Path To Simple

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Rucking - What it is and why you should do it

Man carrying backpack in snow-covered mountain during daytime.

Every day after work, I walk five miles with my wife along the same trail.

The trail passes by a kids playground and I use the monkey bars to do two sets of pull-ups—the first with my palms facing out to target my back and the second with my palms facing in to target my biceps (chin-ups).

On our way back home, I stop again to do another two sets.

I absolutely love walking and being outside. Almost right away I start to feel the knots in my brain loosen, to sense my body coming back to life.

The pull-ups I love a bit less but since the monkey bars are on the way and I’m already feeling good, it’s easy to get myself to do them.

Getting myself to work out outside of the daily walk, however, is a Herculean challenge. I can push myself and for a few weeks or months, manage to lift weights and do yoga a couple times a week.

Yet for all sorts of reasons, I always end up falling off the wagon, which is disappointing because while walking is unparalleled for its mental and physical benefits, it doesn’t build much muscle mass.[1]

My search for a way to stack some muscle-building exercises onto my daily walk and pull-ups routine led me to discover rucking.

I’ve since tried it out a couple times and I think it’ll be a keeper.

What is rucking?

Rucking is walking with weight on your back. Simple as that.

You’re rucking when you walk to work or school while carrying your backpack with your laptop and books.

We’ve all rucked before.

Where does rucking come from?

Rucking has military origins.

Here’s how Jason McCarthy, a former Green Beret[2] and the founder of GORUCK, explained rucking on the Art of Manliness podcast:

Rucking, it’s a military word. There’s no such thing as backpacking in the military. Everything is rucking. A backpack? There’s no such thing as a backpack. There’s a ruck or a rucksack. It’s really a verb and a noun. You wear a ruck and you go for a ruck, you go rucking.

The point is that this is the foundation of all special forces training. You put some weight on your back, and you go for a walk.

As Jason explains, rucking is a critical skill for those in the armed forces.

This makes sense given that soldiers often have to walk long distances while carrying their equipment, which can weigh more than 125 pounds.

Case in point, the ruck march[3] is one of the tests a US Army infantryman must pass in order to gain the Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB).

To check off this requirement, a soldier must complete a 12-mile march in under 3 hours while carrying a 70-pound load.

The British Armed Forces and the French Armed Forces have a similar requirement as did the Roman Army.[4]

When did rucking become a thing?

Jason McCarthy founded GORUCK, a rucking backpack company, back in 2008 while serving in the Special Forces in Baghdad.

The backpacks, which are made in the US, cost $300 and were difficult to sell without a story and a face behind them.

So in 2010, when the backpacks were ready for sale, Jason started running the GORUCK Challenge, a 12-hour event led by a Special Forces veteran, as a way to promote the backpacks.

People loved the physical challenge and the camaraderie of the event and GORUCK grew from there via word of mouth.

Then in 2016, Ryan Burns discovered rucking through GORUCK and started writing about it on ruck.beer.

A year later, in 2017, Brett, the founder of Art of Manliness, interviewed Jason in his podcast.

And then in 2021, Brett interviewed Josh Bryant, a strength coach and author of Rucking Gains.

Given its large audience, I assume the Art of Manliness website and podcast is how a lot of people heard about rucking, myself included.

So while rucking has been around in its military form for thousands of years (since the Roman army, at least), I’d say that the inflection points for rucking as a civilian workout in the US are:

  1. 2010 - Jason starts the GORUCK Challenge
  2. 2016 - Ryan Burns starts writing about rucking at ruck.beer
  3. 2017 - Brett hosts Jason on the Art of Manliness podcast
  4. 2021 - Brett hosts Josh on the Art of Manliness podcast

The benefits of rucking

Rucking, like walking, has tons of benefits:

Rucking can be less taxing than running

While it looks to be a myth that running will wear out your knees, it is true that 30 to 75% of runners get injured each year.

