Overhead Carry – How To And 9 Best Variations For Strong Shoulders

Learn how to do overhead carry, its benefits, limitations, and variations to help build strong and stable shoulders.

overhead carry featured image

You may find affiliate links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Why Trust Us

A Detailed Guide to Overhead Carry for Shoulder Strength and Stability

The overhead carry is a strength and stability exercise in which an individual carries a weight, often a dumbbell or kettlebell, directly above their head while walking.

This exercise primarily targets the muscles of the shoulder and upper back, engaging them to stabilize and control the kettlebell or dumbbell in an overhead position.

Many athletes use the exercise in strength and conditioning programs to enhance functional strength. It can also help athletes and exercisers seeking a well-developed and stable upper body.

Related: 9 Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises That Can Help Build A Strong Upper Body

Overhead Carry Target Muscles

The overhead carry primarily targets the following muscles.

  • Deltoids (Shoulder Muscles)
    The deltoid muscles, with three distinct heads, anterior, lateral, and posterior, are heavily engaged to support and control the weight held overhead.
  • Upper Trapezius
    The upper trapezius muscles help in stabilizing the shoulders and supporting the weight during the overhead carry.
  • Core Muscles
    The core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis, are actively engaged to provide stability and prevent overextension of the lower back.
  • Scapular Stabilizers
    Muscles, like the serratus anterior and rhomboids, help stabilize the scapulae or shoulder blades and contribute to shoulder stability during the exercise.
  • Rotator Cuff Muscles
    The rotator cuff muscles assist in stabilizing the shoulder joint and ensuring proper alignment.
  • Triceps
    The triceps brachii, at the back of the upper arm, are engaged to extend the elbow and maintain arm position during the overhead carry.

How to do the Overhead Carry with Proper Form

overhead carry with dumbbells

Required equipment: Dumbbell, kettlebell, or another suitable weight (that you can comfortably lift and hold overhead)

Related: 9 Best Rubber Hex Dumbbells To Help You Build Strength And Muscle Mass

Steps to follow

  • Start with Proper Posture
    Stand with your feet at shoulder-width and maintain a neutral spine.
    Engage your core muscles to support your lower back and pelvis.
  • Lift the Weight
    Grap a weight firmly in one (or both arms) and lift it to shoulder level. Your palms should face forward, and ensure you bend your elbows slightly.
  • Press the Weight Overhead
    Push the weight overhead, extending your arms fully.
    Keep your arms close to your ears, and align your wrists with your shoulders.
  • Walk Slowly and Steadily
    Begin walking forward with small, controlled steps. Ensure you walk in a straight line. Keep your core engaged to maintain proper posture.
  • Control Your Breathing
    Breathe regularly and deeply to support your core muscles and maintain stability.
  • Monitor Your Form
    Pay attention to your form throughout the exercise.
    Lower the weight safely to the floor if you feel your shoulders or arms fatiguing to the point where you can no longer maintain proper form.
  • Set a Specific Distance or Time
    You can perform overhead carries for a set distance, e.g., 20-50 feet, or a specific duration, e.g., 30-60 seconds.
  • Lower the Weight Safely
    carefully lower the weight to shoulder level using both hands and then, back to your sides when you have completed the desired distance or time.

Sets and Repetitions for Overhead Carry

Strength and Stability

  • For shoulder strength and stability, perform 3-5 sets of overhead carry for a shorter duration, such as 20-30 seconds per set.
  • Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.

Endurance and Conditioning

  • For endurance and conditioning, use lighter weights and perform 2-4 sets of overhead carry for a longer duration, such as 60 seconds or more per set.
  • Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.

Related: Farmers Carry – How To, Benefits, And Why Make It Part Of Your Fitness Plans

Overhead Carry Programming

Below are some general guidelines for programming overhead carry.

