What Is Rucking?

what is rucking

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In case you're new to the term, rucking, simply put, is walking with a weighted backpack. It sounds easy enough, yet this endurance-boosting, strength-building workout can test even the fittest of the fit.

Rucking, also known as a 'loaded march,' has roots in the military field. Rather than a sport, rucking is an essential core skill for those in special forces and combat who are required to carry heavy loads through diverse terrains.

For the general population, rucking is a versatile fitness endeavor where you can change the desired weight of your backpack, as well as the distance and intensity of your trek, based on your personal goals.

All you require is a backpack (there are ones specific for rucking), weights (ruck plates designed specifically for this endeavor), suitable sports attire, and a plan of action.

Benefits of Rucking

First and foremost, rucking is an excellent form of cardio. A study on the effects of load carriage on eight physically healthy male soldiers found greater cardiorespiratory output across heart rate, oxygen uptake, respiratory frequency, and energy expenditure when carrying a load on various gradients.

In addition to being a great way to maintain cardio, rucking can improve bone density and postural muscles across the core, glutes, back and shoulders, and is much easier on your joints than running," according to Dr. Chad Walding, a physical therapist, certified personal trainer, and holistic health expert. "Not to mention, it's low impact on the joints but still burns through the calories."

Other rucking benefits include:

  • Strength-Building: The added weight across your back and shoulders will increase muscle engagement and promote muscle growth, as well as the additional weight putting your hips, glutes, quads, core (and more) to work.
  • Cross Training: Rucking can be interspersed with other training styles to blend into a well-balanced training regime, and gives the body a rest from more impact-focused workouts.
  • Injury Prevention: Rucking can certainly challenge your body, and such demanding (and appropriate) training has been proven to develop physical qualities that can protect you against injuries. 
  • Character Building: Given it descends from the military, rucking can be a tough workout that will test your character. The higher the intensity, the more you will push your capabilities to the next level.
  • Time Outdoors: Rucking is done on the move, whether through winding paths or on hilly terrain. Regardless of where you end up, the sport will get you outside in the fresh air.

Safety Considerations

Rucking places direct stress on the musculoskeletal system which can cause soft-tissue related injuries to the back and knees, can cause pain in the feet and carries the risk of potential fractures.

"As with all exercise, form is crucial to avoid such injuries, but loading the body with too heavy a load can compromise your posture," warns Dr Walding. "This can lead to wear and tear on the joints when walking long distances, or if you already have stress fractures, it can worsen them."

What's more, a Tel Aviv University study found that soldiers carrying heavy loads experienced pain in their shoulder region, as well as a feeling of tingling and numbness in the fingers.

"A major cause of these sensations stems from poorly placed backpack straps, which are often made from thin material and can therefore compress nerves," explains Dr. Walding.

Another study on the effects of military load identified a reduction on postural control, which in turn can lead to kinematic compensations in the body such as postural sway and trunk lean (forward lean), if posture is less than optimum. For this reason, it's important to build up your weight step by step to allow your body sufficient time to get used to this new form of workout.

Other safety considerations:

  • Invest in a well-fitted backpack that is built for carrying additional weight. There are backpacks designed specifically for rucking. Your local market bargain may not provide the cushioned strap support you need for such an activity! As a side note, look for a backpack with a hip belt that, when fastened, will distribute weight more evenly across the body.
  • If you choose to use a backpack not specifically designed for rucking, make sure that the weight is secure so it's not shifting as you walk which can have affect your gait and increase risk for injury.
  • Wear suitable footwear fit for the terrain, as well as thick socks that will save you from blisters.
  • Distribute the weight evenly in the backpack to better balance out the body.
  • Consider adding a hydration bladder to your backpack to save you the hassle of reaching for a water bottle.
  • Ensure you have a clear route mapped out.
  • Stick to locations with phone signal, in case you wander off trail.
  • Start off slow! Avoid pushing too far too fast, and keep to a walking pace (not running.) Rucking is a complementary exercise to running which will reduce your weekly miles and build on your endurance.

How To Start Rucking

One of the perks of rucking is that it adds an extra layer to your routine that is both manageable and effective. Remember, this lower intensity steady-state workout can aid your goal of improving endurance and building strength without the impact.

To get you started, Dr. Walding suggests the following:

  1. Start by becoming more experienced with walking before adding weight, making sure you are comfortable to continue with set distances without any pain.
  2. Only then should you add a weight that is manageable for you.
  3. Time how long it takes you to complete a set distance for a few weeks, and once you see an improvement, consider increasing the weight.
  4. Add small increments of two to five pounds each week or two, taking note of how your body responds to the additional load.
  5. Aim for one to two sessions a week at this level for 20-30 minutes each.
  6. When you feel ready to step up the challenge, move to a more diverse terrain for recruitment of additional muscles when walking up and downhill.
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Article Sources
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  1. Chatterjee, S., Chatterjee, T., Bhattacharyya, D. et al. Effect of heavy load carriage on cardiorespiratory responses with varying gradients and modes of carriageMilitary Med Res 5, 26 (2018). doi.org/10.1186/s40779-018-0171-8

  2. Gabbett TJ. The training—injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? British Journal of Sports Medicine 2016;50:273-280. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095788 

  3. Gabbett TJ. The training—injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? British Journal of Sports Medicine 2016;50:273-280. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095788 

  4. ScienceDaily. Heavy backpacks may damage nerves, muscles and skeleton, study suggests. Published February 21, 2013.