Walking lowers the risk of injury but doesn’t offer the same workout as running.

Rucking, meanwhile, increases the challenge of walking while avoiding the stress that running can put on the body.

Rucking burns more calories than walking

As a way of measuring the impact of running, walking, and rucking, we can look at the variation in calories burned for a 150-pound man depending on which exercise he does.

A 150-pound man walking at a pace of 3 miles per hour on flat ground will burn 208 calories in an hour.

If he instead runs at a pace of 5 miles per hour, he will burn 561 calories in an hour.

And if he rucks at a pace of 3 miles per hour while carrying a 30-pound load, he will burn 417 calories in an hour.

Doing the math, we see that rucking burns double the calories as walking and about 75% of the calories burned running.

Rucking builds strength

Unlike running, though, rucking has the advantage of building strength on your back, glutes, and thighs.

As Jason says in the Art of Manliness podcast:

There’s also the resistance part of rucking. You’re putting weight on your back. You’re moving with, really your money-maker is your glutes and your thighs. Those are getting a workout as well, in addition to your shoulders and your back.

People in the military, they have big strong backs. Not because there’s a back machine at the military gyms that’s exclusive to those. It’s because there’s more time under weight.

Rucking improves your posture

The weighted backpack (i.e., a ruck or rucksack) naturally pulls your shoulders back. This helps counteract the effects of slumping over our keyboard and smartphones all day.

As Jason explains in the Art of Manliness podcast:

We stare down at those phones, or we stare down at our screens, and it starts to round our neck forward. This is really bad for our posture, because our body gets used to that, and then we stay in that sort of position more easily.

With rucking, when you put the weight on your shoulders and back, what you’ll find is that it’s really uncomfortable to try to roll your shoulders forward. In essence, as you’re rucking, you’re correcting your posture that you’re doing while you sit at your desk or stare at your phone all day.

Rucking gets you outside

We can’t fight evolution.

Throughout history, humans have spent most of their time outside, whether hunting or gathering or farming or just playing around.

The move towards indoor living is fairly recent and comes with lots of dangers.

The benefits of being outside are too numerous for me to list here. But I’ll list a few:

The benefits go on and on.

And while I find the studies fascinating, I don’t really need them because I feel the benefits firsthand after every walk I take.

How to start rucking

Rucking is simple. All you need is a backpack and some weight.

What to use for weight

Use whatever you have on hand for weight—bricks, rocks, sand, weight plates, dumbbells, books.

If you’re thinking of sticking with rucking long-term, you might want to eventually get a dedicated rucksack and weight plates such as the ones sold by GORUCK.

One thing I love about rucking, though, is that it’s absolutely free—using what I already have rather than buying equipment adds to the experience.

How much weight to use

Jason recommends starting with 10 to 20 pounds. If in doubt, he says, start with lower weight and longer distance.[5]

As you get more comfortable, you can increase the weight in 5-pound increments until you reach 35 to 50 pounds or a third of your bodyweight[6], whichever is less.

Going above this weight isn’t recommended unless you’re training for the military as it’ll put too much stress on your body.

How often to ruck

Brett from Art of Manliness likes to ruck once a week.

West Point also instructs their cadets to ruck once a week[7] when preparing for Cadet Basic Training[8].

As you build endurance, you’ll be able to ruck three or four times a week, or every other day, if you so wish.

It’s not recommended to ruck every day as your body needs time to recover.

How long to ruck for

Start with 15 to 30 minutes and work your way up as you get more comfortable.

If you’re looking for a good Beast Mode marker, see if you can get yourself in shape to ruck for 6 hours.

How fast to ruck

Jason says that 15 minutes per mile (the Army minimum standard) is a good pace to aim for and that if you’re moving slower than 20 minutes per mile, you should reduce your weight.

So if you’re looking for a good workout, a pace of 15 to 20 minutes per mile (3-4 miles per hour) will do the trick.

