Over the last few years, I’ve become more and more interested in improving my physical fitness. The reasons are simple. I want to live longer. I want to be able to participate in more active things with my children as they grow older, helping them to practice their sports and other activities without passing out in a heap. I want to feel better and more energetic.
I’ve tried a lot of different tactics with varying success. I’ve joined a couple of different gyms and gradually grew bored with each of them and stopped going. I’ve tried lots of different bodyweight exercises at home. I’ve tried some fitness videos such as P90X. Most things just didn’t click at all. I even tried hiring a personal trainer for a while. It was ridiculously expensive, and although it was somewhat helpful, I really couldn’t continue to justify the expense of it.
I felt stuck and frustrated. The only thing that worked well for me at all (other than shelling out a lot of money for that trainer for a short while) was a simple bodyweight “fitness ladder,” which was basically just a handful of exercises I could do rather quickly and then keep improving at them. Even with that, I would stick with it for a while and then back off. I also enjoyed walks – I always have.
So, what did I do?
I stepped back, looked at the course of my life, and asked myself, “At what point was I in the best shape of my life?” It was pretty obvious to me. My physical fitness peak was in my first two years of college. What was I doing during those first two years in college? The biggest thing that I did was walk between three and five miles each and every day with a loaded backpack, one that usually contained multiple notebooks and a couple of college textbooks.
I lived in a dorm in those years, and the dorm I happened to live in was about a mile and a half from the two buildings where many of my classes were. I intentionally scheduled classes over there so I would have all of my classes in that area back-to-back – or at least as close together as I could get with minimal gaps – to reduce my walk over there. In between any gaps, I’d go to the library and study, which was about half a mile from those classes.
So, on most days, I’d walk about a mile and a half to those classes, half a mile to the library, half a mile back to my classes, and another mile and a half back to my dorm. On top of that, I would often do some walking to other classes nearer to my dorm with a less-loaded backpack.
In other words, I was walking somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 steps a day with some weight on my back. How much weight? I wasn’t sure, so I found a couple of old textbooks that were similar to the ones I had in college and I concluded that I was typically carrying somewhere around 20 to 25 pounds on my back on those walks, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.
So, what was I doing a lot of during the period in my life when I was in the best shape? I was walking a lot with weight on my back.
So, why not do the same thing today to get in better shape?
As I started to look into the concept (remember, I’m not 18 any more – I didn’t want to just throw 30 pounds on my back and walk for several miles without having some idea of doing things safely and correctly for maximum benefit), I quickly learned that exercising by carrying weight on your back is known as rucking. It’s a significant component of basic training in the military (often with very heavy backpacks), but it can definitely be used by anyone for fitness.
It turns out that rucking has become my favorite method of exercise, for several reasons.
First, it just builds upon something I already enjoy doing – going on walks and hikes. I go on walks almost every day around my neighborhood, and I go to parks a couple of times a week to walk on trails and do some light hiking. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of this, as it seems to clear my head and leaves me feeling really good when I’m finished.
Second, it’s incredibly inexpensive. I use an old backpack and a few objects of known weight along with some good shoes. That’s all I need. I’ve basically purchased nothing for this form of exercise. You likely already have this stuff in your home.
Third, it’s incredibly flexible. If I want easy exercise, I put just a few pounds of weight in the backpack and it’s barely noticeable, then I’ll walk on flat ground. If I want really challenging exercise, I’ll load that backpack down with weight and go to a very hilly area. I can adjust my pace as well, making it harder if I go faster and easier if I slow down. I can essentially do interval training by going really fast for short periods with a heavy pack, or I can do endurance-style training by going for several miles with moderate weight in my pack at a moderate pace. I can come home with just the gentle “feel good” of going on a nice walk or I can come home with a soaked shirt and that post-exercise cooldown feeling. It’s all about what I want that day. I can also do it whenever I want – at five in the morning or at three in the afternoon or at seven in the evening. I can do it for as long as I want – an intense 10 minutes or a gentle hour and a half or anything else. It’s just super flexible.
Fourth, it targets the fitness areas I want to target. I want to be in good cardio shape. I want a strong core. I want a strong lower back. Those are the things that rucking is good at. It won’t make my arms look super muscular, but I don’t care. It will build muscle in my abdomen and on my back and a bit on my upper legs, and that’s where a lot of my strength for day-to-day things comes from.
Finally, it gets me outside. I’m a firm believer in the power of getting plenty of fresh air every day and getting at least a little sunshine on your skin for the vitamin D benefits, if nothing else. I get hit hard with seasonal affective disorder in the winter and sunlight is the single most effective cure I’ve found. I feel better and sleep better with some significant outdoor time each day. Rucking gives me that.
