Mike Prevost: Ruck Training Programs – PART 2

In Part One of this series on ruck training, I covered the research pertinent to real-world rucking and the efficacy of different training modalities. Part Two presents two programs: The first is more complete and is closer to optimal. The second, “80% solution” program, is a minimalist program for those with minimal time to train. It is primarily a maintenance program, designed to maintain fitness. It is possible to improve, and certainly possible to maintain performance on this minimalist program, but it is not optimal. It will do the job if you have very little training time available.

Strength Considerations
Strength coach Dan John likes to say that the body is not segmented, it is one flexible piece. A training program that is based on that philosophy is movement based.

Strength training is loaded movement.

In this type of program, movement is more important than loading. Loading is important, but we never load bad movement. Movement quality is first, loading is second. There are essentially six basic human movements:

  1. Upper body vertical push
  2. Upper body horizontal push
  3. Upper body pull (vertical or horizontal)
  4. Hip hinge
  5. Squat
  6. Core / carries under movement (This is an integration movement that combines many of the above.)

This type of training program will involve performing just a few high-value movements, and training the whole body in each workout, two or three days per week. With good exercise choices, this can be achieved with just a handful of exercises. The key is to pick big, whole body movement exercises (i.e., standing overhead press with a barbell), rather than isolated, segmented movements (i.e., seated dumbbell lateral raises).

This is not a bodybuilding program in which we are trying to isolate muscle groups. This is an athletic program, where we are trying to train movements.

The graphic below illustrates the basic loading plans prescribed by the National Strength and Conditioning Association:

For most tactical athletes, the most important loading plan for our purposes is going to be the Muscular Strength block. Emphasize that quality over all others. In reality, both strength and hypertrophy will result from either loading scheme. The “bread and butter” of most productive strength training programs is sets of five repetitions, done with 2-3 minutes rest between sets, using basic, big movement exercises (i.e., standing military press, squats, deadlifts). Very skinny athletes might consider spending some time focusing on eating big and hypertrophy loading before moving to strength. This could be done in a four to six week block, before beginning the muscular strength phase. Alternatively, one training session per week could focus on hypertrophy and the others strength.

The basic ruck strength training program consists of one big movement exercise for each of the six basic movements, performed as 3-5 sets of five repetitions, loaded as “sets across” done two times per week on non-consecutive days. The goal is to lift heavy with good form.

Ruck Program Overview:
Monday:  Four movements: squat, vertical push, pull, core
Tuesday: Run
Wednesday: Conditioning
Thursday: Ruck
Friday: Four movements: hip hinge, horizontal push, pull, core
Saturday: Ruck

Endurance Considerations
In a classic endurance training program, progressive overload is achieved by manipulating intensity and volume (distance). In the case of running programs, intensity is achieved by running faster. The situation for ruck training is a bit different. Running speeds can vary from a 4:00 mile to a 13:00 mile. For ruck marches, the range of paces is not that great (15-20:00 mile). It is not advised to run with a ruck in training. Therefore, intensity is generally achieved by adding weight, rather than speed.

We generally employ two types of training, endurance rucks and intensity rucks. Endurance rucks are done as increasing duration rucks with up to 30% bodyweight. As with running programs, the distance should not be increased more than 10% per week. Intensity rucks are done as increasing weight rucks, done as intervals, with up to 70% bodyweight. The load should be increased gradually. The target speed in both cases is 4 mph if on ideal terrain. The basic ruck program consists of two or three runs plus a ruck or one or two runs plus two rucks. The rucks alternate between endurance and intensity rucks, with intensity rucks no more than once per week.

Rucks should be done at least weekly. You may substitute a run for the Thursday ruck if it will be logistically difficult to get in a second ruck. Although the research literature has not sorted out the training frequency issue yet, the principle of specificity dictates that rucking, rather than running, would be optimal. However, the research is clear that significant improvements are possible with one weekly ruck, if supplemented with a running program. If training for all ruck distances (short and long), alternate endurance and intensity sessions or include both during the week.

The endurance sessions should focus on increasing duration with a fixed load (i.e., 20-30% of your bodyweight). Because these rucks are relatively light, aim for 4 mph or a 15:00 minute mile pace. Go faster if you can, but do not run.

