Bear’s-Eye View

Today’s game was to climb to the summit on hands and knees: For every step, I had either to “bear walk” or lunge. Though that may sound wretched, it was a huge endorphin fest.

The golden recipe for training is to do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible. That’s the closest thing I know to a magical, alchemical formula. Among other benefits (about which more later), it gives you a huge hormonal high.

This is not the face of endorphins. Smile and have fun! If you look like this, you’re working too hard. Slow down.

The trick is to settle in, patiently and quietly, for a slow, long, comfortable session. Think “tortoise,” not “hare.” As soon as your muscles or lungs begin to burn, stop and rest immediately! Let your heart slow down again and get your equanimity back. You’re not in a Rocky training montage. You’re not looking for histrionics, heroism, or anguish here, or even strain. You’re aiming to keep your mood somewhere between “Placid Contemplation” and “Mild Euphoria.”


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The Swedish “Moose Sack”

I have lots of surplus packs, but there are two that I love and cherish. For big jobs, I have a version of the legendary Swedish LK-35. For everything else, I carry the nimble, gorgeous Swedish M39, the “Moose Sack.”

Like in Switzerland, Sweden’s neutrality is very much an armed neutrality. Even though Sweden did not fight WWII, they kept over half a million men under arms. And since the Swedes knew a thing or two about the outdoors, Erik and Oskar were issued a rucksack that is a work of genius. You can recognize it anywhere by the strange, perforated, leather-covered crescent shape at the top, which is a godsend for comfort.

At almost 80 years old and heavily used, this pack is so bomb-proof that you’d think it was Soviet if it weren’t also attractive and comfortable.

As its backbone it has a peculiar X-shaped frame. It holds the pack close to your back without quite touching, and the top of the pack moulds itself over your shoulders, so it is pleasant to carry and makes you feel quick and light. In addition, the pack “grabs” the body firmly and stays put, with minimal slipping, flopping, or bouncing. On a heavy march, that saves energy because you don’t have to hold the pack still. And it feels more ergonomic and somehow more agile than something with a rectangular frame. You can also adjust the ride height and even the spacing of the straps on your shoulders!

The Steel Snake Eats Its Tail

Today’s game was to sew straps onto both ends of the Steel Snake and take it out for a slither.

Over 4 miles (6.4km), the Snake and I agreed on a few things:

  • With straps added on, it slips and flops around less. That way it’s much easier to carry.
  • Since it’s pretty slender, you can stay completely upright.
  • For both those reasons, you can relax under the load and carry it much, much longer. 

However, the Steel Snake gives you too many choices. When I dreamed it up, I thought it would be great that I could carry the snake lots of different ways, including wrapped in various ways around the waist, neck, and shoulders. And although you really can carry in different positions, it’s a pain to shift around and you spend as much time fiddling with it as marching. Furthermore, though lots of carry positions work, only one works spectacularly well, and that’s worn across the body like a sash or a bed roll.

So as my next experiment, I’ll change the Steel Snake into a dummy-proof fixed loop or “steel sash.”

Or maybe it will be called The Awkward Ouroboros.

Field-Testing the Steel Snake

The problem here isn’t so much the weight as the SHAPE of the weight. Good luck resting this above your center of gravity.

In the real world, when we need to lift or haul something challenging, it’s less often because it’s terribly heavy and usually because it’s awkwardly shaped. Stones are bad. A half-filled keg is worse. It is like a stone whose center of gravity sloshes around and wrenches it from whatever tenuous hold you have. It can be an ordeal to shoulder just 50 lbs., much less to move around with it for a few minutes.

Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get a few breaks from the team weight. Like surf torture.

And what if you had to carry that 50 lbs. for 24 hours? What would be the ideal shape? That is the question for the upcoming GORUCK Heavy event, where aside from rucksacks and other evil toys, we also need to devise a 50-lb. “team weight” and carry it for the whole 24 hours.

Again, it is about center of gravity (COG). Theoretically, you want to carry weight directly above your COG. On top of your head is the most efficient, or at least across your shoulders.

But for GORUCK, the problem is that everybody will already be shouldering heavy rucksacks and be a little stooped over.

Sometimes you can rig a shoulder pole or yoke that slings the weight below your center of gravity, for stability, so you aren’t top-heavy and precariously balanced. These would be great if we didn’t need to climb hills and rocky defiles. But at GORUCK we will.

The Army field manual suggests carrying part of your load on your waist. It’s efficient because you can make the load hug your center of gravity. Similarly, a “double pack” divides the load between your front and back, so that you can (more or less) share a common COG with your backpack while standing upright. The Army literature recommends these when practical, but that is rare in military settings. (For one thing, you can’t crawl well.) It also won’t quite work for us at GORUCK–everybody will already be carrying an individual ruck–but it does give me ideas…

So behold [drumroll] the Steel Snake!

With quick and dirty sewing lessons from Lauren the Miraculous, I sewed up 50 lbs. of lead weights and steel chain in a 9′ (2.7m) ripstop chain sleeve and took it out for field tests with a rucksack over a 2.1 mile (3.4km) stretch of country road.

