Functional Strength Training: Weighted Carries and Marches

crosstraining functional fitness Oct 02, 2022

Edited by: Danielle Abel

Weighted Carries and Marches

If you've ever wondered how to incorporate weighted carries and marches into your program design and ever felt overwhelmed and then not incorporated into your programming, then this article is for you. 

In this article, we'll cover

  • Kettlebell rack carries
  • Suitcase carries
  • Overhead carries
  • Zercher carries 
  • Bottoms up kettlebell carries
  • Front rack position carries

Depending upon the client or athlete you're working with, you may choose one carry over another to improve identified personal or athletic evaluated needs. 

Benefits of Carries

From the most foundational level, carries can help with trunk stiffness and bracing. Bracing is especially important for powerlifters and other clients or athletes who might be interested in or need to train 1RM. 

A significant amount of trunk stiffness can be obtained through the Valsalva maneuver, which involves exhaling against a closed glottis (the vocal cords in their closed position). The Valsalva maneuver is considered a bracing exercise. So it's impossible to execute multiple repetitions of a movement using the Valsalva maneuver without taking a break in between repetitions to breathe. During these breaths, there is a loss of trunk stiffness because the glottis opens and lessens intraabdominal pressure, thereby decreasing trunk stiffness. 

For strongman athletes, for example, there needs to be more of a focus on muscular development that thereby supports trunk stiffness from a tissue-building perspective. Bracing is an important skill to perfect, but having muscular endurance and stiffness of the trunk is also a necessary trait for some athletes.

It's also important to distinguish that there's a difference in the type of bracing that's needed for a 1RM compared to a single-arm plank, for example. The core stability required for a standing or lying 1RM will be different compared to a unilateral movement that places 1 arm and 1 foot on the ground. 

Core stability "gains" (quantitative or qualitative progressions) can be difficult to measure. For example, over the course of 6 weeks an athlete might be able to hold their hips up higher or more aligned to their body over the course of the training blocks. These improvements may be hard to identify if you're only looking for timed (endurance) based progressions, so it's definitely something to be mindful of. 

Trunk Stiffness

If you're working on trunk stiffness with an athlete for a barbell movement, ie: a back squat, then a barbell carry might be an ideal movement to select due to its crossover with the back squat. A front rack carry might be beneficial for power cleans or front squats, for example. You don't necessarily need to work on their wrist mobility to improve their front rack position either; just spend more time in the actual front rack position by doing a front carry. You could also program front rack marches as well to march in place and help improve positional tolerance. 

During the carry or march, you'll build up trunk stiffness in the hip lateral musculature which can help maintain the level of the hips as the weight is shifted back and forth. 

To summarize barbell carries or marches:

  • Loaded on the back
  • Held in the front rack position
  • Use of a safety bar to load the lower body with less stress on the upper body
  • Overhead carry

Keep in mind that the carry or marching position might best be programmed based on the athlete's goals. For example, if an athlete is working on a snatch position, it might be best to program some overhead carries or marches for them. 

The idea of training a particular portion of a specific movement is that it can help comprehensively reduce the movement's variability. In a snatch, for example, an athlete might catch the bar too far forward sometimes or too far back. As the coach, you can coach them on their scapular position, head position, bracing technique, or other components of their body position in the carry or march when the timing isn't necessary as it would be if the athlete needed to "catch" the bar. 

Keep in mind you'll want to reduce the load from what they could do maximally to prevent too much loading from other movements in their program that are loaded closer to their maximum levels. Additionally, the time spent in the carrying or march increases the time in that position and improves motor learning and body positioning. 

Some examples might be:

  • Overhead barbell carry 3 sets x 45 seconds at 50% 1RM, 2 days per week
  • Front rack carry, 3 sets x 45 seconds at 65% of 1RM, 2 days per week 
  • Safety bar marches, 3 sets x 45 seconds at 67% of 1RM, 2 days per week

Keep in mind you probably don't want a ton of volume with carries and marches. Having 1 or 2 sets per week within your program just provides a little bit of extra time for the athlete to work on body position within the particular portion of a lift you're trying to improve. You don't need to be doing 10 or 20 sets of these to improve the execution of the targeted movement. 