It’s inexpensive, flexible, matches what I already like to do, and gets me outside. In other words, it’s just about perfect for me.
Getting Started: Your First Ruck
As I noted earlier, the only equipment you need for rucking is an old backpack, some heavy items, and some decent shoes for walking. There are a couple of optional things, too. Here’s what I use.
Good shoes: This is the foundation of walking or lightly jogging for exercise, regardless of whether you’ve got weight on your back or not.
A sturdy backpack, old or new: Your backpack is going to be carrying some weight, so you want one that’s sturdy, but there’s no reason to go buy a new one. If you have a reliable backpack around your home, just grab that one and put it to good use. If you don’t have one, shop around for a used one that has good stitching. I have a well-made canvas backpack that I use exclusively for rucking so I can leave weights in it (it’s different than my bag that I essentially use as a portable office).
You’ll want to adjust the straps so that it carries the weight of the pack as high on your back as possible without being uncomfortable. This usually means shortening the straps a bit from where people typically adjust them. Play around with the straps until they’re right for you.
Some weighted items: You’re going to want to put some weight in your pack. There are a lot of things that work really well here.
A great way to start out is to simply use water bottles, especially if you have a bunch in your pantry. A single 16-ounce water bottle weighs a pound, so you can put as few or as many as you’d like into your bag before you head out. The advantage of water bottles is that they’re so microadjustable in terms of their weight. The disadvantage, though, is that if you don’t stack them right, they can all bunch up in the bottom of the bag and throw off the weight distribution. In general, you don’t want all of the weight bundled up in the bottom of the bag. (I’ll give a tip to help with this in a bit.)
Another option is to use bricks. Rucking is a great use for a few leftover bricks from a home improvement project. A typical brick weighs around five pounds and is fairly dense, which is a good thing for rucking weights, and they obviously stack well for weight distribution. The biggest disadvantage of bricks is that they can have rough edges which can damage your pack, but that’s another disadvantage that can be mitigated (again, a tip for this is incoming).
A third option is to use old textbooks. You could literally pull out that old calculus textbook from college and toss it in there. They’re actually proportioned really well for rucking if you stand them vertically in your pack, as the weight is distributed vertically across your back instead of bunching up at the bottom. However, if you get sweaty and the sweat seeps into your backpack, you can really do a number on textbooks. The last thing you want is a sweat-soaked textbook!
If you want an expensive option, you can always buy a steel plate made for rucking. They make steel plates in standard sizes with the rough edges worn down to smooth angles. They basically solve all of the difficulties of the options above, but they’re definitely expensive.
Who wants expensive, though? There are a couple of simple things you can do to eliminate the disadvantages of those various items.
One thing you can do is to use duct tape to arrange small items into larger shapes. For example, you can take several water bottles, lay them flat, and then duct tape them together firmly into a flat “plate” that fits into your backpack quite well. If you take eight 16 oz. water bottles and lay them out in a flat shape that’s just a bit smaller than your backpack, you can simply tape them all together firmly and you’ll have an eight pound weight that’s distributed very well for your back. You can make multiples of these, too, or you can make them larger if you have a larger pack. You can always cut the tape later and use them for drinking.
To keep an item like an old textbook safe from sweat, wrap it in plastic grocery bags and then tape those bags with some duct tape. Just put a couple of layers of grocery bags around the book, then add several bands of duct tape to keep the bags secure. This will keep them free of sweat while maintaining the nice weight distribution of a textbook.
What about rough items, like bricks? Just stack them, duct tape them together thoroughly, cover them with bubble wrap, then duct tape the wrap. So, for example, you might take four bricks and make a stack of them, duct tape all of the bricks together (I recommend completely covering them in a couple of layers of tape to ensure that the rough edges don’t get through), then wrapping that stack in bubble wrap and taping the bubble wrap securely. This would create a weight that’s slightly more than 20 pounds and would sit very well in a backpack.
Strategies for Rucking for Exercise
So, you have a weighted backpack. Now what? Here’s what I do to take advantage of this weighted backpack for fitness.
First, figure out your paths. I’d suggest starting by figuring out some places that you enjoy walking without weights at all. Find several good routes that you’ll want to consistently walk and measure out their distance. Outside my front door, for example, I have a one-mile walk, a two-mile walk, a three-mile walk, and a five-mile walk, and I have a few consistent walks I like to take at some nearby parks, too. Some changes in incline and elevation are great for fitness.
