A Practical, Enjoyable, and Effective way to Exercise

December 9, 2023

We all know that we should be exercising six days a week, and hopefully we should understand that we should be doing both cardio and strength training to burn fat and maintain health and strength without getting injured. But what is the best way to do that?

The gym provides great opportunity for all of that but it is not practical for most people. Driving fifteen minutes so that I can spend ten minutes in a locker room praying that the equipment I want to use isn’t occupied just to spend 45 minutes lifting weights and walking on a stair stepper then afterwards going back into the locker room for a bit and driving fifteen minutes back home is not an efficient use of time. Of course if you live right by a gym this whole process is a bit smoother but most people don’t want to cut out an hour and a half of their day to spend twenty to thirty minutes getting a good workout.

You could set up a home gym but that’s expensive, takes space, and requires some knowledge. If you don’t know what you’re doing with your home gym equipment you could get hurt (the same can be said at the gym). So unless you already have those three things setting up a home gym isn’t an option.

Running has steadily been gaining in popularity but it has an incredibly high injury rate. Studies estimate that about 70% of runners will injure themselves running every year. On top of that running doesn’t do much to maintain and improve your strength as it is mainly a cardio exercise so it should not be your main form of physical activity. (Also while you are running it is hard to think about anything other than how much running sucks)

Lots of people will slow down and walk because it is much more pleasant than running and only has a 1% injury rate but walking is of course a much less effective exercise for quickly burning calories, plus it also doesn’t do much in the strength department. It is a great start for people who can’t do anything else but it should not be the end goal.

What we need is an exercise with the practicality and quick calorie burn of running, strength training potential comparable to the gym, and the low injury rate and ease of walking. That exercise would be rucking.

What is Rucking?

Rucking is simply walking with weight on your back. The term came from the military where 90% of their physical training involves moving with a heavy backpack (rucksack or ruck) on their backs and has produced many of the fittest people on the planet in special forces and what not.

But rucking is not new, we have been doing it since the dawn of time. Humans were all hunter/gatherers back in the day and a lot of people will talk about how our bodies were built to run long distances without overheating so that we could chase animals to exhaustion which is how we got our meat before agriculture and domestication. But what these people often forget is what happens after a group of hunters gets a 1000 lb. bison, they have to carry the meat back to camp so they can share it with their tribe. So we weren’t built just to run but also to carry.

The ability to carry is unique to humans. Sure you can put a hundred pound pack on a mule but it can’t put the thing on by itself. Primates like monkeys can be trained to carry things but they are incredibly inefficient doing it. A human uses less energy while carrying 15% of their body weight than a monkey will walking with empty hands. It has also been observed that most humans, even those of us who are quite out of shape, can lift and carry things that are one third of our body weight. It isn’t easy for everyone but almost everyone can do it. Rucking, like running, is simply doing something that our bodies were designed to do.

Benefits of Rucking

Michael Easter, an author and journalist who has helped popularize rucking recently, describes rucking as, “cardio for people who hate running and lifting for people who hate the gym.” Is rucking going to get you jacked like a bodybuilder? No. Is rucking going to turn you into an ultra-marathoner? Also no. Jason McCarthy, founder of Goruck a rucking equipment company, describes the body type that rucking sculpts a person into as “super medium,” not too lean and not to muscular, just the perfect balance between the two. It will lay some muscle on skinny people and shred some meat off of larger people without compromising strength.

And remember it does all this while being simple and safe. All you have to do is load up a backpack and start walking and as long as your ruck doesn’t weigh more than 50 pounds you won’t be likely to get hurt. Rucking’s injury rate is only marginally higher than the incredibly low 1% rate of walking while casually burning two to three times the amount of calories you would simply walking, roughly the same amount of calories that you would burn running over the same period of time.

But often times pure calorie burn isn’t the only thing we want to look for in a workout. Most Americans are overweight and have at least a passive desire to loose weight so it is important to prioritize exercises that burn more body fat. I have seen several people claim that rucking is an incredibly efficient fat-burning exercise although I have yet to find any scientific backing to that claim but I am inclined to believe it. My theory is that because it works nearly every muscle in the body at the same time your blood isn’t able to get more commonly used energy everywhere it needs to quickly enough so tapping into fat stores becomes necessary quicker. But I’m not a doctor so that reasoning, and this claim could be completely false. It is also quite likely that people recommend rucking for fat loss because nobody can go from the couch to running an hour straight but rucking for an hour is something that most people could probably already do (or at least work up to in under a month) and be able to burn the same amount of calories that they would running.

Another benefit of rucking comes from its ease, you can hold a conversation with someone while you are rucking, rucking can be a social activity. When you’re running you are too out of breath to talk to someone, and gyms are often filled with loud equipment, loud music and strangers so talking to a friend is a lot harder. Rucking doesn’t have any of those problems so it is a great way to casually workout with a friend.

