Loaded Carries: The What, The When and The Why

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Do reps that should be fast feel slow, even when they're light? Does something just feel missing from your training? Do your movements feel stale and uncomfortable? Or do you just flat out feel un-athletic? If you answered yes to any of those questions then I can almost guarantee you don’t do any type of loaded carries, and if you do, you probably aren’t programming them properly. Loaded carries are the most underutilized movements in today’s strength and conditioning field. The amount of versatility loaded carries can provide to a program is parallel to the barbell, really. The biggest reasons you should be doing loaded carries are:

1.  Stability

2.  Energy system development

3.  Recovery.

Stability, and I don’t mean single leg bosu squats. I mean stabilizing the spine in a safe, fixed position, while fighting the inertia of a load and then creating movement. This is a two pronged approach to teaching true stability in an athlete. In human gait there is minimal inertia fought and a minimal amount of reflexive stabilization needed. Reflexive stabilization is the inert firing of muscles to stabilize a moving part on the opposite side. In loaded carries, the athletes are forced to stabilize and control the load imposed in order to move.

An athlete who can properly stabilize moving parts will have a greater ability to consciously create pressure. This happens through strengthening the reflexive muscles of the core that are difficult to properly utilize. This can lead to major increases in intra-abdominal pressure and thickness of the trunk, which can then help prevent certain injuries.

It is not uncommon for athletes to have acute and sometimes debilitating injuries due to lack of stability throughout ranges of motion. If one can safely translate (walk) through space with load and train the reflexive stabilizers then this risk of injury greatly decreases. You can’t consciously control every single muscle in your system, reflexive stabilization saves you more than you give it credit for.

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Energy system development is the big boy. You cannot reach your specific goals if you don’t first have a proper foundation. The versatility of loaded carries can give you an easy to implement portal to any energy system you wish to engage in. This opens the door to multiple skills as well as safely increasing training stress. Slow and de-conditioned athletes alike will benefit more than they can imagine from this.

Loaded carries can develop the alactic and aerobic capacity simultaneously. This is possible by having an athlete perform very alactic runs followed by light walking or another low intensity exercise that will facilitate aerobic recovery for the next set. I will go into how to properly program and progress carries later in the article.

However, something important to understand is the gift of GPP you can give to an athlete. Sure it’s great to spend their whole off-season doing sport specific movements, but that’s what their pre and in-season training should be geared toward. Developing a large generalized work capacity is an opportunity to further improve and refine sport specific skill and the greatest gift we can give to our athletes IS the opportunity to improve.

Types of Carries

Our first step into how to properly implement loaded carries is to define the different types. I break them down into two categories: direct and indirect.

Direct

Directly loaded carries can be further broken down into anterior, posterior and parallel loads. Anterior carries are any type of carrying movement where the participant stabilizes the load on the anterior portion of the spine and are in direct contact with it. This includes sandbag, keg, hussafelt, conan’s wheel, kettlebell front rack walks, etc.

Posterior loaded carries are any type of carrying movement where the participant is in direct contact with a load on the posterior portion of the spine, this is mainly characterized by the yoke walk.

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Finally, direct parallel loads are where the participant is in direct contact with the object but the load is parallel to the spine. This includes any hand loaded carry like farmers and any overhead walks.

Indirect

Indirect carries do not necessarily involve the participant actually carrying the object, however, they are still overcoming the inertia of load. I often refer to these more generally as moving events. This includes, prowler pushes, sled drags, and truck pulls etc.

The key to keeping your adaptations coming is to expose yourself to different types of carries before changing the protocol. Incorporating multiple types of loads and carries will allow an athlete to further their work capacity without increasing difficulty. Outside of strongman carries, utilize kettlebells and buddy carries as well to add variety.

Programming

Now that you are aware of the different types of carries we can implement, the next step is to define how we can program them. When creating a program, every movement chosen should directly reflect the goal of that program or block. Hence, I have categorized the different ways to program loaded carries based on your and/or your athlete’s goals:

Increase speed/alactic capacity

Using loaded carries to increase speed or expand the ability to fight off metabolic waste (alactic capacity) can be extremely effective in a short period of time. Often times with deconditioned athletes I choose light loaded carries over sprints. This is because the load imposed that the athlete must overcome acts as a limiting factor for them to “over sprint.” I wont go into the proper mechanics of sprinting, but squeezing and trying your hardest to go fast certainly isn’t the correct way.

