While grip on one hand (pun intended) and abs on the other are the easiest ways to build strength—as stated by Pavel himself—carries are not talked about much as a strength-building tool. And carries are hardly ever a staple in a group or individual training programming, despite the fact that kettlebell carries (and all carries in general) provide several advantages for both training settings.
It is worthwhile to consider the idea of adding carries to your repertoire.
Although this idea does not follow addition by subtraction, it does follow the principle of specialized variety—or as chief Brett Jones calls it “spice to the main dish.” Options are multitude, application is simple. Let us carry on, shall we?
Why Kettlebell Carries? The Physical Advantages
Let us start with the end in mind—we want to be strong(er). Our Chairman’s answer to the question, “What is the easiest way to get stronger overall?” cuts to the chase—ab work and grip work.
Carrying one or two kettlebells of a certain weight for a certain amount of time or distance can increase grip strength. Your hand has to clinch like a clamp, your forearm and upper arm tighten up like a steel cable, your shoulder has to stabilize, your lats fire from broadening your back, and your traps have to hold that eccentric load.
Also, as you walk around with iron held in one or both hands, you learn to stabilize your gait. Your balance and stability are challenged as you move. The weight has you counteract and even out the transverse/rotational forces as you move around the gym, park, or neighborhood. Greater core stability is the result, and better posture follows.
Dr. Stuart McGill, for instance, found that asymmetric carries challenge the quadratus lumborum and abdominal wall. In turn, a rigid core helps to transmit hip power through the entire body, which is needed when we perform athletic feats such as executing a quick change of direction or carrying a heavy load. As such, a strong and stiff core strengthens the body for any physical performance.
Although carries could be done just to train grip or core stability, carries of different sorts will ultimately help with presses and contribute to better/longer grip for heavy swings and snatches, adding to the WTH-effect of kettlebell training.
Additionally, there is this thing often referred to as “work capacity.” Depending on the weight used and the distance covered, work capacity with carries can be defined as mostly alactic and/or glycolytic in nature—unless you go light and decide to walk a mile (then it would become mostly aerobic). A more general term you could employ for what you stand to gain from carries is “general endurance” or “potential productivity,” as explained by the chairman.
In this perspective, carries could also be a great, simple way to gauge progress in work capacity. Can or can you not carry X amount of weight in this specific manner for a given distance (or time)?
Furthermore, it is useful to note that carries can be great exercises not only to perform (as an athlete) but also for assessment (as a coach). Waiter walks (a one-sided overhead carry) done with a light weight are a great way to quickly gauge overhead mobility and stability in your students. A suitcase carry will help you look for bilateral differences.
Although these carries by themselves do not necessarily tell you the underlying cause of issues, they offer you an entry point to have students deal with problems preemptively and proactively. This is something that can make a difference over time for a student or athlete and their training longevity. All in all, a great topic in and of itself, but far beyond the scope of this article.
Applying Kettlebell Carries as a Practice
Kettlebell carries are low skill and easy to learn, with very little teaching required. Pick it up, hold on for dear life, and off you go! That is usually how it goes.
In other words, technique is not a limiting factor to the potential productivity. Therefore, carries can be easily implemented in a group setting. Whether you are coaching novices, more advanced students, or a mix of both, the challenge and purpose of the drill can remain the same while the weight used is adjusted.
When you start implementing carries with your students, the purpose of the exercise must be clearly determined. For this, it is important to first decide the training goal. Do you work extra on grip for a month? Or would you like to train grip on one session and focus more on core the next? The answers to these questions will determine the course of your programming.
At STRENGTH & Company, we have had success implementing a wide array of carries once or twice a week at the end of our kettlebell classes, as there is no specific need to do it more often. Besides the ease of implementation and short learning curve, carries also offer a way to incorporate specialized variety and keep things fun.
People tend to perceive these drills as challenges or feats of strength. This keeps the conclusion of each class more animated and ending on a high note. It also helps the students broaden their own idea or definition of themselves as “being strong.” Therefore, it keeps training fresh and fun in a StrongFirst kind of way.
The What and How of Kettlebell Carries
There are two basic variables to keep in mind when programming carries for either a class or private setting and pursuing your determined training goal:
- Is the carry single or double kettlebell?
- Do you hold the kettlebell(s) overhead, in front rack position, or to the side?
One-sided versus two-sided carries put different demands on the body:
When you carry one-sided, rotational forces (and anti-rotational effort) are a constant. You are preventing yourself from twisting and bending like a rag doll as the unloaded side, both front and back, is working to keep you straight up and moving forward. One-sided carries are great for addressing bilateral differences and imbalances in the upper-body.
On the other hand, a two-sided carry can be looked at as a sequence of alternating single-leg stance where the athlete has to keep his or her physical integrity. The anti-rotational tension needed changes from one side to another like the ball during a game of tennis. Two-sided carries are also performed with greater absolute load, thus putting more structural stress on the body, as well.
