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.

No Sandman Left Behind

We will resume our series “Twenty Years of Pavel Tsatsouline” shortly.

For today’s game, I trudged up the Rock of Faeries carrying “the Sandman,” a person-sized bag of sand. I feared I might get stuck and abandon it in the field, which would be an unprecedented dishonor. But here at Lean, Solid Dogs we leave no (wo)man behind, not even an anthropomorphized duffle bag of loose, shifting sand!

The omens were bad, with me accidentally tearing the bag as I wrenched it from the car. A lesser blogger might have quit then and there, but inspired by your lofty expectations, dear reader, I patched it up and started trekking.

This is how it feels to lift the sandbag from the middle. It’s floppy, uncooperative, and wriggling, like a huge, rebellious slinky.

The real nightmare was simply to shoulder the bag. There is no easy way to hoist a load that size off the ground and up to head height when it’s so loose that it can flop and flow. If you bend down and clasp hands around the middle of the bag, once you lift, the sand shifts to the ends of the bag and stays on the floor. If you grab the ends and stand upright, it flows to the middle and pins it to the ground. You can reach down and grab handfuls of canvas with the 120# of sand sagging between them, but you now have two problems. Your finger strength is one of them, and even worse is how to lift the bag more than a couple inches from the ground.

I tried putting my feet together and squatting down so that I could wrestle the blob of sand inch by inch up my shins and rest it on my knees. That works, but it takes most of the fight out of your arms, which after all are small, weak limbs made for mobility, not strength and endurance. At this point I was stuck in a full, ass-to-ground-and-heels-together squat and, though I could rest there and gather my strength with the bag balanced on my legs, I had zero leverage for moving all that still-shifting sand onto my shoulder. So I spent a few minutes trying to squeeze my shoulder down to knee level and then shake and jerk the bag around until I’d “poured” half the sand, still in the loose bag, over my shoulder and down my back. The final step, standing up under the bag, turned out to be one of the hardest lifts I’ve ever made: a sort of round-backed front squat that took such a hard ab contraction and Valsalva maneuver (the thing where you close your throat and let the air hiss out at high pressure) that it gave me a sore throat. 

And that was before I’d taken my first step! Thankfully, once you get the bag to your shoulder, it’s not so hard to carry. In fact, you can heave and flop the Sandman in different ways around your neck and shoulders to milk more endurance from your muscles. When your low back tires, you can shift the work to your upper back and obliques and abs, neck, quads, and arms in different combinations. And luckily I wore a tough cotton jacket, so in some positions I could grab my own sleeve or lapel, like a jiu-jitsu player, and relax my biceps and shoulders for a while.

The sandbag is the blue wrestler, only without arms and legs and that bored, “devil may care” expression. You’re the woman in red. Be sure to wear an 80s sweatband, as it will double your strength.

You can always drop the bag and rest, but after every rest you have to shoulder the bag all over again, which almost negates the rest. Eventually I found a good technique that’s a type of Turkish getup. (I hope to post photos shortly. Briefly, the trick is to lie down and roll yourself like a Greco-Roman wrestler under the middle of bag so that half of the sand lies on your chest and half on the ground by your head. From there you get the best leverage possible for sitting up with it.) 

You know you’ve exerted yourself just the right amount if you feel stronger and zestier after your workout, and today was perfect. Despite the wretched beginning, I settled into my favorite state, what I think of as “Buddhist muscular hedonism.” You exert yourself just hard enough to withdraw your awareness into a narrow focus, with enough attention to calmly notice each step and each breath but not enough to think ahead or even lift your gaze very far forward. You have to concentrate to keep your footsteps smooth and efficient and your breaths deep and gentle, because as soon as you start breathing raggedly or through your mouth during exercise, you start draining your emergency reserves of energy, whereas with rich nose breathing in an even rhythm, you’ll feel like a million bucks, like you could go all day. That’s how I felt today, so enraptured that I decided to stay in the Happy Zone and do double the mileage. Even now I’d like to go back out again for light jog. (But I won’t—I’ve learned the lesson the hard way that if I abuse my second wind, I’ll pay.)

Speaking of lessons, for stuff like this I’ve decided I should wear a hockey helmet. It’s just hiking, but there are boulders and rocks around, and if I ever hit one with my head, I’d have to quit the professor business and become a stripper again.

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.

Rhomboid Rodeo

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!!”