Proper overhead position is essential for movements like jerks, snatches, overhead presses, strongman lifts, gymnastics, competitive fitness, and everyday life. All too often lifters and athletes fail to properly gain awareness and stability in the overhead position (which may be a direct result not learning the overhead position, mobility, or both).

In this article, we will use great detail to go over why overhead carries are a great moment for strength, power, and fitness athletes (as well as general fitness goers), and we also offer all coaches and athletes a comprehensive how-to-guide to best program and progress safely.

Muscles Worked by Overhead Carries

The below muscles are primarily targeted when performing overhead carries of any sort.

  • Traps
  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Wrist Flexors
  • Abdominals, Obliques, and Erectors
  • Scapular Stabilizers

The key here is to stay active underneath the loads, even when movement is not occuring (isometric contractions). The effective use of muscle contractions, joint stability (by setting the joints in position), and total body control increases what you can do to perform this exercise and make stronger, more stable overhead positions for movements like presses, jerks, handstands, and much more.

Who Must do Overhead Carries

Overhead carries are a very functional movement for strength, power, and fitness sports, as well as general fitness and daily life. In case someone has shoulder issues, they first should address any limitations in mobility that may limit remarkable ability to visualize the proper overhead positioning (see below) necessary and seek an actual therapist/sports professional to ensure they are ready with this movement. They key here is to not load a movement that’s incorrect or compromised, which inturn is often the case when someone who lacks proper elbow, shoulder, and thoracic mobility.

Solidifying a much better overhead positioning, no matter tool (see variations below) can increase overhead strength, lockout abilities (pressing and jerks), upper back and shoulder strength, and more; all of these are key for movements like pressing, weightlifting, and inverted holds often see in gymnastics and competitive fitness.

Why Should You Do Overhead Carries (Benefits)

In this we’ll discuss four benefits coaches and athletes can get to achieve when integrating overhead carries (of any variation) into a training course, whether for functional movement, stability, or overhead strength and performance.

Overhead Stability

Without a doubt, the overhead carry is a key movement to develop overhead stability. Overhead stabilization requires proper joint functioning within the shoulder, elbows, wrists, and thoracic spine, in addition to a proper feeling of core stability and spinal alignment. By performing overhead carries, you are able to try to get the necessary muscle strength, overhead positions, and overhead awareness essential to strengthen lifts and prevent injury.

Core Stabilization

Lack of shoulder and thoracic mobility and/or positional alignment play a huge role in one’s ability to place loads overhead properly. Often, lifters don’t have the above abilities, yet manage to create some stability with loads overhead. Although this may seem like a great accomplishment, it is often due to compensation patterning where the lifter hyper-extends their lumbar spine to put the loads within the center of mass (slightly behind the top). This could result in a slew of back issues, lack of bracing capacities, and reinforce positions which are detrimental to performance.

Overhead carries, when properly set up (basics mastered, see below) are a good exercise to challenge a lifter’s ability to remain in charge of the loading using the torso, but still not allow any excessive extension to happen in the spine. This will strengthen the abdominals, obliques, and deeper muscles from the core; many of which are essential for movements observed in weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and daily life.

Scapular Stabilization

Overhead carries are a great way to improve scapular stability when an athlete has properly gained the necessary mobility to put loads overhead. When performing carries, instead of stationary holds (that are a regression of this movement) you also force your body to stay stable during a dynamic environment, which mimics sporting movements (the jerk and snatch) and activities of everyday life (lifting objects overhead).

Jerk and Pressing Performance

When the above benefits happen to be gained, lifters will find that their overhead pressing and jerking performance is stronger, more stable, and often less likely to possess intricacies (however not necessarily the situation). If someone’s limitation was overhead positioning and/or stability, their body will frequently compensate either to enable them to achieve the objective (place weight overhead, at all costs) or is a element in their mental capability to carry out a lift (from anxiety about poor placement and lack of strength under heavy loads). By adding overhead carries into those training programs, you can instil confidence and build strength inside a stable and safe overhead position.

Upper Back, Shoulders, and Triceps Strength

As a lifter develops their abilities to place loads overhead, they’ll discover that they are able to withstand very high amounts of loads. Muscular strength is visible during heavier overhead carries (and holds) simply due to the fact that a muscle is inspired to isometrically contract to support a lot for a prolonged period of time (muscles act to help keep the joints extended under load). Easy integrations of this can be done having a lifter hold a snatch, jerk, or press within the overhead position for time following a lift (more of a hold rather than carry) or just by performing any of the overhead carry variations below.

The Basics of Overhead Carries

Proper placement of a load is essential for optimal performance, strength, and injury prevention. Below you’ll find four key to attaining proper overhead positioning for not only overhead carries, by for movements like jerks, overhead presses, and snatches. Note, that some of the positions may not be relevant to some overhead movements (for example wrist positioning in the handstand), however the concepts are usually the same across most overhead carry and exercises.

Load Placement

The loads shoulder be placed slightly behind the top so that the type of force is directly over the midline of the body. Which means that the major joints of the body should be in alignment underneath the load (ankles, knees, hips, ribs, shoulders, elbows, wrist, load).

Wrist Positioning

Excessive wrist extension is often a compensation for poor shoulder mobility and/or improper keeping a load overhead. Whenever we allow the wrist to excessively bend backwards, we place unnecessary stress on the tendons and ligaments from the wrist joint (as well as the joint itself). An over-all guideline is that whenever you put your hands overhead, the thumb (when in the clenched fist position) shoulder maintain line using the forearm, both pointing upwards for the sky (not backwards). That said, as a weightlifter advances, strengthening the wrist inside a slightly extended position is required to support maximal loads.

