Farmers Walks: The Overlooked Solution To Many Problems – by Ben Coker

The idea for this article came after a chat I had with two friends who are both training powerlifters. The context of the conversation was this: 6 weeks out from a meet one of them wanted to do ‘something a bit different’ and do some strongman stuff to break from the grind of competitive lifts and band/speed work etc. The other suggested it would be detrimental to the meet preparation. After listening on the debate I said that actually I think its a great idea, putting forward the question, ‘Do you know the benefits that heavy farmers walks can bring to your competition lifts and other lifts in general?’ After a brief silence I explained…

Farmers walks are one of the simplest and most function exercises ever. Period. Standing and walking are primal essential functions of human life and this exercise is just that. Stand up with a heavy weight and then walk with it a given distance. Every major muscle group is involved in this exercise, and not only that, dependant on the working distance, great stress can be put upon the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Marius reaped the benefits of heavy farmers walks!

Lets think about the muscular actions and anatomical movements that are occurring and how they can benefit competition lifts and main compound lifts in general.

The farmers walk trains the entire posterior and anterior chains; the traps down to the forearms including the entire spinal core musculature. I hope your ready. Here it is from head to toe:

Farmers walks build monster traps. The upper traps are recruited to hold the shoulder girdle in elevation or at least maintain neutral. This distributes some of the load off of the spine making the weight feel lighter and thereby helps you keep proper posture. How do strong upper traps benefit other lifts?

  • If you are a raw bencher than the mechanics of the lift require the bar to be positioned higher up the body as you raise and lower the bar. This means that the upper back especially the shoulder girdle need to be stabilised and this is accomplished greatly in part by having a strong upper trap contraction.
  • When deadlifting strong traps are needed just as they are in a farmers walk to help distribute some of the load off of the spine making the weight feel lighter and enable better form of spinal extension.
  • When overhead pressing the upper traps play a huge role in lifting the weight. A shoulder press involves elevation of the shoulder girdle and that is the main role of the upper traps.
  • When squatting having strong chunky traps will not only allow you to tighten up and squeeze the upper back more (giving more stability and force transmission from the legs) it also means that the bar can sit more comfortably and stable on your shoulders. Ever wondered how Koklayev can squat 290kg with no hands? That’s part of the answer.
  • When bicep curling, if your upper traps aren’t strong enough to stabilise the shoulder girdle the weight you can curl greatly drops.

 

Farmers walks build a back of gorilla-like proportions.  The upper back (including lats) and all spinal erector muscles comes into play to ‘pin’ back the shoulder blades, maintain spinal extension, prevent spinal rotation and also lock the arms in position as the weights being carried want to oscillate. How does a strong back benefit other lifts?

  • When bench pressing (raw or with gear) a strong upper back, including lats, are needed to secure the scapulae and provide a solid platform for the pressing muscles to act off of.
  • An integral part of the deadlift is a strong upper back. This enables an efficient transfer of force from the legs down to the arms by ensuring a stable shoulder girdle and preventing the weight from swinging forward (i.e. arms moving forward) as to maintain a shorter lever arm and less torque through the lower back. Needless to say having strong spinal erectors will enable you to maintain spinal extension under greater loads, which in the deadlift will allow a greater transfer of energy from the legs to the shoulder girdle and down to the bar – a bigger lift.
  • The upper back includes the lower trapezius muscle group and this muscle plays a role in scapulae adduction (key for deadlift shoulder girdle stability) but more importantly is its role in upward rotation of the scapulae. Any overhead press involves upward rotation of the scapulae. Not only is a strong upper back needed to maintain cervical extension but also strong lower traps are needed to assist in and ensure the correct movement of the scapulae in upward rotation. This is key not only for strength purposes but also shoulder health. It is also key in overhead pressing movements to have a strong spinal erectors to enable you to keep a strong upright platform for you to press the weight off of.
  • When squatting upper back strength is vital to ensure maintenance of spinal extension, and a tight grip on the bar. If your low back is weak then you will struggle to squat any type of decent weight and risk injury through not being able to keep spinal extension and allowing maximal energy transfer from legs to bar. How many people ‘fold’ when squatting as their upper back is simply poor. Maybe you’re one of them?
  • Going back to the bicep curl (because I know people out there still want to curl a car). If your upper back sucks, your shoulder girdle will not be stable enough to curl heavy weights. How many guys do you see curling, hunch back with their shoulder blades pointing out their back like a directional sign. Guys drop the curls and work on your Kroc rows.