I recommend your first ruck be with a low weight on a shorter path. Keep the weight around five or 10 pounds and don’t go on an exceptionally long trek with that weight on your back. It’s not that you won’t be able to handle it, but that understanding how rucking makes you feel and alters your pace with that added weight is important to understand.
What you’ll find (if you’re like me) is that rucking definitely impacts some muscle groups in surprising ways and the intensity of that impact (and the muscle groups affected) change based on the weight and distance of rucking. I found that with light weights at first, I felt the impact on my lower and middle back, but as the weights got heavier, I felt the impact on my abdomen and thighs. I also definitely found that the longer the distance, the greater the impact on my muscles.
What has worked well for me is shooting for a target distance first with a very light weight, then gradually upping the weight while continuing at the target distance. For me, that distance is three miles with some minor inclines throughout. When I significantly change things up (by going to a park with a lot of incline, for example), I reduce the weight rather than the distance.
So, here’s an approach you might take. Start off with just five or 10 pounds in your backpack and go on a one-mile walk or even a half-mile walk. Once that seems easy, bump it up by half a mile. Keep bumping it up until you’re going the distance you want to go without stopping.
Then, again, with that same relatively small weight, start working on your pace. I recommend shooting for a healthy walking pace. I shoot for about 15-minute miles. I’m definitely not running, but I’m not dawdling with my walking, either.
Once you can walk your target distance at your target pace without feeling miserable – for me, that’s a three-mile walk in 45 minutes – then slowly start increasing the weight.
I highly recommend bumping up the weight a pound at a time by adding 16-ounce water bottles to your pack. So, if you’re starting at 10 pounds, add a 16-ounce water bottle to your next ruck so that you’re now carrying eleven pounds.
Don’t increase your weight until you’re finding it pretty easy to ruck your target distance at your target pace. When you find that exercise to be pretty easy, then add a little more weight to your pack.
The nice thing about adding it a pound at a time is that when you reach a new round number for the weight you’re carrying, you can make yourself a larger, more standardized weight. For example, if you’re carrying 10 pounds, you can take two bricks, tape them together with a couple layers of tape, then wrap them in bubble wrap and tape it, as described above, then that’s your new standard 10-pound weight. You can just grab it and use it without thinking much about it.
Then, when you want to add just a pound to that, toss in a water bottle. You might find yourself carrying a 10-pound brick bundle and four water bottles, getting you real close to 14 pounds. Then, when you’re ready to add another bottle, you could just turn that two brick bundle into a three brick bundle and stop carrying the water bottles.
Or, for example, you might have a few old college textbooks that weigh 10 pounds each and another one that weighs five pounds. At first, you might just be carrying that single lighter book and a couple of water bottles, but you’ll reach a point where you toss the bottles and the light book and use one heavy book. Then you start adding a few bottles to that. Then eventually you replace the bottles and find yourself carrying a heavy book and a light book.
In my experience, you eventually start leveling out in terms of additional weight. You’ll start hitting a point where it is consistently challenging but not overly so, but you’re also not feeling like you should be adding more weight to the mix. Trust your body. Don’t add any weight or distance unless you’re dead sure that this is the right move, and make changes slowly.
At first, I found myself adding weight pretty steadily, but then the weight additions started coming more and more and more and more slowly, until I basically reached a point where I was feeling like the exercise was great without ever adding more weight. Since then – and it was a long while ago – I’ve added weight once.
What about the winter? I’ll fully admit that I don’t do this during the coldest parts of the winter. I don’t like going on long walks or jogs or much of anything outside when it is bitterly cold. What I did this winter to somewhat stay in shape for this was to do step-ups. Basically, I’d turn on something to listen to, then I’d find something that I could step up onto that would cause my upper leg to form a 90 degree angle with my stomach when I was stepping up. I’d do that a bunch on one leg, then the other leg, for a few steps. I’d do this with light weights on my back, too.
Doing this made it very easy to return to rucking in the spring, although I didn’t carry my full weight from the fall when starting again.
Rucking is, hands down, my favorite frugal solo exercise (playing soccer with my kids tops it, but that’s not exactly something I can do solo whenever I have a spare half hour). It costs basically nothing, gets me outside, and works cardio and the muscles I’m most concerned about without bulking up. It’s also super flexible – I can adjust it to whatever my goals happen to be. If I know I’m going to be hiking up hills a lot, I can ruck with a lighter weight up some hills to get in shape for it. Not only that, it gives me a chance to relax my mind while I’m doing it, with a podcast or an audiobook usually playing in my ear.
Give it a shot. Grab an old backpack, toss a few water bottles in there, and go for a brisk walk. See how you feel at the end of it – it’s like a little healthy bonus on top of a nice walk.
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