The suitcase carry is a functional exercise that involves carrying a weight (such as a kettlebell or dumbbell) on just one side, while walking.
This movement is also sometimes referred to as a single arm farmer’s carry.
It is a “unilateral” exercise, which means it focuses on one side of your body at a time, challenging the muscles to work harder to maintain balance and stability… and resist the downward pulling of the weight.
This makes it incredibly effective at firing up your core, especially the obliques.
We find this is an exercise often performed with poor technique though, so this exercise guide outlines everything you need to know about the suitcase carry, including proper technique, how to get the most out of the movement and common mistakes to avoid.
- The suitcase carry primarily targets the core muscles, including the obliques, transverse abdominis, and quadratus lumborum, as well as the muscles of the upper body, such as the shoulders, back, and arm muscles.
- It helps to improve core strength, stability, and balance, as well as developing better grip strength and shoulder stability.
- It also promotes better posture and functional movement patterns, as you are required to maintain proper alignment while carrying the unevenly distributed weight.
- The weight should be heavy enough to challenge your muscles but light enough to maintain proper form and control throughout the exercise.
Coach’s Tip – To start with, try selecting a weight that is ¼ of your total bodyweight and carry it for 100m on each side (repeated for 3 rounds).
How to Perform a Suitcase Carry
To do a suitcase carry:
- Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and the weight placed on the floor next to one side of your body.
- Brace your midsection by squeezing your core.
- Bend at the hips and knees, maintaining a neutral spine position and grip the handle of the weight with your hand, keeping your chest up and back straight.
- Lift the weight off the floor as you breathe out.
- Slowly begin walking forward while maintaining an upright posture and avoid excessive leaning to one side.
- Take small, controlled steps and focus on keeping your core stable throughout the movement.
- Repeat for a specified time or distance, then switch sides and repeat with the weight in the opposite hand.
Coach’s Tip – If you’re struggling for space, there’s no reason why you can’t walk forwards and backwards, instead of walking forwards continuously. This might be more practical in commercial gyms and home garage gyms.
Start With Your Weaker Side
The suitcase carry exercise is a great movement to engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Below, we outline the main muscles worked during suitcase carries:
The exercise primarily targets the core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. These muscles work together to stabilize the spine and maintain proper posture while carrying the weight.
Upper Body Muscles
The suitcase carry also engages various upper body muscles to support the movement. The shoulders (deltoids), upper back (rhomboids), and arms (biceps, triceps) are activated to stabilize the weight as you walk.
Lower Body Muscles
The lower body plays a significant role in the exercise too. The quadriceps (front of the thighs), hamstrings (back of the thighs), glutes (buttocks), hip flexors, and calves are all worked during suitcase carries as you walk. These muscles provide stability and generate force while walking with the weight.
Increase Lower Body Engagement with Lunges
Grip and Forearm Muscles
Carrying the weight in one hand requires a strong grip. The muscles of the forearm, including the wrist flexors and extensors, are engaged to maintain a firm grip on the weight.
You may discover it is your grip that is the limiting factor, instead of weak obliques… which suggests working on your overall grip strength.
Lower Back Muscles
The suitcase carry exercise also activates the muscles of the lower back, including:
- Erector spinae.
- Latissimus dorsi.
Suitcase Carry Benefits
The suitcase carry exercise offers numerous benefits for both strength training and functional fitness. Here are some of the key advantages of incorporating suitcase carries into your workout routine:
The suitcase carry is a great way to increase core strength. As you carry the weight in one hand, your core muscles, including the abdominals, obliques, and lower back, engage to stabilize and support the spine.
The uneven weight distribution means your obliques have to do more of the heavy lifting, which is often an area of core workouts that gets ignored. This helps to tighten up the midsection and create an overall stronger core.
This exercise engages multiple muscle groups throughout the body. It targets the muscles in the core, shoulders, upper back, arms, and lower body. By working these muscles together, suitcase carries provide a simple full-body workout, ideal for those short on time.
Grip Strength and Forearm Development
Suitcase carries require you to grip a weight for the duration of the exercise, activating the muscles of the forearm, including the wrist flexors and extensors. Regular practice of suitcase carries can lead to improved grip strength and forearm development.
If grip is letting you down, our guide on the best forearm exercise equipment includes some of our top picks when it comes to tools for improving grip strength.
The suitcase carry mimics real-life movements, such as carrying heavy objects or luggage (hence the name “suitcase” carry). By performing this exercise, you can enhance your functional fitness and improve your ability to handle everyday tasks that involve carrying loads unevenly.
You’ll notice in everyday life, very few situations involve carrying identical weights in both hands, so including training that involves weight being unevenly distributed can make your body more prepared for all sorts of tasks.
