Doing crazy workouts with weight strapped to your body is cool.
Running with something loading you down is cool.
Heck, walking with a heavy load dangling from your back or shoulders is cool.
Is there a “best” weight-bearing apparatus to slip on to enable you to do all of these cool things?
Enter the ruck vs weighted vest debate!
Tackling Murph with a vest for the first time was a…humbling experience.
Tackling Chad 1000x in a heavy ruck for the first time…may have been harder.
Today, I want to share my experiences with rucks and weighted vests and to tally the final score of the ruck vs weighted vest throwdown.
(hint: it was a nail-biter; both are excellent in their own ways!)
Afterwards, you’ll know what to do when your own bodyweight just isn’t enough for the workouts and challenges you have in mind!
Table of Contents
What is a Ruck?
You ever seen one of those specials on the Discovery Channel on US Army Ranger training? You remember how those half-dead, half-emaciated guys were hauling around those YUGE bags on their backs?
Yeah, those are rucksacks (rucks). This is one I travel with when I want to get a ruck in while on the road.
Rucks have their origins in just about every Western military. German, Brit, and US elite infantry units have all heavily (ha!) employed the use of rucks throughout history.
Not every ruck is designed to carry a military campaign’s worth of provisions and munitions in it, though. Rucks come in a variety of sizes, including those on the “smaller” side.
Is there anything consistent between rucks?
Sure. A ruck is always going to be tough to carry.
You’re also always going to get a great workout from carrying one.
You can also count on your ruck to hold up through just about anything. If you find yourself inspired to take up rucking and want to save a few bucks by borrowing your kid’s backpack…just don’t.
Best Starter Rucks (and Plates!)
So…ya know…you don’t end up picking up one of your kid’s backpacks to use during your first rucking expedition, we’ve put together a short list of the best “starter rucks” for you. These are relatively inexpensive options to get you rucking quickly without chancing being seen in a Minions kid’s bag (using spelling books for weight!)
What are Rucks Used For?
As Rambo and his Special Forces friends have shown us, rucks were historically used by infantry soldiers to haul a lot of equipment. Oftentimes trekking long distances, rucks are carefully designed to support large loads while efficiently distributing the weight around the body.
In the civilian world, rucks are oftentimes employed by campers or those going on long hikes.
We’ve discussed at length the health and fitness benefits from hauling a ruck around on long marches.
“Rucking” as the discipline’s enthusiasts like to call it!
Benefits of the Ruck
For garage and home gym enthusiasts who aren’t ready to shell out much money on equipment, investing in a rucksack is an excellent alternative. A good ruck is only moderately expensive and it is easy to add weight by placing books, rocks, or any other cheap, heavy item inside.
Got any kind of decent trail and space to walk? Great! You can ruck, ruck, ruck until the cows come home and won’t have to spend a dime on a gym membership (although you’ll probably want to splurge a little on a good pair of rucking boots).
If your regular posture involves being hunched over, shoulders far out in front of your torso, rucking is going to fix your posture. The weight of the ruck on your back forces your shoulders back. If you want to last for any considerable distance, you’re going to have to stand up straight.
Can load a lot of weight
Rucks can handle a lot.
Like, a lot of weight.
With a ruck, the sky is the limit in terms of the amount of weight you can add. You never really have to worry about “outgrowing” your ruck like you might other types of weighted apparatuses.
As long as you have stuff to load it with, your rucking workouts will never be “easy” for you.
(that’s a good thing)
Walking for long distances, particularly in hilly or mountainous settings, is harder than you think. The whole 10,000 steps a day fad definitely has some merit to it.
Now imagine those 10,000 steps with your 6-year-old son or nephew hanging from your back.
Rucking isn’t going to give you the same cardiovascular endurance that a marathon runner has or a CrossFit guy who does long HIIT WODs. Instead, you’ll develop more “everyday endurance” to help you endure longer periods of activity.
How legit is this endurance? Let’s just say that renowned longevity expert. Dr. Peter Attia, employs rucking as the cornerstone for endurance training. His acclaimed book, Outlive, discusses his preferred rucking routine (hint: you’re really going to want to load that ruck up!)
Every gym has that guy (who isn’t in the military) who shows up with a ruck. Most of the time he only has, like, an old energy drink can and some dirty gym shorts in it.
