks with 600lbs. I felt way less compression with farmer's walks than I did with the squats. Farmer's walks offer a host of benefits which I've outlined here:

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