Lifting heavy things (and often carrying them once lifted) is an important life skill. From groceries to laundry, our day is often filled with the moving of stuff. Given the fact that we haven’t been fully replaced by robots yet (and even if that were the case), the fundamental skill of carrying has numerous benefits for all populations.
One of the most common requests (verbal or otherwise) in my Autism Fitness sessions has been to do carries, particularly with the heavier, sometimes heaviest Sandbell or Sandbags available. Anecdotally, there appears to be some type of sensory/input/cathartic reinforcement to carrying a heavy sandbag across the gym a few times and then “thudding” it to the floor.
It could be the feel of the sandbag against the athlete, or the stabilizing effect the heavy carry creates, or the sensation of performing against gravity. One might initially speculate that one of the most physically demanding exercises would be least preferred by those on the autism spectrum, though my experience, and that of our Autism Fitness Certified Pros, suggests the opposite.
So why is heavy carrying important for the autism population in particular?
Let’s begin with strength and stability deficits, which are common across the autism spectrum. Strength deficits are often diagnosed or labelled as “low tone,” which is a general term encompassing multiple issues. From an exercise science and training perspective, low tone means inhibited performance of basic multi-joint movement patterns; squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, crawling, carrying.
When running a PAC Profile Assessment on a new athlete, I tend to observe the same strength deficit and movement compensation issues regardless of age and, often, regardless of cognitive or adaptive/behavioral abilities. Addressing strength as a central component of programming can enhance skills well beyond the confines of the gym, and how we address, meaning exercise selection and implementation, makes a difference.
The heavy carry addresses general strength deficits in the upper and lower body along with trunk stability, an issue that is so common among the ASD population that I almost expect it to show up on an intake form. While a secondary benefit, we cannot underestimate the importance of gait patterning and how heavy carries can make each step stronger over time.
In our Autism Fitness curriculum, we rely on two styles of carry; Farmers walks and chest carries. The farmers walk, performed with a weighted object in each hand, promotes grip as well. Grip is yet another area of deficit for many with ASD, and opportunities for strengthening the hands are plentiful during the farmers walk. Chest carries have the sandbag/Sandbell held high on the chest. While the grip component is largely eliminated in this version, there is an additional trunk stabilization effect.
While inquiring about my program practices, a fitness professional asked me “Why do you have your athletes do heavy carries?”
“To get them better at carrying heavy thing.”
“That’s it? That simple?”
“Yes. Getting better at carrying things makes us better at carrying things.”
Heavy carries may have some profound benefits outside of their main purpose, though it is their main purpose that is critical. We use heavy carries in our programs for every athlete, typically added towards the end of the strength and stability section of a session.
The progressions and regressions for carries are relatively simple and straightforward compared to some others required in the Autism Fitness 15. To regress, you may need to readjust the athlete’s grip or the position of the sandbag on their chest. To progress; heavier weight, longer distances (maybe 20ft with a round trip).
Simple, humble as they may appear, farmers walks and heavy carries can have a profoundly beneficial impact for our athletes with autism in both direct and indirect ways. Programmed and coached properly, they can be a difference-maker not only in the short term but in quality of life through adulthood.