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Rucking: Backpacks Vs. Weight Vests

Rucking: Backpacks Vs. Weight Vests

A deep dive on which you should choose and why.

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Ok, let’s get on with it…

A couple months ago, I posted a few ways that rucking and weight vests compare. A few people on the internet took exception to the information. Specifically this part, which was part one of a six-part thread.

The problem was in the “A weighted ruck ‘pulls’ your spine backward” line.

I get it. Rucks do pull you backward, but we react by sort of “leaning forward” rather than being “held up.” And the compression gets taken off your low back muscles.

When you translate complex but highly useful health science to a large audience on 280-character platform, some things will be lost in translation.

As my friend Tamar Haspel has perfectly put it … (read her Tweet).

I’m a journalist. My job is not to wage internet wars but rather to cover the wars. To talk to both sides, give you both perspectives, and then try to draw some reasonable, actionable, and practical conclusions.

So I reached out to those who took exception to my thoughts on rucks versus weight vests. Specifically, one trainer, Alex Viada, who had vented some public comments online about why my first slide was wrong.

Viada is more a fan of weight vests, so I wanted to hear his opinion. Viada is the Founder and Head Coach of Complete Human Performance. He’s worked with about 100 people preparing for military selection camps individually, and spent time as an undergraduate working in a biomechanics lab at Duke.

Then, to get another perspective, I called Kelly Starrett, a Doctor of Physical Therapy.

Most of you probably know Kelly. TL;DR, he’s considered the brightest public mind in human movement. He’s worked with teams in all major sports and has contracts with the US Military.

Kelly and his wife Juliet also recently wrote Built to Move, which is a book I recommend all people with a body read. That is to say, you. Here’s a link to get the book.

“You’ve touched a third rail you didn’t even know existed, huh?” Kelly asked when he picked up the phone.

Third rails are everywhere. You just have to find them. And when you find them, it’s worth taking a good look at them.

So that’s what this post will do—investigate the newfound third rail that is rucks versus weight vests.

Here are eight comparisons between rucking with a ruck and a weight vest. Warning: This is a long post.

I’ve summarized each point in the “In short” section. And the main takeaway of the post is what I wrote in my original Instagram post:

That you carry weight far more important than how you carry it. Rucks win for most people most of the time. But if you would rather use a vest, go for it! Work what works for you.

1. Covering Long Distances

In short

Rucking likely win for distances that feel “far” to you.

The details

Kelly made a wonderful point right off the bat, 34 seconds into our conversation.

“First, we need to point out that weight vests were never intended as a loading system,” he said. “Vests are intended for people not to get shot.” Different purpose, indeed.

When you look at how people around the world carry weight for distance, you tend to see two approaches:

  1. On their head.
  2. On their back.

If you have a reasonably light load—say, up to 20 percent of your body weight—you often see people carrying it on their head rather than out front. That method uses less energy. Think of people carrying water in jugs or big baskets of fruit.

For example—and this is fascinating—a study in Nature found that women from the Kikuyu and Luo tribes in East Africa can carry up to 20 percent of their body weight on their head and not burn any more calories compared to if they were carrying nothing.

But most people, especially when the loads get heavier, put the load on their back.

They do that with backpacks or what are called “tumplines,” which is basically a strap that attaches to the top of your head. You then lean forward and hang the weight off of the strap so the weight is resting on your back. (This method is popular among porters and sherpas.)

In the short term, having weight equally distributed between front and back seems to be most efficient. Here’s data from a study where Western people carried about 70 pounds six different ways for just over half a mile (1km).

Another study that had people walk for 10 minutes with 30 percent of their bodyweight in either a vest-like apparatus or backpack. The vest group displayed slightly better measurements of balance.

But once you walk any appreciable distance, it likely makes the most sense to have the weight on your back.

This is because we can “lean” away from the weight (or into it, depending on how you want to view it), and the physics work in our favor. Kelly explained it like this:

“With a backpack on, there's a force you can resist against that is straight up and down. If you put a heavy backpack on even a child, the child intuitively knows how to lean into it and stabilize.”

But this intuition doesn’t necessarily kick on when the weight is surrounding your body, like in a vest.

We don’t have anything to resist against—to sort of lean into. Like a counterbalance. “This means that with a vest, we have to create all of that integrity,” he said.

When we wear a ruck, we resist the weight using our abs and posterior muscles, which are generally strong because we’re forward-driven creatures. And if those tire, we default to using our skeletal system.

Kelly told me to think of it this way:

Let’s say I put a 300-pound ruck on you. You’d be able to stand by leaning forward. But if I wrapped that same weight around your trunk, you’d probably collapse.

