Thanks to coaches like Dan John, Joe DeFranco, and Eric Cressey, the farmer's walk has become a very popular tool for building general physical preparedness (GPP) for strength and power athletes.
You only need to try the exercise once to appreciate how brutally effective 'farmer's' can be. From the forearms to the upper back, trunk, hips, and legs, no muscle group is left unscorched. Canadian spine researcher Stuart McGill has even referred to the farmer's walk and other loaded carry variations as a "moving plank," a testament to the potential benefits of improving core strength and stability.
However, as a physical therapist, strength and conditioning specialist, and strength athlete approaching middle age, I have several reservations about how the farmer's walk is often performed. Exaggerated forward head/rounded shoulder postures, shuffling feet combined with a lack of hip mobility and appreciable time spent in unilateral stance, and inappropriate implement size are some of the issues that limit progress and set the stage for injury. But with a few modifications outlined below, we can make the farmer's walk both safer and more challenging.
Improve Torso Posture and Positioning
In many videos and pictures, athletes carry the load in a forward head/rounded shoulder posture. As a T NATION faithful, you likely know that we spend too much time in this posture already.
Instead of the load being balanced by the anterior/posterior cervical "guide wire" system of muscles (levator scapula, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid), the increased forward head is now supported by approximation of the facet joint and intervertebral discs.
Placing a heavy load in the hands without regard to cervical/thoracic positioning makes a bad situation worse, as bilateral isometric upper trapezius activity further increases cervical extension force. Weak scapular retractors give way under the (too heavy) load, further rounding the thoracic spine, creating a vicious cycle of lousy posture reinforced by exercise.
This doesn't make good training sense, as you're just robbing Peter (compromising safe, biomechanically efficient posture) to pay Paul (increasing strength, power and endurance). We should be discouraging this posture, not encouraging it, especially under substantial loads.
As your head moves forward, forces to the neck increase exponentially.
Great effort, but his facet joints will not be happy later...
The solution to this problem is twofold. First, appropriate cervical and thoracic spine mobility must be reestablished. Appropriate cervical alignment (upper cervical flexion/lower cervical extension, or the "neck pack" position) is a groove that needs to be greased to allow the beginning of "top down" whole spine stabilization.
Activating the deep neck flexors makes sense as they're the primary stabilizers of the cervical spine, and should act in a tonic fashion.
Second, increased thoracic mobility into extension has to be fostered. A more naturally extended thoracic spine is a "taller" spine that allows for a better "table" for the head and neck to function on, and better scapular positioning in retraction. This, in turn, helps the scapular stabilizers do their job more effectively, decreasing the chance of assuming a rounded shoulder position, especially as the implements get heavier.
Here's video of my preferred way to improve cervical mobility for an appropriate "neck pack" while self-mobilizing the thoracic spine at the same time:
All that's needed is a towel roll for the head and a pool noodle that can be bought at a dollar store. Lying in this position (cervical retraction, thoracic extension/scapular retraction, shoulder external rotation with neutral pelvis) for five minutes or so at the end of training (while practicing diaphragmatic breathing) will gradually improve mobility in the key locations outlined above.
Now that we've reestablished good postural position, we can reinforce it with the use of a mini-band to dynamically activate the posterior shoulder/scapular musculature. The handcuffed deadlift trains the "neck pack/tall spine/ shoulders back" position we're looking for, especially as the weights and stability demands increase.
Below is a video demonstrating this technique:
The passive tension in the band serves as a kinesthetic and proprioceptive reminder to keep the shoulders back and down. The band also allows for facilitation of posterior shoulder and rotator cuff activation. Kettlebells lend themselves well to this exercise, as the shoulders can be positioned in slight external rotation by placing the thumbs just behind the greater trochanter of the femur.
Two to four sets of five repetitions with a sub maximal load will give your upper posterior chain musculature (posterior deltoid, rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius) a good idea of how to activate and position your torso for the actual walk.
Choosing an Implement
The choice of implement is key to maintaining good upper quarter mechanics during a farmer's walk. Farmer's bars or handles are obviously the gold standard in competition, but for beginners it doesn't make sense to go this route. The use of a dumbbell as a first progression allows easier maintenance of the "tall spine" posture, as the center of gravity of a dumbbell is easier to control, especially in someone new to the exercise.
Kettlebells and sandbags are a logical next progression as a carried load, as the lower center of gravity challenges grip and shoulder/scapular positioning. Weights used shouldn't exceed the ability of the upper quarter to maintain appropriate posture for the duration of the set.
