Rucking: A military term that essentially means “walking around with a backpack” or “getting your gear from A to B in a backpack.” Also known as “Melissa’s most recent self-experiment-turned-love-affair.”
My affinity for rucking is well-known at this point. In February 2021, I read an advance copy of Michael Easter’s book The Comfort Crisis, which had a whole chapter on rucking and featured an interview with GORUCK founder Jason McCarthy. And boy, did I feel the Universe poke me hard.
A year into this pandemic and like most folks, I was feeling pretty down. COVID precautions, a cold Utah winter, and lingering concussion symptoms were weighing on my mental health. But the Universe brought a most unexpected solution: the idea that maybe what I needed was to use calculated bursts of movement + discomfort to shift my mindset from bummed to grateful.
I’ve talked about my self-experiments before—how when I find a practice or idea that just CLICKS, I trust the universe and start it immediately. Cold showers, talking to strangers, the Whole30… rucking was one of those CLICKS. The morning after I finished that chapter, I woke up, threw on one of Brandon’s oversized weight vests, and took Henry for a walk. It was too big, way too heavy, and very uncomfortable… but I made it a whole mile that morning, and my love for rucking was sealed.
Fast-forward a year later, and I’ve rucked at least 300 miles—on hiking trails and in my neighborhood, on walks with the dog or taking my kid to the park, while pulling sleds in the gym and completing the Chad 1000X step-up challenge. What I love the most about rucking is that if you can walk, you can ruck. You don’t have to be a Navy SEAL or take part in a 24-hour obstacle course or ruck 100 pounds through the mud. You can be a mom just like me, rucking her kid to the playground, taking the dog for a walk, or doing a lap around the park while listening to Taylor Swift.
And you should. Yes, you. Because rucking is AWESOME.
The benefits of rucking
Cardiovascular: YES, for all my cardio-haters, rucking counts as cardio. Rucking actually has an effect on your heart that’s comparable to jogging… without having to jog! Rucking also improves your all-around work capacity and endurance. It’s great for building an aerobic base or just getting your heart pumping.
Strength: The extra resistance forces your legs, back, core, and shoulders to work the entire time you ruck. You’re actively building and maintaining strength in those “endurance muscles” (slow twitch muscle fibers), preserving mobility and helping to injury-proof your workouts, recreational activities, and everyday life.
Bone density: Depending on your body weight, walking alone may do nothing for bone density—but rucking will. Studies done with weighted vests show that rucking is effective at increasing bone density and improving balance, and since the ruck is snug to the body, it is more likely to put beneficial stress on the spine and hips than carrying dumbbells. (Plus it’s way more comfortable than farmer’s carries.)
Joint health: Rucking is a low-impact activity, which is joint-friendly (unlike running or jogging). In fact, forces to the knee while rucking are about one-third of that while running, making it much more joint-friendly and less likely to lead to injury.
Energy expenditure: Repeat after me: We don’t exercise to burn calories. However, to demonstrate how effective rucking is as an exercise… the research shows that adding weight to your brisk walk can burn around 40-50% more calories than walking alone. This is awesome for folks who want to be more active but don’t have extra time in their day to add a second walk or workout.
Oxytocin: While I haven’t seen a study about rucking producing feel-good chemicals, I will say that it makes you feel like a total badass. I love the feeling of the weight on my back, knowing I’m getting stronger with every step. Bonus that I’m outside; double bonus if I’m with friends, my kid, or my dog! Rucking can be an incredibly social activity—there are rucking clubs and events in cities all over the world, and the GORUCK community is diverse, supportive, motivating, and fun.
Now that I’ve sold you on the idea of rucking (build strength, and cardio, and endurance, and get outside, AND DO IT WITH FRIENDS?), you’re dying to get started. Here are a few ways to get going with the gear you’ll need:
Option 1: Load whatever backpack you happen to have with whatever materials you happen to have—rocks, bricks, sand, water jugs, whatever. Then strap it on and carry it around. This works with a baby too—if you’re carrying your 8-month-old on your back, yes, you’re rucking.