Spinal Alignment

Proper overhead positioning mandates that the upper back, shoulders, and arms have been in proper alignment. When there are blocks in mobility and joint function of those groups, your body has a the innate capability to compensate alignment at other joints throughout the system to offer the objective (placing loads overhead within the correct position). In doing so, lifters typically will allow their lumbar spine to enter excessive lumbar extension which can place great amounts of loading to the spine and discs. Achieving proper spinal alignment and core stabilization is essential for overhead positioning, and should be prioritized throughout any overhead movement.

Active Engagement (Muscle, Mind, and Positioning)

Once you have achieved proper overhead positioning, the ultimate step would be to remain active with all of muscle groups involved (see muscles worked section above) to create force to actively keep the joints extended (locked out). Some coaching cues that are commonly said during movements like presses, snatches, and jerks (within the overhead support phase) are “Reach”, “Push Through the Bar/Load”, and even “Shrug Up”.

How to Program Overhead Carries

In the below section we’ll discuss several methods will program overhead carries according to your sport and/or goal.

Olympic Weightlifters

When looking to increase overhead stability and performance in weightlifting, we actually want to achieve this to directly impact our overhead posting in the snatch and jerk (and all jerking/pressing variations). Failure to possess a strong, stable, and elbows extended position not only can result in shoulder, wrist, and elbow injury, it can also lead to three red lights and bombing on the woking platform. Integrating overhead carries in warm-ups and/or accessory weightlifting programs is key to help lifters solidify proper stability and positioning. To start, I recommend performing unilateral movements, such as the double kettlebell overhead carry (see below) for 3-4 teams of 20-30 seconds, which can simply be measure out into any distance. The key is to create tension and stability under loads in the correct positions, then progress.

In addition to this, I often have my athletes perform overhead holds with heavier snatches and jerks at the end of a repetition for 5-10 seconds to increase their stability, strength, and confidence under heavier loads (that is very useful for lifters who lack those attributes and/ro throughout a competition prep phase).

Strength Athlete

Increasing overhead strength, stability, and press out performance is key for strength athletes. Movements such as the circus press and log neat and press both result in the overhead position using very heavy loads. Without proper overhead stability, strength, and alignment, injury to the lower back and joints/connective tissues (elbows, shoulder, and wrist) are certain to occur resulting in nagging injuries and/or long-term setbacks in performance and training.

If you’re new to the field of overhead carries, I suggest you do warm-up or accessory training utilizing overhead carries. Choose the variations below (or share some of your favorites that aren’t indexed by the comments) for 3-4 teams of 20-30 seconds, building in durations up to 40-60 seconds. Once you have carried this out, you are able to manipulate carrie times/distances/loading to diversify your overhead performance.

CrossFit/Competitive Fitness

Seeing that so much of competitive fitness movements include overhead exercise like push presses, jerks, snatches, thrusters, handstands, and more, it is a no brainer why you also should train overhead strength and stability. My general recommendations will be to perform overhead carries in the identical fashion when i suggested for strength athletes, while also mixing in certain time holds on heavier Olympic lifts (snatches and jerks) to solidify stronger overhead position specific to people movements.

General Health

Regardless of if you are an athlete or not, placing your hands overhead under load is a necessary act of life. Failure to maintain proper joint functioning, mobility, and stability from the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and thoracic spine are potential risks factors for movement compensation patterns. Excessive lumbar extension, hunching of the shoulders, and neck pain/tightness can all be symptoms of poor overhead positions and strength (because the muscles responsible for posture are the type which are trained by overhead carries). My general recommendation is to first ensure you supports a load overhead with locked elbows, stable wrists, and set your scapulas on the back (see overhead positioning basics section). One you’ve achieved this, reinforce proper positioning in the same way a strength athlete would (see above).

Overhead Carries You need to Master

Now you have learned all you need (and ever wanted to know) about overhead carries and proper overhead positioning for movements like jerks, snatches, and presses, it is time perform some carries. The below workouts are probably the most basic (and targeted) overhead carries athletes can do to address many of the benefits discussed above. In case you think of a great variation, please be part of the comment below so I too can give it a go!

Double Kettlebell Overhead Carries

The double kettlebell overhead carry is a superb exercise to determine proper overhead mechanics, core stability, wrist alignment, and unilateral stabilization. I highly recommend that one for those athletes and fitness goers.

Unilateral Overhead Carries

Unilateral carries will help to address any asymmetries you might have overhead, which frequently goes unnoticed in no time like barbell pressing and jerks. Take any weight and put within the proper overhead positing, ensuring not to lean excessively or hold the shoulders up. Your situation should be identical to one you would assume should you have had two loads overhead.

Barbell Overhead Carries

Simply press or jerk a loaded barbell overhead in to the correct overhead position. After you have done so, start my double checking the alignment of the barbell, spinal and core stability, and muscle engagement from the upper back, shoulders, and arms. When ready, have a small step forwards, then another, and so on. You will get creative with this exercise with the addition of asymmetrical loads (different weights on both ends), bands with kettlebells on the needs from the bar, and more.

Overhead Yoke Carries

Lastly, you can test out overhead carries utilizing a yoke to further increase strength and stability of the core and torso. This can be a great way to bunch the movement as you don’t need to make an effort to hoist overhead, but rather simply align yourself under the load and fully stand up.

Get Stronger Using Carries

Check out some of these awesome articles on other loaded carry exercises!

  • Why Every Athlete Should Do Farmers Carries
  • Fundamental Total Body Movements for Serious Strength