Rucking is also great for back pain relief. I recently injured my back so I’ve been looking into back healing and came across the work of Esther Gokhale who studied the backs of tribespeople in Africa and other places where people live more primitive lifestyles as well as those of toddlers and found that the natural alignment of your back isn’t the S shape that you see on your chiropractor’s business card, instead it is much more straight and pulled back (if it wasn’t the discs in our spine wouldn’t be flat, they’d be wedged). We spend a lot of time in our modern world hunched over a desk or computer or steering wheel which brings our back farther away from where it should be. Dr. Stuart McGill, a back pain expert, has found that rucking pulls your spine back into a more natural position relieving muscle strain and decreases pressure on your discs which reduces back pain. Of course, if you have a serious back injury you should take it easy but rucking should be looked into as a tool for healing if you have the strength to do it and it doesn’t cause you extra pain.

And of course, all of the other general benefits to exercise like improved mental health and resilience can be gained from rucking as well as well as plenty of other benefits you’ll be sure to find as you start researching and rucking yourself.

How to ruck

If you haven’t figured it out already all you need to do to start rucking is to put some weight in a backpack and start walking with it, but there are a few things you should know to get the most out of your rucks.

First, when it comes to weight, start small and pack it as close to your body as you can, preferably high up. If you are just starting out and you haven’t been very physically active lately then you shouldn’t start with more than twenty pounds in your bag. Some people recommend starting lighter with ten or fifteen pounds, and some people will even recommend starting with no weight at all. Your starting weight is dependent on your situation, I probably wouldn’t tell anyone to start with nothing but you should start out with a weight that you are comfortable with and confident you could carry for an hour.

Add weight over time as you gain strength and become more comfortable rucking. But remember you don’t need a lot of weight to get a good workout from a ruck. Rucking organizations and researchers seem to have come to a consensus that thirty-five pounds is the sweet spot for most men and twenty-five pounds is the sweet spot for most women to have effective casual rucks. Unless you want to push yourself there really isn’t much of a reason to ever go above these weights while rucking.

Of course, if you do want to push yourself and ruck heavier you can but there are a few things to remember. I mentioned earlier that once you start carrying more than fifty pounds you start to increase your risk of injury. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ruck more than fifty pounds it just means that you need to be cautious when doing so. You probably shouldn’t do a heavy ruck more than ten or twenty percent of the time, maybe just do it once a week or once every other week. It is also a good idea to plan to do your heavy rucks to be the day before your rest day (remember we should only exercise 6 days a week) so that your body has time to recover, especially if you are going to ruck 100 or 150 pounds. You’ll also want to make sure that your bag can hold the amount of weight you want to put in it and if you are going to go heavier than 50 pounds you’ll definitely want a comfortable waist strap. Quality boots with good support may be something else worth looking into when rucking heavy. If you are rucking to relieve severe back pain don’t go above twenty five pounds until your back has healed.

Another mistake a lot of people make while rucking is running while rucking. Remember, one of the main benefits of rucking is that it doesn’t have the high injury rate of running, so if you start running with weight on your back you are throwing that benefit out the window and compromising your running form thus increasing your risk of injury. That is not a good idea. Most often the people who talk about ruck-running are those trying to help others meet the physical requirements to get into various military special forces programs. These requirements often include the ability to carry thirty five pounds on your back twelve miles in under three hours. But you don’t need to run to be able to travel four miles an hour. Will it be easier to hit that goal if you run during the downhill portions of your ruck? Yes, but you are better off putting in the extra effort to do it right than to risk hurting yourself by taking a shortcut. The only time you should run with a load on your back is if your life depends on it.

Rucking can easily fit into your lifestyle. Have dogs? Wear a backpack when you take them for a walk. Have small kids? Take them with you so they can breathe some fresh air too. Already enjoy exploring the outdoors on foot? Wear a heavy backpack. Can’t afford fancy weights to ruck with? Use bricks or other things you have lying around (I wrapped an old car part in foam and use that as a weight). Afraid you’ll wish you had a lighter pack midway through your ruck? Use water bottles as weights so you can dump them out when you need to shed weight. Have a busy day and no time for a long ruck but still want to burn the amount of calories you would on a long ruck? Double your weight and only ruck twenty minutes.

Rucking is a practical, effective, and enjoyable way to get some exercise in to meet your health goals. It of course isn’t the only way to exercise, if you like to run or go to the gym or whatever keep doing that, but if you don’t, or you just want to shake things up, I hope I’ve given you the inspiration to look deeper into rucking and give it a try.

Note: Some of the sources in this article came from Michael Easter’s book The Comfort Crisis which I recommend reading for more reasoning and inspiration to do hard things.