Although it’s usually a good idea for beginning and intermediate athletes to emulate the biomechanics used by the champions in sports competitions, the farmer’s walk is an exception.
In the farmer’s walk event held in strongman competitions, the lifters use extremely heavy weights. How heavy? Strongman Hugo Girard of Canada, who spoke at our 2010 Eleiko Strength Summit, established a world record in the event when he carried two farmer’s walk cylinders, each weighing 175 kilos, more than 25 meters in just over 21.39 seconds! Such weights can force an athlete into using poor mechanics, such as rounding the shoulders or, to maintain balance, looking downward. For training purposes, you want to maintain an upright position, with your head upright and your shoulders in line with your hips.
It is also a mistake to believe that dumbbells are a good substitute for equipment specially made for the farmer’s walk. Dumbbells will impede your walking mechanics. Further, the dumbbells can bang against your thighs and cause nasty bruises (likewise with kettlebells, although the bruises will be lower on the thigh). Hex bars and trap bars are also poor substitutes because their design can restrict the range of motion of the legs and also create too much stability, thus reducing the training effect on a variety of muscles.
In sports in which one side of the body is dominant, such as the 200-meter sprint or speedskating, or in which an implement is held, such as golf or tennis, imbalances in the trunk often occur and can affect the horizontal alignment of the pelvis. Such twisting creates shearing forces that can be especially harmful to the lumbar discs.
Although the vertebrae respond well to flexion, extension and lateral side bending, twisting motions can easily tear the rings of fibrous connective tissue that surround the discs and thereby lead to early degenerative disc disease. The farmer’s walk will help correct the structural imbalances in the trunk muscles that can cause such twisting. However, do not perform the farmer’s walk holding just one implement, as the stress to maintain proper posture while walking would be too high. For this reason, it is unwise to squat with an imbalanced load, despite the recommendations of some strength coaches.
Another poor substitute for the farmer’s walk is walking with a barbell across your shoulders. In the 1980s, as a publicity stunt a gym owner walked across the Golden Gate Bridge (from tower to tower) with supposedly 300 pounds across his shoulders. This was a poor replacement for the farmer’s walk, as the compressive forces on the discs are extremely high in comparison, and because this movement does not provide a training effect on the grip and traps.
For the farmer’s walk, a good distance is about 25 meters. If you cannot do this in a straight line, it would be better to walk in a large figure 8 rather than trying to turn with the implements, because this can create tremendous twisting forces on the discs.