There are tons of articles on neglected or forgotten muscles and movements, but IMO the king of neglected is the humble, simple, but not easy farmer’s carry. Holding weights in your hands and walking, what muscles do this work, and how does this improve me? Just because this exercise is not performed in front of a mirror and there is no muscle pump doesn’t mean squat.

The farmer’s carry exercise and its variations arguably have the most significant carryover from the gym to your activities of daily living. And if you ever find yourself hanging from a cliff, you’ll be thanking yourself for all the grip strength work you did. Because if you didn’t, well, let’s not get into that.

Here we’ll dive deep into the farmers’ carry and how you can program them into your training for maximum effectiveness.

What is the Farmer’s Carry?

No, it’s not something a farmer does. Well, they do, but it’s a movement you should be incorporating into your routine as well. The most commonly performed farmer’s carry is the dumbbell farmer’s carry. You pick up a pair of heavy dumbbells from the rack, grip tight at arm’s length, stand up straight and walk in a straight line for 20 to 100 yards and try not to drop them.

What muscles does the farmer’s carry work? Glad you asked…


Muscles Trained With The Farmer’s Carry Exercise

Many carry variations train similar muscles but depending on which variation, you might be focusing on the upper back or focusing shoulder strength more. But dumbbell carries train these upper and lower body muscles for the most part.

Upper body

  • Forearms: Any time you use your grip, your forearm is working overtime to hold on and to keep your wrists neutral.
  • Upper back: To keep your shoulders down and chest up, and spine straight, your upper back is working overtime to make this happen.
  • Rotator cuff: The rotator cuff is trained whenever you grip something. The rotator cuff works hard to keep your shoulder joint vertical and not be pulled out of its socket.
  • Shoulders: The shoulders and the rotator cuff work together to give your shoulder the stability it needs to carry heavy dumbbells.

Lower body

  • Core: The anterior and posterior core work hard to keep the spine neutral while carrying heavy dumbbells.
  • Glutes: For every weighted step, the glutes keep you upright and move you forward through this little thing called hip extension.

How to do the Dumbbell Farmer’s Carry

  1. Select a weight between 25% and 50% of your body weight in each hand.
  2. Grip tight and hold the dumbbells by your sides and at arm’s length.
  3. Get your shoulders down and chest up for good posture.
  4. Walk carefully, paying attention to your gait for 40-100 yards.
  5. The weight is too heavy if you cannot get 40 yards. If you feel nothing, the weight is too light.
  6. Place the dumbbells back on the rack (or carefully on the floor) when you’re done.

Farmer’s Carry Exercise Benefits

It doesn’t seem like picking up weights and walking with them would have many benefits, but it does. Here are just a few of the essential benefits of performing carries.

  • Better Posture: Think of all carry variations as a moving standing plank. Carrying weights in your hands with poor posture will be uncomfortable, look silly, and put you at more risk of injury.
  • Improved Breathing: Breathing into your chest when you’re lugging around heavy weights is more challenging than you think. Deep belly breathing is a better way to breathe, and carrying reinforces this pattern.
  • Better Shoulder Stability: The rotator cuffs and your deltoids are working to keep your shoulder socket in place, with a couple of heavy dumbbells trying to pull them out. Both muscles work isometrically, and when carrying for a distance, the extra time under tension doesn’t go unnoticed by your shoulders.
  • Open Tight Pickle Jars: Grip strength is essential in and out of the gym. Most pulling exercises require a considerable grip component. If you cannot grip it, you cannot rip it. Suppose you want to open a pickle jar, hang on for dear life or rip a phone book; grip strength is your best friend. Plus, a firm grip helps you live longer.
  • Improved Mental Toughness: With your grip failing, muscles burning and lungs gasping for air when performing carries, there is that little voice in your head telling you to quit. Every time you ignore that voice and keep going, it makes you stronger and mentally tougher because you have withstood the pain and not quit. And this has a huge carryover into everything life-related.

Farmer’s Carry Form Tips

Just think of carries as a loaded standing on your two feet plank. You can do carries with crappy form, but it’s better and safer for you if you don’t. To get all the benefits listed above, it’s best to do every carry variation with good posture.

If you are new to performing carries, start with 25% of your body weight in each hand and go for at least 40 yards each time. If you cannot do 40 yards or if it is a walk in the park, go up or down in weight from there. Try to walk at your usual pace, and take your time. Hurrying with the load may cause you to drop the weights or lose your balance.

Neither of them is good.

Although increasing your load is always the name of this game, it pays to vary your load, dumbbell position (more on this later), and distance for variety’s sake or depending on your goals. If fat loss or improved cardiovascular conditioning is a goal, reducing the weight and rest periods between sets and increasing distance works well.

When your goal is absolute strength, increasing the load, decreasing walking distance, and increasing your rest period are excellent places to start. Building muscle lies somewhere between those two. Experiment to see what works best (or worst) for you.

Programming Suggestions

The world is your oyster when it comes to programming carries into your routine. It can be put in your warm-up or core circuit, or you can put it in your strength training routine. Pairing carries with any press variation, or any exercise that doesn’t tax your grip and doesn’t take away anything from that exercise works well.

  • 1A. Bench press
  • 1B. Farmer’s carry 40 yards

Or include it in a core circuit before your training as part of your warm-up or after your workout to improve your core strength when you are tired

  • 1A. Ab rollout 6 reps
  • 1B. Dumbbell farmer’s carry 40 yards
  • 1C. Side plank 30 seconds on each side

Farmer Carry Circuit

Save this circuit for the end of your training when you’re looking for extra bicep work. Do this tri-set twice weekly for guns of steel and Popeye forearms.

  • 1A. Zottman curl 12-15 reps
  • 1B. Barbell wrist curls 15 reps
  • 1C. Dumbbell farmer’s carry 40 yards

Repeat this circuit three times with minimal rest in between exercises.

Conditioning Finisher

Note: Start with 25% of your body weight in each hand.

Nothing fancy here. Use the dumbbell two-handed carry variation, walk for 40 yards, and place the weight down. Rest for 30 seconds and repeat. Keep repeating until you can no longer walk for 40 yards before losing your grip. Record the number of rounds and try to beat it next time.

4 Dumbbell Farmer’s Carry Exercise Variations

The two-handed carry is excellent, but to progress and prevent training boredom, here are four dumbbells carry variations to increase your awesomeness. Except for holding dumbbells by your side, there are three other positions to hold a dumbbell in. Goblet, rack, and overhead, and each one is progressively more difficult.

Why? Because each position is further away from the muscles, it’s working; your legs and core and the dumbbells are harder to hold in each position, which only adds to your enjoyment.