We carry things all the time. Light things and heavy things. In one hand and in both hands. Things with handles and things without handles. For 20 steps: from a shop to the car, and for 2000 steps: from the car to the 20th floor (yep, in this scenario we have a broken elevator).
Sometimes, those walks cause us just a light, annoying inconvenience. Other times, they result in nagging injuries, when we have twisted our bodies and distributed the weight in body-unfriendly ways.
The humble kettlebell carry is a very underrated, yet extremely useful and functional full-body exercise, meaning that it trains your body for the activities performed every day. Doing exercises like the kettlebell carry, in a controlled and stable manner, will help protect your body and teach it to safely carry stuff in everyday life.
With every weighted step, you will train your body to stabilize your shoulders, core and hips and walk with a beautiful, proud posture.
Kettlebell carries are also a great warmup exercise. Take, for example, overhead carries: they will efficiently mobilize, stabilize and warm up your shoulders and upper back before overhead and bench presses.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Carry
Kettlebell carries are beautiful in their simplicity. They do not require exceptional skills and coaching. You find the kettlebells, you pick them up, you carry them for a distance – you got yourself a kettlebell carry workout!
As a bonus to their simplicity comes a truckload of benefits:
1. Strong grip. This is probably the first thing that comes to your head when you see a person walking around a gym with two heavy bells. And you're right. The kettlebell carry is one of the (if not the) best exercises to work on your grip strength, which will translate into your deadlifts, chin-ups, rows, heavy swings and snatches, and so on.
2. Strong core. Core is what supports your body every day. And core is exactly what you use to stabilize the weight at every step of the kettlebell carry. Besides, in unilateral carries, where you carry a kettlebell on one side, you're gonna also fire up your obliques (the muscles of the core located towards the sides of your body).
3. Strong shoulders and upper back. Kettlebell farmer's and overhead carry will help you build shoulder strength and stability.
4. Better posture. The strong core, shoulders and upper back will translate into a good posture: you will stop slouching – and start walking proud, as you should.
5. Better gait. The kettlebell carry will wean you off sloppy, unsafe walking. When you need to carry heavy chunks of metal without tripping over and dropping them on your toes, you become really well-aware of your walking patterns. You start feeling every step you take, and trying to make it the very best step of your life.
Gradually, this will turn into better and safer walking habits, even when are absent mindedly browsing your phone on the way to work (although we still strongly advise against texting-and-walking!).
Muscles Worked in the Kettlebell Carry
This simple movement will work your whole body: legs (quads, hams, glutes and calves), erector muscles of the spine, which straighten your back (think good posture) and are employed in side-to-side rotation, upper and middle back (traps and lats), abs and arms (biceps, triceps, forearms and palm (think strong grip)).
Kettlebell Carry Form
The most common form of the kettlebell carry is the kettlebell farmer's carry, where you hold one heavy kettlebell by its handle in each hand.
The technique is pretty straightforward:
1. Stand with two heavy kettlebells on the floor in front of you.
2. Brace your core, hinge at the hips, reach down and deadlift the weights – so that you are holding them at your sides with a strong, firm grip.
Important: keep your shoulder blades together, do not drop or shrug your shoulders.
3. Walk forward in a straight line for a desired number of steps, meters or seconds. Keep your glutes and abs engaged, your chest high and shoulders packed in your upper back.
Walking tip: take small steps, smoothly rolling the foot from heel to toes. As eager as you might be to finish the heavy walk, big steps will make it harder to keep control of your gait and to minimize the twisting and swaying motion.
4. Lower the bells in a controlled manner (meaning: don't sprain your back and don't drop them on your feet). Take a short break. Repeat.
How to Measure Progress?
With kettlebell carries, you can measure your progress in a few different ways:
1. You can walk for the same number of steps/meters/seconds, but gradually increase the weight.
2. You can use the same weight, but gradually increase the distance or duration of one walk.
3. You can keep the same weight, distance or duration, but make shorter breaks between sets.
Frequent Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
1. Zigzagging. Keep walking in a straight line. If you start wobbling from side to side, the fatigue is kicking in, meaning that either the weight is too high, the breaks between sets are too short, or the walk is too long.
If you cannot walk in a straight line, take a break, because what usually happens next is your grip giving up – which is a safety hazard for your precious toes.
2. Slouching. Keep your chest high and your shoulders packed in your upper back.
Do not round your upper back.
3. Shrugging. The opposite of slouching, shrugging is also not the best option for your shoulder safety during farmer's walks. Keep your shoulders packed in your upper back: drive your shoulder blades back and down.
One-Sided or Two-Sided?
Apart from different kettlebell positions (held at your side, racked at your chest, pressed over your head), the variations of kettlebell carries cover one-sided (aka unilateral) and two-sided (aka bilateral) carries.
One-sided variations, where you carry only one bell in one hand, require a constant anti-rotational effort, meaning that you need to stop yourself from twisting and bending to the side, front or back, because your body is loaded asymmetrically. This makes unilateral kettlebell carries beneficial for working on upper-body imbalances: where one side of your body is weaker than the other. They are also great for working your obliques.
Two-sided variations, were you carry a bell per hand, allow you to use a higher total weight. In such carries, the side where your body wants to twist or bend changes with every step, meaning that you need to work different rotary muscles of the core with every step you take – to prevent rotation.
Kettlebell Carry Variations
Kettlebell Rack Carry
For this kettlebell carry variation, you will clean the kettlebell(s) into the front rack position (see Kettlebell Clean) and walk for a desired number of steps, meters or seconds.
Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
For this unilateral kettlebell carry, you will hold one heavy bell in one hand, at your side, like a suitcase, and walk for a desired number of steps, meters or seconds.
Kettlebell Waiter's Carry
For the kettlebell waiter's carry, you need to press the kettlebell to the overhead position (see Kettlebell Press), then walk with that heavy imaginary tray for a desired number of steps, meters or seconds.
Kettlebell Bottoms-up Carry
For this variation, you're gonna clean the kettlebell to the bottoms-up position and hold it there by its handle, upside down. Your arm, holding the bell, is in front of you, with the upper arm parallel to the floor and the elbow bent at 90 degrees.
This position is particularly taxing for your grip and wrists, so be careful with using heavy weights if you're not sure your wrists are ready. Use a lower weight at first.
Kettlebell Mixed Carry
Another variation of the kettlebell carry is the mixed carry, where you use two different grips to support the kettlebells, for example:
1. Kettlebell Rack and Suitcase Carry. For this one, you're gonna hold one kettlebell in the racked position, the other one – in the suitcase position.
2. Kettlebell Rack and Waiter Carry. Here, you will hold one bell in the racked position, the other one – in the waiter's position.