How to Do a Suitcase Carry

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Also Known As: Loaded carry, one-arm farmer’s carry

Targets: Deltoids, obliques, calves, glutes, hip flexors, quadriceps, shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, and trapezius muscle.

Equipment Needed: Kettlebells

Level: Intermediate

The suitcase carry is an excellent intermediate level exercise that is part of the loaded carry set of moves that involve lifting a kettlebell and walking around with it. Other carry exercises include the farmer’s carry, racked carries, and overhead carries. 

This basic, yet highly effective total-body move involves using one kettlebell. You simply hold the kettlebell by your side and walk while engaging your core, like you would if you were carrying a suitcase -- hence the name. 

When done correctly, the suitcase carry raises your heart rate, builds strength in your core, and targets your quadriceps, calves, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, shoulders, triceps, and forearms. It’s pretty much an all-around fantastic exercise. 

The functional movement pattern of the suitcase carry can also help prepare your body for more advanced exercises like the overhead carry or farmer’s carry. 

Benefits

The suitcase carry targets the muscles in your core, shoulders, upper back, arms, and the muscles of your lower body, specifically the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and calves. It’s also a useful move for improving grip strength. 

When performing a suitcase carry, your body needs to stay upright, which requires you to have excellent posture. If you sway side-to-side or round your upper back, you will not be able to perform this move correctly.

Since the kettlebell is held at the side of your body, you’re essentially mimicking everyday tasks such as carrying a heavy gym bag, suitcase, or groceries. What typically happens with these tasks, is we favor one side of the body, and always carry on our dominant side. Over time, this results in the opposite side being weaker. That’s what makes the suitcase carry such a great functional exercise. It allows you to unilaterally train both sides of your body.

Additionally, the suitcase carry helps strengthen your core, which may lead to reduced back pain, improved balance, and better flexion, extension, and rotation of your trunk. Plus, when you perform a suitcase carry, the abdominal muscles -- and more specifically the obliques -- on the opposite side of the kettlebell or dumbbell will have to work overtime to balance the load.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Grab a kettlebell with your non-dominant hand (this should be your weaker side). Choose a weight that is heavy enough to create resistance when holding it, yet light enough that you can keep your posture upright when walking. 
  2. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart with arms at your sides. 
  3. Begin the movement by engaging the core muscles, pulling your shoulder blades down and back, and making sure your posture is upright. 
  4. Take a step forward and begin walking while carrying the kettlebell in your hand. Keep your abdominal muscles, and specifically, the obliques contracted the entire time. 
  5. Continue this movement for a specified time or number of steps. When finished with that side, set the weight down.
  6. Pick up the kettlebell with the other hand and repeat. Increase the number of steps or time based on your fitness level. 

Common Mistakes

Leaning to one side

When starting the exercise, make sure your shoulders are level, and you’re not leaning towards the side with the load. 

Using a kettlebell that is too heavy

While you shouldn’t be afraid to grab a heavier weight, you also need to adjust if your form is being compromised. Remember, your oblique muscles on the opposite side of the load are going to be working really hard to help keep you upright. 

Not Keeping Your Core Muscles Engaged

Any time you are upright and moving, you’re engaging the muscles in your core. The power, stability, and support generated from these muscles will help you move quicker and protect your lower back from injury. 

Leaning Forward From the Waist

Performing the suitcase carry bent over at the waist will cause pain and discomfort to your lower back. This can happen when you get fatigued, and your technique begins to suffer. To properly perform the suitcase carry, you need to stand tall for the duration of the exercise.

Raising your shoulders towards your ears

One of the first steps in the suitcase carry is to lower your shoulders. Many of us have a tendency to walk or do any type of activity, with our shoulders hunching up towards our ears. If you perform the suitcase carry with this posture, you will feel discomfort in your neck and shoulders. When performed correctly, it should feel like you’re pushing the kettlebell or dumbbell toward the ground. 

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

The great thing about the suitcase carry? It’s so easy to modify for any fitness level.

  • Decrease the weight you’re carrying.
  • Decrease the distance or time that you carry the kettlebell.
  • If you get halfway through the prescribed distance, and it’s too much, simply put the weight down and rest before finishing the rest of the exercise. 

Up for a Challenge?

There are several ways to make this move more challenging.

  • To add resistance to the suitcase carry, simply increase the weight of the kettlebell. Remember, this doesn’t need to be a significant jump in weight. Sometimes even five pounds makes a big difference.
  • Increase the distance or time to make the suitcase carry more challenging. Try adding 10-20 steps each time you perform the exercise.
  • For a fun challenge, find a straight line to follow and try to stay on that path like a tightrope without wobbling side to side. 
  • When you’ve mastered the suitcase carry, feel free to move onto the farmer’s carry, which is essentially the same move, but you hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand. 

Safety and Precautions

Generally speaking, the suitcase carry is safe to perform. Since you can adjust the resistance and modify the distance or time, this exercise is appropriate for most fitness levels. That said, if you have any health conditions that limit your ability to perform cardiovascular exercise or any serious issues with your neck, shoulders, or lower back, talk with your doctor prior to trying the suitcase carry. If you experience any discomfort while doing the suitcase carry, stop and take a break. Rest for at least two to five minutes before resuming the activity.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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