If I had to start my fitness journey all over again, I’d focus on two things:
The Starting Strength Novice Program and rucking.
Between the strength and muscle I’d really quickly develop as well as the cardiovascular and psychophysical improvements I’d experience, I’d be ready to expand into any other fitness venture with a solid foundation.
However, I’d have to ask myself “does rucking build muscle?” and “does performing heavy bench presses, squats, and deadlifts build muscle?”
While the answers to both of these questions would prove to be “yes”, we’ll discuss how they differ in both scale and size (literally!) Read up before you trade your entire home gym for a GORUCK GR3 pack…as nice as it may be!
Table of Contents
Does Rucking Build Muscle?
The short answer is “yes”, rucking definitely builds muscle.
However, there is a lot of nuance with this answer.
If you’re familiar with concepts like the “Novice Effect”, you’re aware that for untrained individuals (people with little-to-no dedicated physical training background), any type of physical activity will yield some type of benefit, usually in the form of strength, muscle, or cardiovascular gains.
Looks like we’re off to a fast start (especially if you’re a novice trainee!)
What Muscles Does Rucking Work?
Never done any type of physical activity before and you ask yourself “does rucking build muscle?” before your first outing? You’ll be very pleased to find that you will build muscle all over simply by throwing on your ruck and walking around for a bit.
A bit more experienced and interested in an activity to supplement your currently mild training regimen? Depending on the weight in your ruck and the terrain you usually encounter during your rucking sessions, it is very possible that your trapezius muscles and other muscles in the upper back and shoulder region will grow in response to the heavy, chronic stressors being placed on them. If you’re traversing hilly terrain, your glutes will likely experience some growth and you should experience some general toning throughout your legs.
If you’re a regular lifter who engages in regular, heavy resistance training sessions, rucking probably isn’t going to contribute much to your overall muscle-building regimen. You are likely performing exercises that are much more efficient and direct at building strength and size in each respective muscle group. However, due to the long nature of most rucking sessions, the core muscles must be engaged for extended periods of time which can benefit them in ways that short, intense sets do not directly mimic.
How Does Rucking Build Muscle Differently than Lifting Weights
We briefly alluded to some differences in how lifting weights and rucking differ in their ability to build muscle. Let’s look at some other differences between how these two ventures build muscle.
When you ruck, you’re getting a pretty well-rounded workout that mainly takes the form of a mostly Zone 2 (or at times, Zone 3) cardio session with some overall muscle-building properties thrown in.
In contrast, most lifting sessions will have little in common with any type of dedicated, long-haul cardio session (even most CrossFit metcons are squarely in Zone 4) and will instead focus directly on targeting specific muscle groups with every exercise.
Generally speaking, a 45-minute, “full body” lifting session (with an assumed degree of intensity) will do much more muscle-building than a “standard” 90-to-120-minute ruck session.
This point is related to the previous one and largely relates to intention: if you ruck, your primary intention is not likely to build muscle (if this were the case, you would select an activity that was more conducive to your goal!)
Ruck as much and as far as you want to, you’re very unlikely to experience significant bicep growth, upper body strength, or power development from the activity. Meanwhile, performing bicep curls, bench presses, and power cleans are all effective ways to build targeted muscle, strength, and power in ways that rucking simply can’t.
Rucks are getting pretty impressive and in light of events/competitions like the GORUCK Games, many models are designed to accommodate big loads.
However, there is only so much weight that you’re ever going to be able to fit into your ruck, yet alone safely and comfortably walk around with.
Meanwhile, unless you’re Eddie Hall, it’s unlikely that you’re ever going to run out of space on your barbell or be unable to find big enough dumbbells to accommodate your lifting needs.
Muscle growth requires enough stress (weight) to occur. If you’re anything other than a lifting “novice”, it is unlikely that the 20,40, or even 60 pounds you can stuff into your ruck will be a sufficient load for significant muscle gain, even if you’re participating in more “dynamic” ruck workouts!
