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.


Power to you!

From Sgt. Sileika, a lean, solid dog in Vilnius who serves as our resident subject-matter expert in ruck marching and sentence diagramming.

Living in the Baltics, he is located at the intersection (to use a fashionable word) of three of our favorite things: kvass, kettlebells, and Varusteleka.

Power to you, sir!

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.

HR Stands for “Hilarious Replies”


I was ordering camping gear from Varusteleka, a Finnish company with a winning sense of humor. Typical product descriptions are “This is hands down the ugliest motherfucking hat ever made” and “smells starkly of old mould, might be incomplete/damaged and is overall very nasty. You don’t want to touch this without a full [hazmat] suit. Get yours now.”

On their order form they asked customers to consider applying for a job opening as a product manager. Me, I’ve never been headhunted before while buying East German surplus boot socks, so I was really chuffed and sent them a cover letter:

“Dear sir– I lack military/LE experience, talent for negotiation, or any gifts for business administration, and the only time I worked for a commercial enterprise, I was a failure. I am also unavailable to work in Finland and in any case would probably be considered undesirable by your government. However, I love smoked and pickled fish, deadlift a lot, and know Chinese and Sanskrit, so I believe I have what it takes to form exciting relationships with the People’s Liberation Army and ancient Indic chariot armies. I am available for interviews at your convenience.”

A month later, I have received this surprisingly earnest reply from their HR department:

“We have received your application [and] appreciate your interest … Unfortunately, you are not the person we are looking for. Thank you … we do appreciate the time that you invested in this application.”

Guileless and naive or masterfully dry?

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins


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.

Fat Grips: A Thick Description

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we aim to foster cross-cultural appreciation among fellow Pointy Headed Intellectuals for the rich folkways of the Toxically Masculine Hooah (TMH) community. #intersectionality

So it warmed my heart when readers asked, “OK, so what are the reasons to lift extra-thick barbells that are too big to hold onto securely? That sounds dangerous.”

An “L-sit” pullup ain’t shabby to begin with, but look closely at Al Bergen’s hands. He’s supporting his weight just by pinching the rafters!

First of course, thick handles strengthen your grip, and if you have a strong grip and strong abs, you are strong enough for most real-world purposes. There is even a sub-sub-culture of lovable weirdos who specialize in feats of grip strength like ripping decks of cards, bending nails with their hands, or deadlifting heavy weights with just one or two fingers.

But there are other, geekier reasons for fat barbells like “specialized variety.” After you master the essential lifts (viz. squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pullup), you get stronger faster if you stick to those few exercises but inject a tiny bit of variety into how you do them. There are virtually endless teensy details that you can vary: you can switch up the order or speed of your exercises, change the width of your grip or stance, shorten or lengthen the range of motion, or switch barbells for dumbbells, or mess with your sense of balance by lifting blindfolded. You can even switch to a version of the exercise that purposely gives you bad leverage, like “diamond pushups,” where the tips of your index fingers and thumbs touch each other and make a diamond shape. (Try one right now; it’s fun.)

Bad leverage is what you get with extra-thick-handled bars: their center of gravity is farther outside your grasp and therefore wobblier. (Imagine holding a sledgehammer. It’s easy to control if you hold it just under the head. If you choke down farther, you can’t lift it or control it as easily. And if you hold it all the way down at the end of the handle, that dinky 8-pound head suddenly feels uncontrollably heavy.

Anyone who can hold a sledgehammer motionless like this has a strong grip and abs to match. This photo tells us all we need to know about this guy: he may be skinny, but he is also very strong.

This brings us to the other great benefit: increased muscular tension. You have to fight harder to hold on, and so you will be recruiting many more muscle fibers up and down the arm and chest and back, and that means you will be creating more muscular tension. In short order, you learn to create more muscular tension at will, and that is pretty much the definition of strength. Long story short: because the thick handles force you to clench everything harder, you learn to tense up harder whenever you want, i.e. you learn to be stronger.

In recent years, companies who sell this thick-handle equipment also claim that if you use it, you will get not just stronger arms but bigger ones too. (Remember, “big” is a different quality from “strong,” but it sells more product.) Will that really work? Indirectly, it could: if you get a lot stronger and then you employ that strength in bodybuilding-type training at some future time, yes, you will grow more than a weaker person. But in the near term, I am skeptical that the average exerciser will get her money’s worth if she just wants bigger arms. She will certainly get neurological improvements (viz. the ability to contract more muscle at will) and stronger “stabilizing” muscles, the dozens of small, aesthetically insignificant postural muscles that help you balance an awkward load), but that stuff doesn’t make you look swole in a tank top.

Silly reader, did you think I’d write a whole post without singing praises to kettlebell lifting at least once? Dream on. As with many other strength and endurance traits, kettlebell lifting does a very decent job of developing grip strength as a side effect.

Lastly, is it dangerous to use these things? Won’t you drop them? Yes, you probably will at some point, so make sure it’s not on your face or your dog. If you’re smart enough to avoid that, they’re perfectly safe. (The big rule is just that you mustn’t use these things with a “false grip.” And if you don’t know what a false grip is, (1) congratulations, you are probably a normal, well-adjusted human being with a normal sense of values and perspective, and (2) you probably aren’t yet experienced enough to need this kind of equipment. Wait until you can bench press substantially more than your own body weight. You will progress faster that way.



What Did We Learn, Class?

1. Things That Worked

It’s also fun to see onlookers wonder whether one is even wearing anything on bottom.

The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.

Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.


The best one-stop shopping I know for GPP (general physical preparedness).    Photo from calorie bee.com

Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”


The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.

2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many

Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.

Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.

Not finding a cold place to train: I trained in 100° temperatures, and though I tried a couple of short night hikes in wet clothes, around here we only get nightly lows of about 70°. I figured, “What difference will 15 or 20 degrees make?” For the answer, see “Shivering Horror”© above.

Not avoiding cramps: Sgt. D-Zazzy warned me I needed more salt or my legs might stop working. Did I listen? By morning even my hands cramped up.


3. Insights Into Myself

I’m a “smiler”: I respond to exertion with irrational gaiety and buoyance.

I throw more F-bombs than almost anyone I know who doesn’t seem to me somewhat evil.