That is, of course, an extreme example. No human should try it. But it illustrates the physics we’re working with here.

Kelly continued:

So when we think about rucks versus vests, since we’re not talking about getting shot (which would require a vest), and since when we’re talking about rucking, we’re talking about walking for miles—at least 20 minutes—we see why rucking is much more sustainable for long periods of time. Take through-hikers who are hiking 20 miles a day. These people have the option of putting loads on the back and front. But they don’t. These people are all putting light loads on their backs because it allows them to hike the fastest and be the most efficient.

Which is to say, vests and rucks are equally good. Until you have enough weight or must cover enough ground to get tired. Then rucks likely win.

2. Versatility

In short

Military researchers found that vests have a few disadvantages that make rucks more practical.

The details

In 1996, two groups of scientists from the US Army met to cover rucking. One group represented the Soldier Performance Division based out of the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The other group was from the Occupational Medicine and Occupational Physiology Divisions from the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts.

They wanted to look at how wearing a pack or vest impacted soldiers physiologically, biomechanically, and even injury-wise.

They spent much time analyzing the differences between covering ground with a ruck and what are called “double packs.”

Double packs are effectively vests—they’re simply backpacks that also have a front portion you can load, so the loading scheme is similar to a weight vest. (From here on out, we’ll just call them “vests.”)

Their takeaway on rucks versus vests: “(Vests) are useful in many situations, but backpacks appear to provide greater versatility.”

And that’s because, they wrote, “The (vest) can inhibit movement … can be burdensome to put on and remove … (and) can also induce ventilatory impairment and great heat stress symptoms.” (More on that below)

Vests lose here because vests, especially at heavier loads, are:

  • Harder to move in because you also have weight in front of you
  • Harder to put on and take off (definitely true for heavier loads).
  • Harder to breathe under
  • Make you more likely to overheat.

(We’ll investigate more on breathing and other practicalities of the ruck below).

3. Safety

In short

Rucks and vests are likely equally safe at loads below ⅓ of your body weight if you aren’t tired. But if you get tired or go heavier than ⅓ bodyweight, rucks likely win.

The details

Viada told me, “there are no good, direct, controlled studies on whether one would reduce injury over the other; the only thing we can look at is kind of secondary conclusions.” He’s absolutely right.

For that reason, we can look at how our walking changes when we wear a vest versus a ruck.

Walking seems easy. But it’s actually a complex movement. Lots of things have to happen for a human to cover ground.

When you add weight to walking, walking changes. Viada said:

A vest has the fewest changes to gait (i.e. walking) mechanics. Weight on the back increases forward torso lean quite a bit, and it also increases head tilt. The more weight on your back, the more forward your head tilts. Carrying weight on your back is (also) associated with a potential for over-striding (which is associated with lower body injuries).

Indeed, scientists in Hong Kong in 2019 analyzed how our posture changes under backpacks versus vests.

The scientists loaded people with 30 percent of their body weight in a backpack and then in a vest, doing 10 minutes of treadmill walking a couple different times each.

They discovered that “(vest) loads resulted in a more upright walking posture and induced fewer postural deviations from normal walking.”

So it’s quite possible that under ideal conditions, vests may have less risk of injury.

But out of the lab, it’s not quite as straightforward.

It’s useful to look to real-world experience.

Take soldiers who wear body armor, which is effectively a weight vest that can weigh up to 35 pounds. Kelly explained:

People end up slumping in body armor. We see it all the time when I work with the Marine Corps. When people get fatigued, the strategy is to lean forward to bend over at the waist. But when you’re wearing a vest, there’s nothing to lean against. You can’t find equilibrium. So you default to rounding inside the vest.

That can cause issues.

As you lean forward, the front load pulls you further forward. That may eventually tire your low back muscles, putting weight on your spine. Especially if you’re using heavier loads.

4. Improving Back Issues

In short

Under most loads a normal person would use, rucking may help back injuries.

The details

In 1984, two biomechanists at the University of Waterloo measured how back muscles activate when people ruck.

They got a small group of men and had them toss on a 42-pound ruck. Then they used EMG, which measures muscle activity.

The findings were counterintuitive. The scientists found that the erector spinae muscles actually activated less while rucking compared to walking. Another study found this rule held until people went over 66 to 88 pounds (read, probably not a load I’d recommend for most rucks).

Clearly, rucking is more physically demanding than unloaded walking. So something had to make up for the lack of activation from the back muscles.

The answer: your abs pick up the slack.

