By: David Wu
1) Pick up a weight in each hand. 2) Go for a stroll.
That’s the farmer’s walk.
How much more “functional” can you get than carrying stuff? (squatting is usually reserved for the can)
Bodybuilders know that it puts meat on your traps and forges an iron grip, but how about these muscles; rotator cuff or quadratus lumborum? There’s another side to this badass exercise you don’t know about: it’s insane at cleaning up movement.
Carry Heavy Shit
Back in the day people didn’t get shoulder pain. They climbed, crawled, and carried heavy shit. They trained the right way. And of course, they didn’t sit around for 12 hours a day.
There’s not too much now we can do about sitting with our jobs, schools and cars, but everyone and their grandma (yep) could use a little farmer’s walk. Or a lot.
For all you “hardcore” lifters who won’t do a side plank but still are misguidedly content to whip out shoulder external rotations, let this be the one “corrective” that you do.
You’ll find that Farmer’s walks are not only good for adding mass and exploding performance, but also for bringing an awareness to your posture and shoulder function direly missing in today’s lifting programs.
Enter the farmer’s walk.
Super-Physios Gray Cook and Charlie Weingroff say they’re awesome for your shoulders. Waterloo’s own Dr. Stu McGill likes it for hip/core stability. Dan John thinks that if you haven’t been doing them, they’ll change your life.
“One sure way to quick progress in training is to work the movements you don’t already do”
Understand that shoulder pain & dysfunction is mostly due to faulty posture. A rounded upper back from a poked out head (yeah, keep watching that screen!) closes the space that your shoulder has to move. There’s no where to run.
The farmer’s walk is a self-limiting exercise in that it brings awareness to posture and breathing, two fundamental factors in shoulder function. It’s very hard to cheat – nobody will ever farmer’s walk a lot of weight for a great distance with hunched shoulders. If you manage to, it’ll let you know.
Over time your body will either quit on you or it’ll learn to straighten up and stack each body part on top of each other. Anything but optimal alignment will hinder your performance in the Farmer’s walk.
Though I call the Farmer’s walk a corrective exercise, really it’s simply “correct” exercise – it’s how we should be exercising to begin with. You’ll find how moves like the Farmer’s walks and bear crawls can be used to develop athletic qualities without need for supplemental exercises like external rotations. Add these in and you’ll be surprised at how many exercises you’ll be taking out.
“Correct exercise choices do not need to be supported by supplemental work. They are designed to target weak links and biomarkers that establish reduced risk and higher performance.” – Gray Cook, Movement, pg. 230
Aside from improving posture, the farmer’s walk gets at hose scapular and humeral stabilizers. People WITH shoulder discomfort (esp. during arm raising) will find this exercise extremely tolerable since it places your arms in the least provocative position: down at your sides.
Yet there are therapists and trainers who still train stabilizers (control motion) as prime movers (cause motion) through strengthening exercises. How can you expect your muscles to do their job if you’re training them to be better at something another one? However, you can be damn sure that your lower trap is working when you farmer’s walk.
Training shoulder stability involves improving motor control, not about how much force muscles can produce. It’s about the timing, sequencing and coordination.
So stop wondering which stretch, mobilization or corrective you should do if you aren’t re-establishing motor control. You might temporarily reduce pain by rolling out a knot, but it’ll be hard to get lasting results.
The role of the rotator cuff muscles is to keep your arm from dislocating. There are two ways to elicit a reflexive stabilization of the rotator cuff muscles: traction or compression. Doesn’t it make sense to restore and train the rotator cuff by how it’s meant function?
While the clapping push-up or bear crawl will jam your arm back in, the Farmer’s walk will try to yank it out. Like Gray Cook says, you’ve got a pretty good shoulder if it can handle those two.
Hip and Core: Keys to performance
What differentiates the Farmer’s walk from traditional exercises like the squat and deadlift is that even though you’re moving forward, it’s really an exercise of the lateral chain muscles of the frontal plane. Unless your sport involves lifting weights, you’ll likely be on one foot, cutting & sprinting across the field.
Notice how with every step of the farmer’s walk is a single leg stance with core/hip stabilizer challenge. Once you strip away the weights you’ll have the much needed lateral stability and grip strength needed for explosive athletic performance.
Walk it out: Here’s how
If your shoulders are really bad (or even if they’re not), some foam rolling and T-spine mobility may be warranted. Use whatever techniques are in your bag. Make sure you can actually get straight first.
If the farmer’s walk causes pain on initial pick-up, then you’re probably @#$%ed. Go see a health professional.
I find that the best load to use is one that allows your body plenty of time to “learn” to stabilize yet challenging enough to bring awareness and stabilization. Anything too heavy and you won’t be able to walk too far.
Since the deadlift uses similar muscles, take half of your 1RM and then split that in two for the weight you’ll be using in each hand.
Ex. If your deadlift is 300lbs, you’ll be using a total of 150lbs or 75lbs in each hand for the farmer’s walk.
Play around with the weight or distance, especially if you’re training specifically for other qualities than movement such as endurance or strength.
Use whatever set length you can find as a measure of farmer’s walk. I usually do 8-10 sets of 1 “length” with about 2-4 minutes of rest in-between. Remember, when you’re training to correct movement, sets/reps are arbitrary as long as you can get the desired sustained stabilization response without falling back into a bad, slouched pattern. End you rep once fatigue hits and proper positioning can’t be maintained.
– Walk slowly in short steps.
– “Feel” your body and posture.
– Stay tall as possible. Look forward or at the horizon.
– When it gets easier, carry a heavier weight or increase the distance.
I’ve learned to forgive my parents for all those bags of rice I’ve had to carry as well as those patrons who don’t put away their weights at the gym. Even with deadlifting, I’ve never felt so tall/erect like after doing Farmer’s.
“Get back to me after doing these for three weeks. Obviously, your grip will be better. Your legs will be stronger. You’ll discover that the weight room isn’t that tough any more. You’ll look leaner, but be bigger.” – Dan John
DJ says to give it 3 weeks. If you train it properly for movement, I’ll bet you’ll start feeling it right away and see significant results after as little as 4 sessions.
Don’t worry too much about load and programming, just be sure to do them and do them often. Farmer’s walks work well as a warm up, as a super-set, in-between exercises, or as a workout finisher.
If you aren’t already doing it, the Farmer’s walk may very well be the missing piece for shoulder function, performance and for you to Look Good Naked.
It all comes down to one thing: Trust your farmer.
Be sure to check out our Strongman Events at WS&C. They frequently include strongman carrying exercises such as the Suitcase carry & Farmer’s walk and instruction on how to do them properly.
References and Resources:
– Exercise of the week: Farmer’s Walk – Men’s health magazine online
– Gray Cook – Edge of ability (Youtube)
– The Secret of Loaded Carries by Dan John (T-nation)
– Movement by Gray Cook (Book)
Do you use the Farmer’s walk in your programs? Let us know! Feel free to comment and ask any questions.
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David Wu is the Student of Movement and former VP of WARRIORS S&C. Currently living in Toronto, he’s on a mission to make good people great at David Wu Performance Therapy. Add him on facebook, twitter or email him with any questions.