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!

Used Vehicles

New public art installation in my favorite corner of the outer beyond. Entitled “Crossroads,” it explores the intersection of American car culture with life outside the supervision of the bourgeois state. The artist used found materials, relocated them into a novel context, and modified them with a traditional blend I call “trail mix,” consisting mostly of mostly 22LR with two magazines of .308 and a few shotgun slugs.

And this heroic craft steamed far up into the foothills, 10 miles from the nearest navigable waterway, before it finally ran aground in the Marijuana Highlands.

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!

How is Heavier Faster?

Yesterday we wrote about some Army researchers’ finding that, in a long, heavy ruck march, the guys who march fastest are the most muscular ones. Not necessarily the strongest, but the most muscular.

How can that be? If you beef up for a long ruck with an extra 20 lbs. of muscle, you’re schlepping an extra 20 lbs. What compensates for all that extra weight if not strength? And maybe bigger legs and glutes would make sense, or even bigger traps, but what will I gain from heavier arms, shoulders, chest, and lats? Those muscles don’t even do much work in rucking. 

In those respects Knapick’s finding are hard to understand, but I have a three guesses.

When you pick up a weight, you and the weight share a common center of gravity. The heavier the weight is in relation to your body, the more it’s in charge. You’ll have to lean over to keep it centered over your feet without toppling over. The lighter you are, the more you have to lean.

Center of gravity. Imagine two guys each carrying a huge, 100-lb. backpack of bricks. They’re equally tall, but one guy weighs 150# and the other weighs 300#. Since each guy is wearing a huge bag of bricks behind him, that shifts his center of center of gravity back. Light Guy must lean hard into his straps to try to balance the load over his feet, and he doesn’t have much bodyweight to lean with. His own center of gravity doesn’t count for very much against the backpack of bricks; basically the bricks are in charge. But Heavy Guy isn’t pulled off balance as much because he’s counterbalanced by an extra 150# of meat that Light Guy doesn’t have. In the battle against the backpack of bricks, his center gravity weighs twice as much as Light Guy’s and isn’t too impressed by all the bricks. He can stay on his feet just fine.

But this can only be part of the story, because it would apply just as much to a 300# fat guy as to the beefcake. But there’s one other attribute the muscular guy has working for him.

Squat for high reps and grow. Strength-endurance makes for big muscles.

Strength-endurance: The Army researchers were measuring absolute strength, i.e. “one-rep max” (1RM). And that’s the kind of strength they concluded didn’t help the men ruck faster. But there’s a distinct attribute called “strength-endurance,” which is your ability to exhibit strength for a long time. It’s the difference between, say, squatting 500# for one rep and squatting 250# for 20 reps.

Big muscles are particularly associated with strength-endurance. In fact, squatting for 20-rep sets will make you HUGE. And every gym rat since the Coolidge administration has known that you get biggest by lifting in sets of 8-15 reps with restricted rest periods. That is solidly in strength-endurance territory. It won’t improve your 1RM much and powerlifters will talk down to you, but you won’t care because you’ll be swole and get all the girls.

So carrying a rucksack shares more in common with bodybuilding than powerlifting, namely moving sub-maximal poundages repeatedly with little rest.

What about squats and deadlifts? I wonder what would happen if Knapick had measured soldiers’ strength differently, with some of the big exercises like squats and deadlifts instead of isolating one joint at a time. See, Knapick’s team tested how good the subjects were at extending just the knee, flexing just the knee, extending just the ankle, and so on. In other words, they tested what are called “isolation exercises” (working just one joint at a time), and isolation exercises are notoriously bad at building or testing real-world strength. 

Not a very meaningful test in the real world.

What Knapick didn’t do in this study was point to a huge barbell and order the soldiers, “Try to deadlift that.” That would have told us a lot more about the pure strength of the guys who marched faster or slower. (It is even conceivable that the faster, more muscular test subjects had grown that extra muscle by having big squat poundages. You don’t know much about someone’s musculature just by knowing that it’s big. You’ll find big thighs on weightlifters, bodybuilders, and cyclists, but they have completely different attributes.)

Researchers now are trying to study squat and deadlift maxes among military trainees, but the results are messy. The Canadian military studied the soldiers who tried out for Canadian special forces and tested each guy’s squat max. The guys who squatted less were much, much more likely to drop out of training. But when the SEALs estimated their applicants’ deadlift maxes, they decided that in order for a sailor to make it through Hell Week it would be enough if he could just deadlift 1.75x bodyweight, which is nothing. A middle-of-the-pack weightlifter or powerlifter could deadlift that in stiletto heels on laughing gas. 

“Can” does not imply “should.” Advanced lifter on closed course with Olympic-grade stilettos. Do not try this at home.

The methodology is messy too. It’s hard to take a guy off the street, casually test his one-rep max in something like a squat, and get a meaningful result. For one thing, a little experience makes a huge difference, and so does technique. Give me a 98-lb. weakling and a couple sessions to improve his technique, and I can help him test better against stronger people just by optimizing his form. Also, testing somebody’s true one-rep max in a squat or deadlift is physiologically a huge deal and, even for an experienced competitor, your max varies up and down by a big margin over the course of a year. If you’re overtrained or you just peaked, you’ll be wiped out and your squat might be in the toilet. And the Navy researchers had to estimate their subjects’ deadlifts—maximal deadlifts are hugely stressful to the body and take months to recover from fully—using a questionable rep-max formula, which they acknowledge is a crude measure and makes the results hard to interpret. 

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. 

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.