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rucking: hikers with backpacks

What’s The Deal With Rucking?

If you’re into fitness, you’ve probably noticed all of the chatter about “rucking” on your social media feeds lately. It’s more than a flash-in-the-pan trend, though. On the contrary, rucking might just be one of the most time-tested workouts you can do. Here’s everything you need to know about this surprisingly simple form of exercise—and how to incorporate it into your routine to feel like an all-around more capable human.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Jenny Liebl, C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer as well as a content developer and podcast host for the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). Jake Dickson, C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer and USA Weightlifting coach with Barbend. Ryan Hill, P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S., a physical therapist and co-owner of The Stride Shop in New Orleans.

What Is Rucking?

Rucking involves walking various types of terrain with a weighted backpack or rucksack,” shares certified personal trainer Jenny Liebl, C.P.T., content developer and podcast host for the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). Besides a backpack or rucksack, you can also use a weighted vest. 

Rucking is used as a form of exercise for many people, but its origins are in the armed forces, in which soldiers have long carried backpacks loaded with supplies and tools weighing upwards of 70 pounds while on duty,” she says. 

Basically, anytime you have ever packed a backpack for a hike or walk, you were rucking and probably did not even know it.

Why is Rucking Having a Moment?

Clearly, people have been doing what social media stars now call rucking for a long time. Why, then, is rucking having such a moment right now? 

Liebl thinks it has something to do with how COVID (and the time since) spurred many people to reevaluate and recommit to fitness and health goals while reigniting their love for the great outdoors. “Rucking provides the best of both worlds,” she says.

The trend may also stem from other recent fitness crazes. “I think the rapid rise of rucking as a form of recreational exercise can be attributed, in part, to CrossFit and other forms of mixed-modality fitness,” shares certified personal trainer Jake Dickson, C.P.T., a USA Weightlifting coach at Barbend. 

Rucking also boasts a pretty low barrier to entry, given that all you need is some sort of backpack or a small weighted vest to get started, Liebl and Dickson agree. Anywhere you can take a hike or walk, you can do so with a rucksack or weighted backpack, making it an accessible and versatile activity for anyone.

Rucking gets bonus points for being more tolerable for new exercisers than a running program and saving you time, as it doesn’t require going to a gym or fitness studio, suggests Ryan Hill, P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S., a physical therapist and co-owner of The Stride Shop in New Orleans. “People looking for more of a challenge can simply add more weight, ruck hills, or ruck for longer periods, making it a scalable activity,” he says. 

The Benefits of Rucking

Rucking is a creative way to get a workout in—and its health and fitness benefits are equally exciting. 

“Rucking is a full-body challenge that can improve cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, core strength, and overall fitness,” says Liebl. “When used for fitness, rucks can weigh anywhere from five to 50 pounds and people can walk in all types of terrain ranging from a walk around the neighborhood for a beginner to a trek through the mountains for someone more advanced.” The easy scalability makes rucking a great exercise option for people of all fitness levels.

As a form of cardiovascular endurance training, rucking benefits heart health and functional longevity. “For someone who wants to be able to hike late into life, rucking in their 30s and 40s would be an excellent way to prepare,” says Dickson. Hill agrees: “Rucking finds its way into the programming I do for ultramarathoners, and I have my 70-year-old father do a few sessions a week while walking the dog!”

If you want a bit more of a challenge than just walking but do not want to do high-impact, intense, or fast-paced cardio workouts, rucking is for you. “I would also consider programming rucking sessions for strength athletes or weightlifters who want a bit of active recovery on their dedicated rest days,” says Dickson. 

Read More: 4 Post-Workout Game-Changers For Maximum Muscle Recovery

Speaking of weightlifters… In terms of muscular strength and endurance, rucking adds resistance to the body, which is considered a load. “The addition of load to the body is known as resistance training and this type of training (when applied in the proper dosages and with proper recovery) can drive the adaptation of building muscle strength in the core, which consists of the abdominals, back, glutes, and upper legs,” explains Liebl. “When you couple this resistance with walking for extended periods on a variety of terrains, you can drive the adaptation of endurance, or the ability of the muscles to work for a prolonged period without fatiguing.”

Similarly, the resistance training rucking offers benefits the joints and bones similarly to traditional resistance training. “Creating force in the muscles when we walk under load places stress on the tendons (that connect muscle to bone) and the bone itself,” says Liebl. “Over time, that stress leads the body to remodel and reinforce the impacted bones which, in turn, increases bone density and strength. This has a multitude of benefits as we age, like the reduced risk for developing osteoporosis or experiencing bone fractures or breaks.”

Plus, since rucking combines resistance training with walking (especially when done on challenging terrain), the joints of the legs, hips, and spine are primed to remain more mobile and the connective tissues and muscles around those joints stay stronger and healthier, Liebl adds.

One other impactful benefit of rucking is the fact that it is often done in groups. “Similar to the magnetic community aspect of CrossFit, rucking has become an activity that brings people together, promotes mental resilience and perseverance (carrying a heavy backpack for extended periods is not easy, after all), and satisfies the basic human need for relatedness with others,” notes Liebl.

How To Get Started With Rucking

Good news! If you have some time and access to the outdoors, you are already halfway to getting into rucking.

The experts recommend starting with a lightly weighted pack (as light as five pounds) and rucking for 10 to 20 minutes a few times per week. After a few weeks, choose a variable (think weight, terrain, walking speed, or time rucking) to increase, suggests Liebel.

If you feel ready for longer bouts, mix up your approach throughout the week. For example, go for one long-duration ruck (around an hour is a great benchmark) per week and then mix in some shorter, but more intense rucking workouts, Dickson suggests.

Read More: 3 Common Habits That Undermine Muscle Building

And as for your gear? “A beginner can start with a regular backpack and some canned foods or a small weight plate or dumbbell,” says Liebl. You can also invest in a rucksack specifically designed to carry loads. These usually range in price from $30 to $175, depending on the amount of padding it has, brand, size, and other features.

While an actual rucksack might not be necessary at first, it’s an increasingly worthy investment over time. “As you acclimate to the demands of rucking, I would strongly suggest picking up a proper rucksack or hiking backpack to effectively distribute the weight across your body and limit joint pain,” Liebl says. 

You see, when a rucksack is worn correctly, the overall impact on the body is relatively low. The pack must be secured tightly to the body, fitted to the body size of the individual, and not worn too low on the back to avoid back or neck pain as well as joint stress, Liebl says.

Fun Ways To Ruck

Of course, your rucking routine can expand beyond designated workouts. You could don your rucksack while doing chores around the house or even walk around the airport with your backpack on while waiting for your flight. Heck, you can even ruck while you walk the dog, suggests Hill. If you’re going out anyway, why not add some weight to your route?

Rucking is also better with friends. “Personally, I would schedule longer rucks with friends and have a set destination in mind like a coffee shop, restaurant, or brewery,” says Hill. You could even grab some friends and start a rucking scavenger hunt in your neighborhood, Liebl shares. Group rucks are also a great way to explore new walking trails near your home. “As long as your pack is fitted well and the weight is appropriate, there is no wrong way to do it,” she says.

The Takeaway

Rucking may have its most recent roots in the armed forces, but it’s a great way for anyone to build strength, endurance, and overall fitness. This full-body challenge offers well-rounded benefits and boasts a low barrier to entry and the ability to do it with friends, pets, or solo. It’s a great way to get outdoors and get a workout in, whether you ruck around your neighborhood or up a mountain.

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