Those Army scientists explained that when you toss on a ruck and lean slightly forward to counter the weight, it reduces the torque on your lower back but likely increases tension on your abs (measuring ab EMG is harder).

Hence my line in the Instagram post about “neglected muscles.” Most everyday people who sit all day have weak core muscles.

This may be why the back expert Stu McGill remarked to me why rucking can be good for back health. Reducing torque on the low back and giving the spine some motion tends to do good things for back problems. He told me:

The spine tends to like gentle motion. There’s no such thing as a common treatment for everyone. However, on average, people’s discs and spines enjoy a little bit of motion … in our earlier studies, one of our recommended therapies for people recovering from posterior disc bulges was to put a load in their backpack and carry the load. Only 20 or 25 pounds placed low in the backpack and close to their back.

And core strength is associated with less risk of back injury.

Finally, a hip belt allows you to shift more weight from your back to your hips. Vests don’t have a hip belt.

5. Breathing and Regulating Temperature

In short

Rucks allow you to breathe better and dissipate heat.

The details

This one seems rather obvious. If you put weight on your chest, it’s likely going to make it harder to breathe.

But science is all about confirming the obvious. Which is what that aforementioned group of military researchers did. When they analyzed the research, they noted that vests “can induce ventilatory impairments.” Rucks don’t.

This chest compression doesn’t happen with lighter vests, of course. But it becomes a factor as you add more weight.

For example, Ben Olliver, the director of Performance at Superhuman, put it quite eloquently when he told me, “I ruck instead of use a weight vest because the vest (at heavier weights) just makes it hard as f*ck to breathe.”

And because vests wrap the weight around your body, it’s harder for you to dissipate heat.

Rucks allow for sweating to do its job. Air can flow over the sweat on the front of your body, leading to evaporative cooling.

6. Ease of Loading Correctly

In short

Vests are easier to “load” correctly because the weight is fixed in the same position and close to your body.

The details

Where you place the load is important when rucking. You want it in tight to your body.

This is obviously easier to do with a vest, which wraps the load around you.

Viada explained that rucks are a more nuanced device to fit and load right. You have to mess with straps, distribute the weight correctly, and more. He said:

Because of that nuance, it makes me say, okay, for most people, wear a vest. Vests are pretty much idiot proof, as long as you can breathe in the thing, the weight is going to be distributed more or less correctly.

If your pack is poorly loaded, with loose straps and weight hanging at the bottom, it might sway. And that could create movement problems as you ruck.

The fix

  • If you’re using a vest, just strap the thing on. No thought necessary.
  • If you’re using a GORUCK pack, place the weight in the weight sleeves. This is why GORUCK packs are great. They, too, are pretty much idiot-proof.
  • If you’re using a random pack from home and odd objects for weight, try to get the weight close to your back (rather than “flopping outward”).

7. Practicality

In short

Backpacks are more egalitarian and “normal” to wear in public. And you can pack them with water, snacks, and a jacket.

The details

This point echoes what the military researchers in point two found. But it’s more for a person who isn’t in the military.

Something I’ve pointed out time and time again is that rucking is wonderful because you already have what you need: A backpack and something that weighs something.

It’s training for everyone. The vast majority of people in this country have a backpack somewhere at home. No matter their age or income level.

Weight vests not so much. “Weight vests are a standalone piece of equipment,” said Kelly. “They only work in a small condition.” And they’re quite expensive.

Because backpacks are popular, they’re also far more normal to wear in public.

When you ruck in a weight vest, you get some strange looks. Even some alarmed looks, because weight vests look like bulletproof vests. It’s not ideal to walk around your neighborhood appearing like you’re preparing for some active shooter drill.

And here’s the other thing: you can pack snacks, jackets, and water in a ruck. You can also attach dog leashes to the hip belt, which is one of my top ten exercise hacks of all time.

8. Military and First Responder Work

In short

If you are a person who needs to wear a vest to not get shot, train using both a vest and ruck.

The details

Jason McCarthy put it best, “train how you fight.”

Military and first responders often have to wear vests. They should train in those vests so they’re better prepared for the real thing.

For those populations, a mix of exercise using a ruck and a vest seems like a good idea.

Quick conclusion

As I wrote above, that you carry weight is far more important than how you carry weight. Ruck any way you can. As Viada put it, “a lot of it comes down to ‘pick one.’

If you want a cheap, convenient method that works well for most people, most of the time no matter how far you go, rucking wins. It has more health and fitness, and practical advantages compared to using a vest. But use a vest if you want to use a vest.

Thanks for reading. Have fun, don’t die, ruck on.


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