Carrying Excess Weight – The Ancestral Art of Rucking

two mountaineers in mountain
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What is the most obvious distinction between humans and the other Great Apes? Some might say it’s our ability to reason and our intelligence. To this I ask: “Have you not seen the news recently?” A more obvious distinction would be our Bipedalism, or our ability to walk upright on 2 legs.

There are many theories as to why humans became bipedal; from the necessity to carry stuff, to wading through vegetation and water to forage, to upright sexual displays of the phallus.

Cerne Abbas Giant – National Trust

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will notice that we include many of these ancestral forms of moving, eating and living into our programming. Loaded carries, dragging and foraging play a significant role in Wild Life’s ethos. I am still trying to work out how to add phallus displaying into our current curriculum.

It has long been commented on that we humans are ‘born to run’ and to this I wholeheartedly agree. But our capacity to carry may have been an even greater influence on our evolution.

Anthropologist and archeologist, Tim Taylor from Bradford University, is the author of The Artificial Ape – How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution. He believes that carrying, in this case the carrying of infants via sling, allowed our brains to get bigger. The theory is that, in order to carry a child, a mother would expend a huge amount of energy by using the hands and arms alone. The constant switching of positions, changing sides, and the toll on the upper limb muscles would have meant more energy used by mum, and therefore, less energy available, in the form of breast milk, for junior. With the advent of the baby sling, a mother could carry the child in a much more efficient manner allowing more energy to flow, via lactation, to the baby. This meant there was much more scope for the infant brain to continue growing outside of the mothers body, kind of like marsupials. This meant that child birth size was less dependent on the mother’s pelvis size, and in turn meant the pelvis could narrow for even more efficient locomotion; running and walking.

Baby Slings – Getting shit done since day 1

What’s more, there seems to be growing evidence that load-carrying itself may have been a major contributor to the evolution of the modern human form.

Perhaps with a shift in climate and natural resources, our ancestors found themselves with the need to move more for shelter, food, and because of competition. The ability to carry objects needed for our survival and shelter, combined with the ability to hunt prey over great distances and carry our kill back to camp would have put us at a huge advantage.

Compared with other Great Apes and distant ancestors, humans are well suited to the task of carrying loads. Long lower limbs, springy foot morphology, mighty buttocks, short torsos, and powerful gripping hands meant we were more than up to the task. We were purpose built for it.

To me, loaded carries are often the missing link in many peoples training arsenal. There are many ways of incorporating it into our routines, as mentioned here and here, and to be discussed further in future posts.

Perhaps the easiest way to incorporate this is in the form of ‘RUCKING’ – The act of carrying weight in a backpack/rucksack over distance, ie slinging something heavy into a bag and walking. It’s been around forever as a means to develop the body, from Milo of Croton carrying a bull on his back, to just about every military unit throughout history, rucking has been a cornerstone to making humans into pure beasts.

Rucking, also call tabbing and yomping, has myriad benefits:

  • Combined Cardio and Strength Training – It elevates the heart rate in a similar way to light running whilst also building strength to the lower body, core, back and shoulders, as well as all our smaller stabilising muscles.
  • Torches Body Fat – By adding load to our walking we massively increase the amount of calories being burned, upping the number to up to three times more depending on terrain, weight, and speed. This puts it nearly on a par with running, so great for those who hate running.
  • Lower Impact – Although there is more impact than walking alone, it is much less than from running (2-3 times bodyweight per step for rucking, 7-12 times for running), which makes it a good alternative for those with lower limb issues.
  • Real World Preparedness – I talk about this a lot. In the real world we usually need to move the object that we have picked, unlike in the gym, so let’s train for it. Being good at carrying loads will make life easier for you and could possibly save yours or someone else’s life.
  • Time in Nature – Yes of course you could do your ruck indoors on a treadmill. If you hate yourself. Rucking outdoors hits a load of benefits; fresh air, nature exposure, vitamin D, varied terrain, variable focus lengths for eye health, mixed conditions, general toughening, and looking like intrepid explorer-esque stud.
  • Improves Your Posture – Life at a desk, behind the wheel, or bent over a phone has left us with pretty poor, unbalanced posture. Loading ourselves up through rucking physically pulls the shoulders back and forces our core muscles to activate in a way that just doesn’t happen in our day to day life. Over time, our bodies learn to remain in the optimal position.
  • Great for Community – Rucking can be a solitary endeavour. Most of my rucks are done alone but that is mainly because I hate people and smell funny. It’s much more fun to do it in groups. Rucking is a great leveller because different people will load themselves with different weight depending on their size and ability, making everyone walk at a relatively similar pace.
  • Cheap and Easy to Do – An old but sturdy rucksack, something to put in it, and some suitable footwear and you’re good to go. If you travel with a backpack then you are travelling with your own personal gym. No excuses anymore.

