Smart Core Training Week 11 - Loaded Carries
By David Drinks
Hard to believe, but we’re now in the final week of Smart Core Training before we wrap it up with some concluding thoughts on core training next week. It’s been a good run, and I sincerely hope you’ve benefited from both the ideas and the exercises that I’ve been sharing with you. Part of building a resilient core is knowing exactly which exercises should be done, but an equally big part is understanding the why and how behind doing those exercises. That’s what I’ve tried to give you more than anything.
For today, we’re really going to look at an entire category of core training exercises, rather than just a single exercise, and you’ll see why in a minute.
As we finish up the series, we’re moving up to methods of training the core that can be done on the feet, and these are some of the most functional core training techniques that you can do!
First, however, I’d like to ask a question. How do you think people developed functional core strength, stability, and endurance prior to gyms? What did they do before sit-ups, crunches, or ab machines were a thing? I can guarantee they weren’t just walking around in back pain all day waiting until someone invented a core exercise or machine that would finally solve their problem! I can also guarantee they weren’t as focused on their “six pack abs” as many gym-rats are today, but that’s another story.
Well, believe it or not, one of the primary ways in which functional core strength and endurance was developed and maintained was by carrying things.
True, people didn’t used to have fancy gyms and gym-equipment that they could use to train their core muscles, but they also didn’t have many of the lifestyle factors that are so detrimental to our core and low back health today.
Of course, sitting is always one of the primary factors that gets brought up when talking about negative health things that have infiltrated our culture (Although, I have to admit, I’m sitting right now to type this…). However, some of the lesser talked about things include the numerous additional ways we have sought to make things easier on ourselves in our industrialized society.
A lack of carrying things is one of the biggest changes that can undermine our health and core function. If you think about it, way back before cars, strollers, shopping carts, and even running water, people carried stuff a lot more just to get the basic necessities of life.
If people wanted food and water, they typically had to walk somewhere, get it, and carry it back to wherever they were going to eat and drink it. Now we just hop in the car to drive to the grocery store (or local fast food joint), put our groceries in a shopping cart (which also has a convenient place for your kid to sit in), and then put the groceries in our car to drive them home. Yet somehow we still complain about the inconvenience of having to shop for groceries!
If you want water, you don’t have to take your water pot and walk down to the stream and carry a full pot of water back, you simply have to walk over to your tap and pour a glass.
Likewise, if you had kids way back in the day, there weren’t so many options for strollers and car seats. If you wanted to go somewhere with your kid – barring riding an animal - they were either walking, or…. yep, you were carrying them!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly thankful and happy for many of the modern things that make our lives a little easier. I’d rather not have to walk down to the stream to get my water! The problem comes, however, when we don’t understand what our bodies need that has been lost due to all these changes. Most of what our bodies need to stay healthy and functioning properly is an appropriate stress to the system from regular movement and loads on the body.
Carrying things, and walking for great distances with those things, used to be one of the primary stressors on the body, and guess what – the body adapts to that stress and gets stronger because of it!
The reason that carrying things is so beneficial to the core is that you’re not just lifting something up and immediately putting it down. Rather, you must suspend something in your hands; on your head; or on your back/over your shoulder for a certain amount of time while you walk with it.
The loading from carrying different things in different ways – whether on your back or in your hands – places differing challenges on the core muscles to not allow extension, flexion, side bending, or twisting of the spine under load. This is just like many of the core stability concepts we’ve been hitting on over and over again throughout this series!
On top of that, not just holding something, but walking with it, places subtle stability challenges on the core that must be accommodated. You have to engage the muscles of the core at just the right time, with just the right intensity as your bodyweight shifts from one leg to the other in your walking gait.
It’s precisely that submaximal, sustained, endurance-focused, and varied challenge to your core muscles that gives them the qualities of a strong, resilient, and durable core!
Hopefully now you can see why loaded carries are one of the most functional ways to challenge your core, and one of the best things you can incorporate into a Smart Core Training program!
In fact, renowned strength coach, Dan John, wrote in his book, Intervention: Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer: “There’s (speaking of loaded carries) something I’ve discovered that does more to expand athletic qualities than any other thing I’ve attempted in my career.”
How could that be? The reasoning behind this goes back to the fact that most of our culture – especially fitness culture – thinks about training the body by lifting things up and then putting them back down. We think that we should train everything with sets and reps.
But, again, if you think about what I wrote above, traditional training of the body simply by carrying things had nothing to do with sets and reps. It also had nothing to do with picking things up and putting them down. Instead, it had everything to do with carrying things for a certain amount of time, and doing that a lot!
The problem for many of us today, and even most athletes, is that we’ve out trained our core’s ability to keep up, by doing lots of sets and reps, and lots of heavy lifting. This is like cranking up the horsepower on an engine without reinforcing the frame and suspension of the car to hold up to what the car can do. We do lots of heavy lifts and high volumes of training, without giving our bodies the foundation of a core that has the endurance to stabilize for 100 reps of deadlifts or push-ups.
With that in mind, when we take a step back and start assessing and training our core stability and endurance with things like loaded carries, we greatly expand our body’s ability to do everything else without breaking down.
So, here’s a good test for you: Calculate what 75%, 50%, or even 25% of your current bodyweight is. Find something that weighs that much and carry it for as long as possible. If you fail after about 30 seconds, your core is not up to where it should be.
(by the way, one of the baseline tests that I now use with many of my clients who aren’t already in pain – especially with athletes – is to give them 75% of their bodyweight split behind each hand, and ask them to carry it. If they can’t make it at least 90 seconds, we’ve got work to do!)
Making a practice of carrying heavy things, both in your training, and in everyday life will give you a much more solid foundation for preventing injury, and performing better in just about everything in life.
Of course, if you are currently in pain, or you’ve never attempted this before, don’t jump right to carrying 75% of your bodyweight, unless you want to get hurt. Start small with whatever you can handle now, and build it up over the course of time.
For more info on some excellent loaded carry options for you, check out the video below:
To summarize loaded carries:
What are they?
Loaded carries are some of the more advanced, but also one of the most functional ways that you can train your core for strength, stability, and endurance. Functional means that they transfer directly to many movements and stresses on the body that occur in real life. If your body is not prepared for some of the stresses to the spine that occur in real life, then you’re at a higher risk for injury until you prepare it properly.
Loaded carries can be done in many different ways, but the main goal is to provide a sustained challenge to the core that promotes stability and endurance under load.
The key is to start low on weight and high on endurance, especially if you’ve not done much of this before. Once you develop a baseline, you can try to expand upon that with longer durations and higher loads.
I mentioned the benchmark of carrying 75% of your bodyweight for at least 90 seconds above. It’s important to remember that that is a test, and not something that should be trained every day. The high load will tell us pretty quickly if you have trouble stabilizing, but it is far more beneficial to work on your strength and endurance by starting with low loads for longer durations, and progressing from there.
Within a workout routine, my typical strategy is to begin by doing sets of 20-40-yard carries with a challenging weight. However, it can also be hugely beneficial to do a max time carry with a moderate weight, changing positions of the weight that is held whenever fatigue sets in. I’ve had people do this for up to 10 minutes straight!
As I discussed above, carrying things used to be a crucial component of everyday life, meaning that we have proof that loaded carries can be safely practiced every day! The more, the better, especially if you start small and vary the challenge. You can incorporate weighted carries into your workout, but then practice carrying other things (groceries, kids, back packs, etc.) in everyday life.
So, start carrying stuff today! Start slow and controlled and work your way up to higher challenges. Your core will thank you!
That’s it for this week on loaded carries, but I’ll be back next week to wrap it up with our conclusion of the series in week 12.