With the Snake, you can re-distribute the weight in the most efficient, comfortable way at any given moment–around your waist, over one or both shoulders, on your chest, on your back, even shared between two people–and you can keep shifting it as you go, from tired muscles to fresh muscles. It’s not exactly a hot soak with essential oil, tea lights, and an Enya album. But for lumbering overland with 100 lbs. (rucksack + team weight), this is actually pretty pleasant. And for extra cool points, people will think you’ve been accosted by a boa constrictor in a clown suit.

Let’s Sing the Surplus Song!

To the tune of “My Favorite Things”*

East German jackboots and green Czech suspenders,
Norwegian trousers for snowy weekenders,
Bundeswehr base layer, Steppentarn scarf,
On French army snow shoes I’ll hike til I barf!

Finnish boot grease!
Swedish rucksack!
From your grandfather’s day.
For ten lousy bucks you can buy it all up
And head for the hills to play!

*Acknowledgement to Tam at View From the Porch, who inspired me with her Gun Show Song. And additional thanks to Varusteleka and Surplus City—they are world class!–and to the Hungarian armed forces, the Austrian Bundesheer, British Army, and above all the Swedish Air Force for making awesome gear and then deciding they don’t want it!

Entry-Level Lean Solid Doggery: An Answer to Julien A.

Julien, a lean, solid dog in Canada, asks:

I’ve been thinking of buying a used rucksack (something like https://www.varusteleka.com/en/product/british-patrol-backpack-30-litres-black-surplus/3779). Any advice you’d have for someone starting?

Also, I saw that you seem to endorse the original RKC book for kettlebells. I got a 16 kg bell, and some extra money, was thinking of buying a 20, 24, 28, 32 kg. Is it too much? Are 8kg jumps (24 and 32kg bells only) better?

Welcome, Julien. On rucking, I’m no authority, just an enthusiast. But I’ll pass along the good advice I got when starting out:

  • Start with 30lbs./14kg or less. With more than that, you can irritate your knees. If you need more load, wear ankle weights. According to Army researchers, you expend as much energy to move a pound on your foot as you do to carry five pounds in your pack.
  • Speaking of feet and knees, take good care of yours. If something hurts and gives you knee tendonitis, stop and change insoles and shoes/boots til you find the combination that doesn’t. (Spenco green insoles have a lot of fans and they’re reasonably priced. And I’ve become a big fan of jackboots.)
  • For gear, I find the reviews on Varusteleka very reliable. If people there all say it’s a great pack, it’s a great pack.
  • Nevertheless, individual build counts for something. E.g. if you have narrower shoulders than most, a given pack will fit you differently. Happily, surplus is cheap so you can afford to experiment.
  • For rucking, my personal guru is your countryman Sgt. Šileika of the Black Watch, who says, “strap padding means nothing, strap width is everything.” (Or words to that effect.) As always, the leathery old dog of war speaks in nuggets of golden wisdom. My favorite packs have turned out to be the ones with wide leather straps.
  • My starter pack remains one of my favorites for short, heavy hauls: a Czech M60 that cost $5 that I upgraded by spending another $10 to buy leather straps (actually suspenders) on eBay from a guy in Latvia.
Varusteleka is momentarily out of the Czech M60 at the time of writing, but other people have them too.

On kettlebells, I have more of a right to an opinion, and I have a firm opinion on that question you asked. I’ll return to that tomorrow.

Stretching for kettlebell lifters who hate to stretch

https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/side-stretch-satisfaction
Anti-rotation. Al Kavadlo doesn’t twist and fall here because his QL is keeping his waist rigid.

The poor quadratus lumborum (QL). It does much more than its share during one-arm movements like kettlebell swings and presses, where it keeps your torso rigid and facing forward. It needs to be stretched, but if you are a blocky, stiff muscle head, good luck getting into the standard “straddle stretch.” Before you know it, you blow off stretching it completely.

That’s what Jump Stretch bands are for. If you’ve knocked around the powerlifting world for more than 5 minutes, you probably think of JS bands as “accommodating resistance” for your weights.

In American powerlifting circles, most of us know Jump Stretch bands as tools for “speed day,” when they let you safely accelerate light barbells fast, so you don’t launch them.

But from their inception, JS bands have been at least as much for stretching and mobility as for resistance, and they are a godsend for stretching tissue that’s ornery or hard to get into position for. Pecs, shoulders, lats, biceps, triceps, hip flexors, and quads are all much easier and less arduous for me to stretch with bands than on a yoga mat.

But the quadratus lumborum is the poster child: normally I can scarcely get into position for QL stretches without being limited by flexibility (e.g. hamstrings in the straddle stretch) or muscular endurance (e.g. holding onto a door frame).

But if you have a band and somewhere to anchor it, you can stretch out your QL without annoyance. For comfort, use a deadlift strap for your grip so that you can hang for as long as you want without your hand tiring.

Like yoga in a dungeon. You get to wear the same skimpy shorts, but you’re tied up and hear clanging metal.