 

Farmers walks develop the whole of your legs. You have to be stupid to not understand that walking with a stupidly heavy load requires a lot of lower body recruitment. Granted, they won’t build muscle or strength in the legs like squatting and deadlifting but their role in maintaining an upright posture is crucial. The glutes and hamstrings are needed for propulsion and in achieving full extension at the hip and knee. If you can’t extend the hip and the knees under a heavy load how do you expect to keep your spine in an upright position? You can’t. All you will do is put more torque stress through the spine which is tiring and potentially dangerous for spinal longevity. Carrying over to other lifts, simply think deadlift and squat lock outs and stabilising your torso during an overhead press and you should appreciate how maintaining hip and knee extension is beneficial.

Farmers walks develop a scaffold pole of a torso. The core is a whole body working together concept and farmers walks involve just that. Due to the various torques that exist in all planes of movement during a farmers walk it’s no surprise that these give all your core musculature a battle – that includes the major muscle groups as well as the deep musculature. The cross-over of having a rock solid core needs not preaching. In short: a strong core allows energy transfers through the body to be more efficient. Better transfer of energy means more force output, thus improving all lifts not to mention the health and longevity benefits.

Farmers walks will give you an iron claw. Grip strength – the bane of many lifters. Stop moaning and using straps. Instead, get some farmers walks done. A strong grip is associated with nearly all lifts. Studies have proven that squeezing the bar whilst squatting, pressing, and curling will lead to more motor unit recruitment. Not to mention the fact that strong grip strength means you can hold more weight without straps, key for strength competitors. Oh, and bodybuilders, I forgot you don’t need superhuman grip strength to excel in your sport. Fair point I agree but I ask you this: forearms look amazing when they look like dinosaur legs right? You bet they do. Do farmers walks as a finisher and get your forearms to epic proportions.

There you have it. I ask you now, ‘do you think farmers walks will help improve your lifts?’ If your answer is still unsure, seeing as I can’t slap you, I will leave you with this note instead. The more you become trained the more you have to put in to get returns. When your a newbie you can put in say 1 unit of effort (training, diet, rest etc) to get 10 units of results (size, strength etc). As you become seasoned and further away from your pre-training state you find that you have to put more units of effort in to get less units of result. That’s why pro lifters don’t keep growing or getting stronger at the rate that weed does who had just started going to the gym and now actually eats something more than a bowl of coco pops each day!

Take this idea back to my lifter friend preparing for his meet. He is continually getting down with the grind of his competition lifts. He is experiencing diminishing returns for his effort (not his fault it’s just how the body works). He can however try to maximise improvements in his lifts given what time he has. I suggested that investing time in movements like the farmers walk is likely to increase his chances of putting 5kg on his bench press in a few weeks then simply continuing to pound away on benching movements. Why? If you haven’t figured it out yet, the benching movements are relatively highly trained compared to the accessory muscles. Therefore in a few weeks the lesser trained muscles will improve at a greater percent than those more highly trained. A few weeks after giving this advice I happened to see the guy post the following as his Facebook status: ‘What a week! 3 new PBs and a 230 Deadlift!’ Enough said. Get walking. Farmers Walking.

Advertisements

Strong Flexible Hamstrings: An Athlete’s Best Friend – by Ben Coker

The hamstring group is comprised of 3 large powerful muscles that span the back of the upper leg; the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus. It is a bi-articulate muscle whereby it spans two joints, the hip and the knee. Resultantly the Hamstring acts as an agonist for knee flexion and hip extension and is a key force provider to a whole spectrum of athletic performances!

Bi-articulate muscles are more predisposed to strain due to the large forces due to contraction origination from both ends. Often the injury comes when the muscle is subject to high forces at the end range of motion (ROM). Sports that commonly cause hamstring injuries are sprinting sports that involve sudden accelerations, indeed 91% of hamstring injuries are incited through non contact mechanism and 57% occur when running. In soccer it is the most common injury, accounting for about 12% of all injuries. This is not surprising as in sprinting the hamstrings act at the hip to promote anatomical movement from flexion to extension whilst at the knee, extension to flexion. Sprinting involves acceleration and high force generation and as indicated above is done so when the hamstring is often near or at its end range of motion.

