The most effective exercises serve several purposes: They make the body stronger and more resilient, help you to live longer, make you look and perform better, and even make you feel better.
To that end, exercise should move your body in ways that are natural. In most cases, it should be functional, meaning that the exercise mimics movements that you perform in non-exercise contexts.
Farmer’s carries — also commonly known as farmer’s walks — are one such exercise. They mimic one of the most common challenging physical tasks people have to perform: carrying heavy objects.
How to Perform a Farmer’s Carry
There are actually several farmer’s carry variants, but we’ll start with the basic two-handed carry using matched dumbbells.
You’ll start by placing the dumbbells on the floor, oriented front to back and a couple of feet apart so that you can stand between them. Crouch down, grasp the dumbbells, and stand up, making sure to keep your torso upright the whole time. This part should resemble a deadlift, but with the weights hanging at your side instead of in front of you.
Once you're ready, walk in a straight line across the room, keeping your torso upright, your head level, and the weights held at your side. Aim to minimize side-to-side swaying or tilting, despite the weights trying to pull you off balance. If you can imagine how runway models walk, it’s almost like that, except that you want to refrain from swaying your hips, since that would likely result in the weights smacking into your hips.
Note that you may need to flare your arms outward slightly to prevent the dumbbells from hitting your hips or thighs. In that respect, it’s also somewhat similar to carrying grocery bags.
How to "Count" Your Farmer's Carries
Once you reach the end of the room or the distance you've mapped out to cover, turn around and walk back. There are two ways that you can “count” farmer’s carries: for time or for reps. If you go by time, use a stopwatch to time how long you carry the weights for in total. If you go by reps, each time you cross the room (or however much space you have) is one rep, with 30-50 feet being a good amount of distance.
While it's entirely possible to perform farmer’s carries with kettlebells, I recommend against this for most people. It’s common for the weights to bump against you while performing carries. With dumbbells, this means they’ll bump against your hips or thighs. Because kettlebells hang lower, they may bump against the sides of your knees. As a safety measure, you should stick to dumbbells as much as possible.
The Benefits of Farmer’s Carries
Farmer’s carries are an effective full-body strength-endurance exercise that mimics the act of carrying a pair of heavy weights at your sides, similar to how you carry grocery bags.
The farmer’s walk works much of the body, including the back, biceps, hips, and legs. The initial part of the exercise — where you pick up the weights — also works similarly to a dumbbell deadlift (albeit at a low weight and for one rep only), working the hamstrings and lower back.
However, the benefits go far beyond the sheer amount of force exerted and the muscles used. The farmer's carry's tendency to mimic natural movements maximizes carryover to real-life activities, from carrying objects to picking things up, hiking with a heavy backpack on, and even just normal moving around. (This may seem insignificant now, but it becomes vitally important as you get older.)
Unlike most resistance exercises, farmer’s carries do force your body to move asymmetrically, despite seeming like a symmetrical exercise overall. At any individual point in the exercise, your body is in an asymmetrical position, as one leg is stepping forward while the other is holding your weight up, and your torso is always swaying side to side, just as it does while you’re walking.
This allows farmer’s carries to take advantage of a phenomenon called bilateral deficit, which explains how neurological strength is maximized when you utilize one side of your body at a time. Because most natural movements are not entirely symmetrical — unlike most gym exercises — your neuromuscular system functions more effectively and your muscles can output more force when you're performing asymmetrical movements.
Farmer’s Carry Variants
The basic farmer’s carry involves two identical dumbbells carried at your sides, but there are several other ways to perform a farmer’s carry.
1. Unilateral Farmer's Carry
First, you can hold only a single heavier dumbbell in one hand. This is more challenging for your torso — and the arm holding the dumbbell, of course — as you need to work harder to stay upright and avoid tilting or leaning to one side.
2. Mismatched Farmer's Carry
In a mismatched farmer’s carry, you're using two dumbbells of unequal weight. This exercise is effectively a halfway point between the basic and unilateral farmer’s carries.
With either of these, it is important that you provide equal stimulus to both sides of your body by doing an equal amount of time and/or reps on both sides. Don't try to do more volume on your weaker side, because you may well be stronger on the left side for some muscles and stronger on the right for other muscles. It’s best to provide equal growth stimulus to both sides and let your musculature even out more gradually.
3. Goblet Farmer's Carry
Finally, you can perform a goblet farmer’s carry, with a single weight held in front of your chest, as in a goblet squat. In this case, the challenge will be to avoid leaning forward, and the triceps will be engaged in holding the weight up. Unlike other carry variants, this one can be safely performed with a kettlebell.
How Much Weight Should You Use for Farmer’s Carries?
There are two distinct goals that you can have with farmer’s carries, and each calls for different weights.
Goal 1: Build Strength and Muscle Mass
Choose a weight that you can carry for 30-60 seconds, putting this toward the low-weight end of strength and hypertrophy training.
Goal 2: Get Spartan Race- and Obstacle-Ready
If you're training primarily for a Spartan race and the weight-carrying obstacles involved, you’ll want to build more endurance as opposed to maximal strength. In this case, you should pick a weight that you can carry for 2-3 minutes.
For either goal, don’t train to failure, as you don’t want to risk dropping the weight. Instead, continue all farmer's carries until you can feel your grip (or whichever muscle feels like it will give out first) starting to significantly weaken.