If you lift weights and you’re older than 24, don’t work manual labor, don’t participate in any sports and don’t moonlight as a volunteer firefighter, how many opportunities are you routinely presented with to showcase your hard-won might in a practical setting? Maybe once in a blue moon your cousin’s nine-year-old son will challenge you to an impromptu arm-wrestling contest. But the majority of your power displays are probably reserved for occasions where someone unironically asks you to pick things up and put them down.
If your life resembles this description, then it sounds like all of that strength training you partake in is mainly for the sake of nicely filling out a suit or looking yoked at the beach. Despite the optical benefits involved, the only practical use for all of that muscle is to carry around heavy objects during the few occasions when such strength becomes a true necessity.
Which begs the question: How strong can you get merely from carrying around heavy objects? After all, it’s the only practical use for the strength you’ve developed, so why not cut straight to the chase and limit your training to carrying Frigidaire refrigerators and 24-packs of Monster Energy from place to place?
Can you actually get that strong from carrying life things around?
Even without looking into the matter any further, I’d imagine the answer is yes. Organized weight training is a relatively new phenomenon that achieved maturation within the last 140 years. While some of the Ancient Greeks did perform regular strength training while using halteres in much the same way we might use modern dumbbells and barbells, the halteres generally maxed out at 20 pounds each, meaning that any movements with tailored training implements would have reached a low ceiling of 40 pounds. Yet, when you see the impressively muscled forms of Greek sculptures, we must surmise that the sculptors had real-world models to draw inspiration from.
So with this in mind, it stands to reason that much of the muscle-crafting activity in the days of the Ancient Greeks was the result of everyday labors, much of which involved lifting and hauling.
Enough conjecture! Do you have any modern data or observations to support this?
Well, I’ve done enough farmer’s carries to know that I hate them, so that’s a solid anecdotal start in my mind.
The farmer’s carry involves picking up a weight — or weights — in the same manner that you would carry a pail of water or a suitcase. In this instance, dumbbells and kettlebells are ideal apparatuses to use for this exercise. By lifting a pair of heavy weights, letting them dangle off to each side and walking around with them while maintaining an upright posture, you’re strengthening all of the muscles in your legs, along with your back, your abdominals, your biceps and your triceps. It’s also extremely functional, as this replicates one of the most common methods for carrying heavy items in real-life settings.
Of course, the majority of your everyday carrying movements can be trained with front-loaded carries. For these, you’d take a weighted object, lift it off the ground and carry it for a set distance. Varying the positioning of your hands and arms and the way you hold the object will help to determine the extent to which the chest and shoulders are also involved. Regardless, your legs, glutes, back, abdominals and shoulders will all be firing tremendously, you’ll be increasing the amount of time your body spends under tension and you’ll be training the stabilizer muscles that often get ignored during strength-training exercises in which the weight travels along a set path.
Also, if you wish to further extend the Grecian theme and train in a fashion that would make Sysyphus halt his boulder-rolling long enough to shoot you an approving nod, you could try working out with an Atlas stone. Shaped like boulders, these orbs are extremely heavy and challenging to carry. The mere repetitious act of lifting and dropping one would prove incredibly taxing to your body, and would certainly check many of the functional training boxes even if you never graduated to walking around with the stone in your arms.
I could theoretically get stronger if this was all I did?
Yes, you certainly could, but as with all things, there are reasons innovators have gone out of their way to develop training devices and exercises that allow for muscle isolation or prescribed compound movements. It’s far easier to deadlift a 400-pound barbell or to squat it after removing it from an elevated rack than to pluck a similarly sized boulder off the ground. The same goes for pressing a weight over your chest while your hands are optimally positioned, or taking virtually any muscle through its full range of motion. Such movements are far less safe, practical and beneficial with a boulder in your hands as opposed to a bar.
So yes, you can get very strong from carrying objects around as long as they’re challenging enough to elicit the appropropriate metabolic response. Will it give you the thorough physical development of even a middling high school jock with a coach who tests his limits regularly with a focused regimen of strength-training movements? Probably not, but it will make you very popular on moving day.