Witrouw et al (2003) (1) concluded from a study on 146 professional male soccer players that poor flexibility led to an increase hamstring strain rate. This make sense if we imagine the hamstrings as elastic bands. An old dry elastic band that has lost its stretch will often snap after a lesser force is applied to it in a stretched position. A new very stretchy elastic band can absorb more force or load through it before it reaches its yield point and snaps. Therefore, as in sprinting our hamstrings are often in positions at their end ROM, we want them to be able to tolerate more load (from sprinting) in those stretched positions. Therefore it is essential to regularly stretch your hamstrings to maintain and improve their suppleness and toleration of higher forces at their end ROM.

This leads on to my second point. For many athletes leg training is dominated by quadriceps focus often leading to an imbalance in their quadriceps:hamstring ratio. Crossier et al (2008) (2) found that 47% of 462 professional soccer players they analysed were imbalanced! This is a very important point as such imbalances drastically increase the chances of an athlete suffering from a hamstring tear.

The quadriceps and hamstrings work as an antagonistic pair and cutting to the point in sprinting when the quadriceps contract to extend the knee ready for another ground strike, the hamstring group has to act eccentrically to act as a brake to the force applied by the quadriceps. If this did not happen the large powerful quads would extend the knee so hard that it would hyper-extend at extreme forces…I think you get the picture.

If your hamstrings are not eccentrically strong enough to act as a sufficient brake to the quadriceps then they will simply be stretched too far as the knee hyper-extends and will tear. It is therefore crucial to emphasis eccentric overload of your hamstring in your leg training! Exercises such as negative focused Nordic raises, stiff legged deadlifts and ‘2 leg up 1 leg down’ hamstring curls are example resistance training remedies.

The generation of force at the end ROM comes not only from the eccentric braking of the hamstrings in response to the quadriceps force but also from the following hamstring rate of force development (RFD) or power in the concentric phase. Once the knee is fully extended out in front of the body and ground contact is made the hamstrings (along with the glutes) act to promote hip extension and knee flexion – driving the body forward. In sprinting this must happen very quickly and the quicker the contraction the more force there is involved. If the hamstrings are not adequately trained to contract both concentrically and extremely quickly immediately following eccentric contraction then they are susceptible to tear! Therefore leg training for athletes must include hamstring work about the hip and knee that involves developing RFD following an eccentric contraction. Controlled Romanian and stiff legged deadlifts (focusing on the quick transition from eccentric to concentric), Nordic raises (if your strong enough), sled-pull throughs and explosive leg curls are examples of resistance training remedies.

It is important to add that strength endurance training of the hamstrings should also be implemented. Why? Well if the hamstrings fatigue quickly then their eccentric braking action and RFD will decrease quickly and the chances of a hamstring tear increase! Thus improving hamstring muscular endurance as well as hamstring strength will decrease the susceptibility of hamstring tears.

A final factor in giving you some knowledge in how to prevent hamstring strain comes from a quote that I took a few years back from Eric Cressey’s and Mike Robertson’s DVD series ‘Building the Efficient Athlete’. They say that structure dictates function and function dictates dysfunction. ‘What the hell?’ you’re thinking. I’ll explain.

Firstly ‘structure dictates function’: If we know the structure of the limbs and the muscles then we can figure out there function. In the hamstring example we know that the hamstring muscle spans the back of the leg crossing the hip joint and knee joint, inserting on the pelvic girdle and the lower leg. Therefore we can now ascertain that the hamstrings must act to cause flexion at the knee and extension of the hip.

Secondly ‘function dictates dysfunction’: If we now know the function of the hamstring is to flex the knee and extend the hip then we can look at co-agonists and antagonistic pairs of those anatomical functions to find dysfunction in a movement pattern. For example, the glutes are the main hip extensors and so if they are weak we can get a dysfunction in hip extension and thus in the hamstrings i.e. the lack of force produced by the glutes cause hip extension force to be compensated for by extra hamstring exertion leading to possible hamstring tear! The solution may lie in strengthening the glutes and not strengthening the hamstrings as this could compound the scenario!

Wrap Up

The take home messages I would give is this, try to think about your training and performance in terms of structure and function. This can lead you to identify problem areas, prevent injury and also allow you to better train your muscles! Secondly your susceptibility to hamstring injury can be greatly reduced by;

  1. Eccentrically overloading your hamstrings in training
  2. Developing hamstring RFD
  3. Developing hamstring strength-endurance
  4. Stretching your hamstrings to make them better able to tolerate force at the end of ROM.

Remember, prevention is always better than cure, not least if it improves performance too.

References

(1) Witrouw et al (2003) Am J Sports Medicine 31: 41-46

(2) Crossier et al (2008) Am J Sports Medicine 36: 1469-79

%d bloggers like this: