I don't know about you, but I hate cardio. I despise it with a passion. But I do care about silly things like general health, improved nutrient partitioning, and getting my body-fat percentage into single digits. So I know I have to do some type of general conditioning work. I just can't bring myself to do it the way most gym rats would, by planting my ass on a stationary bike or plodding along on a treadmill.
T Nation readers know there are lots of better ways to do energy-systems work, no matter if you're doing it for fat loss, general conditioning, or because you have too much time on your hands. I'd like to add one more to your arsenal.
For the past few months, I've been using a simple, but by no means easy, conditioning system with some of my clients and in my own training. We actually look forward to our cardio sessions now, which I assure you was not the case before.
All you do is pick up something heavy and carry it as fast as you can for 100 steps or 60 seconds, whichever is easier for you to calculate.
No trends, no tricks, no machines with televisions attached. This is cardio for real men and women, with real benefits, including these:
In a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Stuart McGill and colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Canada looked at how hard a variety of middle-body muscles work during Strongman events.
The ones that involved carries — farmer's walk, super yoke walk, suitcase carries, and keg walks — required substantial core activation. The authors suggest that traditional lifting programs could be improved with the addition of carrying exercises.
When lugging heavy objects, your core is immediately called into action to stabilize your entire body. Your obliques, rectus abdominis, and spinal erectors brace to protect your spine. Your quadratus lumborum and gluteus medius go into action to keep you from wobbling from side to side. Hip flexors (like the psoas and rectus femoris) and hip extensors (gluteus medius and hamstrings) work hard to provide locomotion.
Vary the position of the weight you're carrying (the routine I included below uses six different variations), and you'll hit your core muscles in new and completely functional ways. Beat that, floor crunches!
Grip strength and forearm development
Bodybuilders want muscular forearms for symmetry. Powerlifters and strength athletes need grip strength for performance.
Carries give you a chance to train your forearms heavy and often. See how your forearms feel after carrying a trap bar loaded with 315 pounds for 100 steps, and then tell me how much you miss doing wrist curls.
After a few weeks with these exercises, you'll wonder why you ever felt the need to use lifting straps on deadlifts, rows, and pull-ups. And you'll never again complain about how your forearm muscles refuse to grow.
Upper back size and strength
McGill's study found that the lats were substantially worked in the farmer's walk and suitcase carry. And, although he didn't measure the activation of the traps and other shoulder stabilizers, we can guess that they have to work hard on some of these exercises, particularly the overhead carry.
Fat loss and conditioning
The workout that follows should take you between 20 and 25 minutes to complete, depending on whether you time your carries or count steps, and how many times you have to set the weight down in the middle of an exercise. That's a pretty serious challenge to your anaerobic energy systems. You'll be huffing, puffing, and perspiring enough to qualify your workout space as a federally protected wetland.
It doesn't matter if you're at a gym, your house, or your local state prison. As long as you have something to carry and room to walk, you can do this workout. I've loaded an old backpack with every book I could cram into it, and carried it up and down my driveway to get my cardio in. You can use dumbbells, barbells, weight plates, kettlebells, sandbags, wheelbarrows, stones, kegs, furniture, dead bodies, fat chicks, children, or pets. The more unstable the load is, the tougher your workout becomes.
Ability to work around injuries
This is the hardest benefit to quantify, but it might be the most valuable to someone with an injury that prevents him from going heavy on basic exercises like bench presses or squats. If you can hold and carry a weight without aggravating the injury, you can maintain or even improve your grip strength and overall conditioning while counting down the days until you can get back into your favorite lifts.
As I mentioned earlier, you can either count the number of steps you take on each carry (the magic number is 100 per set), or time your set, with the goal of reaching 60 seconds. Timing is a little trickier, since you need a timer (Gymboss is a good one; T Nation reviewed it here, a friend with a stopwatch, or a clear line of sight to a clock with a second hand. You also have to keep track of your downtime; if you need to put the weight down before 60 seconds is up, that time doesn't count. You need 60 seconds of carrying to complete the set.
Counting steps might be marginally easier, but takes a lot of concentration to remember where you are when you're in the high double digits and the blood has vacated your brain.
Do all six carries once (for 100 steps or 60 seconds) without resting in between exercises. Rest 90 seconds, and repeat twice, for a total of three circuits. As I said, this should take between 20 and 25 minutes.
If you don't want to perform the full workout, you can pick any three exercises and do them in any order. Go for 90 seconds or 200 steps per carry, and don't rest between circuits. Try for three circuits, with a goal of completing the workout in 14 minutes. You'll probably need more time than that the first couple of workouts, so 14 minutes is more of a target than an absolute number you should expect to hit right away.
One last tip: Avoid long, slow strides. You want to move as quickly as you can; the shorter and faster your steps, the greater the benefits.
Trap bar carry
For starters, try using 60 to 70% of your one-rep max in the trap bar deadlift. Don't shrug your shoulders as you carry the weight. You want your lats to work on this one, rather than your upper traps. No trap bar? You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, or a couple of matching suitcases loaded with equal amounts of heavy things. Or, if you're training at home or at a construction site, you can use a wheelbarrow, as long as you keep your arms as straight as possible. You won't be able to stay completely upright, so you'll need to lean forward slightly. Focus your eyes on a target roughly 10 feet ahead of you, and align the rest of your body with your head and neck.
Bear hug carry
It's easiest to use a standard 45-pound plate. Guys with long arms can try holding two plates. No plates? Try a sandbag or a friendly passerby. The only rule: Lay your hands flat on the object or on each other; no fair interlocking fingers or holding onto your own wrists; that takes work away from your chest and shoulders.
Hold a heavy object in one hand for half the time or number or steps. Then switch to the other hand. Stay as tall as possible to avoid leaning toward the side with the weight. That would negate the work your core needs to do, and might be hazardous to your lower-back health. You can use a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, or an actual suitcase. This is a hellacious challenge to your obliques, quadratus lumborum, and medial glutes.
Let the weight hang down in front of you, holding it with both hands and straight arms; don't pull the weight higher with your arm and shoulder muscles when you get tired. As with the bear hug carry, you can't interlock your fingers. This will hit your forearm extensors, along with your posterior core muscles, which have to work to keep you upright.
Staggered farmer's walk
Carry two dumbbells of different sizes — shoot for a 15-pound difference — and switch halfway through the walk. As with the suitcase carry, you want to stay upright so you can hit your core and shoulder stabilizers with an usual challenge.
Hold a weight plate, pair of dumbbells, barbell, sandbag, or anything else overhead with both hands. Keep your elbows locked and forearms straight so you work your core and shoulder stabilizers.
I'm only scratching the surface here when I describe the versatility of carries. You can use heavier weights and shorter sets to develop strength. You can use lighter weights and longer durations to improve endurance. You can use any implement that can be lifted and carried, and improvise any carrying position, or combination of positions.
You can create an entire workout around them, or use them in conjunction with sled drags, Prowler pushes, or any other type of conditioning work you like to do.
Although there aren't any absolutes, I would say these rules apply most of the time:
• Keep an upright body position, no matter if the weight is in front of you, overhead, or unbalanced to one side or the other.
• Keep your arms straight on almost all the carries (the obvious exception being the bear hug), and don't shrug your shoulders.
• If you need to set the weight down, do so with control; sudden movements with heavy objects lead to serious injuries.
• As with any other type of training, the goal is measurable improvement. So log your performance every time you do the workout, aiming to see lower numbers from session to session.
Carry on, ladies and gentlemen.