Is the ruck really necessary to transport that large and precious cargo?
I shouldn’t laugh at this guy, though; at least he is putting his ruck to good use!
Rucks are excellent choices for extended overseas vacations when you don’t really care how glamorous your luggage looks.
When I first moved to Europe, an Army guy just happened to be on my flights to and from Frankfurt (6 months apart…imagine that!). Dude had no hand luggage and told me he just checked his ruck. It was more than enough to fit all of his gear for his months-long deployment.
In a pinch, if (when) your kid’s backpack busts, he can look hard hauling his Algebra and History books to school in your ruck! You better believe this fact is worth something in the ruck vs weighted vest showdown!
Downsides of the ruck
There is a reason why CrossFit WODs usually call for a weighted vest to be used. Try running for any considerable distance, doing a set of pull-ups, or climbing a rope in a ruck.
It’s really hard.
The ruck doesn’t move with you; it just sits on your back as a dead weight.
Any kind of movement involving mobility used to be “out” with your ruck.
In modern times, though, this isn’t always the case. I present you with workout 2 of the 2023 CrossFit Semifinal competition.
Athletes had to do a muscle-up/ring dip complex, pistols, and burpees in these rucks!
Guess that whole “limits mobility” excuse is out!
Getting stuck with a bad ruck
If your first ruck happens to be a less-than-ideal ruck, you probably won’t realize the problems you are experiencing with it. You’ll simply think “this is rucking”.
What is a Weighted Vest?
A weighted vest attaches tightly to the chest and upper torso, allowing athletes to strap small, compact weights to themselves. A number of small pouches are arranged around the vest where specially-designed weight plates can be inserted.
Pouches are located on both sides of the vest so weight can be evenly distributed around the upper body. The compact design and vest flexibility allows for dynamic movements such as pull-ups, muscle-ups, and rope climbs to be completed (albeit with drastically-increased difficulty) while wearing the weighted vest.
You’ve probably seen a few overly-ambitious people around sporting weighted vests. In most cases, they are pretty forgettable and come off as more of a novelty.
Then you have something like Murph.
The Murph workout is a famous (most famous?) CrossFit Hero WOD. It specifically honors the memory of United States Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy and more specifically honors all men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. Every CrossFit gym around the world does Murph on Memorial Day.
Murph is hard; 100 push-ups, 200 sit-ups, and 300 squats…with one-mile run “bookends” to start and end the WOD.
What’s harder? The Rx version of Murph calls for a 20-pound weight vest to be worn for the duration of the workout.
(there are plenty of other Murph options if you’d rather tackle a less intense version on your first try!)
That is putting a vest to good use!
Now, you’re not going to be able to use your vest as a backup laptop bag. My apologies.
However, if you’re planning on doing any CrossFit WODs involving additional bodyweight resistance, a weighted vest is by far your best option.
Best Starter Weighted Vests
As with rucks, weighted vests come in a variety of “levels”. Granted, there is a bit less disparity between vests (unless you want one that’ll hold, like, 150 pounds) but there are definitely some clear winners for beginners who want to get walking or running in a weighted vest!
What are Weighted Vest Used For?
Weighted vests are used for one thing and for one thing only: adding additional “bodyweight” to make workouts more challenging.
Benefits of the Weighted Vest
The main benefit (or “downside”, depending on how far into your workout you are!) of a weighted vest is the increased challenge it brings to workouts. Every movement done with a weighted vest requires more effort, more stamina, and greater muscle recruitment.
Related to this previous point, weighted vests add a degree of challenge to workouts. For certain exercises (ex. pull-ups) or WODs (ex. Murph), adding more reps simply does not create the same level of difficulty or stimulus that the weight of a vest does.
In some cases, adding resistance via a heavier barbell or dumbbell is not practical or would create an undesirable stimulus.
Weight vests are designed to add challenge by making the wearer artificially “heavier”. The construction of the vest itself is not intended to contribute to the challenge it provides!
Most exercises can safely be performed while wearing a weight vest. In a CrossFit WOD, athletes can seamlessly transition between exercises without having to remove their vest. Try this with a heavy rucksack hanging off your back or with a dip belt strapped around your waist!
