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Experimental penis rejuvenation. Ascetic and precise meal plans. Stem cell injections. The biggest fitness trends of 2023 were complicated and expensive—and those are just a handful of the things Bryan Johnson has been testing out. A welcome counter to these high-tech fitness protocols? Rucking, or when you carry something heavy on your back and walk. Over the past few years, rucking has gone beyond its military roots to become a fixture in CrossFit boxes and hiking trails across the country.
In 2023, GORUCK, a company devoted to rucking, saw sales increase by 40 percent, according to Jason McCarthy, founder of GORUCK. Some people come to rucking via recommendations from a Whole 30 co-founder; others have heard longevity doctor Peter Attia, MD, sing the praises of rucking on his podcast Drive; others saw Andrew Huberman in rare form—not wearing his signature black collared shirt or any shirt—while rucking with bowhunter Cameron Hanes; others tried it on the recommendation of The New York Times, which calls it a workout to try in 2024.
Yet, according to McCarthy, rucking's big moment was its appearance in The Comfort Crisis, a book by Michael Easter wherein he dedicates a chapter to reframing the modality from a military requirement to a recreational exercise. "Influential people read that book and started adopting it," McCarthy says. "Peter Attia is a great example of someone who read the book and started rucking a lot. And then he started getting his people to start rucking. There have been many cases like that, where it's just spread because there's a purity to it."
Is rucking a good workout?
Troy Purdom, PhD, an assistant professor at North Carolina A&T University in the Kinesiology department, wrote a dissertation for The University of New Mexico on how running with a weighted vest affected fat oxidation and caloric expenditure. He found that weighted vest running "significantly increased caloric expenditure" and "reduced FAox [fat oxidation]." As exercise intensity increases, the body's preference for fuel switches from fat to carbohydrate oxidation.
As for the gains from rucking, "it's more complicated than just benefits," Purdom says. "There's a lot to unpack—literally—with weighted vest training." In pilot studies, Purdom and a team of researchers tested the distribution of load in different ways: evenly distributed on the front and back, and all of the weight on the back (like a ruck.) "Placing all the weight simply on the back changes the mechanics of the body, and it increases caloric expenditure," says Purdom.
How much weight should I ruck with?
Before considering how much weight you're rucking, where the weight sits on the body is significant. But so is the terrain, incline, and the surface.
For example, Purdom says he tested weighted vest running using a five percent body mass load on a one percent treadmill incline. (That would be a 10-pound vest for a 200-pound person.) Physiologically, this does not produce much difference from running without a vest; however, he observed increased caloric expenditure when the load increased from five to 10 percent.
The additional mass feels more arduous, but in terms of how the body deals with it, "it isn't a tremendous difference," he says. The neuromuscular system becomes heavily stimulated, and "we become more efficient in how we run or walk."
Purdom, then, wanted to see if weighted vest training could function as an ergogenic aid. They found that recreational runners who ran for 20 minutes—at whatever speed they wanted—while wearing a vest that weighed 10 percent of their body mass ran an average of 19 seconds faster in a subsequent 5K race than participants who did a 20-minute run without a weighted vest before running.
According to Purdom, entry-level fitness enthusiasts would benefit from this type of exercise; however, the stress on the core might translate to back strain if the core isn't properly activated (in fact, back pain did cause some people to drop out of studies, according to observations from Purdom's team). He recommended that novice populations address core stability before trying weighted walking or running routines like rucking.
Adding too much load too quickly can detrimentally tax the lower extremities and connective tissue, according to Hayden Gerhart, PhD, a strength and condition coach and associate professor of exercise science at Grove City College. Anyone considering adding rucking-like training (or any new stimulus) into their routine should consult a professional to introduce the load slowly. For the general population—with exceptions—rucking isn't something to do daily; most athletes will get metabolic and musculoskeletal benefits twice a week.
Why is the rucking boom happening now?
The popularity of hiking as a fitness trend significantly increased after the pandemic, according to Purdom, because the pandemic forced people outdoors. Moreover, we need to move more efficiently because many people often sit for hours at desk jobs. Purdom explained that carrying additional mass, like a weighted vest or rucksack, helps us more efficiently walk and run.
Gerhart says he's used GORUCK equipment to “instruct functional fitness classes and educate students about different training methodologies for recreational and tactical athletes, such as military, firefighters, EMT or paramedic, law enforcement, and other first responders.”
Gerhart says that though weight vests have been used for a long time, the prevalence has increased since then, noting that weighted rucksacks have become more frequently used recreationally in the last few years.
