By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography: Gregory James; Model: Blair Mone
During my college days some of my closest friends (aka The Russell Rats) were my weightlifting and powerlifting buddies. Many great memories are easy to recall, but one day in particular always seems to surface. That night we all agreed we hadn’t destroyed our bodies enough in our earlier workout, so we decided to hit the stairwell at the library for some fireman carries. You’d be surprised how heavy a 200-pound guy feels draped over your shoulder when you carry him up seven flights of stairs! Little did we know we had wisdom beyond our years, but we had the strength to prove it. (Can’t say campus security shared our enthusiasm!)
If you’re a strongman whose sole priority is lifting heavy stuff off the ground but you’ve never attempted some unconventional methods of achieving serious strength, we strongly suggest you keep reading. As you know, our bodies are capable of many amazing feats, but relying solely on squats, deadlifts, bench presses and other standard movements to fill up your repertoire isn’t really enough. Putting yourself in a position that requires use of your hands, forearms, low back, legs and shoulders in shockingly new ways will only help those favorite lifts. We’re not suggesting you head to your local library, but we are urging you to test yourself with different challenges.
ONE TOUGH WALK
The farmer’s walk is one example of a lift that’s practiced less than it should be. The most common type is the suitcase method, where you simply walk as far as you can carrying a lot of weight as if you were carrying weighted suitcases. Now, to the casual observer the exercise looks pretty basic, but if you’ve ever tried carrying dumbbells from one end of the gym to the other, you know there’s a lot going on. If you haven’t, you’re missing out on one of the best exercises to augment strength. Here’s why:
>> Grasping for Strength. With every step the farmer’s walk will test your hands and forearms in a unique way. Not only is holding heavy weight difficult from a standing position, but with every step there’s a slight up-and-down movement that tests your grip strength beyond anything you’ve tried.
>> Also targets your low back, upper traps, shoulders and biceps. From your low back all the way to your upper traps, shoulder girdle and even your biceps tendons, the farmer’s walk leaves very few muscles out of the loop. Controlling the weight at your sides requires muscles and angles not normally used in a standard workout.
>> Don’t forget the core. (Don’t yawn!) From the innermost transverse abdominis to the obliques, your entire core will be heavily tested. We know the entire notion of “core” training is a bit girly, but the fact of the matter is, the strongest cores on the planet are of strength athletes who master not only deadlifts and squats, but who play around with unconventional tactics like these.
>> Don’t forget the legs. We forget the legs are the foundation upon which you perform all this work, but never doubt that your calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes are fully engaged and recruited.
A FARMER’S TOOLS
We strongly suggest you get as creative (safely, of course) as you want. The most accessible tools are obviously dumbbells, but if your gym has a trap bar, by all means step inside it and walk. That’s really all you need: some heavy weight and a little space. If you train at home but don’t have dumbbells, go buy some 50-gallon water jugs, which you can reuse filled with either water or sand. The great feature about the water jugs is that you can actually incorporate the drop-set mentality on each walk. As you fail, dump some of the contents and keep going. Over time your distance traveled before initial failure will increase, indicating an increase in strength and stamina. The farmer’s walk includes a serious endurance effect.
You also might want to invest in some chalk. Although we don’t suggest you use pulling straps for the farmer’s walk, your hands will get sweaty (especially if you train outdoors) and the chalk will help you maintain a good, tight grip throughout.
Finally you might be wondering how much weight you should be carrying, and that’s a good question. The simple answer is as much as you can. You’ll quickly notice you don’t have to carry much weight to begin destroying your hands, traps and low back, so experiment with the weight. You can gauge your first few trials with the kind of weight you choose for dumbbell shrugs and go from there. Try the farmer’s walk only once a week to allow full rest and recovery time after each weighted stroll, preferably after any exercises that require you to maintain a strong grip.
FARMER’S WALK WORKOUT
Try one of these weighted walking exercises for the recommended sets and distances.
Overhead Weighted Walks. Holding a sandbag, water jug, weight plate or dumbbell straight overhead, walk from point A to point B and back.
Keg or Jug Walks. Bear-hug either a keg or a water jug (tree stumps work, too) and walk the designated distance, squeezing the object tight to your chest.
The Walk Workout Exercise. Sets Distance Farmer’s Walk ^ 5 30 steps (30 steps up and 30 steps back)*
If you fail to make the target distance, stop and carefully drop the weight. (Bend your knees; don’t risk injuring your back by bending over.) Rest as little as possible before continuing the walk. However, remember you’ll be picking up the weight from a dead stop, virtually deadlifting back to the standing position, so be sure to use good form to prevent injury.
* Distance or number of steps may vary based on your surroundings or facilities.
^ For even more difficulty outdoors, try these walks on an incline surface.