By Michael Easter
Why Rucking is the Best Exercise for Women and What You Need to Know
When I started writing about rucking for my book, The Comfort Crisis, something struck me as I read all the research: Rucking is an incredible exercise for women. I thought of my wife and mom and how rucking could make their exercise routines more effective. So far, it’s working.
I’m not alone in my thoughts. More and more health scientists as realizing that rucking might be the best exercise for women. That’s because rucking gives women unique benefits that other exercises don’t. I was also surprised to learn from historical research that women are particularly great at rucking.
Here are seven reasons why women should ruck—and how to do it better.
Rucking Sneaks in Weight Training—No Weight Room Required
The US government says everyone should do at least 150 weekly minutes of endurance activity and strength train twice a week. Only 19 percent of women hit those recommendations while 26 percent of men do. Why the difference? Women and men do endurance exercise at about the same rate, but women are far less likely to strength train.
There are a variety of reasons for this. For example, cultural trends around fitness have marketed different activities to women. And many weight rooms are filled with creepy, sweaty dudes, which can dissuade women (even I, as a 30-something guy, hate how awkward most weight rooms are).
Rucking combines endurance and strength. It allows women to meet those guidelines and get stronger without setting foot in a weight room.
This is critical because scientists are now realizing that not having enough muscle can be far more dangerous for women than an unhealthy scale weight. A recent study of 50,000 Canadian women, for example, found those most at risk of death registered a “healthy” BMI but had the lowest levels of lean muscle.
Rucking Strengthens Bones
Everyone starts losing bone density around age 30. But women after menopause begin losing it at a rapid and dangerous rate. This is why bone fractures are one of the biggest health threats to women. Aging women in the US are two, five, and eight times more likely to break a bone than they are to have a heart attack, get breast cancer, or have a stroke, respectively. If you break an arm, it’s an annoyance that’ll heal. But if you break a hip, you’re essentially screwed. About 50 percent of people over age 65 who break their hip are dead within six months.
The best way to stop and even reverse bone loss—according to Dr. Robert Wermers, a bone disease specialist with the Mayo Clinic—is to do “aerobic walking where you’re bearing weight.” I.e., rucking. One study found that aging women who trained with a weight vest didn’t lose bone while those who trained without a weight vest saw a loss in bone density. The scientists say the earlier in life you start rucking the better you’ll be.
Women Ruck Harder
Scientists know that men and women respond slightly differently to some exercises. For example, research shows that women have better endurance in isometric strength tasks (exercises where you hold a position that requires strength, like grip or sitting at the bottom of a squat) while men are generally stronger pound-for-pound at moving weight.
With that in mind, scientists in the UK wanted to know how women and men compared when they rucked. They gathered a group of British military recruits. The recruits had to ruck six miles with either 33 or 44 pounds. The weights weren’t split by sex, meaning some women rucked with 44 pounds.
The men, however, weighed an average of 170 pounds while the women weighed 140. This means the women rucked with a heavier load relative to their body weight. The scientists took all kinds of measurements on the men and women. Then they sent them out on a hard outdoor rucking course and retook the measurements once they were done.
Two interesting findings arose. First, the women completed the course an average of two minutes faster than the men. Because of this effort, the women reported a higher rate of perceived exertion (basically: how hard the ruck felt) compared to men. But it didn’t slow them down. This backs up previous work that shows that women have a higher tolerance for exercise-induced discomfort and are better able to hammer when they feel fatigued.
Second, the women also recovered their fitness faster. When they retested the men on a marker of leg strength, their performance had plummeted. Meanwhile, the women’s strength hadn’t dropped all that much.
Women are Damn Good at Carrying
As I told Jason and Emily of GORUCK on their Glorious Professionals podcast (listen here), “what we were built to do can inform a lot of what we should do today.” All humans were built to carry (for more on that, read The Comfort Crisis). We’re the only animals who can carry weight for distance, and it shaped us into who we are.
But the historical data suggests that women did significantly more carrying than men. There’s a lot of old anthropological research backing this idea, but one of my favorite studies focuses on the women of the Seri hunter-gatherer tribe on Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California. In 1895, WJ McGee, who ran the Bureau of American Ethnology, traveled to the island to study the tribe. He observed that the women would frequently make a 15-mile round trip excursion from the beach up into the mountains—through a gnarly landscape of mesquite, cactus, and agave. They’d fetch water and “rapid walk” it back to camp in heavy, awkward clay jugs. He stated that the women of the tribe were “notable burden bearers.”
Another fascinating finding came in 1986 when anthropologists at Harvard noticed that “when traveling in East Africa one is often surprised at the prodigious loads carried by the women of the area,” they wrote. “It is not uncommon to see women of the Luo tribe carrying loads equivalent to 70% of their body mass balanced on the top of their heads. Women of the Kikuyu tribe carry equally large loads supported by a strap across their foreheads.” So, for example, if a Luo woman weighed 120 pounds, she’d sometimes carry about 85 pounds atop her head.
The Harvard scientists teamed up with some colleagues at the University of Nairobi. They discovered something fascinating: The women could carry up to 20 percent of their body weight on their head without burning any extra calories. Once a woman carried 30 percent of her body weight on her head, she only burned 10 percent more calories. When she carried 40 percent of her body weight, she burned 20 percent more calories, and so on.
That’s an amazing adaptation for the women, who are carrying for work and want to save energy. Obviously if you’re rucking for exercise, you don’t want zero calorie burn. But don’t worry: Experiments on the average person shows that carrying, say, 20 percent of your body weight will always boost your calorie burn by 20 percent or more. The scientists think the efficiency of the tribal women is an adaptation that happened through training.
