5 Reasons Why Rucking Is More Than a New Fitness Trend

Luke Whelan Fact Checked
Man walking outside with a backpack
© Javier Díez / Stocksy United

If you’ve ever gone on a walk with a heavy backpack on, you’re ahead of the curve on a new fitness trend. It’s called rucking, and it’s ... not actually that new. The workout is based on a time-tested military training drill: trekking long distances with loaded rucksacks. It turns out to be a great way for civilians to get exercise, whether you live close to the mountains or in the middle of a dense city like Seattle. While it might sound deceptively simple, there’s a reason it’s gotten so popular.  

What is rucking? 

Rucking originated in the military with soldiers marching for long distances with rucksacks on their backs weighing as much as 70 pounds to train for carrying equipment in the field. Of course, outdoor enthusiasts have been doing something similar for decades, backpacking into remote parts of the wilderness carrying their shelter and supplies for the night.  

You could argue rucking is a form of hiking, but it’s often done in urban environments, and the goal is more explicitly to increase fitness, as opposed to having an isolated experience in the outdoors. 

How to start rucking 

Rucking can be a great workout no matter what your fitness level is. “Rucking is something that works well for serious athletes and also works well for very casual people who are just looking to start things out,” says Jeff Palmer, the fitness and wellness manager for University of Washington Recreation. 

How you get into rucking will depend on your existing fitness level and injury history. Here are some guidelines for where to start.  

If you’re not currently exercising at all 

If this is your first fitness routine or you're resuming after a long time away, start by seeing how long you can comfortably walk without any weights. If you’re having trouble getting through a 30-minute walk without feeling tired or short of breath, you’re probably not ready for rucking. (See a doctor immediately if you’re feeling any pain or uncomfortable sensations in your chest.) 

“If someone is just starting an exercise program, I would not recommend trying to ruck right away,” says Dr. Joseph Ihm, a specialist in physical medicine, rehabilitation and sports medicine who sees patients at the Spine Center at Harborview Medical Center and is also a former personal trainer. “Start with some long walks and see how you do, and then maybe add the backpack.” 

If you’re already exercising  

If you’re comfortable doing moderate exercise, start with a brisk 30-minute ruck with your pack and go from there. As you gradually build strength, it’s important to pace yourself — don’t try to ruck every day after not having exercised regularly for months. Start with once or twice a week and build up to every other day. Similarly, don’t try to do a whole hour if you’ve only been going on 20-minute walks with your dog. Start with 15 minutes and add 15 more minutes once that starts to feel easy. 

That goes for how much weight you put in your backpack, too.

“You should start small,” says Palmer. “I’d throw 10 pounds out there as a good starting point — you will notice 10 pounds, you're aware of it, but there's a big difference between that 10 pounds and starting with 30 pounds.” 

If 10 pounds feels too light, 10% of your body weight is another place to start for people in decent shape. After you’ve found a good starting amount, you can increase it by 10% after a couple of weeks or when you’re ready for a challenge. If you’re starting to really struggle on your rucks, you might want to dial it back down. You should ideally be able to maintain 15- to 20-minute miles.  

If you’re already at a high level of fitness 

Of course, if rucking is supplementing existing cardio and strength routines and you are already in good shape, you can start with a load that feels more challenging or aim for a longer ruck. You can increase the intensity of the workout by adding weight or distance — maybe 30 minutes at 20 pounds is starting to feel comfortable so you could try doing 45 minutes with that weight. Or you could stick to 30 minutes but add another 10 pounds. 

The benefits of rucking  

Here are a few of the reasons rucking has taken off. 

You get a cardio and strength workout 

If you already get aerobic exercise by walking, adding some weight to your back will allow you to get even more bang for your buck. 

“If you want to bump up your exercise intensity while keeping the same pace, this is a nice way to do it,” says Ihm. “If you typically walk 3.5 miles per hour for 30 minutes, go ahead and add 10 or 20 pounds to your back and you’ll increase the intensity and the caloric output.”

This might be especially appealing if you're looking for low-impact ways to burn more calories, as opposed to pounding your joints while running. Plus, there are bonus benefits.  

“You are getting your cardio, you're getting your steps in, you're burning calories,” says Palmer. “But the other thing is you're adding in a strength component and you're working on your balance.” 

Ihm says the strength gains are probably going to be subtle and not comparable to resistance training with weights. He wouldn't look at rucking as something that could replace the twice-per-week strength training sessions recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. Similarly, if you’re someone already running regularly, Palmer says that rucking won’t be able to replace that aerobically.  

That said, if you’re just starting to build a fitness routine, or looking to supplement an existing training program, rucking will help build both cardio and strength. 

You don’t need special equipment 

While companies have started selling backpacks, weights and shoes for rucking, you don’t actually need any specialized gear to get out and do it.  

“You can use your crappy school backpack and grab a couple books and you're rucking,” says Palmer. “That's one of the benefits of it, is that anybody anywhere can do it.” 

Another tip is to buy sandbags from a hardware store and put those in your bag for weight, or just fill up a few water bottles and throw them in.  

You can do it wherever you are 

If you don’t have the ability to drive to the mountains for a hike, rucking is a great way to get outside and exercise in your neighborhood or to start exploring other areas nearby.  

“Maybe I'm tired of my normal neighborhood, so this weekend I'm going to go to the Centennial Trail, in Snohomish County, or next weekend I'm going to go to this park,” says Palmer. “You're getting outside and exploring new areas, it's such a win-win.”  

Ihm adds that anything that motivates you to get outside more is a good thing, for your psychological well-being as well. “If rucking inspires you to go and walk outside, being outside has additional general and mental health benefits,” he says.  

You can add it to existing routines 

Consistency is crucial for aerobic exercise and building endurance. If you already have a walking routine, rucking can be integrated into that, making it easy to do it regularly, as opposed to a workout you need to go to a gym for or attend a class to do.  

“Let's say you just had a child and you have no time for exercise, but you do take your child out in a stroller,” says Palmer. “This is a perfect thing to do, just throw on some extra weight.”  

Likewise, you can start rucking while walking your dog or even by ditching the car and bringing groceries home on foot.  

What are the risks of rucking? 

Adding weight to your back has injury risks, especially if you're older or not in shape, even though it’s lower impact than running.  

Even for a healthy person, adding too much weight too quickly could cause joint or ankle injuries, which is why it’s so important to build up gradually. If you have any concerns about exercising with weight, don’t hesitate to talk to your primary care doctor or a sports medicine expert about it 

Another thing to watch out for, especially starting with a heavy backpack, is shoulder and neck issues.  

“Whatever it is that you decide to wear, it should be comfortable and not cause neck, shoulder or back pain,” says Ihm.  

If you already have neck or shoulder pain, that’s even more reason to choose a well-fitting backpack and start with less weight.  

“The bottom line is whatever it is that keeps you active is the thing that you should do,” says Ihm. “If rucking is what gets you out there staying fit, then great.”