The intensity sessions should focus on adding load for shorter, interval focused workouts (i.e., three or four intervals of 10-15 minutes with 2-5 minutes rest). The interval times can be increased, as well as the number of intervals. However, the emphasis is on increasing the loading, not the duration. Do not sacrifice loading for more duration. Start with a load that is about 10 pounds heavier than your endurance ruck day and gradually increase the load over time. Supplement the rucks with one or two runs per week.

Strength Training
Any reasonable, whole body strength program will work as long as it includes the six fundamental human movement patterns (vertical push, horizontal push, pull, squat, hip hinge, core).

The program that I tested at the US Naval Academy (with good results) is provided as a sample program. This is a simple strength training program. When you are training for multiple qualities (i.e., strength and endurance), your strength training program needs to be simple, but . . . Simple does not mean easy.

Push hard and use meaningful loads (with good form). On the strength days, you should focus on heavy lifts and the 3-8 repetition range. Varying the repetition range within this bracket makes sense. Sometimes you should focus on heavy singles and doubles or heavy triples, and other times you should use lighter weights (but still heavy) for 5-8 reps. The loading should be “wavy.” This can be done rather randomly as you feel, or systematically. Pick one exercise (3-5 sets are about right) for each movement. If you are doing singles, you may do more sets (i.e., 10 X 1). Don’t rush through these workouts. Take plenty of rest to ensure that you can move big weights with proper form. Heavy ab work belongs on the strength days as well: ¼ get-ups with a big kettlebell, hanging leg raises, hard style sit-ups, loaded carries, etc. Wednesday will consist of metabolic conditioning (METCON).

The most effective exercises for these movements are below. Those with an * are the best of the best.

Add a short (5 minute) stretching session after the workout. Focus on shoulders, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, chest and gluteus.

Conditioning (METCON)
Wednesdays are all about high rep ballistics (swings, snatches, cleans, jerks) and METCON. Barbell Olympic lifts are a risky way to do METCON. Kettlebell or dumbbell variants are much less risky. Save the barbell Olympic lifts for the strength sessions. “High rep” in this context means 10-20. The conditioning effect will come from keeping your rest intervals brief. Drive your heart rate up and keep it there. Always use perfect form. Never compromise movement quality for effort. Note that the sessions are brief, about 10 minutes. High-quality, brief sessions are best for METCON. Some examples for Wednesday are below. Feel free to create your own with these principles in mind.

Sample METCON sessions

You get the idea . . . These are whole body, “strength integration” movements. Feel free to create your own. When you are done with this short workout, spend 10-15 minutes stretching from head to toe. Focus on shoulders, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, chest, and gluteus. You might also add some foam roller work. This part is just as important as your workout. Maintaining joint mobility is essential for long term joint health.

Complete Ruck Training Program
These are sample programs only. Use the strength exercise table from the ruck section to design your own.
There are many popular strength training programs that can be used in this context (i.e., Starting Strength, the Texas method, Wendler’s 5, 3, 1, Westside, 5 X 5 and more). The strength training portion can be reduced to twice per week without losing that much. This would be especially appropriate when time becomes scarce due to operational commitments.

The purpose of the sample program is to give you a template to work with. If logistic concerns make twice per week rucking difficult, the Thursday ruck can be replaced by a steady paced run. In that case, alternate long rucks and intensity rucks on Saturday.

One run is a tempo interval run. The tempo intervals should be a minimum of 5 minutes (i.e., 5-15 minutes) and should be run at 10K race pace. The second run (which is optional) is a steady paced distance run. Try to increase the duration over time. Some unstructured intervals can be added to the distance run but do not overdo it. If time is an issue, hill sprints can be substituted for the distance run if you keep the rest intervals short.

Note: Alternate weeks 1 and 2. Intensity rucks can occasionally be replaced by a run if you need to recover.

Sample Ruck Plan
Note: Go fast without running on the rucks. The idea is to move swiftly, but efficiently with a heavy load. Do not run, ever. If you experience any aches or pains, drop the load and build back up slowly.

Note: If you are experienced and are currently training with a ruck, you can start somewhere after week 1. Where you start depends on your current condition. Highly conditioned individuals might start with week 20 and may move beyond 55% of bodyweight.