Most of the time when we’re talking about “rucking” we’re discussing walking around with a big, weighted sack on our backs. Sure, there are a multitude of exercises that are usually performed with some other implement (barbell, dumbbell, etc.) that can be performed with a ruck (Ex. ruck thrusters, ruck deadlifts), but these are much more niche. Also, due to the somewhat…complicated structure of rucks, these exercises can be more challenging to perform than their “traditional” counterparts.
There are a lot of effective exercises you can perform with just a dumbbell and some plates. Throw in dumbbells and kettlebells and you could go on forever without repeating an exercise (well…probably not, but you get the point). Soooooo many more exercise options when you branch out beyond the confines of your ruck.
Ultimately, the answer to your question “does rucking build muscle”” is a resounding yes (especially if you are untrained) and the answer to your question “what muscles does rucking build?” is “…many…” However, if you’re only focusing on muscle growth, you’re selling yourself short. In the next section, we’ll explore some of the more prominent benefits of rucking.
Other Benefits of Rucking
When I started this analysis, I didn’t intend to give rucking such a beatdown in relation to other forms of exercises and disciplines and it should be noted that these comparisons aren’t exactly “fair” (to a degree). I would assume that most readers would be pretty well aware that exercises specifically designed to achieve an objective will be better for the task than another exercise (like rucking) where many benefits are more of “bonuses” or “byproducts” of the venture.
…and with rucking, there are plenty of benefits and byproducts, indeed. Let’s take a look at some of the (many) benefits of rucking that make it such a well-rounded and beloved activity.
Improved Performance in Bodyweight Exercise Performance and Psychophysical Performance
Multiple (here and here) recent scientific studies exploring the effects of load-carrying during exercise have reported participants’ improved performance in baseline bodyweight exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, squat jumps).
These studies have also found improvements in the are of psychophysical performance (combined physical and mental aspects of training) with respect to the perceived levels of effort that participants needed to apply to the their training after weeks of following a load-carrying (rucking) fitness program.
Improved Aerobic Capacity
Another scientific study showed improved aerobic capacity from participants after the conclusion of a 10-week load-carrying training program. Male participants in particular experienced a 5.4 percent increase in their aerobic performance measures, although female participants did not experience significant improvements.
Improved Daily Physical Task Improvement in Ageing Populations
After reading Dr. Peter Attia’s “Outlive” book, we’re all for improving the physical “functional” performance measures of older people. Weighted “step training” has been shown to improve lower-limb power input in older (65+) populations by over 10 percent! This type of improvement is linked to prolonged independence outcomes and overall improved personal longevity.
Surprise, surprise; rucking burns a lot of calories! Let’s give a big “thank you” to the smart guys in the U.S. Army for running the numbers of showing exactly how many calories a “typical” soldier can expect to burn with different loads (ruck weights) and distances taken into consideration.
Not to be outdone, the experts at GORUCK have also developed some visuals showing caloric output during rucking with the additional lofty statement that “as a general rule, rucking burns 2x to 3x more calories than walking.”
Why We Ruck…
I fully understand that I may have broken some hearts (or at least pissed some people off) by pointing out some of the less-than-ideal ways in which rucking builds muscle.
However, I’m willing to bet that this information doesn’t come as a huge surprise to you.
You, like the vast majority of ruckers, are probably more interested in any (or all!) of the numerous benefits of rucking, of which some type of muscle growth happens to be one.
…in addition to social aspects/camaraderie, chance to enjoy beautiful scenery, clearness of mind it allows…and on…
Does rucking build muscle better than other ventures? Usually no.
Is rucking an excellent physical activity that will benefit you and your body in a number of other ways? Always yes.
Now, all you need is the right gear (check out our definitive ruck gear list) and some buddies to ruck with (check out another one of our articles on the best ruck cities in America) and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying all of the benefits of rucking we’ve covered today!