  • Frequency
    Incorporate overhead carry into your training regimen 1-3 times per week, depending on your goals and training volume.
  • Load Selection
    Choose a weight that challenges you without compromising form. As a general guideline, start with a weight you can comfortably carry for the desired duration.
    Progressively increase the weight as you become more comfortable and stronger.
  • Distance or Time
    You can program overhead carries based on either distance or time.
    Aim to cover a specific distance, such as 20-50 feet. For time-based programming, carry the weight overhead for a set duration, such as 30-60 seconds.
  • Variations
    Include variations to add variety and target your muscles differently.
  • Progression
    Progressively increase the intensity of the overhead carry.
    You can achieve that by increasing the weight, duration, or distance. You can also reduce the rest intervals between sets.
  • Safety
    Always prioritize safety and form.
    Stop the exercise if you experience pain, excessive fatigue, or loss of proper form.
    It is essential to maintain good posture and avoid overextending your lower back.
  • Warm-Up and Cool-Down
    Include a warm-up to prepare your shoulders and core and a cool-down to stretch and relax the muscles you activated overhead carry.
  • Consult a Trainer
    Consider working with a qualified fitness trainer to create a tailored program and ensure proper technique if you are new to the exercise or have specific fitness goals.
overhead carry - man training with a dumbbell

Tips and Best Practices for Overhead Carry

Consider the following tips and best practices to help you perform overhead carry effectively and safely.

  • Choose the Right Weight
    Select a weight that challenges you but allows you to maintain proper form throughout the exercise.
    Start with a lighter weight and gradually progress.
  • Maintain Proper Posture
    Keep your feet at shoulder-width, engage your core muscles, and maintain a neutral spine.
    Proper posture is crucial for stability and injury prevention.
  • Grip and Wrist Position
    Maintain a firm grip on the weight. Ensure your wrists align with your shoulders to prevent discomfort or strain.
  • Avoid Overarching the Lower Back
    Be cautious not to arch your lower back excessively during the exercise.
    Keep your core engaged to prevent this. Decrease the weight or reduce the duration if you find it challenging to maintain a neutral spine.
  • Steady and Controlled Steps
    Walk with small, deliberate steps. Keep your movements steady and controlled. Avoid rushing or taking long, uneven strides.
  • Look Straight Ahead
    Maintain your gaze straight ahead rather than looking up at the weight. That can help you stay balanced and prevent strain on your neck.
  • Breathe Regularly
    Focus on controlled breathing. Inhale and exhale steadily to support your core muscles and maintain stability.
  • Focus on Balance
    Concentrate on keeping the weight balanced directly above you. A slight shift in either direction can make the exercise more challenging.

Overhead Carry Common Mistakes and How to Correct/Avoid Them

Common mistakes in the overhead carry can lead to poor form, discomfort, and increased risk of injury. Below are some common errors and how to correct or avoid them.

Arching the Lower Back

Mistake: Allowing the lower back to arch excessively can lead to discomfort and potential injury. It compromises proper posture.
Correction: Engage your core muscles to maintain a neutral spine
If not, reduce the weight or shorten the duration of the overhead carry until your core strength improves.

Overextending the Wrists

Mistake: Allowing the wrists to bend backward too much can cause discomfort or strain
Correction: Keep your wrists in a neutral position, aligned with your shoulders
Maintain a firm grip on the weight without overextending your wrists.

Losing Shoulder Stability

Mistake: Allowing the weight to drift forward or backward can place undue stress on the shoulders and reduce effectiveness
Correction: Concentrate on keeping the weight directly above your head
Focus on your shoulder stability, and avoid letting the weight shift from its centered position.

Taking Long, Unsteady Steps

Mistake: Taking long, uneven steps can lead to balance issues and decrease control during the carry
Correction: Walk with small, controlled steps, maintaining a steady and even pace
Focus on balance and coordination throughout the exercise.

Rushing the Exercise

Mistake: Moving too quickly during the overhead carry can compromise stability and form
Correction: Perform the exercise at a steady, controlled pace
Rushing can lead to poor posture and an increased risk of injury.

Neglecting Core Engagement

Mistake: Failing to engage the core muscles can result in instability and reduced shoulder support
Correction: Prioritize core engagement throughout the exercise
A strong core is essential for stability and maintaining proper form.

