Of Mice and Mastodons: How Much Muscle Mass Should You Carry?

Strength and endurance are rivals. “Strength loves rest,” as the saying goes, and it hates endurance. Strength and endurance compete against each other for your training time and recuperative powers. Yes, you can do both (and you should, at least a little). But unless you are a pure strength athlete or pure endurance athlete (e.g. a powerlifter or an ultra runner), you must strike some kind of compromise between the ancient enemies.

Which should you favor? Usually there’s a clear answer that’s dictated by (1) the rules of your sport and maybe (2) your individual game plan.

(1) Gaming the Rules: Most “mixed” sports—not purely strength or endurance—clearly favor one or the other. Middle-distance runners and soccer players are basically endurance athletes who need just some strength training, and vice versa for football linemen and sprinters. That’s determined by the rules of their respective games. Now, if soccer players were allowed to grapple each other, they would have to get stronger. If football had continuous play like soccer, the players would need more endurance. Similarly, if wrestling matches lasted two hours, wrestlers would need even bigger gas tanks. But if matches lasted only a few seconds, or if they had no weight classes, you would get sumo wrestlers.

In those mixed sports, athletes face a point of diminishing returns for certain kinds of endurance or strength. For example, a boxer needs to bench more than his own bodyweight, but he doesn’t need to bench twice his bodyweight, and if he invests the training time to do so, he’ll neglect his running, to say nothing of actually practicing boxing. Boxers win by boxing. They don’t win extra points for the biggest bench. And no one cares if a shotputter is great at jogging. 

Speaking of diminishing returns, in a study of SEAL trainees, sailors who scored the highest in pushups and pullups and certain other measures fared worse overall! The Navy concluded that, in each of their many physical tests—running, swimming, sprinting, pull-ups, deadlifts—they could clearly identify a point of diminishing returns. A max of 70 pushups is not enough, for instance, but 100 is plenty. They tell the hopefuls, “don’t spend valuable time and energy trying to do more. Make your push-up training economical, so you leave time to train the many other qualities important for success in [the first phase of SEAL training].”

The Navy researchers found that running and swimming scores best predict success specifically in the first phase of SEAL training, where I’m told there’s no rucking but tons of … you guessed it … running and swimming. Specificity usually wins.

(2) Your Personal Game Plan: In the mixed strength-and-endurance sports, the right balance might also depend specifically on your game plan. If you plan to box like Floyd Mayweather, you’d better have a bottomless gas tank, so put endurance first. But if you’re going to be Mike Tyson and assassinate guys in the first round, then for you power comes first.

So what about ruck marching? Should you favor endurance or strength? It’s complicated because so many variables are left up in the air—light or heavy loads? short distances or long? what’s the terrain?—but according to the data, the short answer is …

Neither strength nor endurance! Instead, invest in muscle mass.

Jack Rabbits in Flak Jackets

We’re specifically talking about men here. There is a separate body of research on ruck training for women, because it turns out they are a different kettle of fish.

When Army physiologists studied ruck marching in the early 80s, the height of America’s obsession with aerobics, they concluded that, sure enough, soldiers marched fastest who had the best aerobic capacity. Sure, strength was important too, but the guys who could ruck the fastest were the skinny “jack rabbits” who excelled at running.

Or so the physiologists said. Old soldiers told a different story, though. They claimed that in the field, the jack rabbits lagged behind bigger guys when they were loaded down with a rucksack, a flak jacket, and other gear. Whom to believe?

It seemed significant that the early Army studies tested people carrying light packs for short distances. Under those conditions, it was little surprise that your best runners would shine. But what if you saddled soldiers with 100 lbs. (45kg) (a real-world infantry load) and made them schlep it 12 miles (20km)? That’s what Joseph Knapick and his team did in 1990. And at the moment, those are the conditions that interest me because they come closest to the rules of the game that I’m training for right now, the GORUCK Heavy Challenge.

In that “heavy and long” event, the soldiers who rucked fastest were the most muscular. Not the strongest, heaviest, tallest, leanest, or the fastest runners, or the most aerobically capable, but specifically the ones with the most lean body mass.

Let me repeat that: not muscle strength but muscle mass.

With just one exception, even “skinny strength” did not help. That is, guys who were wiry and strong out of proportion to their bodyweight. The winners were the Dwayne Johnsons of the world, not the Brad Pitts. 

I am surprised at this, and dismayed. It’s not the answer I wanted. Regular readers know that I enjoy “skinny strength” training and push it as an alternative to bodybuilding. Normally I only spend a few weeks a year bodybuilding and then go back to my kettlebells and low reps gladly. So this is not the conclusion I wanted, but apparently “facts don’t care about my feelings.” 