Once we've cemented technique using the above progressions for a few weeks, we can then move on to a traditional farmer's bar or handle. Weights should be light enough at first to allow a "parallel to the ground" position of the implement (decreasing the tendency to round the shoulders) while minimizing transverse plane rotation of both the implements and the torso (maximizing lumbopelvic stability and limiting shear forces).
Once you can stabilize appropriately, you can begin loading the bars. Additional challenges can also be added with the use of thick handled implements. Thick handles will help spur "hyperirradiation" from the wrist and hands to the upper posterior chain and down through the thoracolumbar and hip musculature.
Improving Unilateral Stance and Stability
Another concern with the farmer's walk is the waddle or shuffle gait that occurs as weights increase. Concurrent with this is hip adduction and internal rotation, which take a large amount of glute activity away from the carry, while at the same time allow the use of the tensor fascia latae as a primary mover into hip flexion – the exact opposite of what we should be trying to encourage.
This robs a lifter of a fantastic core challenge, as time spent in a unilateral stance while controlling an appropriate load forces the obliques, quadratus lumborum, and hip abductors to be aggressively challenged while holding the pelvis and trunk in a biomechanically correct position.
Again, I appreciate the primary purpose of the exercise is as an awesome metabolic and stability challenge, but I believe both can be improved with a bit of tweaking. Offering an environmental constraint during a loaded carry is a great strategy to force the movement patterns I'm encouraging, similar to using training wheels on a kid's bicycle.
My favorite tool for this task is a mini hurdle, as it's light enough that accidentally kicking it will not lead to an epic face plant. PVC parallettes work as well for a homemade option.
Start with a 6-inch height to eliminate the "fear factor" and progress to a 12 or even 18-inch hurdle to give your frontal plane stabilizers plenty of quality work. Here I'm using an 18-inch hurdle as a barrier. If you notice, I like a strict movement pattern for the hips, with no significant rotation for the lead or trail leg.
My purpose here is to consciously focus on maintaining a stable, neutral pelvis/lumbar spine posture while maximizing saggital plane hip mobility, frontal plane stability, and stance consistency. In my experience, hip rotation leads to pelvic and lumbar movement patterns that should be minimized.
One word of warning: If you're using a traditional farmer's bar instead of dumbbells or kettlebells, a 12-inch hurdle is all you'll probably be able to use – an 18-inch hurdle tends to get bulldozed by the Olympic plates.
Picking a Distance or Duration
This is simple. Carry as far or as long as you like, provided head, trunk, and pelvic posture is technically sound. If this is a problem initially, perform short duration sets (10-20 feet in length, or less than 15-20 seconds in length), with complete rest between sets for a larger number of sets (6-10 sets/session). Decrease rest periods and/or increase distances as your physiology and biomechanics improve.
I look at the farmer's walk differently. I use it in both the warm up/movement prep phase as well as a metabolic/GPP "finisher" either at the end of a full-body weight training session or HIIT day.
When warming up, weights are in the 50% range of what would be used for an end of session work set, while length/duration will be 10-15 feet or 15-20 seconds/set. I'll go for 4-6 sets in the warm-up as I get great muscle activation.
I always use hurdles in my warm-ups as they keep technique honest and deliver a great unilateral stability challenge. I recommend going from 6-inch hurdles to 12 and even 18-inch hurdles every set or two, as hip mobility and form will allow.
For metabolic/GPP sets either at the end of a lifting session or on a HIIT day, heavier weights will be used, while the use of hurdles/barriers can be optional. Once good technique is cemented in the basic walk, different variations can be explored.
Farmer's Walk Variations
Other variations of the farmer's walk can challenge the stabilizers in ways that "traditional" methods can't. These include lateral and retro walks as well as suitcase carries and goblet carries. Below is a demonstration of a lateral and retro walk, again with hurdles. Here I'm using off-centered thick handles for the retro walks as they create more whole body tension throughout the carry, as grip demand is significant.
Progressions for these variations should follow the same basic pattern outlined above (appropriate posture, implement progression, maximizing lower quarter stability). Weights and speed of movement can be increased as technical proficiency will allow. These are great supplements to a "traditional" farmer's walk, and can be used either on the same day or a different day in the training cycle.
Farmer's walks are a metabolic and GPP staple, but with just a bit of tweaking they can be made safer and more effective. A farmer's walk that looks controlled, with improved posture and positioning will better target the intended muscular structures.
It makes good training sense to reevaluate your technique and implement at least some of these suggestions based on your own unique deficiencies to safely maximize your performance in this awesome exercise.