Can you really get fit by putting on a rucksack and going for a walk? Bridget Harrison finds out
There’s a new fitness trend heading to the UK and this one doesn’t require fancy apparatus or membership of a specialist gym. You simply pull on a rucksack, load it down with a water bottle or two and go for a walk. In the US they call it rucking, and there devotees are getting together for “mass rucks”, wearing weighted rucksacks on the treadmill, or even dog walking and on the school run.
Rucking has numerous fitness benefits, says its advocates. It blitzes your core as effectively as Pilates, burns fat as fast as running and will help counteract the kind of posture you get from hunching over a screen all day. It will also make your entire body strong.
“Rucking yields similar cardiovascular and muscular benefits as other popular endurance sports such as running and cycling, with the added benefit of enhancing the body’s structural integrity induced by carrying a weighted pack,” says Jason Hartman, a strength and conditioning expert who trains special forces for the US army, where rucking — albeit with far heavier loads than we civilians would contemplate — is a key aspect of training. “Because rucking builds up your hip and postural stability, it will help make you more injury proof in all your other activities,” he says.
As a 44-year-old journalist with two young sons, my usual fitness regime involves a 30-minute run one morning a week, and the odd trip to the gym in my lunch hour. I want to know how a good ruck will compare. So I have come to Watford’s bucolic Cassiobury Park to meet Luke Wardrop, who is a former NCO with the Royal Regiment of Artillery and now a senior trainer with British Military Fitness, which runs keep-fit classes across the country. If you’ve ever seen army types shouting at groups of people doing press-ups in the park on summers evenings, that’s them. BMF is now incorporating rucking into its programmes.
Of course to British military men such as Luke, 30, rucking is nothing new. It’s just that when Luke rucks he doesn’t call it rucking, he calls it tabbing. Tabbing is short for “tactical advance to battle”, the method by which troops move themselves and their kit on land, he tells me. If you are in the British Army, your basic fitness test will require you to carry a 45lb pack for eight to ten miles. Luke has tabbed with a rucksack weighing 122lb and if you are in the special forces you might load up with a whacking 200lb and go for 30 miles.
Luke places a more modest 20lb pack on my back, weighted down only with stuff I might need when out on a ruck: a map, mobile phone, waterproof and a couple of water bottles. Nevertheless, the weight feels a satisfying antidote to my slouchy, rounded shoulders.
“A pack will immediately pull your shoulders backwards, increasing the curvature in the lower spine and engaging the muscles that support that curvature, which is your core,” says Luke. “Also, all the muscles have to work together to keep you upright, which naturally helps you to stand up straight.”
We set off into the park, jump a stream and head down a leafy trail where birds are chirping madly in the trees. It’s a lot more pleasant than working out in my stuffy gym where Katy Perry is constantly blasting in the background.
Apart from a dose of the great outdoors, what’s really good about rucking is that it allows people with differing levels of fitness to exercise together, says Luke, who is striding beside me with 45lb on his back. This has fuelled the popularity of rucking in the US, where one new website, Goruck, has been launched by special forces veterans to help connect people who want to ruck together. Its motto: “Nobody rucks alone.”
“It’s also sociable because you can be working hard but still have the breath to chat along the way,” says Luke. Indeed, this feels a lot easier than my morning jog, I tell him. Can this really be as beneficial as running? Yes, if I increase my load, says Luke. Rucking with 30lb on your back will burn three times the calories of a normal walk, which is comparable to running, he says. However, unlike running there is less chance of injury because even though you are putting in the same effort as a run, the strain is more controlled because you are going slower.
“When you run your foot-strike is the equivalent of a force of four times your weight going through your heel. When you are walking it is a more gentle placement, so even with more weight on you are not jarring the joints,” says Luke.
Carrying weight on your back requires you to stabilise your pelvis to stop your upper half from flopping around, says Luke. That means your mid-section gets a great workout. Rucking is also excellent for the glutes because they have to put in more effort than usual to propel you forwards. “When you walk with a weighted pack, the muscles that you use all the time are being challenged and strengthened,” he says.
Rucking will offer the greatest benefit to the muscles of the lower body and core, including the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, and abdominal musculature, says Jason Hartman. Contrary to popular misconception, he says, carrying a weight on your back can help prevent back pain. “Rucking will enhance hip stability and core strength. Each of those physical benefits has been shown to be beneficial in reducing symptoms of back pain and dysfunction.” He advises anyone with back pain to check with their doctor before their first ruck.
Just when I am getting smug about how pleasant this all is, Luke says that to get the full cardiovascular benefit of a ruck, you should include a few inclines, or break into bursts of speed. To do this you should increase your pace with small low steps, your shoes close to the ground, thus keeping the impact of your foot-strike low. In the army they call this a “shuffle”.
Luke and I put in a few shuffles that have me panting hard, but mostly we stick to walking pace. As he promised, despite the exercise, it’s still easy to chat. I quiz Luke on life in the army — his posting to Basra (“The hardest part was living in a place where you can’t trust anyone”), barracks humour (“Ribbing people mercilessly is part of letting off steam”), and how he might have felt about being sent into Syria (“You go out believing you have a job to do”). The time flies. Before I know it I have completed an hour of what has felt like fairly strenuous exercise. The next day my waist and thigh muscles ache in that satisfying way muscles do when you’ve really used them.
Rucking is as easy as putting on a rucksack and going for a walk. You can even ruck on your commute — and it doesn’t have to be a hiking backpack; any backpack will do, as long as you pack it correctly. You could wrap heavy items (water bottles, for example) in a jacket or jumper so that they don’t move around. Make sure you always wear trainers and you will achieve the same fitness and toning benefits.
Goruck plans to start organising formal “mass rucks” in the UK next year. Meanwhile, a series of British tabbing challenges, that were originally set up as charity events for servicemen, now have plenty of civilians joining in. They are called the S.F. Experience. The next event, a ten-mile hike in Brecon Beacons in November, is open to a range of fitness categories, beginning at “clean fatigue”, which is the equivalent of a 20lb pack with just your stuff in it, going up to a 35lb category, plus one for the hardcore that has a time requirement comparable to those completed by the special forces.
Luke recommends that civilians such as me stick to carrying under 30lb — which is fine because I don’t want to join the army. Like most women, I just want to do some good cardiovascular exercise that isn’t too boring, and that will blitz my bum and core. After my trip to Watford, my conclusion is that to achieve this I would definitely rather ruck than run.
How to Ruck
Choose your load
Start by using a weight that’s equal to about 10 per cent of your bodyweight. If you want to build your load, raise the pack weight by 2.5 per cent to 5 per cent each week.
Don’t go above 30lb unless you are training to join the army.
Load the pack
Popular items used to weight a pack are water bottles, food tins, water bottles filled with sand and dumbbells.
Secure the weight
It is best to keep your heaviest pack items positioned as close to your body as possible, high in the pack and centred. Wrap a towel around your weight to stop it moving in your backpack and use another to fill spaces in your pack.