Improved Athletic Performance
Suitcase carries help to develop better twisting power (by strengthening the obliques) which translates to certain sports very well (e.g., tennis, golf, hockey).
It also helps to address muscular imbalances, which can lead to injury or reduced athletic performance at the very least.
A strong core helps to improve hip and spinal alignment, creating better posture.
The exercise itself also requires athletes to adopt good posture as they perform the movement too.
You can use any type of load for suitcase carries (including an actual suitcase if you want).
You’ll find kettlebells are the most popular, as they are easier to walk with.
Dumbbells and sandbags also work great.
Suitcase Carry Vs Farmer’s Carry
The suitcase carry and farmer’s carry are both loaded carry exercises that involve holding weight and walking. They offer similar benefits, but there are some differences.
Here’s what you need to know to help you decide which one is better suited to your training goals.
The suitcase carry involves carrying weight on only one side of your body while walking. This puts more focus on the core muscles, including the obliques, transverse abdominis, and quadratus lumborum.
The uneven weight distribution challenges your stability and balance.
The farmer’s carry, on the other hand, involves carrying equal weight in each hand while walking. This exercise provides a full-body workout as it engages the core, upper body, lower body, and grip strength.
A single arm farmer’s carry, therefore, is just another way of describing a suitcase carry.
Although a suitcase carry may seem easier because you’re only carrying weight on one side, the uneven weight distribution means your core has to work much harder, so it could be seen as the harder variation.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
One common mistake we see people make when performing suitcase carries is leaning forward or to the side, which can cause lower back pain and discomfort. This suggests the weight you have selected is too heavy. To avoid this, it’s important to stand tall throughout the duration of the exercise and opt for lighter weight to begin with and only increase if you can maintain this upright and straight position.
Rushing the exercise is another common mistake… suitcase carries aren’t about speed, they’re about control. This means a slower tempo is better for the exercise (and increases time under tension). If you find you are rushing too much, you could try doing suitcase carries for a duration (such as 30 seconds) instead of aiming for a distance (such as 100m).
The side plank exercise is a core strengthening exercise that primarily targets the oblique muscles on the sides of your midsection. It involves supporting your body weight on one forearm or hand while lying on your side, with your feet stacked on top of each other or staggered.
The side plank requires you to lift your hips off the ground, forming a straight line from your head to your feet, and hold that position for a certain duration. This exercise helps improve core stability, balance, and overall strength in the abdominal and lower back muscles.
Single Arm Overhead Carries
The single arm overhead carry is an exercise that involves carrying a weight, such as a dumbbell or kettlebell, overhead with one arm while walking.
Compared to a suitcase carry, this will work your grip strength less, but require more strength from the shoulders and back to support the weight overhead.
Stir the Pot
The stir the pot exercise is a challenging core exercise that targets multiple muscles in your core and lower back. It involves getting into a plank position with your forearms or hands resting on a stability ball or a similar object.
From this position, you perform small circular motions with your forearms, as if you are stirring a pot.
This exercise engages your entire core, including your rectus abdominis, obliques, and deep stabilizing muscles. It helps improve core strength, stability, and endurance, making it a beneficial exercise for developing a strong and functional midsection.
This offset loaded deadlift variation involves lifting an unevenly distributed barbell.
If you don’t have enough space to walk, but want to add load to unilateral core exercises, a fulcrum deadlift is definitely worth considering.
How Much Weight Should I Use for a Suitcase Carry?
The amount of weight you should use for a suitcase carry depends on your current fitness level. As with any exercise, it’s important to start with a weight that challenges you but allows you to maintain proper form and technique (and doesn’t risk injury).
A useful rough guideline is a 1/4 of your bodyweight, but if this is too heavy, just select a lighter weight and work your way up over time.
Gradually increase the weight as you gain strength and feel more comfortable.
Suitcase Carry Distance Recommendations
We think aiming for 100m is a challenging yet achievable distance (depending of course on how much weight you selected). You could opt for heavier weight and a shorter distance, or a lighter weight and a longer distance.
You could also opt for a shorter distance but increase the number of repetitions… which ultimately makes it a great exercise to customize to your workout plan and space available.
If you really like suitcase carries, you may want to include some repetitions or rounds of heavy loads with shorter distances and lighter loads with longer distances to improve both strength and endurance.
The suitcase carry is a unilateral exercise that targets core muscles, improves stability, balance, and grip strength.
It’s great for beginners and experienced gym-goers alike, mimicking real-life movements that help to provide practical benefits.
The exercise engages multiple muscle groups, offering a full-body workout, and can enhance athletic performance and functional fitness.
To perform it, hold a weight that is 1/4 of your bodyweight in one hand, maintain an upright posture, engage your core, and walk a specified distance. Over time, try and increase the weight to continue to challenge your muscles.