Discover more from 2% with Michael Easter
The numbers on rucking and injuries + two bonus exercises
These stats will change how you exercise.
Hey everyone! Last week we helped you find a good weight to ruck with. This week we'll talk about injuries and as a bonus, I'll give two exercises that can help make you more injury-resistant. This is the final email of October’s four-part rucking series. If someone forwarded you this email, you can get all future emails by subscribing here.
You are antifragile
One of the biggest concerns I hear about rucking is around injuries. The basic reaction is that having weight on your back can’t be good for your back. Or knees. Or (insert any other random body part). Before we explain why the opposite is often true, let’s back up and talk about exercise injuries in general.
The thinker Nassim-Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile writes: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”
He points out that we don’t have a word for these kinds of things. “(They are) beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same.” He proposes the word “antifragile” to describe the phenomenon. “The antifragile,” he writes, “gets better (after stress).”
Humans are antifragile and exercise is a great example of our antifragility. If we stress our bodies with a run, they adapt by improving our cardiovascular fitness, which moves us away from disease. If we stress our bodies by lifting weights, we rebuild more strength and muscle so we’re better able to handle the weight next time (this also moves us away from disease!).
In our modern world of comforts and conveniences, humans bloom after going through certain discomforts. Antifragility kicks in. We build back better and good things happen. Not just to our bodies, but also to our minds. We can encounter profound perspective shifts that increase our stress tolerance and allow us to find calm in the storm of life. (My book, The Comfort Crisis, talks more about this and identifies the specific discomforts we most need.)
But this also doesn’t mean more, harder exercise is always better. We need to find the stress sweet spot. If we never move, our muscles atrophy, our blood sugar and inflammation levels get out of whack, and we end up with pain and disease. On the opposite end, if we go from being sedentary to, say, running a half marathon, we might be able to finish but we’ll probably end up beat up and broken down.
The key is to surf the edges of our tolerance and comfort zone so those edges expand. But we shouldn't go so far that we fall off the edge and get injured.
Rucking and injuries
I told you all of that to tell you this: Not all exercises are created equal when it comes to edges. Some exercises are more likely to push us over the edge where we get injured.
Enter rucking. Let’s look at what the science says about where the injury edges of rucking lie compared to other forms of exercise.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh tracked 451 soldiers in the 101st Airborne. Across a year, the group had 133 injuries. Twenty-eight of those injuries came from exercise. Here’s how the data broke down:
Rucking: 3 injuries
Lifting: 7 injuries
Running: 18 injuries
In other words, soldiers were 6 times more likely to get injured running and about 2.3 times more likely to get injured lifting compared to rucking.
Researchers followed 800 soldiers going through Special Forces Assessment and Selection. It’s the 20-ish day hell soldiers enter to see if they can become Special Forces operators. At the selection, there were 800 fresh-faced soldiers rucking nonstop with 50ish pounds on their backs for days on end. All at the highest intensities across the gnarliest of terrains.
When the scientists looked at the data, they discovered that rucking caused 36 injuries. The most common injuries were sprains, tendonitis, or non-specific pain.
This study helps us put the risk of rucking in context for the average person.
Here we had 800 soldiers wearing relatively heavy rucks and going absolutely bonkers for days on end. And just 4.5 percent of them got injured.
Of course, you may be older and smaller than the soldiers. But still, I feel rather confident telling you that it’s rather safe to do the same activity with less weight, at a saner pace, for a few hours a week in your neighborhood or on a trail.
That study had another interesting finding. The researchers tracked the injury rates of other activities the soldiers did during Assessment and Selection, like running and obstacle courses. Rucking had the lowest injury rate. Running and the obstacle course resulted in two and four times as many injuries, respectively.
Of course, the risk of injury while rucking depends on how heavy your ruck is. We covered ideal rucking weights last week. Revisit that email for how to find a great weight!
Bonus: Use the (home) gym to ruck better
Because rucking mixes strength and cardio, improvement means that you need to build strength and endurance. Men and women often have the equal opposite problem here.
Men usually lack a big cardio engine. The answer here is simple: Spend more time rucking at a fast pace you can manage a conversation at (exercise nerds call this “zone-2 training”).
For women, the problem is often a lack of strength. Consider the findings of a study on female military recruits who attempted a 9.3-mile ruck with 77 pounds. (Yes, it was a seriously tough ruck, but that’s what’s required of soldiers.)
The data revealed a key difference between the women who finished and the women who dropped out. The two groups had relatively equal endurance, but the finishers were much stronger. This suggests that, for women, the rate-limiting step for better rucking is often strength.
You don’t necessarily need to enter a weight room to build rucking strength (regardless of gender). My two favorite exercises for rucking and preventing back and knee pain are as follows:
A trusted source uses this exercise with champion ultra-runners and military members he trains. It’ll help you power up hills and bulletproof your knees.
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. Do all the reps in a controlled fashion. Stop when you get so tired that your form breaks down. That’s one set. Do three sets two or three times a week. (Here's a video.)
(Note: If this feels tough or awkward, try reverse lunges instead. Lunge backward with your left leg. Stand up. Repeat on your left. In this variation, you’ll stay in one place.)
This is a classic functional exercise that strengthens your core and protects your back.
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. (If you can’t do the exercise, try lifting just one limb at first). (Here's a video.)
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week,
The 2% Newsletter is brought to you by GORUCK
Since we're talking about Rucking this month, GORUCK is a great fit to sponsor the newsletter. Not only is the company's story included in The Comfort Crisis, but I've been using GORUCK's gear since the brand was founded. Seriously.
They've been around ~12 years and I still regularly use a pack of theirs that is 11 years old. Their gear is made mostly in the USA by former Special Forces soldiers. They make my favorite rucking setup: A Rucker and Ruck Plate.