One of the problems with fitness is that most of the research and practical applications focus on competitive athletes.
But most of us who want to get fit are not competing in anything.
So what is the one exercise that will improve the ability of regular people to function in the world?
Learn what it is and how you can start doing it below.
There are an infinite number of exercises in the world.
Squats, split squats, overhead squats, one-legged squats, sumo squats...just to name a few squat exercises.
It can get confusing and overwhelming figuring out which exercises you need to be doing.
When people are competitive athletes it gives us some clarity as to what they need to be doing and be the best at.
(Spoiler Alert: It is their sport or activity of choice)
We can use that as a starting place to figure out what other exercises will complement their goal of playing that sport.
If you are a runner, you should be running and doing the exercises which help you run and have the body that continues to work and function for your entire life.
The same applies to all athletes across all sports.
But what about the rest of us?
Well, there is one exercise that is so basic we all use it constantly without realizing it. And getting better at this one exercise will make you stronger, burn fat, and help you be able to do more things that you want to do.
And that exercise is (drum-roll please): The Loaded Carry.
What is a Loaded Carry?
The loaded carries are simply moving your body and something that is not your body from point A to point B using the energy of your body.
Load = something that is not your body
Carrying = moving using the energy of your body
This definition is broad, and if you want to nitpick it includes almost everything that you ever do. Yes, technically putting on shorts and a T-shirt and walking to the fridge is a loaded carry but since the weight and distance are negligible it doesn’t really count.
But what about when the weather is cold and raining so you are wearing lots of heavy clothes and you have to walk somewhere. Those heavy wet clothes count.
Or when you are wearing a heavy backpack to travel. Or holding a heavy suitcase. Or carrying your groceries home from the market.
It is something that we all have to do all the time. Getting better at it will make our lives more enjoyable. Imagine if your groceries were easy to carry or your backpack felt light.
There are three categories of loaded carries, defined by where the load is:
1: Wearing - The load is attached to and supported by you
2: Holding - You are holding the load above the ground
3: Sled - The load is on the ground
This variation is defined by having the load attached to and supported by your body. The most common variation that most people do of this is wearing a backpack. But in exercise training, it is not uncommon to use a weighted vest. Another common time people use this method is with a small child in a carrier.
These variations are great for building leg strength and core strength. It is also hard to beat for endurance training. There are even competitive events nowadays (called Ruck Races) where you can do this in a group the same way people do a 5K or marathon.
In the real world, this is useful because it keeps your hands free. That way you can use a key or check your cell phone without having to put the load down.
In this variation, you are using your hands and arms to hold onto the weight. In most people’s lives carrying grocery bags is the obvious place that this happens. But it is also the skill that you use to move most objects that aren’t either too heavy to pick up or designed to be moved on the ground.
When it is time to move (house or apartment) you do this a lot. Like every single box. Additionally, if you have outdoor hobbies or a large piece of land you probably use this often. The bags of soil, mulch, or concrete are all things that are often held and carried.
In the gym, almost any weight can be used for carrying. One of the most popular (and functional) exercises that is getting more common is the farmer’s carry. In this exercise, you pick two heavyweights up (one in each hand) and carry them for time or distance. But there are endless variations including suitcase carries (same as the farmer’s carry but with one hand), overhead carries (great shoulder developer), rack carries, chest carries. The list is endless.
I also put shoulder carries (where you sling something like a bag of soil or a person over your shoulder) in this category (even though it could be argued that this is wearing). The reason being since it is not attached to you but you probably are keeping one or both hands on it at all times.
There might not be a better way to develop grip and upper body strength that works in the real world than holding. If you have ever heard the phrase “farm boy strong” it comes from doing this with heavy and awkward loads all day every day.
This is when the weight is still supported on the ground. There are two basic ways this occurs: dragging and pushing.
The dragging technique is like a horse and a cart. The horse moves and the cart (sled) is dragged along. This is when you are moving and are attached to the load (or holding onto it). The load moves with you. The force is applied from the front and the load is pulled along for the ride.
The most common way this happens in our daily life is when traveling. Your suitcase is probably on wheels so you can drag it behind you. You could push it (or hold it) but it is designed to be easily dragged. Hopefully, you are not standing on a moving treadmill in the airport doing nothing.
Dragging is used often in sports training, particularly in sprint training. It works by attaching a harness and a sled to you, which you then drag behind you as you walk, run, or crawl forward.
On the other hand, pushing is like having the cart before the horse. The force is applied from the back and it moves forward. This doesn’t work so well for horses, but for those of us with hands, it is a great strategy.
Most carts of any type designed for humans are pushed. Shopping carts, strollers, wheelbarrows (a great training tool) are all designed to be pushed. You could also put your car in neutral and push it (a great workout)
In the gym, we often use a sled (also used in dragging) for push training, by standing behind it and pushing it forward. Often sleds have raised handles so you don’t have to push it from the ground (however, putting a 45 lb plate on the floor and pushing it is a great and really tough workout).
How to measure the difficulty
When you are dealing with loaded carries the weight doesn’t tell you the whole story about the difficulty. In fact, it tells you almost nothing.
A 50 lb backpack feels much heavier than a 50 lb weighted vest. The vest is designed to distribute the weight evenly which makes it easier to move with.
Being able to hold a 50 lb dumbbell and walking is nothing like picking up a 50 lb desk. The size and awkwardness make the desk seem much heavier. The same goes for a 50 lb sandbag–it is a whole different world. Trust me.
With sleds, the only relevant variable is friction. An identical sled with identical weight will be much more difficult on concrete than on grass. And of course, wheels make it much easier, like hundreds or thousands of pounds easier.
How to incorporate loaded carries into your training
You probably already have all the tools you need to start training to improve your ability to wear and hold loads. If you go to a gym almost any tool there can also be held.
For wearing at home you could fill up a backpack and go for a hike. Or you could hold the backpack to get some hold carrying training.
Instead of reps (repetitions) we usually measure our carrying by time or distance.
For wearing we usually have a fairly large time or distance, such as km (or miles).
For holding the times and distances are much smaller. 1 minute is plenty for many variations (such as overhead carry or suitcase carry). Sometimes we will go in the middle and do 5-10 minute holding workouts.
A sled usually requires special equipment. The reason being that most we usually interact with have wheels. Once you put wheels on it you need a lot of weight to get a good workout. Even an average strength man needs something about the size of a car to get a good dragging workout with wheels.
But in the gym, there are much smaller implements that can be used. In addition to sleds that are designed for this purpose, anything that is durable enough to be dragged or pushed across the floor can be used. This includes weightlifting plates and kettlebells.
Often with sleds sprints are part of the equation. Try pushing a sled as fast as you can for 10 seconds and see what your heart rate does.
The next level
If these don’t sound challenging enough you should know that you can combine them.
Put on a heavy backpack. Put up something heavy. Start walking. This will make you strong quickly.
Or if you have a sled attach the harness, put on a weight vest, and pick up two heavy kettlebells.
Enjoy the (short) ride!
Loading carries are a part of all of our lives. By getting better at them you will not only get fitter but you will be able to do the things you need to do to live more easily.
They also build a body that is not easily injured and is lean and muscular in a natural way.
But most importantly you will open up new options for enjoyable things that you can do. Traveling and backpacking give you new opportunities.