Hopefully, you didn’t read that title too fast and have to do a double take. This post is all about rucking and how to get better at it. We will cover what exactly I mean by “rucking,” the benefits of doing so, and some training methods to improve it.
Rucking is simply the act of moving over terrain on foot with extra weight. Most folks do this with a loaded backpack, but the extra weight might also take the form of a weighted vest, farmer carries, load bearing gear, or others. The bottom line is that you have to move with more weight than yourself.
Anyone who’s spent time outdoors probably calls this backpacking. Calling it “rucking” is just the military slang.
Rucking is one of those foundational skills of the military, especially with any unit in proximity to ground combat. Any training program for special forces selection includes huge amounts of ruck training in an effort to toughen the feet and test endurance. These schools are notorious for the quantity of rucking they do.
In truth, ruck training should be one of the cornerstones of any tactical fitness foundation. As I’ll show in this post, the things you do to support a tactical fitness regime all contribute to your ability to carry a ruck farther and faster.
Benefits of Rucking
Let’s get the “why” out of the way first. It really doesn’t matter what activity you are doing, there’s something you’ll gain from improving your capabilities.
For hunters and backpackers, this is obvious. You have to carry heavy loads into the mountains and pack out anything you need to return with. Military members need to move from point A to point B on foot, often with loads in excess of 100 lbs. That doesn’t happen without practice.
But what if you’re not a member of the military? Or perhaps spending time traipsing around the mountains isn’t exactly your cup of tea.
Let’s set aside the physical capability piece for a second. I think it’s important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is freedom from vehicle dependence, but let’s talk about immediate benefits.
Rucking is fantastic for three primary things:
- Cardiovascular training
- Fat metabolism
- Strength and flexibility
Let’s dig into each of these a bit more.
It’s not a secret that I hate running. I can think of few physical activities that I find more tedious than pounding out miles in a pair of running shoes.
Luckily, there are other options.
If you recall my article on aerobic training with the Maffetone Method, I discussed a cardiovascular “sweet spot” for training. When I run, it is very easy for me to blow right past that sweet spot and work with too much intensity. For that reason, I do the vast majority of my aerobic training with a rowing machine.
But, at least once per week, I use rucking as another training avenue. Walking with extra weight increases the effort required to move at speed. It’s much easier to walk fast and increase my heart rate to the right zone, and then slow down as needed. With running, I’m either too fast or too slow, it seems.
Bonus benefit: You’re actually going somewhere as you ruck. I enjoy rowing, but 45 minutes on my erg is rather mind-numbing. I can happily go for a walk for a couple of hours and not get bored with my surroundings.
Unless I’m in an indoor gym with one of those 14-laps to a mile tracks (ugh).
As a side benefit of reaching the ideal aerobic training zone, and staying there, is fat metabolism. That cardiovascular “sweet spot” is also where you are doing maximum fat burning for continued energy.
On average, you’ll burn about 3x the calories while rucking compared to walking.
You also burn 2-3x as many calories if you choose to run. But then you’re getting outside the aerobic training zone and into the realm of intervals and work capacity. Running with a ruck is much harder on your joints, so it’s not really recommended as a regular practice or for long durations.
Strength and Flexibility
Moving with any extra weight adds to the calorie expenditure, which is why weighted vests and other methods work as well. The added weight for movement helps build up hip, knee, ankle, and foot strength. This is especially true if you’re moving over uneven ground.
I’m lucky enough to live across the street from a park with a wooded 4-mile trail. The terrain includes soggy duff, gravel, and rocky paths dotted with tree roots. Moving over and around those features while working up and down hills does a number on all the little stabilizer muscles in my lower body.
Actually using a ruck to carry your weight has other benefits to your core, shoulder, and back strength. The weight sitting offset from your body shifts your center of gravity rearward, even if only slightly. This forces your whole body to readjust how it carries the load and attacks all of those stabilizer muscles, especially the core, from a slightly different angle.
Training for Better Rucking
There are a lot of resources out there for ruck training. As I started preparation for a GoRuck Challenge in the spring of 2019, I did a little more homework than the first time around. Not only to better prepare myself, but also the eight other people I tricked in signing up with me.
One of the most interesting resources I came across was Dr. Mike Prevost
His resume goes on with more training and teaching, but I trust you get the idea.
Mike put out a YouTube video in January of 2018 going over the results of a NATO study on road marching that blew me away. It was also paired with a couple of articles that I found extraordinarily useful in my research.
Here’s the video portion:
Here are some of the key takeaways:
- Energy expenditure is related to load, speed, and terrain. Rucking with ~45 lbs of equipment at 4 mph burns ~750 calories per hour at the low end (level blacktop) and ~1400 calories per hour at the high end (loose sand).
- The biggest indicators that someone might be good at rucking are height and muscle mass, not aerobic fitness (though it still plays a role)
- The tipping point where strength is more important than aerobic capacity is about 35% of body weight. Carrying less than that emphasizes aerobic capacity, carrying more emphasizes strength
- Excess body fat reduces performance
- There were experimental training programs comparing aerobic, strength, and control groups to test benefit to rucking ~100lb loads. Aerobic training by itself saw zero improvements in 12 weeks. Strength training by itself helped a little (4% improvement), but the combined results of aerobic and strength training proved the most successful at 14% improvement.
