The best coaches love loaded carries. Coach Dan John says they're the number one movement that'll change your life. Coach Christian Thibaudeau says they "improve everything." Others say that loaded carries are the best full-body strength and conditioning movement, period.
They're all right, but few people think of loaded carries as a corrective exercise. In fact, given the endless number of variations, there's arguably no more versatile corrective exercise than the loaded carry.
So what does "corrective exercise" even mean? It’s basically any exercise or drill that helps you fix imbalances, compensations, or otherwise stupid-looking movement patterns.
Carries are unlike any other corrective exercise in that they build strength and improve body composition simultaneously. The same can't be said about side-lying clams and their rehab kin.
We'll get into why they're corrective, but first let's dive into the best carries you could do.
The 7 Best Carries
All variations can work as corrective exercises, but not all carries are created equal. These have a number of unique advantages that separate them from the rest of the pack.
What makes this so valuable is its loading capacity. The first and most obvious advantage of being able to use heavier loads is the increased emphasis on grip. Given that a stronger grip intensifies irradiation, which elicits a powerful firing of the rotator cuff, this makes trap bar carries phenomenal for improving shoulder function.
Along the same lines, physical therapists have pointed out that the shoulder health benefits of carries are maximized when the arms can't flex and the traps can't shrug. To every meathead's delight, this means that the secret to reaping the greatest benefit is to use gigantic amounts of weight, which the trap bar allows.
The wider handles of the trap bar pull the scapulae into a retracted and slightly externally rotated position, which offsets the classic internally rotated position that can trigger a cascade of shoulder issues.
The wider hand position also amplifies the challenge to maintain a solid gait pattern because the stability demands on the feet and ankles are extreme. Ask anyone who's carried twice his bodyweight, and he'll likely say that keeping the feet and ankles steady was one of the toughest parts.
This one involves walking side-to-side as opposed to backward and forward. Everything else – the heavy loading, postural improvements, and shoulder health benefits – are still present.
The lateral component has two benefits. First, it provides a novel stimulus to the core since your center of mass is shifting ever-so-slightly on each step. This is caused by the momentary delay that occurs as the load has to "catch up" to the body as each step is taken. As a result, the obliques – and the rest of the core, really – have to withstand a massive anti-lateral flexion challenge to keep the trunk stable.
Since the ability to resist excess lateral flexion is crucial for low-back health, this makes the lateral carry a powerful tool for bulletproofing the spine and reducing injury risk.
Second, whereas other carries primarily challenge the feet to maintain a "tripod position," the lateral trap bar carry takes it a step further by placing a laser-like focus on any red flags contributing to excess pronation/eversion or supination/inversion.
This makes it self-correcting since it's virtually impossible to get away with any lateral or medial deviations. Instead, the feet and ankles must remain in near-perfect alignment, which facilitates better mechanics throughout the rest of the kinetic chain.
It has the unique ability to target the lateral sling of the quadratus lumborum (QL) and oblique abdominal wall. Since these two areas play a critical role in stabilizing the spine and hip joint, it should come as no surprise that weakness in both the QL and oblique abdominal wall is commonplace for almost all lifters who suffer from back pain.
By challenging the body asymmetrically, heavy suitcase carries put tremendous stress on the core to stabilize in the frontal plane, which forces the lateral sling to maintain a strong isometric contraction. That's why spinal expert Dr. Stuart McGill has popularized the use of suitcase carries in the rehabilitation process for individuals with back pain. In relation to weakness at the QL and oblique abdominal wall, McGill has said that the "best way to enhance that is a suitcase carry."
Building up a stronger and stiffer core also has an impact on strength and lifting technique. Lifters who do suitcase carries frequently will find that they're able to transmit force more effectively, maintain a stronger brace under load, and move more efficiently outside of the sagittal plane.
To make the suitcase carry even better, try the barbell variation.
This variation builds upper back strength and blends an anti-extension challenge at the low back with an anti-flexion challenge at the upper back. This ameliorates a lot of issues that can occur when other carry variations are done poorly, such as a loss of tension in the core, excessive arching at the low back, or shoulder rounding and forward head tilt.
By loading a barbell in the front-racked position, the core is forced to resist extension at the lumbar spine and "lock in" by default. This elicits an intense abdominal contraction and lights up the anterior core. It also poses a doozy of a challenge to brace and breathe efficiently under load, which – once improved – can have a direct carryover to stronger and safer lifts.
Likewise, the front-racked position facilitates thoracic extension and an upright torso position – two key components of good posture – by making it virtually impossible to round at the shoulders or lean forward with the head. This also puts the scapulae into an upwardly rotated position and hammers the traps in a more "functional" manner, which can improve shoulder function even further.
As an added bonus, the front-racked carry is a great exercise for improving wrist mobility, which can help lifters who have trouble getting their elbows up during front squats or cleans.
Despite the fact that it doesn't allow for all that much loading, it's an absolute killer. In fact, it might be the toughest carry of all since keeping the kettlebell in place requires high levels of tension, stability, and near-perfect mechanics from head to toe.
