Have you ever heard of the farmers walk exercise? Chances are you have. But do you do it as a part of your workout program? Probably not. You’re not alone, though. Almost nobody outside of strongman competitors and some athletes do it. However, the farmers walk exercise is one of the most complete and effective movements you could add to your routine.
While the farmers walk exercise is often thought of as just for the upper back / traps or as a conditioning finisher, it really works the entire body. It obviously works the traps, upper back, and shoulder girdle, as these all have to hold the weight. It’s basically like an extended static hold of the bottom position of a shrug.
One tip is to try to keep the shoulders back as you perform the movement. Doing so will place more emphasis on the upper back, bottom parts of the traps, and rear delts. This can help alleviate any potential muscular imbalances you might have from when comparing upper body “pushing” muscles to upper body “pulling” muscles. It can also help reverse the “hunchback” you see some people suffer from as a result of sitting at a desk for too long.
Moving on, the farmers walk exercise is also excellent at improving the grip, though there can be a question of whether or not you should use straps (discussed below). Because the whole body is under a load, it ends up being excellent for cardio and can burn a number of calories fairly quickly.
The entire core is also worked very hard as it has to keep your torso upright as you’re carrying the weight. The “suitcase carry” is a farmers walk exercise variation where you only hold an implement in one hand. You have to go a little lighter, but this variation can really target the core as you have to not only walk with the weight, but focus even harder on keeping your torso tight and vertical.
If nothing else, it’s simply just a full body strength move. Building up a big squat, bench, or press is great, but there’s little else (in the gym or in the everyday world) that says “strong” than picking up something super heavy off the ground. Picking up something super heavy and toting it from “here” to “there” is an even more significant demonstration of strength.
If you’ve ever seen strongman competitors on television do the farmers walk exercise, you know that they had a special apparatus to do it with. While the competitions often have something like big cylinders or pieces of steel with handles welded on, the plate-loaded variety look like little barbells that you slide weight plates onto each side. The middle then has a raised handle, much like you see on a trap bar. Grab one in each hand and off you go.
However, you don’t need these specialized tools to do the farmers walk exercise. Simply grabbing a heavy dumbbell in each hand works great. Kettlebells also work, as do weight plates that have holes in them that you can grab onto – you just have to ensure that they’re heavy enough. If your gym has a trap bar, it’ll take up a little more room and you’ll have to watch for fellow gym-goers a little more, but that works just fine, too.
Actually performing the farmers walk exercise is about as simple as it gets. Just place your two items roughly a foot apart, stand between them, squat / bend down, pick them up, and start walking. Remember the above mentioned tip about keeping the shoulders back. If you’re using fairly heavy dumbbells, be sure to try to minimize rounding your back as you pick them up and put them down. Setting them on a bench, box, or even just grabbing them right out of the rack might be a good idea.
There are two options you can choose from as far as “sets” and “reps”. One would be to pick a total overall distance, and keep going until you’ve covered that distance, stopping to rest when you need to, but still as little as possible.
So for example, if you were going to go for 100 yards total, you’d pick up your two implements at the starting point, and go for as far as you could before you needed a rest. When you felt like you couldn’t go any further, you’d stop, put them down, and take a few breaths. When you were ready to go again, you’d pick them up and resume walking. Repeat until you’ve covered your desired 100 yards, resting no more than is absolutely necessary.
The other way to do the farmers walk exercise would be a more “traditional” approach. 100 total yards is still a good distance, only this time break it down into lengths of 15-25 yards, choosing one of the following:
There’s not really enough of a difference between these to debate which is “better”, so just don’t worry about that aspect. Which one you pick is going to be most dependent on where it is you’re doing the farmers walk exercise and how much room you have. If you can take your implements outside, then sets of 25 yards is no problem. However, if you’re having to carry dumbbells around, doing laps inside your gym, 15 yards is probably a better idea.
Since the farmers walk are so well rounded, it really can be placed in almost any workout. As it hits the upper back and traps so hard, its fits well in a shoulders and lats workout. Because you’re having to pick up your implements off the ground, it also goes well with deadlifts. It’s also an incredible way to end off a lower body workout.
Just know that whatever workout you place it in, you’ll want to do the farmers walk last. It can fry your forearms and grip, which can seriously affect the rest of your workout. Trying to do any shoulder or back work afterward wouldn’t be a good idea, either. And it builds up so much fatigue in a short period of time that you very well wouldn’t have sufficient energy left to put into the rest of your training.
The one caveat to this is if you’re doing a circuit-based or conditioning session. In that case, the farmers walk exercise might be able to be done sometime besides last. Although for all the reasons just mentioned, leaving it until the end is still a good idea – be it the end of your routine or even just the end of an individual circuit.
There is actually more to this question than you might think. On one hand, some people say you shouldn’t, as the farmers walk builds up your grip and straps would impede it from doing so. On the other hand, straps can help you use a lot more weight, which can have a much more significant impact on your upper back, shoulder girdle, traps, core, and more. Straps would also potentially let you go further and take fewer rest breaks, thus allowing for more extreme conditioning.
Some of the “gym bros” or resident strength athletes might see using straps as cheating. However, the pros on TV use straps, so should that not be an indication that they’re okay to use? But then again, you’re also not carrying around giant logs that weigh several hundred pounds in each hand, either.
Truth is that both have their merit, and it can honestly depend on the situation. If your forearms, hands, and grip are weak, then you probably owe it to yourself to do at least some of your farmers walk without straps. Grip the handles / implements as hard as you can and really work that static hold as you walk.
At the same time, if you’re carrying dumbbells with chrome handles that aren’t knurled, your grip could be a limiting factor just because your hands are too sweaty. This is even more true if you’re in a public gym that won’t let you (or at least frowns upon) using chalk because of the mess.
If you’re not as concerned about your grip and are more worried about the traps, shoulder girdle, upper back, and overall conditioning, then feel free to wear your straps and go as heavy as possible. This can also provide more of a mental challenge too, as how heavy, far, and / or fast you go will then be dictated by your will rather than a severely under-performing muscle group.
If nothing else, just do some of both. Start off with a set or two not using your straps, then when your grip fades, go ahead and put them on. You can even start off a little lighter, being more deliberate with your technique and holding your shoulders in place. Then you can strap into the really heavy weight, and just focus on getting to the finish line.
In the end, what matters most is that you actually start doing the farmers walk exercise. Though you can use specialized implements, a heavy pair of dumbbells and a little bit of space is really all you need. It’ll make you old school strong, work your conditioning like little else can, make you mentally tough, and can even fix muscular imbalances or posture issues. Place it at the end of almost any workout and it’ll only be a few weeks before you’re seeing all new changes to your physique.