This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
I walk to and from my office daily. It takes 25 minutes, if you don’t stop at all to look at your phone. (It takes me 35 to 40.) That includes a few steep hills, of the kind I didn’t believe existed in Ohio before I moved here. (They do.) On the weekends, I go on at least one longer hike in our nearby state park, featuring a few more of those punishing Appalachian hills. These are, comparatively speaking, little baby walks, never longer than two hours.
This is a reasonable amount of aerobic activity, if falling slightly short in terms of the recommended amount of intensity, particularly given all the breaks for checking my emails and responding to social media pings. I used to do CrossFit, and part of the reason I stopped going to “the box” was the fact that the workouts included so much jumping and running—activities I’ve disliked for years. My current low-cardio routine—walks, weightlifting, and some yoga—suits me better. But I’ve still wondered if I could be getting a little more of the kind of exercise that makes you breathe hard.
Then I saw a blog post by Whole30 co-founder Melissa Urban, who made a very convincing case that a practice called “rucking”—walking with a backpack full of weights—could turn my little walks into more satisfying cardio. Googling, I saw that Jason McCarthy, whose company GoRuck makes rucking equipment and promotes the practice through clubs and meet-ups, calls it “cardio for people who hate to run, and lifting for people who hate the gym.” Hey! That first one is me!
Rucking—the name, and the practice—comes from the military. There is a subfield of military medicine dedicated to studying how much people can carry, how fast they can walk while carrying it, how tired they’ll be at the end of a given walk-while-carrying, and how to prevent injury in the course of doing all that. (This is information that is important to armies, for reasons you can probably guess.)
Rucking proponents who argue for civilian adoption of the practice say that it burns three times the calories of walking without a load, strengthens your back and shoulders, helps with bone density, and has a low injury rate. People do it to train to go into the military; to get ready for long backpacking trips; to prepare for ruck-specific feats of strength like the Norwegian Foot March or the CrossFit Hero WOD Chad 1000x (which requires you to do 1,000 box step-ups with a 20- or 30-pound pack); or just to make the walking they already do a little more intense.
That last one is me. At first, I wondered whether the equipment I get in the mail from GoRuck—a 20-pound plate, a simple plate carrier, and a larger backpack with a carrier pocket—will work any better than me just putting that 20-pound plate (or some tomato cans, for that matter) in my battered old Kelty. The GoRuck stuff is not cheap ($465 total for those three items, though GoRuck sent them to me for free to test out), and some ruckers do recommend getting a more affordable bag at a military surplus store, or just packing weights into a regular backpack. But when I try out the specialized versions, I see that the packs lie very flush to my back, the straps are wide and padded, and when I walk, the weight doesn’t shift around at all. When I pack the larger GoRuck pack with the 20-pound plate, my laptop, and my lunch, it zips up comically tight, becoming a dense little nugget on my back. This bag, packed for my office walk, is probably about 30 to 35 pounds. (If you really want to find out how much a packed ruck is, you could do the old “step on the scale with and without the backpack and subtract” trick, but I ditched our scale in a fit of body positivity a few years ago, so I’m operating with a bit of uncertainty here.)
Rucking, I remember while sweating under my new pack going up a hill on a sunny day, my heart pounding, is supposed to be about embracing feeling bad. This is one of those “you can do hard things” fitness practices, like CrossFit, Wim Hof baths, and barefoot walking, that have a little bit of throwback, anti-modern ideology underlying it. Rucking finds champions in people like writer Michael Easter, whose book The Comfort Crisis contains this line: “We are living progressively sheltered, sterile, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged, safety-netted lives.” Rucking, Easter argues, is, basically, a paleo practice—functional, occurring outside, can be social (you can ruck alongside anyone who can walk or roll), contributory to the development of the species. “Our most radical strength feats were muscling loads great distances over rough ground,” he writes of early humans. The modern age has given us soft pleasures, like sitting all day, driving everywhere, or walking encumbered only by a simple fanny pack, the thinking goes, when really, we were built to suffer.
At first, rucking lives up to this reputation: It sucks. Walking with the loaded pack, I do a lot of shifting about, subconsciously trying to escape the weight. I put all the weight on one shoulder, slipping the other out so that my trapezius muscles can get a rest; I switch to the other; I put my hands under the pack and lift it up so that I get a minute of relief before going back to the grind. Why am I doing this, again? I start to leave the plate at home on alternate days.
After a while, though, on one walk home or another, my brain dredges up some advice I saw in a YouTube video about the biomechanics of rucking, made by physiologist and trainer Mike Prevost. I start to take shorter, quicker steps, and walk with my body more straight up and down, rather than bending over slightly and taking big steps (the pattern I fall into as a default, because I’m hoping to eat up ground and be done with this torture quicker). Prevost prescribes that ruckers soften their knees and engage the muscles on the sides of their hips so that the pelvis stays stable in the course of a step.
Putting this advice in action helps a ton, as does learning to use the weight of the pack to pull my shoulders back. GoRuck believes that rucking promotes good posture. My experience is that it does, but only if you do not fight the pack by straining forward. Once I got the trick of leaning back, I felt oddly great. Having the weight on there made me more careful about foot placement, and I began to walk more smoothly, my slightly bent knees forcing me to press into my feet and actively create my body’s forward motion. It was fun, and I stopped pausing and checking my phone as often. Is it weird to say that it is comforting to have 30 pounds on your back? It started to feel that way. And when I take the pack off, at the end of the walk, I feel as if I’m flying.
I run rucking’s health claims by kinesiologist Robert Huggins, who had a few words of caution for would-be ruckers. “You want to gradually introduce the load to the body if you haven’t done it before,” he said. “Just like if you were going to go do squats for the first time.” Adding and getting used to weight in small increments applies especially if it’s hot out. Huggins, who hopes that people rucking in the summer (or, let’s be honest, September) read up on the dangers of heat exertion, compares the human body with a car. “Think about an unloaded pickup truck, and then you throw a whole bunch of dirt in the back of the pickup truck and you won’t get the same mileage; everything has to work harder, and there will be points of strain on the truck.” You want the suffering to be possible to push through, not something that is going to physically break you.
Overdoing it doesn’t seem like a danger for me. I still don’t have the time to ruck for long distances, and nothing I’m carrying is as much as what the typical load is for a soldier. People who ruck a lot and post on the r/Rucking subreddit warn against overloading in a fit of overconfidence, but when it comes to self-motivated exercise, trying too hard has never been my particular problem. People on that sub are walking double-digit miles with a 40-pound pack, posting their wins; I am still trying to talk myself into adding a 10-pound plate to my 20-pounder, to bump up my daily load. And I’m definitely not signing up for a GoRuck Club, to meet other ruckers and make this new habit a “way of life,” like GoRuck hopes I will. But: “by definition, rucking is moving from point A to point B with a backpack,” said another Redditor. If that’s it—I’m doing it. If you hate running too, I recommend it.