In the world of lifting heavy things, you can’t do much better than a carry.
Carries—which simply involve lifting a weight and walking around with it—are among the best exercises for training virtually every muscle at once, Sarah Walls, C.S.C.S., owner of SAPT Strength & Performance Training in Virginia, tells SELF. “With carries, you’re working on everything from top to bottom,” she says. “Carries train the lower and upper back, legs, and shoulders, while also hitting the deep stabilizing muscles of the core. And, depending on the variation you’re using, you also work your biceps or triceps.” Basically, you can think of a carry like a deadlift with a row, shoulder press, and plank mixed in.
One thing that really sets carries apart from other “bang for your buck” compound exercises is their ability to improve your performance in every other exercise in the gym.
Because carries challenge a wide range of muscles and, specifically, require a ton of core engagement, they help improve the body’s ability to generate and maintain head-to-toe tension—a prerequisite for performance in everything from running and climbing to maintaining healthy posture sitting at a desk, kinesiologist and exercise physiologist Gavin McHale, C.E.P., tells SELF.
Carries are also great for improving a major weak spot for most people: grip strength.
It's something you may never even think twice about until you start lifting heavy (or try to open a jar of pickles), and grip strength is admittedly not very sexy. But research shows grip strength is a good predictor of overall strength, which in turn serves as a good predictor for overall health, with one recent study even finding an association between grip strength and lower mortality. One thing that’s for sure, though: When you have a strong grip, you’re able to do more in the gym. Walls explains that grip strength is critical to performing pull-ups, deadlifts, and any exercise that requires that you not let go of the weight. Think about it: How many times have your hands given out before the muscle you’re actually trying to fatigue?
Many carry variations strengthen the grip, because they require you to hold the weight stable in the same position for an extended period of time. When your grip is stronger, you can perform more pull-ups and heavier deadlifts, and hold onto weights long enough in other lifts for your body’s powerhouse muscles, like your glutes and traps, to actually fatigue, she says. That means better overall workout results.
The best way to mix carries into your workout routine depends on exactly what you want to get out of them, McHale says.
“I will often program lighter load carries earlier in a training session to activate the core and shoulder musculature,” she says. “However, if we're going with heavier variations, I'll program those at the end so as not to take away from the main lift's need for grip strength or core stability.”
Walls agrees, explaining that she loves programming carries into her clients’ (and her own!) workouts as finishers. Because they aren’t very technical, and their risk of injury is so low, they can be fun, challenging ways to use up the last bit of your strength at the end of a workout, she says.
It doesn’t have to be complicated: Pick up a weight that feels significantly heavy but that you're able to lift and hold with good posture, and walk with it as far as you can. “Sit it down when you have to, and then once you can, keep going," Walls says. "See how far you can make it, and how much farther you can get from week to week. When things get easy, pick up a heavier weight.”
For such a simple exercise, the carry actually has a ton of variations.
Below, we break down some of the best. Modeling each move is Davi Cohen, a Brooklyn-based powerlifter who is a member of the Women's Strength Coalition advisory board.