How to Train for Rucking
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition, L2 Strength and Conditioning Coach.
If you are thinking about joining the military, or just want to improve your physical perfromance you may be aware of rucking. Read on to find out how you can prevent injury and improve your performance.
This article wil cover:
- Fitness guide
Rucking (hump, forced marches) is a form of exercise utilized by various militaries the world over. In essence it is carrying a rucksack filled with kit over long distances.
While it may sound like a simple endeavour, it can be incredibly taxing on the body, especially one that is not conditioned to the stresses.
Furthermore, while rucking may be considered a pastime for some who like to do hiking, in the military ‘rucking’ is a timed march, usually performed as a large body of people in a formation sometimes wearing helmets and carrying their weapon systems.
In the United Kingdom this known as ‘TABBING’. That stands for Tactical Advance to Battle, i.e. the movement of a large body of soldiers with all of their fighting kit (sometimes referred to as fighting order) to the battle ground, usually against time in poor conditions or during the night across uneven terrain.
Being the UK, they also find another way of describing it, and the Royal Marines call it ‘yomping’.
One thing is for sure, a ruck, TAB or yomp in the military is not a gentle stroll in the park, and the weight carried can be anything in the region of 30-100lbs+ and around 10 miles or more.
This is because it is necessary to prepare soldiers for the rigorous demands expected of personnel on operations, in often hostile and extreme environments.
Therefore, it is necessary to condition the body before just jumping in, this is particularly true if you are about to join the military as it has been noted that running performance without weight has little correlation to load bearing performance.
Furthermore, it has been well documented that up to 40% of army recruits suffer from knee pain and other lower limb injuries within their initial training program which can lead to medical discharge and curtail a person’s career, notwithstanding reducing the readiness of a military force.
Additional costs can mount due to working days lost and medical treatments which place additional pressures on military funding.
Overuse injuries associated with rucking
Whilst equipment such as footwear has certainly been evaluated and changes made to reduce the risk of stress injuries, other causes have been attributed to poor physical health due to a lack of exercise prior to enlistment.
Other reasons have been attributed to excessive distance covered by soldiers, be this for running or rucking during training plus other miles covered off duty which have shown to be correlated with injuries amongst soldiers in the following two weeks.
However, it is the rapid nature of implementing heavy loads on relatively unconditioned recruits which is exacerbates the causes of musculoskeletal injuries whist hiking for miles under time limits.
Research published in the British Medical Journal found that those who had low body mass combined with a low level of fitness upon entry were at a higher risk of injury during training.
There’s further concerns that inconsistent training intensities can also place recruits at risk such as not following a structured, progressive program to gradually increase the loads and condition the body (bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles) to minimise injury risk.
Progressive training for rucking
Overuse injuries are hard to overcome during the arduous initial stages of training. The British Infantry basic training is no less than 26 weeks, and in some cases is 39 weeks long which means a lot of distance will be covered by personnel who may have very little previous experience or conditioning to such distances.
That said, the US Marines found that a reduction of running distance was associated with fewer injuries without having a negative impact on running times and performance.
We have already mentioned footwear, but its importance is not to be overlooked. Recorded data demonstrated that after the introduction of a new variety of military boots there was a sharp reduction of ankle, calf, and shin injuries amongst soldiers.
Women in ground close combat roles are also susceptible to injury, their physiological differences place their bodies at a higher cardiovascular strain than men. As such recommendations have been made to place females in single sex training groups, but also to provide optimal and progressive core based physical training strategies.
The latter is very important. Traditional military training often involves unloaded running, however, there are very few instances where a soldier may find themselves in a situation where they will need to run for miles with no kit.
Yet, many fitness standards are still based around this, wheres rucking is more often a more realistic simulation of what is experienced on the battlefield.
Furthermore, many actual fitness requirements specific to military tasks involve lifting, dragging heavy loads, moving quickly in short bursts over shorter distances, climbing, jumping and loading vehicles not to mention patroling laded with kit. As such, rucking or tabbing is a good way to mimic a fihting patrol.
As such, the ideal build of a soldier is not necessarily a person with low mass, because while they may be very good at unloaded running, they are not suitable for loaded carriage…particularly as the load gets heavier.
It has been found that those with a higher percentage of lean body mass can lift and carry more and perform better when faced with other military tasks.
Strength and Conditioning for Rucking
This would improve power, aerobic fitness, muscular strength, endurance, and overall body composition to match the functional demands of the modern war fighter.
Improved muscle strength, power and endurance can be achieved with modest amounts of equipment for individual or group training sessions.
Rucking Fitness Guide
Please note that this is a generic guide designed to help improve a person’s overall conditioning which can contribute to improved rucking (tabbing, marching, yomping, hump) performance.
Strength and conditioning programs are highly individual and personalised, which are based upon current abilities and take in to account any previous or current illnesses, conditions or medications amongst other health and safety factors. Please consult a qualified coach or trainer prior to any exercise regime.
Also note that appropriate clothing should be worn for any exercise that you perform and the environmental conditions whilst taking due care and attention towards others. Ensure that the equipment that you are using is serviceable and in good condition. Do not train if you are suffering from an injury.
You should also consider eating a meal high in carbohydrates before any exercise and maintain adequate hydration throughout. It is also worth mentioning that recruit soldiers can require and consume in excess of 5000 calories daily, therefore ensure that your nutrition matches your training output.
Always warm up before you start any exercise, it can reduce the risk of injury and help improve your perfromance.
Use the RAMP method.