So, how do I build a heavier load?
"To support a heavy load while walking or jogging, an athlete or exerciser needs to stabilize the load across their shoulders, chest, mid-lower back, or some other combination—depending on how the load is distributed through a weight vest or rucksack," says Gerhart. “Another huge benefit is the metabolic demand. An athlete will experience higher heart rate, energy cost, caloric expenditure, demand on walking/or running economy simply by using an external load within a workout.”
The benefits of rucking also come with risk, the most obvious one being to the area carrying the load. Gerhart says that when the load sits on the shoulders, for example, there is more impact on the shoulder girdle, though, over time, this elicits "a positive adaptation" as new, denser bone forms.
There is no exercise comparable to rucking, though movements like partner carriers, fireman carries, and other movements involving moving an external load "may simulate rucking," Gerhart says. It should be carefully programmed, Gerhart advised, so the benefits improve athlete functionality, not inhibit it."
What should I know about rucking challenges?
In November 2010, McCarthy set up the first GORUCK challenge. McCarthy collected 60 bricks in Columbus Circle, and around 1:30 a.m., a group gathered to carry them in their backpacks. "The class showed up, I'm like, 'Alright, stuff 'em in your rucks, follow me.' Five minutes later, they were doing bottom samples inside that lake in Central Park." This was a "real rite-of-passage type of event that people are starving for," he says.
To date, GORUCK has put on over 10,000 events and created "a new fitness category in line with yoga, running, take your pick," McCarthy says. In creating these communities, McCarthy feels like he's bringing people together and strengthening their physical and mental health together, which he's more interested in than hyper-optimized routines and protocols "Activity is foundational," he says, "not all of these life hacks that essentially don't work."
What's the rucking connection with the military?
McCarthy was first introduced to rucking as a fitness requirement in the military. His longest, worst time rucking during his service was around 20 hours, with a 125-pound pack, after jumping out of an airplane. “It’s been a test for military units forever, from the Roman Legionnaires to the British SAS to all infantry forces, anywhere you have to be able to carry things,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time, and we didn’t invent this.” He also doesn’t see rucking as some kind of miracle health fad.
“This isn’t some new machine that we invented or a band that’s supposed to cure everything. Those don’t really exist,” he says. Though GORUCK has deep military roots, it's not a core business component. "Rucking is not viewed positively inside of the armed forces, McCarthy says. "The military takes it to an extreme." For the record, the rucking he recommends to civilians is much lighter, less intense, and does not involve any airplanes.
What is my experience rucking?
After hours of using GORUCK's GR1 rucksack (starting at $345) and 30-pound weighted plate ($120), I understand the appeal of rucking. It's less annoying than running and less boring than just walking. It sucks just enough to feel like exercise but doesn't leave my knees feeling beaten down like pounding the pavement on the street sometimes does.
After a corporate teambuilding exercise at an indoor skydiving facility, I did not become closer with my coworkers. Instead, I strained my relationship with my labrum—an injury that would require intensive reconstruction surgery later on. Shoulder injuries are a common concern when rucking, but I did not experience any discomfort, aches or pains during the hours I spent with a weighted sack on my back.
During my rucking trial—which covered various terrains, including the streets of Brooklyn, a hilly hike in Queens, and some trails across the New England region—I thought about re-upping my WHOOP membership so I could see what the activity did to my heart rate and other vital signs in the moments during and post-ruck. But adding sophisticated technology to this beautifully low-tech endeavor felt antithetical. I also did not want to pay for it.
There's a mindfulness aspect to rucking. I focused more on my posture and gait when carrying 40 pounds on my back and was less inclined to check my phone because I did not want to crane my neck. Weighted vests have been used to address hyperactivity in children—doing a bit of podcast science, it makes sense to me that carrying a weighted backpack might slow my mind down. I also found that I was much hungrier after a 45-minute ruck than I usually am after a moderate lifting session.
Standing upright requires more energy when you're wearing 30 or 40 pounds on your back and engages the core much more than I expected. The day after a 45-minute ruck, in which I loaded both the 30-pound plate and an additional 10-pound plate ($75), I found my abdominal muscles spasming after I bent over to pet my dog. This experience was painful, but it also felt like proof that rucking was doing something, and also probably meant I'd not consumed enough salt and water.
McCarthy has a simple way to test the efficacy of rucking. "Try this test," he says. "Next time you don't feel very good about basically anything, put 45 pounds on your back, go walk for an hour, come back and check the temperature then. You're gonna feel better."
Originally Appeared on GQ