Pros: Cheap, quick, easy. No need to buy special gear, and you can adjust the weight as you’re ready. Gives you a preview to see if you like rucking enough to invest.
Cons: Likely uncomfortable, as the weights will move around or dig into your back. It may be hard to load up as much weight as you want, and that 20K kettlebell in your backpack is gonna bounce around a lot. That discomfort may color your evaluation of rucking.
Option 2: Buy a cheap weighted vest from your local sporting goods store. I started with a 15-lb. vest from Amazon. You can buy them based on weight; 10 to 15 pounds are relatively inexpensive ($30-$50).
Pros: A quick and more comfortable way to load up, distributes weight more evenly on your front and back so it’s not quite as hard on the shoulders. Less chaotic than bricks in a backpack.
Cons: The heavier ones (over 20 lbs.) are expensive. If you’re petite they may not fit well. Having weight on your front AND a tight strap going across your chest to make sure the vest stays down constricts your breathing. Also, it jiggled around a lot—was fine for walking but I couldn’t do much else in it.
Option 3: Invest in a plate carrier or Rucker 3.0 backpack from GORUCK. I use the plate carrier for 90% of my workouts—it’s got a minimal frame, sits tight on my back, doesn’t move around even during push-ups or other movements, and is as comfortable as 30-lbs. on your back is ever going to get. The Rucker is great if you want to pack layers, water, snacks, etc.
Pros: Comfort, durability, consistency. You can switch out weights easily and once it’s fit to your body, no adjustments are needed. They’re easy to clean, easy to maintain, and include nice touches like padded shoulder straps and optional hip belts on the backpack.
Cons: Expensive, and you have to buy the pack and weights separately. That’s the only con—it’s an investment, but they’re so incredibly well-built, they’ll last you forever.
GORUCK recommends anyone who weighs less than 150-lbs starts with a 20-lb plate, and anyone weighing over 150 starts with a 30-lb plate. (Another general rule of thumb is to start with 10% of your body weight, so if you’re 150 lbs, start with a 15-lb plate.) Obviously, this also depends on your fitness level and tolerance for weight sitting squarely on your shoulders.
I started with the 20-lb GORUCK plate, and trust me, it was PLENTY. I’m pretty fit and have solid shoulder muscles, but that amount of weight sitting square on my traps and shoulders took some getting used to. I’ve used the 30-lb plate here and there, and it feels like it weighs three times as much as the 20-lb; I can’t explain that science. If you’re smaller bodied, don’t start with the 30.
Of note: GORUCK sells plates in 10, 20, 30, and 45-lb sizes, in various dimensions specifically designed to fit their plate carriers and backpacks.
Start by wearing the ruck for a short period of time—even just 5 or 10 minutes. You can wear it around the house, on a short walk, or while shopping at Target. (It’s brilliant! You should try it!) Your shoulders will need time to adjust to the load, and you can create an over-use injury if you do too much too soon, so ease into it.
Aim for rucking 2-3 times a week, giving your shoulders a break between sessions. Each time you wear it, try to keep it on for a little bit longer, whether you measure that in minutes or mileage. GORUCK says a good goal for beginners is to work up to rucking 2 miles in 40 minutes (a 20-minute-per-mile pace). As it gets more comfortable, you can go faster, add more weight, go longer, incorporate hills or uneven terrain, throw in bodyweight movements during your ruck, or any combination thereof.
And with that, you COULD be rucking! But I’m sure you have more questions, and I for sure have more to say about this glorious activity, so in Part Two (coming on February 14th), I’ll answer your frequently asked questions about sizing, gear selection, footwear, and leveling up your rucks with some bodyweight exercises.
Note: I am a GORUCK affiliate and make a small commission when you purchase through my link. I’ve built a close, personal relationship with the brand and founders, believe strongly that their mission, vision, and values align with my own.