The researchers measured many kinds of strength (as distinct from muscle mass), and only one made a significant difference: the abs. They tested strength in the soldiers’ grip, low back, quads, hamstrings, and calves, and none of the others was significant. [But there’s a caveat to this in our next post. -Dog in Chief] Only ab strength made a difference.

Strange as that seems superficially, it isn’t surprising. As Pavel Tsatsouline says, strong abs + strong hands = strong person. More and more, kinesiologists are pointing out the importance of what is sometimes called “core strength,” our ability to make our torsos rigid at pivotal moments and resist bending or twisting.

Your natural inclination is to bend forward at the hips, but you want to resist that somewhat. That’s where your abs come in.

In the case of walking under load, your abs pull your hips under you and keep them there. That way you stay upright, and your legs step quickly and freely. Without that ab strength, you angle forward at the waist and walk bent over. You walk slower that way, and over time you pound the hip joints. So if you can stay more upright, you go faster and stay healthier. That’s what you need abs for. 

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Time Trial

Finally, someone who understands why they’re called “shorts.”

At the GORUCK Heavy Challenge, after some refreshing PT, you start the 24 hours with a twelve-mile timed ruck. You need to walk it in 3½ hours or you can be disqualified.

Lauren Four Boots and I were discussing this menacing prospect in the middle of a hike in the foothills. Already tired and a little footsore, I supposed we must have already traveled a long way. So I was crestfallen when Ms. Multiboots checked her GPS and found that, in two hours, we’d only moved three miles as the crow flies. 

I wondered aloud whether this meant I was destined to flunk the Heavy Challenge before the sky was even dark. 

So I did a full-dress rehearsal that night, a 12-mile out-and-back with the regulation 35# plus water. 

Fortune smiled on me and I made it with 8 minutes to spare without any sense of hurry. The night’s takeaways were:

  • I’ve been helped by doing “LSD” (long, slow distance). I managed to stay well under 65% of my theoretical max heart rate.
  • Since I do my training hikes in extra-heavy boots and/or ankle weights, in my light boots I felt like my feet had wings.
  • Ditto for logs, sleds, and kettlebells. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to carry just a pack, without also holding a stone or a sandbag. This was like a vacation, at least for a few miles…
  • However, my feet were the limiting factor. After just 7 miles, my toes were feeling squished and uncomfortable.
  • After that, my second biggest limiting factor was my legs. They felt a little rubbery by Mile 9.
  • I used a minimalist hip belt (just a 1” canvas strip) and an ill-fitting sternum strap, but I wouldn’t try to forego those features. When one part of my back tires out, I appreciate being able to tweak the straps and belt and shift the load to fresh muscles.

I didn’t use The German Caffeine Chocolate on this outing—I’m saving it for game day, when my teammates and I need a special boost—but I did eat dates and they were almost as good.

Save this stuff for really extraordinary circumstances, like invading Russia without any winter clothes.

Rucking: Does Muscle Mass Help or Hamper You? (Part 1)

Rucking looks to be the “next big thing” in exercise. In a word, you fill a rucksack (a glorified backpack) with weight and go hiking. For bonus points, you can haul other heavy things too: sand bags, a water can, a kettlebell, a log, a sledgehammer, a stone, a weighted sled. 

Try to read this book and not develop a running addiction. Just try. I dare you.

Like many strength athletes, I retired from powerlifting reluctantly because I was accumulating injuries. Desperate for something to do, I started jogging and … loved it! I gravitated toward obstacle course races, on account of the goofy, exciting agility drills and also because I could put my strength to some use. Sure, I run slower than a man wading through oatmeal, but I can climb walls and flip tires all morning, so now I only sucked at half of the event.

For me, one key was to run barefoot. As a teenager I was prone to shin splints when I ran, but once I ran in bare feet, my gait changed and I got lighter on my feet.

It also helped that I was literally lighter, in bodyweight. Once I stopped lifting seriously and started jogging, thirty pounds dropped off me and I felt like I could lope along forever like a stocky gazelle.

To train for the obstacle courses, sometimes I hiked the foothills carrying heavy things. Such joy! From running, I had learned to love the endorphins that come from long, slow cardio, but I had to restrain my enthusiasm to keep my feet healthy and happy. They could carry my stumpy powerlifter body bouncing along the pavement for only so many miles a week without complaining. But now in weighted hiking I found a whole extra modality, and while my feet took it easy, I could get high on endorphins using all my other muscles.

An early adventure with Vanya the 32kg bell and a clapped out laptop bag filled with bricks.

The great gift of weighted walking is that you can shift work around the various muscle groups, resting some while you load others. For example, carry a kettlebell in one hand like a suitcase. When that hand tires, switch hands. Then carry it on your shoulder, and then the other shoulder. Then over your back, and maybe even “racked” at the chest or at arm’s length overhead. That will take you a long time, and then you can return to the “suitcase carry” and repeat the cycle indefinitely. You are spreading the work out all over the arms, shoulders, back, obliques, abs, hamstrings, and quads, and nothing gives out first. You can do this for hours. It doesn’t pound your joints, and you can work around any injuries just by avoiding positions that hurt. 