So what do you need for rucking and how do you do it?

Here in lies the beauty of rucking.

You can buy some pretty cool, purpose built rucking gear from the likes of goruck.com. The quality is fantastic and I’m sure is well worth the price tag. But if you are cheap like me, or just don’t want to invest just yet, you don’t need to.

Any old rucksack will do at first. As long as it is sturdy enough to take the weight, which will be low to start with, it’ll be fine. As the weight starts to increase you may want to invest in something stronger.

My preference is a military spec medium size rucksack with well padded shoulder straps, a padded waist band, and a chest strap.

The bag I am currently using for rucks and camping trips is the Karrimor Sabre 45l pack. It’s well padded and pretty much bombproof. This one was secondhand and I think it will likely be passed on to my kids. Lucky them.

Next you need some weight. Again you can buy some amazing ruck weight plates that slide in to the pack without taking up too much room, but these are pricey. You could also use barbell weight plates, dumbells and kettlebells, but these may be awkward to load.

Water bottles are good but bulky. 1 litre of water equal 1kg. If I am travelling and intend to ruck, I take a 10l water bladder or 2 with me like this one.

Bricks are another favourite, weighing in at 2-2.5kg. Just be sure to wrap them in something to avoid damaging your pack.

My weight of choice is the sandbag ‘pill’. Cheap and easy to make, they have no sharp edges or hard surfaces to contend with, and are infinitely scalable. See my post on DIY Sandbags to learn how to make them.

10kg Sandbag ‘Pills’

Next is appropriate footwear. Now this depends on what weight you are carrying, what terrain you are traversing, and what footwear you are used too. I can often be seen rucking in a pair of sandals or Vibram Five Fingers, but I wouldn’t recommend this for most people. If you are new to rucking then a sturdy pair of well fitting walking boots would be best.

So how much weight should you load up with? If you are totally new to exercising then I would suggest zero weight. Maybe a small bottle of water that you are using to stay hydrated with. Don’t ruck before you can walk!

The general guideline for beginners is 10% of your bodyweight, but again, if you are on the heavy side and untrained, keep the weight low.

I would maybe top out at the 25-30kg range as well. This is not a case of more is better. Once we hit this range we can focus on distance and speed to keep progressing.

When you load the pack, try to keep the weight close to your back and fairly high up in the pack. Use the straps to cinch the weight to you and use something light to raise the weight up, something like a yoga block.

Carefully put the pack on, tighten the straps, and off you go. Keep your heart rate low to start off with. Follow the MAF heartrate guidelines of 180-age, and stick to about 30 minutes. This is fairly low impact on the body and is my go-to daily ruck rate. As you grow more used to rucking lengthen the ruck and/or increase the speed. You can obviously increase the load, but don’t over do it. Increase in small 10% increments. You can also change the terrain you walk on to make it easier or harder too.

unrecognizable traveler standing on mountain top and admiring landscape
Photo by Stan Swinnen on Pexels.com

It’s as simple as that. An activity that is baked into our DNA, super useful in the real world, and cheap, easy and accessible to most people.

And the extra bonus is that you now have a piece of training equipment that can be used for much more than just rucking. Stay tuned to how how you can use your new rucksack system for a whole host of other exercises, next week.

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