- Absolute power generation is the key indicator. Unloaded aerobic activities that focus on power generation (i.e. rowing and cycling) are better at preparing someone for rucking than running.
- When comparing ruck training with lighter loads for longer duration and heavier loads for a shorter duration, the greater intensity of heavier loads showed more benefit across the board.
- In the same study, less frequent training (once per week) was more effective than rucking twice per week
- There is a correlation between better rucking skills and passing Special Forces Selection. On average, the ability to ruck 70 lbs (total weight, including weapon, uniform, boots, etc.) for 4 miles in less than 54 minutes correlated to an 81% chance of completing SFAS. That probability drops to 63% at 55-64 minutes, 34% at 65-74 minutes, and 10% beyond that.
Ruck Training Foundations
Along with the video, Mike wrote two articles that appeared in On Target Publications.
Part 1 covers the findings of the NATO study he’s talking about in the video. As with my bullet points, he highlights a few key findings.
Part 2 covers the meat of his training program. Mike starts off by highlighting the six basic human movements:
- Upper body vertical push
- Upper body horizontal push
- Upper body pull (vertical or horizontal)
- Hip hinge
- Core / carries under movement (This is an integration movement that combines many of the above.)
He goes on to explain that all effective strength programs fundamentally train these six movements, but with a
In this type of program,
is more important than loading. Loading is important, but we never load bad movement. Movement quality is first, loading is second. movement
I said something similar in my article on tactical fitness. We are training for longevity here, not vanity. Each strength workout should emphasize each of these six primary movements done safely and correctly.
The Training Plan
Let’s look at Mike’s recommendation for a training plan.
The foundation here is lifting heavy two days per week with good form. Select one big compound lift movement for each of the foundational human movements. Perform 3-5 sets of 5 repetitions.
Hey, that looks an awful lot like the Starting Strength program.
Along with the two days of strength training, you’ll also have one day of conditioning, one day of running, one day of rucking, and another day to use for either running or rucking.
It might look something like this:
Ruck Program Overview:
Monday: Four movements: squat, vertical push, pull, core
Friday: Four movements: hip hinge, horizontal push, pull, core
This is a selection of strength movements mike recommends:
For conditioning, we’re talking about intensity. Here is another selection of exercises you might use during conditioning workouts:
For the cardio days, Mike suggests running. But I see no harm in doing something else like rowing or cycling for aerobic training.
Now on to rucking.
Per the NATO research, going heavier for shorter duration provided more benefit than lighter for a
All put together, the alternating two-week workout schedule looks like this:
Now, you don’t have to follow the exact program here. For me, were I not already working through another rucking program by Mountain Tactical Institute, I would do my rucks on Saturdays, lift twice per week, do conditioning once per week, and row once or twice per week. I would alternate each Saturday’s ruck session between a long ruck or intensity ruck.
Ruck Training Weight
After looking over Mike’s program and supporting material, I reached out to him with a few questions.
I was primarily interested in calculating ruck weight. The key figure in all of this work is the amount of weight as a percentage of body weight. A lot of folks out there prefer to calculate against lean body mass only, not the total weight that includes body fat.
So I asked Mike what the better method would be.
Calculations are based on gross weight but generally assume relatively lean (i.e., 8-15% [body fat]). So those who are carrying much more body fat should scale down because they are already “rucking” an extra load. However, what you will find is that if you add bodyweight to their calculated load, they can ruck quite a bit because they are always rucking in a sense.
For example, if you take two identical twins, with one who is 150 lbs and lean and the other 200 pounds but fat, assume they have the same lean mass. If you just load up the lean one with 50 lbs (to total 200 pounds) and put no load on the fat one (again, to total 200 pounds), the fat one will crush the lean one because he has been carrying around that extra 50 pounds every day.
A person who is carrying 60 lbs of extra fat is “rucking” with a 60 lb load with every step they take…The best way to handle this is to scale back their load as a % of body weight and see what happens, but be prepared to scale it up quickly if they lose weight. There is no need to be really exact in the numbers though. This becomes a bit of a trial and error exercise. Start conservative, with a lighter load, and adjust up if necessary
So calculations about ruck weight are based on gross body weight. I asked a couple more follow-up questions. Mike highlighted that the guys who ruck away their fat tend to scale the ruck weight up very quickly, and are quite beastly at rucking in general.
Rucking is a great exercise for shedding body fat. It is a much better choice than running for people who are overweight because the impact forces are smaller…Overweight guys who ruck away their excess body fat and become lean are generally ruck monsters.
So there you have it.
With this post, I wanted to highlight the key values of rucking. It’s an extraordinarily good activity for just about everyone even though it isn’t all that common outside of the military. It has huge benefits to aerobic capacity, fat metabolism, and strength.
We also covered some key success indicators and ways to make things more or less challenging. I also shared the work of Mike Prevost, who developed a comprehensive ruck training plan based upon his background with physiology and human performance.
At this point, I’m pretty well convinced that rucking needs to be part of all of our fitness programs. What do you think?