R - Raise the blood flow and body temperature
A - Activate the muscles
M - Mobilize the joints
P - Start to move and perform as you would in the game, sport or activity but not at full pace or power
Your warm up routine should last from 8 to 15 minutes in duration and each stretch should be for 30 seconds.
Exercises suitable to improve rucking performance
For maximal strength adaptations, the intensity needs to be progressive throughout your training, that means the weight, or the reps and/or sets need to steadily increase.
There also needs to be a recovery period, if you were to engage within a 6-week program, week 2 or 3 maybe a good opportunity to reduce the weight or volume slightly, before then increasing the weight/volume again to maintain progression.
As we are looking to reduce injury and improve the body’s capabilities to carry load over long distances a program designed around power, and strength is more suited than trying to specifically increase the size and muscle mass (hypertrophy).
This means incorporating the multi-joint compound exercises and Olympic lifts which employ large areas of muscle mass, rather than isolating muscle groups to improve definition and aesthetics.
The following exercises are suitable due to their effects on all over body strength, particularly the lower limbs, the back and for stability.
- Squats (front and back)
- Overhead Press (Military Press)
- Bent Over Row
- Power Clean (Olympic lift)
- Clean and Jerk (Olympic lift)
As with all exercises, you should consult a qualified coach or trainer to show you how to perform each one, however, the latter two exercises (the Olympic lifts) are very technical and should only be performed after a detailed explanation and instruction.
So, we have identified the ideal exercises that will strengthen the core, improve stability, and increase power – all which can benefit anyone looking to improve their rucking fitness.
But now what?
Let’s consider the exercises and the effect they will have on the body.
Order of exercise
We should train any Olympic style power lifts before strength exercises; these Olympic lifts are technical and require lots of explosive action.
Any exercises that are utilizing heavier weight (intensity) should also be trained before lower intensity exercises.
Rotate ‘pull’ and ‘push’ exercises, so if we are doing the overhead press (push) ensure that the next exercise is something like the bent over row (pull).
This also applies to upper and lower body parts. Try to give some muscle groups a rest between exercises where possible.
There’s often much speculation of how long you should rest between sets. However, the science states that for improving strength and power, you can allow for 3 to 5 minutes rest between sets, and not only that, but this duration has also been proven to produce greater increases of strength.
Again, as with rest duration, exercise frequency is a hot topic.
Research has found little statistical benefit if you train for 1 day per week or more than 3 days per week if the total volume of work and the intensity is equal.
It is whatever works best for you, if you can do all the exercise on 1 day and still able to progress with the intensity and volume, do that. If you prefer to break it up over the course of a week, do that.
If your work, life balance is constantly changing, you can adapt the program frequency to how it suits for you as long as the volume and intensity is equal.
Maximal strength can be achieved by lifting weights that are within 70 to 100% of your one repetition max (1RM).
Therefore, if your 1RM is 100lbs you would be lifting loads from 70lbs to 100lbs.
In other words, you if you felt you could only perform 1 repetition, that is your 1 rep max which is 100%. If you felt, you could do 2 repetitions that is 80%.
So, realistically you should be performing around 1 to 6 repetitions per set for maximum strength increases and 3 to 6 sets.
Power can be achieved by keeping lifting 65 to 85% of your 1RM, perform reps between 2 to 5 and maintaining a similar number of sets per exercise.
Therefore, if your 1RM is 100lbs, you would lift from 65 to 85lbs.
If you are a novice athlete, it is advisable to practice and perfect the techniques with much lower loads until you are safe and proficient. Again, consult a qualified trainer or coach.
We have established which strength and conditioning exercises will be beneficial, and we know what intensity, volumes, and frequency to work at.
How would these exercises look for a weekly routine?
Based on three sessions per week, we have outlined a possible program, below:
- Power Clean – 4 sets – 3 reps – 70%1RM
- Front Squat – 4 sets – 5 reps – 75%1RM
- Bent Over Row – 4 sets – 6 reps – 70%1RM
- Overhead Press – 4 sets – 6 reps – 60%1RM
- Clean and Jerk – 4 sets – 3 reps – 70%1RM
- Deadlift – 4 sets – 5 reps – 75%1RM
- Overhead Press – 4 sets – 6 reps – 60%1RM
- Lunge – 4 sets – 6reps – 60%
- Clean – 4 sets – 3 reps – 70%1RM
- Back Squat – 4 sets – 5 reps - 75%1RM
- Bent Over Row – 4 sets – 6 reps - 70%1RM
- Overhead Press – 4 sets - 6 reps - 60%1RM
It is important to either increase volume or intensity to improve your overall performance.
This doesn’t have to be huge jumps in one or the other, but increases that are steady and sustainable which will also allow your tendons and joints to strengthen and adapt.
An active cooling down procedue can be effective for recovery.
Follow a similar routine as the warm up but in reverse.
Nutrition for Recovery
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following intake:
Consume 125% of the fluid lost. Therefore, if you have lost 1 liter through sweat and urine, you should drink 1.25 liters.
To restore glycogen reserves, consume 1 - 1.2g of a rich carbohydrate source per 1 kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight within the first 4 - 6 hours of exercise,
Studies have demonstrated that eating 50 - 100g of protein after exercise has improved static force and dymnamic power production as well as reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
The available research concerning rucking shows that many military recruits become injured due to the high stresses of increased loads and a lack of preparation.
There's also a connection between those of a slight build (more suitable to middle and long distance running) and a higher predictability of injury.
It is apparant that to perfrom military tasks successfully there is a higher requirement for strength and power training.
Therefore a program based around strengthening and conditioning of the body is key to reduce injury and to perform better. Something that is now widely recommended by various agencies and researchers.