From here, it was just a short hop to group ruck marching events like the GORUCK challenges, organized by a backpack manufacturing company owned by ex-Green Berets. Originally they dreamed up these bootcamp-style marches as marketing events to promote their line of backpacks, but the events themselves proved even more popular and took on a life of their own. Now you can choose from GORUCK challenges lasting from six hours to 48 hours (!!). 

These people are my tribe. As regular readers know, I think that because humans evolved to face physical hardship in small groups, we need that experience in some form. GORUCK provides plenty of intimate, shared strife. I grew so attached to the folks who survived the 12-hour “Tough Challenge” with me last year that next I’m joining them for the 24-hour “Heavy” event. Gulp.

As I train for it, I’ve been contemplating this question: How big should I be? What’s the optimal bodyweight for carrying a backpack of bricks and a log for 40 miles? The answer would be simple for a straight endurance event like running an ultra-marathon (weigh less) or a straight strength event like Highland Games (weigh more). But what about an ultra-distance strength-endurance event like rucking? I certainly wouldn’t want an extra 10# of bricks in my rucksack, weighting me down unnecessarily. But what about an extra 10# of muscle? That sure would help me carry logs and sand bags, but enough to justify moving all that extra bodyweight?

(To be continued)

Five Elements

Today’s rucking game was called “Five Elements”: drag a charred tree limb (fire & wood) and schlep a steel club (metal), a stone (earth), and a backpack of water up to Faerie Ridge by any means necessary.

Two takeaways: (1) You can haul even a very heavy jumble of stuff if you’re willing to spend a long time and move slowly, and (2) since grip endurance is your most precious commodity, it helps immeasurably if you find ways to seize onto your own pack straps and clothes and use them as grab handles.

The Art of the Workaround

New cardio hack! You’ve heard runners say, “An ounce on the foot is like a pound in the pack?” Well according to some researchers the ratio is more like 1:5, but that’s still useful. 

So to work around some shoulder and hand injuries, today’s game was to hike the Faeriemount with ankle weights. That way, even with just a light pack and club, your heart and lungs still think you’re hauling a lot of weight. 

In some sports, you specialize in a very few attributes, like pure strength or aerobic endurance. For example, in deadlift-only competition, you focus on absolute strength only, in just one movement. That’s about as specialized as you can get. At the opposite pole are events where you depend on a dozen or so attributes, or at any rate so many that you can’t afford to specialize much in any of them. That’s the case with obstacle course races and GORUCK challenges. You’ll need to run, climb, crawl, jump, press, pull, squat, carry, swing, and grip, at sprint speeds and at an endurance pace. You can’t afford to specialize much.

More than five thousand participants compete in the Spartan Race, a four-mile long extreme obstacle course, held at the Washougal MX Park, Saturday, June 16, 2012. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

That’s a lot to worry about, but I’m luxuriating in the variety! Don’t feel like rucking today? Fine, lift weights–you need the strength work. Or go for a run or ride: you can get in some aerobic work and rest the rucking muscles. Or go to yoga. Tweaked your shoulder? No problem, rest it and work on something else. Don’t have access to any equipment or workout clothes today? Fine, load up a bag with books or groceries and suitcase-carry it around for half an hour. You will benefit a lot.

Bottom line: For almost any limitation, you can make a game of working around it. And the less your specialized your sport, the broader the menu of useful games and workarounds.

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins

hard-style-training-conditioning
http://www.strongfirst.com

A complete gym in one tidy corner:

  • Kettlebells. One is enough, but in a happy home they multiply.
  • Somebody to swing them. Note the bare feet–that’s how you should do it too.
  • Rucksack and boots. Insert kettlebells and start walking.
  • Pavel Tsatouline’s classic Russian Kettlebell Challenge (1999), still the best book there is on this stuff.
  •  Sledgehammer (optional). Style points for the awesome camo pattern on his pants, too. (Anyone recognize it? British MTP?)
  • An AK (optional), to protect the kettlebells.

If you just add companionship, kombucha, and a dog, you have most of the elements of earthly happiness right here.

Rhomboid Rodeo

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Volodya surveys the valley after earning his blue-and-white David Rigert tel’nyashka

To initiate Volodya the 28kg Kettlebell, I suitcase-carried him with the Backpack of Bricks up the summit. Today’s game was that I could set him down when needed, but for the whole hike I had to hold my chest and head upright. No hunched backs.

I had no idea how bad I’d be at that. Sure, in a life full of keyboards and steering wheels we’re all weak in the postural muscles of our upper backs, but I must excel at believing, “Ha, boring universal truths don’t apply to ME!!”