Joint Angle Specificity 

Marches provide an opportunity to work on joint angle specificity and an opportunity to spend more time on one leg. Kettlebells are pretty easy to use here from a maneuverability perspective, you might start at 50% of body weight and go up from there as far as the load goes. Keep in mind you might have to coach the athlete on how to use a hook grip to increase grip strength.

For marches, since the body is staying somewhat stationary, you can probably go up to 90 seconds with these. If the athlete is struggling with grip strength, you could also use lifting straps here since the movement's goal is to load the lower body and not necessarily focus on grip strength. 

You don't have to use kettlebells for marches though; some other examples might be:

  • Unilaterally loaded marches with a dumbbell or plate
  • Barbell marches (in various racked positions)

The key to marches is to spend adequate time loading each leg. For example, spending 3 to 4 seconds on one leg before switching to the other. You'll want to coach the athlete to assume a 90/90 position with the foot in the air, hip, & knee flexed. When the athlete switches legs, a helpful cue might be to instruct them to put the weight onto the ball of the foot they are shifting to. 

Stabilizer Muscle Stability

Deep stabilizing muscles work to stabilize joints and limbs during multi-planar movements. Since stabilizer muscles aren't directly involved in moving loads, it's easy to forget them. However, it's important to train the deep stabilizing muscles below the superficial muscles we can't see to create a more comprehensive, safe, and efficient movement pattern. Examples of deep stabilizers include:

  • shoulder stabilizers 
  • hip stabilizers 
  • trunk stabilizers 

Plus, when your deep stabilizers are strong, you can produce more force since they allow you to handle larger loads. For example, even with back pain, improving your deep and superficial core musculature can assist athletes with stabilizing the spine to reduce some types of back pain. 

Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff is one such stabilizer complex of muscles that sits right on top of the scapula of the upper back. The rotator cuff provides ball and socket stability to the glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint). The shoulder is multi-planar, allowing us to abduct, adduct, internal rotation, external rotation, flex, and extend as well as move 360 degrees of circumduction (moving circularly). The rotator cuff allows for all this movement and ensures that the joints glide and slide well. 

We can train the rotator cuff in a variety of ways:

  • Internal & external rotation with a band (great for basic strength)
  • Bottoms-up kettlebell carry (forces stability and is more functional)
  • Overhead plate marches or carries (great for athletes who have overhead sport requirements)

Postural Muscle Endurance

Carries and marches, like Zerchers, are also great for strengthening upper back postural muscles. When forcing an upright, resisted movement, during a Zercher, we're forcing the musculature of the upper back to extend. Since the march or carry would be performed for a set amount of time, we're thereby training these muscles to be more aerobic. Just knowing that it's impossible to maintain a perfect posture at all times during the day, forcing the muscles of the upper back to get stronger and more resilient could help support posture that isn't exactly "perfect."

When to Program Carries or Marches?

For the most part, carries and marches are more aerobic, so these might be best near the end of a workout. However, runners and endurance athletes may be better off at the beginning of a session since the added resistance would be more anaerobic than the typical aerobic work that's being performed. Overall you might program marches and carries like this:

  • 2-3 sets of a movement that are specific to the needs of the client or athlete
  • Add near the end of your program for a slight conditioning effect (there's not a significant amount from this, but it might be all that's needed for some athletes)
  • Keep in mind that grip strength & forearm strength may be a limiting factor for some athletes 

A really easy thing you could do is just look up "carries for baseball players" or "marches or strongman athletes," etc. to give you some movements that might be useful for the athletes you work with. 

Support & Courses Available

Ready for even more support? Our Program Design 101 Course teaches you exactly how to organize an annual training plan and provides sport-specific examples, and even includes done for you programming templates by phase. Click the link here to check it out.

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