I told you all that because paleo fitness and diet books tend to picture “man” or “men” as the super-fit hunter. And they use that imagery to persuade modern men to exercise. But the reality is that hunter-gatherer women seemed to have worked physically harder and longer than the men (and you still see this phenomenon in exercise studies today … as we learned above, women consistently go harder in workouts).
So next time you’re rucking and you think it sucks, just remember the women of the Seri tribe, the “notable burden bearers,” or the women of the Luo tribe with 85 pounds atop their head, and remind yourself that you were made for this shit.
Rucking Gets You Fit with Less Risk of Injury
Women have higher rates of certain exercise injuries compared to men. For example, ACL (a ligament that stabilizes the knee) tears are six times more common in women than men. Women are also at higher risk of ankle sprains and stress fractures.
There are various theories around why. For example, differences in hormone and muscle levels. More flexibility and less strength. A wider pelvis that alters the mechanics of the ankle and knee. Nutritional differences. And on and on.
It’s likely a combination of factors. But we also know that certain activities tend to have a higher risk of injury compared to others. For example, women who play basketball and soccer tend to have higher rates of ACL tears. And in a report about women and exercise injuries, the CDC stated “Surveys demonstrate that the incidence of self-report running-related injury is high. Annually, approximately 25%-65% of male and female runners report being injured to the extent that they reduced or stopped training.”
All exercise is great. Even better if you enjoy it. But rucking’s injury rate is relatively low compared to most other forms of exercise. It’s about as dangerous as walking, so long as your ruck doesn’t weigh more than a third of your bodyweight (40lbs for a 120-lb woman). Rucking can even help shore up some of the issues that might contribute to women’s exercise injuries, allowing you to do any other form of exercise better and safer. For example, by building stronger legs, your knees might be better protected if you want to go for a weekly run or play a field sport.
How Women Can Start Rucking
For men, the problem is often that they go too heavy, too soon. This can result in overuse issues. But women often have the opposite problem. Women often go too light, and that can lead them to not get as powerful of a workout stimulus as they could.
Active women usually do great starting with 20-pounds. That weight should feel challenging, but not soul-crushing. If it’s the latter, go lighter. Drop down to 10 or 15 pounds and spend more time under the ruck. Try 10 pounds for a few rucks, then bump up to 15 for a few. Soon enough, that 20 pounds will be a cinch.
Once you’re settled in at 20, you’ll probably want to jump up to 30. But be aware, as our friend Melissa Urban, creator of the Whole30 put it, “30 pounds somehow weighs five times more than 20 pounds.” She’s obviously kidding. But her point is that some weights pass a strange tipping point that makes them feel significantly heavier. And this tipping point is different for everyone.
If you bump up to 30 pounds and it’s too rough, try adding just a couple of extra pounds in your ruck to bring yourself up to, say, 22 or 23 pounds. Get comfortably uncomfortable there. Then keep adding over time—if you want to. It’s also totally ok to typically ruck with 20 pounds and only occasionally challenge yourself with something heavier.
How Women Can Improve Their Rucking
Rucking mixes strength and cardio. It’s a one-stop shop. That said, doing other exercises can make anyone a better rucker.
Because rucking mixes strength and cardio, improvement requires getting stronger and building a better base of cardio. But, for women, one of those seems to be more important than the other. A study on female military recruits found that those who successfully completed a 9.3-mile ruck with 77 pounds were significantly stronger and had better endurance than those who quit. Yes, it was a seriously tough ruck, but that’s what’s required of soldiers.
But the data showed that the finishers had only slightly better endurance but were much stronger than the women who quit. This suggests that, for women, the rate-limiting step for better rucking is often strength. (For men, the opposite is often true.)
The upshot: You don’t necessarily need to enter a weight room to build rucking strength. Use your ruck to do the following exercises a few times a week:
With your ruck on your back, take a big step forward and bend your knee, lowering your torso. Stop when your back knee is just above the ground. Now stand, moving forward over your leading leg. Repeat on your other leg. Repeat that back and forth so you’re “walking” forward.
Hold the ruck at your waist, your arms straight. Keep your knees slightly bent as you push your hips back and begin lowering your torso towards the ground. Keep your back straight throughout. Stop when you reach a point where you can’t continue lowering your torso without bending your back. You should feel some tension and the weight of the ruck in your hamstrings. Now keep your back straight as you push your hips forward and stand tall.
Hold your ruck out in front of you, your elbows in close to your body (you can also rest the ruck in the crease of your elbows and along your forearms). Push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your torso to squat until your hips are at least to your knees. Push back up.
Get in the “bear crawl” position. Your knees should be on the ground and directly under your hips, your hands directly under your shoulders and arms straight. This is the start. Now keep your back straight as you lift your right arm and stretch it out in front of you so it’s parallel to the floor. As you do, do the same with your left leg, stretch it out so it’s parallel with the floor. Now bring them together at your torso and repeat the movement. Do all your reps and switch sides.
As you put in more and heavier miles, remember that rucking isn’t meant to be easy. Everyone suffers under the weight of the load. But, if you’re like my wife, you’ll soon be rucking farther and faster and be glad you started.
Michael Easter is an author, professor, and adventurer. His work has appeared in over 60 countries and can also be found in Men’s Journal, New York, Vice, Scientific American, Esquire, and others. He lives in Las Vegas on the edge of the desert with his wife and two dogs. If you want to read more, subscribe to his newsletter and read his book, The Comfort Crisis.