Waiter’s Carry – Improve Functional Strength With This Single Arm Overhead Carry

waiter's carry

The waiter’s carry will test your shoulder and core stability in equal measure… and it’s a great way to build functional strength that has practical uses in everyday life.

The waiter’s carry involves carrying a weight overhead, somewhat mimicking a waiter carrying a tray (although most people tend to perform it with a straight arm instead of a 90 degree bend at the elbow).

It’s a versatile addition to any fitness routine, suitable for both beginners and elite athletes alike… but it does require good shoulder mobility to ensure you can stack the weight directly above your shoulder.

We use it as a progression to suitcase carries (which involves holding a weight by your side, instead of overhead).

But why progress to hold a weight overhead… what additional benefits can you gain?

This exercise guide discusses everything you need to know.

Quick Summary

  • The waiter’s carry is a single arm overhead carry.
  • Primarily tests shoulder and core stability.
  • Choose a suitcase or farmer’s carry instead, if shoulder mobility is restricting your overhead movements.
  • Either fully extend your arm or bend 90 degrees at the elbow.

What is the Waiter’s Carry Exercise?

The waiter’s carry is a functional movement that mimics the action of a waiter carrying a tray overhead. It’s a type of exercise known as a “loaded carry”, which involves carrying a weight while moving.

But, unlike traditional loaded carries that are held at the side or in front of the body, the waiter’s carry requires you to hold the weight overhead.

This exercise is typically performed with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate. The weight is held in one hand, with the arm fully extended overhead, or bent at 90 degrees, while you walk a certain distance or for a specified duration.

The challenge is to keep the weight stable and your arm straight while moving… i.e., testing your shoulder stability.

The waiter’s carry is unique because it requires a balance of strength, stability, and mobility. You need the strength to lift and hold the weight, the stability to keep the weight steady, and the mobility to align your hand and shoulder.

We prefer the single arm variation (instead of using both hands), to fire up the obliques and test your ability to adapt to unevenly distributed weight (which is how most weight is applied to your body in real-world situations). Fulcrum deadlifts are another effective exercise for this too.

We’d recommend getting comfortable with suitcase carries and other loaded carries that don’t involve holding the weight overhead first.

How to Perform the Waiter’s Carry

To perform the waiter’s carry:

  • Select a suitable dumbbell, kettlebell, or any weighted object. If in doubt, start light and increase the weight over time.
  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Hold the weight in one hand and lift it overhead, fully extending your arm. Your palm should be facing forward, and your wrist should be stacked directly above your shoulder.
  • Before you start walking, engage your core and shoulders to stabilize your body and the weight.
  • Begin walking at a slow pace.
  • The weight should remain stable overhead.
  • After walking a certain distance or for a specified time, lower the weight carefully.
  • Switch arms and repeat the exercise.

Coach’s Tip – It’s not about how fast you can walk or how heavy a weight you can carry. The key to the waiter’s carry exercise is maintaining control and stability. If you’re struggling to keep the weight stable or your arm straight, consider reducing the weight. If you just can’t get your hand stacked over your shoulder (i.e., your shoulder mobility isn’t good enough), stick with holding the weight by your side for now or try bending the elbow at 90 degrees.

Improving Shoulder Mobility

Exercises like scarecrows can be useful to improve shoulder mobility – but speak to a Physical Therapist first if your joint range of motion is limited.

Waiter’s Overhead Carry Muscles Worked

Primary Muscles Worked

  • Shoulder Muscles – The overhead position of the weight primarily works the deltoids in your shoulders. Keeping the weight stable also engages the rotator cuff muscles.
  • Core Muscles – The act of carrying a weight overhead while walking significantly engages your core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and the muscles in your lower back. The single arm variation will further engage your obliques.
  • Upper Back Muscles – The trapezius and rhomboids in your upper back are also worked as they help stabilize the shoulder and maintain posture.

Secondary Muscles Worked

  • Arm Muscles – Your forearms will be activated to grip the weight for the duration of the exercise.
  • Leg Muscles – As you walk, your leg muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, are worked.
  • Glute Muscles – The glutes are also engaged during the walking movement.


Improve Shoulder Strength and Stability

The overhead position of the weight works the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles in your shoulders, improving both their strength and stability.

This can enhance your ability to perform overhead activities and can contribute to better performance in sports and workouts that require shoulder strength.

Improve Core Strength

The exercise significantly engages the core muscles.

Holding a weight overhead instantly creates instability… which means the core muscles have to actively work to counteract this imbalance.

Holding the weight in just one hand also means there is an uneven weight distribution, which further activates the obliques.

A strong core is crucial for maintaining good posture, supporting the spine, reducing the risk of back pain, and improving overall body strength.

Strengthen Upper Back

The waiter’s carry also works the trapezius and rhomboids in your upper back, helping to improve posture and shoulder stability.

Some CPTs may use the bent elbow variation as a way of recruiting more activation from the muscles around the upper back/lats.

Improved Balance and Coordination

The waiter’s carry requires you to maintain balance while coordinating the overhead hold and the walking movement. This helps improve both balance and coordination, skills that are important for daily activities and athletic performance.

Easy to Adapt

Waiter’s carries can be performed with various types of weights and can be modified to suit different fitness levels.

This makes it a versatile exercise that can be used in different types of fitness routines.

You could also use it as a warm-up, mobility exercise, or in working sets.

Improve Overhead Movements

Improving strength in an overhead position isn’t just about aiding better athletic performance… it ultimately helps reduce the risk of all sorts of injuries that stem from poor shoulder stability.

Being able to hold a weight overhead safely, without feeling discomfort, is a really good indicator of overall shoulder health, especially as we age.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Shoulder Mobility Holding You Back

Ensure your arm is fully extended and directly above your shoulder. If your arm is angled or not fully extended, it can lead to shoulder strain and decrease the effectiveness of the exercise.

Not Bracing Your Core

The core plays a vital role in maintaining balance during this exercise. Failing to engage your core means your form will likely suffer.

For example, if you don’t brace your core, you may find your lower back dips as you walk, which increases the risk of injury.

Weight is Too Heavy

While it’s important to challenge yourself, using a weight that’s too heavy can lead to incorrect technique and injury. Start with a manageable weight and gradually increase as your strength improves.

Good technique with a lighter weight will build more strength and muscle that bad technique with a heavier weight (this applies to all exercises).

Bulletproof Your Shoulders

Powell raises are another fantastic exercise for anyone looking to improve shoulder health.

Bottom Line

The waiter’s carry is a great way to add some overhead movements into your fitness routine, that will challenge your shoulder and core stability.

If you’re struggling to stack the weight over your shoulder or you experience discomfort around your shoulder as you perform the exercise, we’d recommend opting for other loaded carries that involve holding the weight by your side (and speaking to a Physical Therapist about shoulder mobility exercises).

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