Downsides of the Weighted Vest
Weight vests are not multi-functional; you buy a weight vest to use it for weight vest workouts and weight vest exercises.
Limited Weight Selection
Vest weight pouches are designed to hold a very specific number of very specifically-designed weight plates. As such, it is difficult to add additional weight over a weighted vest’s “maximum” capacity, yet alone to find the weight plates to add!
Not necessary all the time
I get it; a lot of WODs, especially Hero WODs call for a weight vest to be worn. You want the challenge and you want to “properly” honor the memory of the WOD’s hero.
But this doesn’t mean you have to be a hero, yourself.
Too often I’ve seen people who would probably have a lot of trouble with Scaled Murph strapping on a vest to attempt the main event. Predictably, these people are still off in push-up land while I’m heading home or have simply cut a lot of reps and running from the workout.
Most people will benefit from wearing a weighted vest for walking, rucking, and certain other exercises.
Most people do not need a weighted vest for any CrossFit WOD.
You can carry a weighted vest’s specially-designed plates/weights with your vest.
And….that’s about it.
Ruck vs Weighted Vest: Comparison
The Ruck vs Weighted Vest matchup may not be the most anticipated showdown in fitness equipment history. However, for fitness accessories that make such close and intimate contact with the body…there is a lot on the line with this one!
Ruck vs Weighted Vest: Comfort
Assuming the same amount of (relatively low) weight in each item, the weighted vest is likely to be more comfortable. With the weight closely sitting evenly on the chest and upper back you might forget that you’re not just wearing a heavy shirt.
In contrast, the ruck really shines when it is tasked with doing what it was designed for: hauling heavy weight. Weighted vests become exponentially more uncomfortable at higher weights. Rucks feel heavier but the design of the bags ensure that more of the entire body chips in to help.
We’ll call this one a draw.
Ruck vs Weighted Vest: Uses
The ruck can be used for almost anything that a large, non-wheeled piece of luggage can be used for.
A weighted vest can be used for…doing weighted vest exercises.
Ruck vs Weighted Vest: Flexibility
Any CrossFit movement you can do, you can do in a weighted vest.
During the 2018 CrossFit Games, the Elite athletes even did a bunch of CrossFit movements you probably can’t do in weighted vests!
In contrast, while the GoRuck events certainly look tough, notice that the participants remove their rucks for the…”dynamic” exercises they perform.
To be fair, I think Mat Fraser would have struggled with “The BattleGround” in a ruck (actually….nah; he woulda made it work). For the “average” athlete i.e not Mat Fraser or a participant in the 2023 CrossFit Semifinals, dynamic movements in a ruck will be…less than possible.
Ruck vs Weighted Vest: Capacity
This one is tricky because you can find a bunch of articles about guys loading up a 150-pound weighted vest. At the same time, the articles talking about Army ruck marches with a 35-pound bag are yawners.
There are special weighted vests that can haul a lot of weight, but standard vests will top out at between 20 and 40 pounds.
In contrast, those “easy” marches with 35-pound bags generally go on for over 13 miles!
Tough to call here so we’re gonna say it’s a draw.
Ruck vs Weighted Vest: Cost
Meanwhile, the highest-end rucks can easily slip into the $400-500 range. Depending on your preferences (and if your ruck is going to double as your travel bag), this price point might be perfectly acceptable.
In general, weighted vests will be slightly cheaper than rucks of comparable quality.
Ruck vs Weighted Vest Champion: Weighted Vest!
Unlike the bumper plates vs iron plates showdown from before, the ruck vs weighted vest match-up was a nailbiter! If you put in the work, you’re going to reap the benefits with whichever item you ultimately go with.
As you make your final decision, ask yourself three questions:
“Do I mainly want to ruck or go on extended walks?” If so, go with a ruck.
“Do I mainly want to do CrossFit?” If so, go with a weighted vest.
“Do I want something to transport my gear in?” If so, go with a ruck.
…somewhere, every ruck on Earth is screaming for a re-match!
Peter Attia does an excellent job of providing a basic breakdown of his rucking regimen as well as breaking down the more in-depth benefits of rucking. Check out our article reviewing his outstanding book where the topic is discussed.
Also, if you want to learn more about the benefits of walking and running in weighted vests…we got ya!