How fast should you go? The excerpt below is from a US Army pamphlet on preparing for Special Forces training. It compares ruck march time with pass rates. A good goal is to be able to achieve a 15-minute mile pace for 4 miles with a 45+ pound ruck.

Achieving this standard with a 55-pound ruck would be a notable achievement. A 54-minute time is going to take faster than a 14-minute mile pace. Shorter individuals are not going to be able to walk that fast without breaking into a jog, which is not advised.

Once you can sustain between a 14 and 15-minute per mile pace, progress by adding weight (intensity rucks) or distance (long rucks), rather than going faster for any loads over 30% bodyweight. You would not want to run with anything over 30% bodyweight, and even then should be cautious about limiting distance and introducing it slowly. If you are going to be expected to run with a heavy ruck during a testing event, save it for that test. If you train for rucking properly, you will be able to run with your ruck when necessary.

Ruck Maintenance Program
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your work. This example is for the busy athlete who has very little time to train but wants to sustain, and possibly improve performance. Ideally, prior to starting this program you will have spent some time with the more complete program and built significant ruck fitness.

This maintenance program is adequate to maintain performance and some may see improvements. This program is not optimal. It is a compromise. If you have limited time, you cannot expect optimal results. However, with smart choices, much can be achieved with minimal time invested. The 80% solution training program consists of:

Strength Training: One big movement exercise (see list below) performed as several sets, done twice weekly (i.e., Mon and Thurs)

Strength exercises (pick one, load heavy):

  • Powercleans from the floor – 4 sets of 5 reps
  • Squat clean from the floor – 4 sets of 5 reps
  • Heavy kettlebell swings – 4 sets of 15 reps.
  • Barbell thrusters – 4 sets of 5-8 reps
  • Farmers walk – 4 sets of 20-30 seconds
  • Suitcase carry – 4 sets per side of 20-30 seconds
  • Snatches – 4 sets of 5 reps
  • Clean and press – 4 sets of 5 reps

Rucking: Progressive ruck done once per week. Increase load and distance over time. Alternate a distance ruck and an intensity ruck. Distance rucks are progressively longer rucks with 25-30% of your bodyweight. Intensity rucks are done with heavier loading (40-50% of bodyweight) and are done as intervals (i.e., 3 X 15 minutes with 2-5 minutes rest each interval).

Running: The running program consists of running twice per week on non-ruck days. One run should be a steady paced run and one run should consist of tempo intervals (i.e., 5 minutes easy, 10 minutes hard, 5 minutes easy, 10 minutes hard, 5 minutes easy)

This simple plan will sustain fairly high-level performance if a reduction in training time/frequency is required, or it can build performance if not much training time is available (especially in deconditioned individuals).

A big movement exercise like cleans from the floor will load the most important upper and lower body movements necessary to carry a heavy ruck, and the weekly rucks provide a very specific fitness stimulus. This simple program is not optimal, but it will easily maintain high-level performance that was previously achieved with a more complete program and it will certainly lead to considerable improvement in untrained soldiers. If you have minimal time to train, it is the 80% solution. Viable substitutes for cleans would be heavy farmers walks, or heavy suitcase carries, and heavy kettlebell swings or any of the exercises in the list above. An extra run thrown in once or twice per week would also help (though an extra ruck would be better). If the run is short, make it hard (think intervals or hill sprinting). A sample weekly schedule is below:

Mike Prevost holds a PhD in exercise physiology from Louisiana State University. He specialized in muscle physiology and metabolism. He has trained athletes for many different sports including triathlon, ultra-running, surfing, power lifting, bodybuilding, mixed martial arts, football, basketball and more. After finishing his PhD, he took a commission in the U. S. Navy as an Aerospace Physiologist in the Navy Medical Service Corps.  He trained thousands of aviators and aircrew on survival techniques, physiology, and human performance. He also served as the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the U. S. Naval Academy, where he performed physiological testing of athletes to improve performance. He has taught Exercise Physiology, Strength and Conditioning Laboratory and Anatomy and Physiology Laboratory at Loyola Marymount University. He has over 25 years of experience in working with athletes.

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