Poor Grip and Dropping the Weight

Mistake: Losing control of the weight or allowing it to slip is dangerous
Correction: Ensure a firm grip on the weight. Lower the weight safely to the floor if you feel you are losing control.

Overloading Too Soon

Mistake: Starting with a weight that is too heavy can lead to poor form and potential injury
Correction: Begin with a manageable weight and gradually increase the intensity as your strength and stability improve

Improper Warm-Up

Mistake: Skipping a proper warm-up can increase the risk of injury, especially for the shoulders and upper back
Correction: Include a warm-up with a focus on shoulder mobility, upper back activation, and core engagement to prepare for the overhead carry

Neglecting Recovery

Mistake: Skipping the cool-down and post-exercise stretches can lead to muscle tightness and reduced flexibility
Correction: Stretch your shoulder and upper back muscles to promote flexibility and recovery after your sets

Ignoring Pain or Discomfort

Mistake: Pushing through pain or significant discomfort can lead to injury
Correction: Make safety a top priority. Do not continue the overhead carry if you experience pain, discomfort, or loss of proper form.

Skipping Professional Guidance

Mistake: Attempting the overhead carry without proper instructions, especially if you’re new to the exercise, can lead to poor form and an increased risk of injury
Correction: Consider working with a qualified fitness trainer who can teach you proper technique and guide your progress

overhead carry - woman training with a dumbbell

Overhead Carry Benefits

The overhead carry offers several benefits for athletes looking to improve their strength, stability, and fitness.

  • Shoulder and Upper Body Strength
    The exercise targets the muscles of the shoulder complex, leading to increased shoulder strength and enhanced upper-body development.
  • Core Stability
    Maintaining the weight overhead engages the core muscles for stability and prevents overextension of the lower back.
    Thus, the exercise is excellent for strengthening the entire core muscles.
  • Improved Posture
    The overhead carry encourages proper spinal alignment and shoulder positioning.
    That can help in developing better posture and reducing the risk of poor postural habits.
  • Functional Strength
    Overhead carries mimic real-life scenarios where you may need to hold objects overhead.
    That makes it a functional exercise that translates to daily activities.
  • Balance and Coordination
    Walking with a weight overhead challenges your balance and coordination, helping you improve these aspects of fitness.
  • Grip Strength
    Maintaining a firm grip on the weight is essential for the exercise.
    That can lead to gradual improvements in grip strength.
  • Full-Body Engagement
    While the primary focus is on the shoulders and core, the exercise engages other muscles to provide stability and control, creating a full-body workout.
  • Versatility
    You can adapt overhead carry to various fitness levels.
    You can adjust the weight, duration, or distance, making them suitable for beginners and experienced athletes.
  • Enhanced Endurance
    You can incorporate overhead carry into endurance or conditioning workouts to improve cardiovascular fitness and stamina.
  • Injury Prevention
    Strengthening the shoulders, upper back, and core can help prevent injuries related to poor posture or weak stabilizing muscles.
  • Mental Toughness
    Holding a weight overhead while walking can challenge mental toughness, discipline, and focus.
    That can benefit you in other areas of life.

Overhead Carry Limitations

While the overhead carry offers numerous benefits, it also has limitations.

  • Shoulder Mobility
    Exercisers with limited shoulder mobility or pre-existing shoulder injuries may find the overhead carry uncomfortable or challenging.
    It is essential to prioritize shoulder health and consult a healthcare or fitness professional if you have concerns.
  • Risk of Injury
    The overhead carry can increase the risk of shoulder, neck, or lower back injuries if not performed well.
    Poor posture and excessive arching of the lower back can lead to discomfort and potential harm.
  • Weight Selection
    Overloading too soon or using a weight that is too heavy can lead to poor form and potential injury.
    Choose an appropriate weight and progress gradually.
  • Balance and Coordination
    The exercise requires good balance and coordination. Some exercisers may initially struggle, and it might take time to improve these skills.
  • Fatigue
    Overhead carry is mentally and physically demanding, especially as the duration or weight increases.
    Fatigue may limit the number of repetitions or sets you can perform effectively.