Being able to pull off a well-executed bottoms up kettlebell carry requires three things:
First, most lifters will find that the biggest initial challenge is grip strength. That's because keeping the kettlebell stable requires maintaining a stacked wrist position and summoning all muscle fibers in the fingers, hands, and forearms.
Second, this variation requires a great deal of shoulder stability and near-perfect positioning. There needs to be joint centration (alignment), high levels of rotator cuff firing, scapular control, and "relaxation" at the lats to allow for scapular upward rotation to take place.
Moreover, any deviations in positioning will inevitably cause the kettlebell to tip, which makes the bottoms-up kettlebell carry useful for reinforcing biomechanically sound positions and dialing in mechanics.
Third, it builds core stability unlike anything else. Dr. Stuart McGill called this exercise "the ultimate way to forge athleticism" after finding that it elicits higher levels of core activation than any other carry.
How? It combines the frontal plane challenge of the suitcase carry with increased shoulder stability demands. As a result, tension must be maintained throughout the entire kinetic chain to prevent the kettlebell from losing its position.
This targets the shoulders like the bottoms-up carry. The difference, however, is that it trains the overhead pattern better due to the fully straightened arm position.
The waiter's carry involves full upward rotation at the scapulae. As boring as that sounds, it can be massively beneficial for improving overhead mechanics and building functional strength in the upper back and traps.
This is especially crucial for lifters who overhead press on a regular basis. Why? Because doing so in the absence of full upward rotation is an orthopedic roll of the dice.
In addition, the fully extended position of the arm provides subtle perturbations at the shoulder, which improves overhead stability and trains proper muscle recruitment under load. Plus, the demands on the anterior core are almost always higher when the arms are in an overhead position, which gives the waiter's carry the advantage of challenging anti-extension to the nth degree.
Best of all, waiter's carries are a phenomenal diagnostic tool. For example, if you wind up arching your low back 20 seconds in, you're likely lacking anterior core strength and/or full shoulder flexion. If you can maintain good posture, but struggle to maintain a fully extended arm, chances are you may have subpar shoulder stability.
The cross-body carry combines the best of the suitcase carry with the best of the waiter's carry, albeit with one additional element: cross-body loading.
As a result, cross-body carries epitomize the definition of "integrative" as it relates to challenging the entire body all at once. The QL and oblique abdominal wall will get hammered in the same manner as they do during a suitcase carry. Likewise, the anti-extension and shoulder stability demands of the waiter's carry are also in play.
Paired together, cross-body carries wind up challenging shoulder and multi-planar core stability, overhead mechanics, and grip strength all at once. This makes them great for reinforcing tension throughout the entire body.
Now that we've covered the best carries, let's get into how and why they're corrective.
Loaded carries share five particular corrective benefits:
1 They make you stronger.
Getting stronger is corrective. To quote Dr. John Rusin, "Strength is protective because weak people get hurt more often." Loaded carries build full-body strength as well as any other exercise – let alone corrective exercise. This makes them completely unparalleled for building up any weaknesses or lagging issues that can contribute to pain or dysfunction.
2 They improve posture.
Loaded carries correct excess extension at the lumbar spine, improve the position of the diaphragm, facilitate a strong brace throughout the midsection, and put the shoulders into a better and more stable position.
Why does it matter? As cliché as it sounds, posture may be the single most important factor for optimizing strength, movement quality, and full-body muscle function. Numerous studies have shown that improvements in posture can reduce muscular and systemic stress, increase the body's ability to move through a greater range of motion, enhance joint stability (upping the amount of load the joints can handle), and can improve quality of life.
Taken together, these benefits equate to a reduced risk of injury and better movement efficiency, both of which are foundational to long-term success.
3 They bulletproof the core.
Carries challenge dynamic core stability in a way that few exercises can match. They entail tucking the ribcage down and tilting the pelvis posteriorly, which puts the body into a "stacked" position at the shoulders, trunk, and hips.
Paired with the simple act of walking – which throws the frontal and transverse planes into the mix – loaded carries are a phenomenal option for challenging, and subsequently building, core strength.
4 They improve shoulder health and function.
Loaded carries put the shoulders into an optimal position that enables them to become stronger and more stable. Paired with the massive irradiation component – which essentially states that the harder the grip, the more the rotator cuff will "fire" – loaded carries can be a game changer for lifters with chronically beaten-up shoulders.
5 They strengthen the feet/ankles and reinforce a proper gait pattern.
Given that nearly every exercise is done with one or two feet on the ground, the feet and ankles (and the resultant gait/walking pattern) are pretty important. In fact, aside from posture, foot and ankle function is among the most crucial factors that impact strength, movement quality, and joint health.
Plus, as ridiculous as it sounds, most individuals walk incorrectly. Common issues include passive foot mechanics, a lackluster tripod position (at the big toe, small toe, and heel), and excess pronation/eversion or supination/inversion.
So loaded carries can be a powerful tool for dialing in the gait pattern and improving foot and ankle function. The added load and stability demands force the whole foot to grip the floor aggressively which reinforces near-perfect mechanics.