The position of the kettlebell is the second variable that will alter the main type of training effect—but keep in mind that all carries will address both grip and core, only to differing degrees.
- Obviously, in the overhead position, you are training the shoulder and potential issues with the thoracic area will become apparent.
- The front rack position will teach the concept of bracing and breathing and mostly target the upper back.
- Side carries will also concentrate on the abdominal wall with the added bonus of serious grip work.
Now let’s go more in-depth into different specific carries and how to apply them in training.
The waiter walk is a one-sided overhead carry that is great for getting a first glance at someone’s overhead mobility and stability. Have the person stand with the kettlebell pressed out overhead and walk around for up to half a minute or so. Use a light weight (8kg bell for women or 12-16kg bell for men) and switch sides a few times. The fatigue build-up will show you how the person compensates or not.
If you would like to train your grip, the bottom-up carry will do just that. According to Dr. McGill the bottom-up kettlebell carry should be a staple in anyone’s training with carries. Start with a lighter kettlebell (8-12kg for women, 16-20kg for men) and do 2-3 rounds of 30-40 meters each side at the end of your sessions.
Lastly, the suitcase carry is a great exercise to strengthen the obliques, as the unloaded side must constantly work to keep you on the straight and narrow. You could either go heavy (24-32kg for women and 36-44kg for men) for a short distance (up to 40 meters) for 2-3 sets or keep it to 1-2 sets with a medium weight for 50-100 meters.
It is key to note that you walk a straight line during all these carries. If you notice you are not walking straight that means your nervous system is giving in. This is a crucial element, and one that is equally important for all carries. All too often, before grip lets go, there are other tell-tale signs that signal the body is straining to retain movement integrity. Head position, shoulders, and path of direction all ought to remain stable.
If you want to improve overhead stability and lock-out, arm bars and waiter walks at the beginning of a training session and overhead walks at the end can help. The overhead walk is more difficult than the waiter walk since you have both arms up at the same time, and it therefore requires more mobility. You might be surprised at how a relatively light weight (8-12kg for women and 16-20kg for men for 30-40 meters) can challenge that overhead position. A good benchmark would be to see if you can overhead walk 40 meters with what you can press for a double.
Overhead carries can also be a good warm-up exercise or specialized variety drill when performing barbell military presses. Obviously, you stabilize both shoulders separately, but unlike in a barbell overhead carry, each shoulder also has to carry equal weight separately. A small difference with a huge impact.
Double kettlebell front rack carries will teach someone to brace and keep abdominal tension while still breathing through the nose into the belly, especially under the stress of exertion. It is easy, until it starts to feel heavy.
If people start to bend backward in the double kettlebell front rack carries, this means they are losing their integrity and are looking for stability in the lumbar spine rather than using abdominal pressure. We usually do 2-3 sets of 60-80 meter at the end of practice. It is also a wonderful drill to add if you have athletes or students do mixed modal conditioning pieces. Heart rates will go up in, well, a heartbeat.
Once our students get a handle on the bottom-up carry (mind that pun), the next step is the double bottom-up carry, although they might want to start with holds the first few times around. Being able to handle two bells bottom-up (to then squat, carry, and/or press) is a game-changer for improving whole-body tension and an excellent way to increase grip. Again, you may be surprised how relatively light the weight needs to be. 2 to 3 rounds of up to 40 meters with 8-12kg or 16-20kg will be fine for most trainees at the end of a good practice.
Lastly, the farmers walk is another staple that is simple and effective. In his book Intervention, Dan John mentions a farmer walk with bodyweight in each hand as a game-changer for men. For women, he mentions 38kg per hand. Most gyms don’t have kettlebells that go as heavy as a man’s bodyweight, but there are other good ways to get equally strong with a pair of kettlebells up to half bodyweight.
If you have the heavy weights at hand (that is the last pun, I promise), great, go for 2-3 sets of 30-40 meters of farmers walk—but do keep in mind the greater structural stress on the body. With medium weight, you could go for several bouts of 50-100m or a single long walk (for example, as far as you can—just make sure you are able to walk the weights back at some point.)
Don’t Forget the Kettlebell Carries
The arsenal of carries described here is a great set of tools you can use in training, whether in a group setting or one-on-one and whether it be for general fitness or sport athletes.
I hope this article provided good insight into the why and how of kettlebell carries as a means to build strength simply, or simply build strength. Because the way you carry your strength matters.
By the way, it is in my opinion that carries should not be limited to kettlebells. That is, if you seek to fully reap the benefits of carries in a training program. Barbells, farmer bars, and sandbags are all wonderful tools to practice and train with. In our gym, we have had success using old army knit bags, which can hold up to 50kg.
Can you train well without these “odd” carries? Yes. Do the benefits outweigh the cost of adding them to your repertoire? Yes. Even ruck sacks, wheel barrows, or big rocks—anything goes and has its own peculiar ways of building you up stronger and increasing work capacity.