If you’re aiming for Beast Mode, see if you can work up to a pace of 10 to 12 minutes per mile (5-6 miles per hour).

How to increase difficulty

There are four variables you can play with to increase rucking difficulty. These are weight, speed, distance, and grade.

West Point recommends their cadets to only increase one of these at a time and by no more than 50% per week.[7:1]

So if on your first week you were rucking for 30 minutes at 3 miles per hour with a 20-pound load, on your second week you could either increase the time up to a max of 45 minutes, the speed up to a max of 4.5 miles per hour, or the load up to a max of 30 pounds.

Another option is to start rucking in a hilly area—rucking up and down hills is much more difficult than rucking on a flat street.

Whichever variable you tweak, make sure the change is gradual so as to avoid injuries.

Rucking challenges

If you’re into the idea of rucking and want to do hard things, here’s some inspiration.

In the sections below, I list the ruck marches currently done by the US, British, and French armies as well as the marches once done by the Roman army.

I devote a section to each army and include a summary table afterwards with the ruck marches broken down by distance, load carried, and time limit.

If you want a team-based rucking challenge, look into the GORUCK events. These events, which are held all over the US, cost between $62 and $219 and are led by a veteran of the Special Forces.

Another option is to complete one of the monthly challenges on RuckingChallenges.com, which has dozens of challenges going all the way back to January 2019.

U.S. Army

As mentioned above, an infantryman must complete the ruck march in order to gain the Expert Infantryman Badge.

A soldier must complete the 12-mile march in under 3 hours, while carrying their rifle and a 70-pound load.

Ruck marches also feature prominently during Cadet Basic Training (CBT) at West Point.

Cadets complete six ruck marches during the six weeks of CBT:[7:2]

  1. 3-mile walk with gear and helmet.
  2. 3-mile walk with gear, helmet, weapon, and 35-pound backpack.
  3. 6-mile march with gear, helmet, weapon, and 35-pound backpack.
  4. 8-mile march with gear, helmet, weapon, and 35-pound backpack.
  5. 12-mile march with gear, helmet, weapon, and 35-pound backpack.
  6. 15-mile march with gear, helmet, weapon, and 35-pound backpack.

The marches are done at a 2.5 to 3 mile per hour pace (20 to 24 minutes per mile.)

British Army

As part of their Annual Fitness Test, soldiers in the British Army must walk 8 miles carrying 33 to 55 pounds.[9]

Infantry soldiers, given that they engage in ground combat, have stricter requirements. Their test is spread out over two days.

On the first day, they must complete a 12-mile march with a 66-pound load in under three and a half hours.

On the second day, the load drops to 44 pounds while the distance and time requirements remain the same.

Special forces and specific units of the infantry have even stricter requirements.

French Armed Forces

As part of the pre-selection process, legionnaires[10] must complete a 19-mile speed march in under 4 hours while wearing full-combat gear and carrying two canteens of water as well as a 49-pound load.[11]

Then, during the 17-week long basic training, there are two more marches: the Marche Képi Blanc and the Raid Marche.[12]

The Marche Képi Blanc is a 31-mile march split over two days. Soldiers wear full-combat gear and carry a 49-pound load. After this march, legionnaires are awarded the traditional képi blanc.[13]

The Raid Marche, the last big test of basic training, is a 75-mile march split over three days. As in the Marche Képi Blanc, soldiers march in full-combat gear and carry a 49-pound load.

Finally, as part of their annual test, legionnaires must complete a 1,500 meter (0.93 mile) march with a 26-pound load in under 9 minutes, a 5-mile march with the same 26-pound load in under 40 minutes, and a night march of 16 miles with a 40-pound load in under three hours.[14]

Norwegian Foot March

Norwegians made use of the ruck march when training for World War I. The first Norwegian Foot March was held in 1915.[15]

Soldiers had to march 18.6 miles in under four and a half hours while wearing combat uniforms and carrying their rifle along with a 25-pound backpack.