The nice thing about loaded carries for speed is that there really isn’t any running. Although you are going as fast as possible, the gait pattern is still walking. There is no flight phase (i.e. the major difference between running and walking) in loaded carries because it just wouldn’t work. Why? Your reflexive stabilizers are not prime movers, although they can be powerful enough to carry heavy loads, they will never be powerful enough to carry heavy loads without a point of contact on the ground.

This lack of flight phase simplifies the movement and makes it more accessible to more populations. Programming carrying events for speed is simple. Vertically increase volume over a given distance while keeping speed constant. This means pick a distance to train (40-60ft) and a speed (<10s) to maintain. These two variables should stay relatively the same throughout the block. What you can manipulate to create adaptation is volume and intensity (surprise, surprise).

For most athletes new to carrying events that fit this category, I would recommend accumulating 200-300ft at a given speed with a light load. The overall feel of the protocol should not be higher than a 7/10 RPE. The key to truly improving speed is frequency, being able to do the same session 2-3 times a week will be far more beneficial then just “killing it” one day.

If you're a more advanced athlete looking to focus on increasing work capacity as opposed to maximal speed, I would recommend not going past 400ft. To further progress someone who has mastered loaded carries it is best to manipulate rest time. The reason I limit most carrying sessions to 400ft is because no matter how efficient the pattern, the ground reaction forces associated with carrying events is significantly higher than walking and although this stress can lead to great adaptation, too much stress will soar over the line of diminishing return and potentially lead to pain.

Examples:

Novice: 5x50ft 60% of max in under 9s. Rest as needed.

Advanced: 8x40ft 70% of max under 8s with 90s rest.

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Facilitate recovery

Carrying events are wonderful to facilitate recovery because of the high levels of stress imposed and very small amount of total volume needed. This fits better into the active recovery needs of a healthy athlete that hasn’t already built up excessive amounts of stress (the peak of the season or in a high volume strength block wouldn’t be ideal times). The fact that the participant is fighting inertia to stay “neutral” systemically engages the entire body. This gives it a great bang for your buck. You are able to reap the rewards of loaded carries while facilitating recovery.

Examples:

Novice: 3x50ft 50% of max under 9s

Advanced: 4x40ft 50% of max under 8s with 60s rest.

Improve GPP

A incredibly effective, and fun, way to increase work capacity is though loaded carries. Since they are loaded versions of walking they can be taken for long distances. The training variables you need to worry about here are rest time and distance. Load will take a back seat here while volume will play a secondary role. Due to the nature of this training the total amount of distance covered will be more variable since the load will be so low, but I would not recommend exceeding 600ft.

Increasing work capacity with this protocol can be done in two energy systems: the glycolytic and aerobic. Both can do an incredibly effective job, but there are some notable differences in programming for either energy system. In this scenario, rest time and distance are directly correlated with total volume, while work is inversely correlated with total volume.

The more glycolytic you would like to make your training the more distance you should cover per set with more rest time and less total sets. The opposite would be true for a more aerobic training session

Examples:

Novice:

Glycolytic: 3x150ft with 30-40% of max, rest as needed

Aerobic: 6x50ft with 40% of max with 45s rest

Advanced:

Glycolytic: 3x200ft with 30-40% of max, rest as needed

Aerobic: 10x40ft with 50% of max with 45s rest

Closing Thoughts

When training moving events I typically program them at the begging of a training session. Next time you squat, try hitting some yoke with one of these protocols and watch how much more powerful your squats feel. Producing high amounts of force over a short period of time will excite the nervous system and prepare you for lifting weights. An added benefit to programming your carries at the beginning of the session is that although it isn’t fatiguing it is an opportunity for the athlete to efficiently increase work capacity.

Loaded carries will give you a whole new world of development to dive into which will ultimately lead to an increase in performance. Not everyone will take a 1000lb yoke for a 50ft ride but I promise everyone has something great to gain from exposure to loaded carries regardless of their goals. Stop being slow, start being explosive. Stop being bored on the treadmill, start running with kegs.