Overhead Carry Variations

There are several variations of the overhead carry that can add variety to your training routine and target different aspects of your fitness.

Single-Arm Overhead Carry

Instead of carrying the weight with both hands, use just one hand to hold the weight overhead.
The variation increases the challenge to your core and balance as it requires more stability.

It can also help you correct muscle imbalances, making it possible to build a more symmetrical body.

Related: Suitcase Carry – How To, Benefits, And Why Make It Part Of Your Training

overhead carry - man training with different kettlebells

Uneven Carry

Hold a weight overhead in one hand and a different weight, such as a kettlebell, dumbbell, or farmer’s walk implement, at your side in the other hand.

That creates an imbalance that intensifies the required stability and core engagement.

Walking Lunge with Overhead Carry

You can combine the overhead carry with walking lunges.

Take a step forward with one foot, perform a lunge, and then carry the weight overhead while walking. The variation adds a leg workout to the exercise.

Offset Overhead Carry

Hold the weight overhead, but with your arm extended straight out to the side instead of directly above you.

The variation challenges your shoulder and core muscles differently and can help those with shoulder mobility limitations.

woman training with a kettlebell

Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry

Hold a kettlebell upside down or bottoms-up with the handle in one hand and the bottom facing upward. Then, lift and carry it overhead with the bottom facing the ceiling.

The variation requires extra grip strength and shoulder stability.

Zercher Carry

Instead of an overhead position, cradle a kettlebell or, better still, a loaded barbell at chest height or in the crook of your elbows with both hands.

The variation challenges your core, upper back, and biceps uniquely.

Kettlebell Front Rack Carry

Hold a kettlebell in the “rack” position, which means it’s close to your chest, with your elbow bent and the weight resting against your forearm.

Carry the weight in this position while walking.

Slosh Pipe Carry

Exercisers with access to a slosh pipe, i.e., a PVC pipe partially filled with water, can carry it overhead. The shifting water inside the pipe makes it a challenging exercise for stability.

Waiter’s Carry

Hold a weight overhead with one hand as if holding a tray like a waiter or server.
The variation emphasizes shoulder stability and is excellent for improving posture.

kettlebell turkish get up - woman doing kettlebell exercises

Who will Benefit from Overhead Carry

The overhead carry can benefit several exercisers.

  • Strength Athletes
    Weightlifters, powerlifters, and strongman competitors can benefit from overhead carry to help improve functional, shoulder, and core strength and stability.
  • Bodybuilders
    Bodybuilders can use overhead carry as an accessory exercise to target the shoulders and upper back, helping to improve muscle definition and symmetry.
  • CrossFit Athletes
    Overhead carry is a popular movement in CrossFit workouts. It can help participants develop strength, endurance, and versatility.
  • Functional Fitness Enthusiasts
    Those interested in improving their general fitness and functionality in daily life can benefit from overhead carry.
    The exercise can help simulate real-life scenarios where objects are lifted and carried overhead.
  • Individuals with Poor Posture
    Overhead carry can help improve posture by strengthening the upper back and shoulders, promoting a more upright and balanced position.
  • Core Strength Seekers
    People looking to develop a strong core and improve stability can benefit from overhead carry, as they require significant core engagement to maintain proper form.
  • Grip Strength Training
    Overhead carry can form part of a grip strength training program, enhancing hand and forearm strength.
  • Military and Law Enforcement Personnel
    Those in physically demanding professions can benefit from overhead carry. The exercise can help improve functional strength and the ability to carry heavy loads, such as equipment or injured colleagues.
    • Older Adults
      Overhead carry can help older individuals maintain shoulder health, balance, and general strength.
  • Sports Enthusiasts
    Athletes in various sports, such as basketball, volleyball, and swimming, may benefit from overhead carry to enhance shoulder strength and stability, contributing to improved athletic performance.

Final words from LiveLIfe

Incorporating overhead carry into your workout regimen can offer many benefits, including helping you build Strong and stable shoulders.

It can lay a solid foundation for many exercises and activities.

Master the technique to help build a robust upper body and improve your fitness.

Similar Posts