Roman Army

A Roman legionary was first required to complete an 18.4-mile march with a 45-pound load in under 6 hours.

This marching speed was called the the “regular step” or “military pace.”

Once this was achieved, they were required to complete a 22-mile march with a 45-pound load, again in under 6 hours.

This marching speed was called the the “faster step” or “full pace.”

Summary

Here are all the different army rucking challenges you can aspire to:

ArmyDistanceLoadTime
Roman18.4 miles45 poundsUnder 6 hours
Roman22 miles45 poundsUnder 6 hours
U.S.12 miles70 poundsUnder 3 hours
U.S. (CBT)15 miles35 poundsUnder 6 hours
British8 miles33 to 55 poundsUnder 2 hours
French1,500 meter (0.93 miles)26 poundsUnder 9 minutes
French5 miles26 poundsUnder 40 minutes
French16 miles40 poundsUnder 3 hours
French19 miles49 poundsUnder 4 hours
French31 miles49 poundsSplit over 2 days
French75 miles49 poundsSplit over 3 days
Norwegian18.6 miles25 poundsUnder 4.5 hours

Summary

I went on my first two rucks this week.

I put two 10-pound iron plates into my trusty 15-year-old JanSport and walked 3.5 miles on one day and 4.5 on the next.

My pace was somewhere around 15 to 20 minutes per mile and the terrain (aka, my neighborhood) was mostly flat.

It felt good. My calves were definitely more sore than after a normal walk.

I’m excited to work my way up to 35 pounds and tackle some of the challenges.

In fact, I can already hear the 1,500 meter and 5 mile tests required by the French army calling my name.

After that, it won’t be long until I’m itching to try the Norwegian Foot March and the ruck march done by West Point cadets during CBT.

Remember, if you’re not living, you’re dying. Have a good time rucking.

Footnotes

  1. See this study which compared the muscle strength of women who walked more than 10,000 steps per day with those who walked fewer than 7,500. The women who walked more had lower body fat, more endurance, and weighed less. They did not, however, have greater muscle strength nor did they perform better on tests of balance and agility. ↩︎

  2. Green Berets are the United States Army Special Forces. There are strict qualifications to become a Green Beret and the training is brutal. Part of the training even includes learning a foreign language and being well-versed in the political, economic, and cultural complexities of the regions where they’ll be deployed. ↩︎

  3. Also known as a loaded march or forced foot march. See here. ↩︎

  4. See loaded march on Wikipedia. ↩︎

  5. See the FAQs on GORUCK. ↩︎

  6. The one-third of bodyweight rule is based on Colonel S.L.A. Marshall’s 1950 book, The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation, in which he recommends, based on previous studies, that a soldier shouldn’t carry more than 33 percent of his bodyweight. ↩︎

  7. See the Foot Marching part of Cadet Basic Training. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  8. Cadet Basic Training is the six-week program held during the summer before cadets start at West Point meant to transition them from a civilian lifestyle to a military one. ↩︎

  9. The exact load varies depending on specialization (e.g., infantry vs artillery vs engineers.) See here. ↩︎

  10. The French Foreign Legion is a part of the French Army that was created in 1831 to allow foreigners to join. Training is physically and psychologically brutal. French citizenship is granted after three years’ service or immediately if a soldier is wounded during battle (“French by spilled blood”). ↩︎

  11. The record for fastest time is 2 hours and 28 minutes. ↩︎

  12. See the Basic Training section of the French Foreign Legion entry in Wikipedia. ↩︎

  13. A kepi is a type of cap and blanc means white. So kepi blanc means white cap. ↩︎

  14. If you’re interested in learning more about the French Foreign Legion, check out this article from Aeon magazine or the book Appel: A Canadian in the French Foreign Legion. ↩︎

  15. See the US Army’s use of the Norwegian Foot March and the Guidelines for the Norwegian foot march from the Norwegian Embassy. ↩︎