Rucking: The Cardio Workout That Builds Muscle Too

Credit: Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Put a weight in your backpack and go for a walk. It sounds deceptively simple, but this age-old activity, newly popularized by military-fitness programs, will torch fat, boost strength, and challenge even the most seasoned gym-goer. It’s called rucking.

Tactical athletes, like soldiers and police officers, know well that rucking can sharpen fitness, along with helping save your life. Success on the battlefield is often determined by how quickly a soldier can move with essential gear on his back, and SWAT officers need to be able to kick down doors and tackle bad guys clad in 50 pounds of protective gear.

For the average person to get the most out of rucking, it’s best to incorporate strength-training routines that will build the muscles you use while you ruck. A review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that a good strategy is one fast-walk backpacking session a week and three resistance-training workouts. After completing this training program, I recommend doing a three- to five-mile ruck, twice per week, carrying a 55-pound load. Here’s how to make that happen.

The Rucking Plan

This eight-week plan will gradually and safely ramp your fitness up to get you to long-distance rucks using real weight. For week 1, start by walking one mile with 20 pounds on your back. Each week you should add one mile and five pounds on, so that by week 8, you’re up to an eight-mile ruck with a 55-pound pack.

For your three weekly strength-training workouts, do these exercises as a circuit on nonconsecutive days. Perform three rounds, doing 15 reps of each move.

When you head out on your weekly ruck, follow these rules:

1. Use a sturdy pack. Use a sturdy backpack with thick shoulder straps, padded hip straps, a sternum strap, and space for a Camelbak bladder. Something like the Maxpedition Falcon-III ($196, maxpedition.com) works well with light loads. Once you work your way up to 50 pounds or more, go for a pack like an internal frame camping backpack. If you want the bombproof option, look to the Mystery Ranch Overload ($635, mysteryranch.com), which has an adjustable frame and padded waist belt that transfers the load to your hips. 

2. Keep the weight stable and close. Cinch the pack on your hips — they should hold about 80 percent of the weight — which is the most secure way to carry. Adjust your shoulder straps and sternum strap to anchor the load close to the small of your back. This will reduce swinging and chafing. Your hips should hold the weight while your shoulders and chest stabilize the position of the pack as you march.

3. Install a hydration bladder. Then you can drink on the move. If you want a pack built around hydration, look at the CamelBak Motherlode ($247, camelbak.com), which is made from heavy-duty Cordura nylon and houses a 100-ounce hydration bladder with a convenient drinking tube. Fill it with plain water and a scoop of electrolyte powder to reduce cramping on your longer treks. 

4. Don't run. Ever. At top speed, about four miles an hour, your stride should resemble a race walk with short, fast steps. This technique will preserve your joints. “Walk slowly, or as fast as you can, to increase the level of difficulty, but don't run,” says Jason McCarthy, founder of GORUCK and a veteran of U.S. Army Special Forces.

5. Get shoe support. The longer and heavier the ruck, the greater need for foot and ankle support, says McCarthy. A good rule of thumb is trail running shoes, like Salomon’s XA PRO 3D M+, for loads under 35 pounds ($130, salomon.com). Anything heaver than 35 pounds deserves a beefy boot like the Rocky S2V Substratum Direct Attach Hiker ($139, rockys2v.com).

6. Wear wool socks. Preferably something like SmartWool’s Trekking Heavy Crew Socks ($21, smartwool.com). Add Injinji’s next-to-skin, moisture-wicking Liner Sock to help prevent blisters or chaffing from grit between your toes ($9, injinji.com).

7. Upgrade your underwear. The natural antimicrobial properties of merino wool, found in Triple Aught Design’s Commando Boxer Brief, wicks away sweat to reduce hot spots and, in turn, the dreaded thigh rub ($38, tripleaughtdesign.com).

8. Bring a friend. It's a lot more fun to ruck with someone else. If you're at different ability levels, weight is the great equalizer. Heavier for you, lighter for them or vice versa, and you can get comparable workouts, says McCarthy.