Weighted Fitness

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Military trainees have practiced rucking — walking with a loaded backpack — for centuries. And now, this intensive technique has turned fitness trend.

Certain branches of the military, such as special forces, train for longer and more grueling rucks in a variety of weather, terrain, and operational conditions. After all, what better way to move troops long distances with their gear than to strap it on their back and have them carry it?

“Rucking can improve your aerobic fitness, muscular strength, bone density, and posture,” says Marilyn Skarbek, associate professor of exercise science at North Central College in Naperville. “Additionally, it is an activity you can do along with your regular routine, such as walking the dog or taking the kids to the park.”

Compared to other forms of exercise, rucking is straight-forward and inexpensive. It builds up the muscles in your trunk and legs, and offers a low-impact cardio workout. And you can do it anywhere: city streets, a suburban park, or a hiking trail.

Chicagoan Andrew Seelig is a rucking enthusiast and a Chicago Ruck Club Facebook page moderator. He rucks several times a week, carrying 50 pounds. And he says he loves to share his passion for this universally human activity.

“I’ve always enjoyed walking — who doesn’t in this city?” Seelig says. “Rucking is, in many respects, simply a more focused and higher intensity version of walking.”

While rucking for fitness is a relatively new idea, the activity is as old as humanity itself. The word rucking comes from the German “der rucken” or “the back.” Humans, from early hunter-gatherers to nomadic tribes, have always had to find ways to move heavy loads over long distances.

In recent decades, rucking has become popular as a way to build physical skills that translate to real-world uses. “The ability to cover a distance carrying weight is one of the more overlooked yet essential fitness skills to have,” Seelig says.

Part of rucking’s appeal is its accessibility. It’s something you can do anytime, anywhere, and it’s an ideal outdoor fitness activity for Chicagoans who want to get more out of the walking they already do.

Rucking can also provide important benefits beyond the physical. “It’s a very social activity,” Seelig says. “You can do it with friends and family, and even if they don’t ruck, you can bring your rucksack while they just stroll with you.”

Gear and prep essentials

Before you load up, consider training beforehand and finding the right pack.

“It is important to engage in a period of strength training prior to beginning rucking to prepare the body for the added load,” Skarbek says.

Essential gear includes a rucksack along with something that adds weight.

“There are many decent packs out there that can do the job to get you started without spending too much,” Seelig says. “You just want something designed to carry weight, with wide, preferably padded shoulder straps and the ability to organize the interior weight load.”

Skarbek recommends investing in the right equipment and adding weight and distance gradually. “If the body is not prepared and the load is too much or progresses too quickly, there is the risk that too much stress will be placed on the muscles and bones,” she says.

How much weight you carry depends on your body dimensions, fitness level, and overall physical health. Most rucking guidelines recommend starting with 10% of your body weight. But if 10% feels too heavy, you can always go lighter.

“Rucking can add a considerable load to the body and cause excessive stress on the musculoskeletal system if not done correctly,” Skarbek says. Choosing the right amount of weight to begin and progressing gradually as your body adapts helps build strength while preventing injury.

For beginners worried about overwhelming themselves with too much weight, Seelig suggests using water. “Water bottles are a great way to start since if you find yourself suffering far from home, you can easily dump the extra water weight.”

If you’re interested in rucking, the Rucking Facebook group or the Chicago Ruck Club Facebook group are great ways to connect.

The Chicago rucking community also hosts a Chicago Veterans Ruck March, which takes place every Memorial Day weekend to raise awareness for suicide prevention efforts and the importance of mental health services for veterans.

“Rucking is a real-world activity. It takes you outside a structured and controlled gym environment and into the world looking for your own adventure,” Seelig says. “Try it out. Don’t overdo the weight or mileage to start, and don’t overthink it.”

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