Is Rucking Bad for Your Back? Our Answer…

Whether you’ve just started rucking, or been rucking for a while, chances are you’ve experienced some back pain. And if you haven’t yet fallen in love with this cardio-muscle building exercise, it may be because you are cautious… asking yourself the question, “is rucking bad for your back?” 

This is a valid concern to have, and one I had as well when I started with my rucking workouts. The idea of carrying around a lot of weight sounded quite risky.  But you should no be discouraged!

We have an authoritative answer for you on whether or not rucking is bad for your back, as well as tips to ensure your back is protected when you walk or hike with a weighted rucksack. 

Is Rucking Bad for Your Back?  

Rucking isn’t bad for your back. When you ruck properly, it’s actually safe for your back because it strengthens your back muscles and core.

To keep your back protected while rucking, you should maintain proper posture above all else. Also be sure to select the right amount of weight and ensure that it is properly distributed.  

Other tips include using a hip belt, a backpack with wide and non-flexible shoulder straps and putting on and taking off the heavy backpack the right way.      

But more on that soon.

In a podcast episode on rucking, Dr Stuart McGill, a Professor Emeritus of Spine Biomechanics at a Canadian university, stated that rucking is a good workout if you have back/spine issues (and even when you have a healthy back, of course!). 

When wearing a weighted rucksack, the load on your spine is reduced because the backpack is like an extra muscle, pulling your spine into the right position so there’s less lumbar disc compression

But if you ruck while leaning forward and practice other bad rucking habits, your back will, unfortunately, suffer.  

6 Must-Do Practices to Keep Your Back Safe When Rucking 

When rucking, you want to keep your back safe and not continuously wonder, “is rucking bad for your back?” Same goes for your knees.

These must-do practices will help you keep your back feeling great and injury-free when you ruck (or walk, hike or run):

1. Maintain Proper Posture 

The right posture when rucking goes a long way to preventing back injuries and ensuring there’s as little stress and compression on your spinal column and discs as possible. 

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Rucking isn’t bad for your back. When you ruck properly, it’s actually safe for your back because it strengthens your back muscles and core.

The US Army Public Health Center has found that proper posture during rucking and the use of a hip belt helps prevent back pain. The same study also states that good posture and a hip belt reduces the heavy load on your back by at least 30%.  

Remember the SELF acronym when you ruck: 

  • Shoulders back 
  • Eyes straight ahead 
  • Lean forward VERY slightly (helps engage your core) 
  • Point your feet Forward 

If you lean forward more and more, then it’s best to decrease the weight you carry with you when rucking. 

2. Choose the Right Rucking Weight  

I like to think I can do more than I really can, so the first few times I went rucking, I carried a rucksack that was a bit too heavy for me. 

But #overachiever and all that. I sprained some muscles in my back. It took a while to recover. 

When I rucked again, I made sure to research how much weight I should be carrying for my body weight. Following all of the must-dos for rucking since then, I haven’t injured my back again. 

You can also avoid back injuries when rucking by choosing the right weight to carry. Start with a ruck plate that’s 10-15% of your bodyweight or one that weighs 10-20 pounds.  

Don’t increase how much you carry too fast. Remember, and this is something I learned the hard way, 10 pounds may feel light when you start rucking that morning. However, after a few miles, that 10 pounds feels like it weighs 30 pounds or more as you get tired. 

So rather focus on ensuring your posture is in tip-top shape from the start of the ruck till the end. Build your strength and improve your endurance, and then gradually increase how much weight you ruck with

3. Ensure Correct Weight Distribution 

Incorrect weight distribution can also cause back pain and injuries. There are two considerations with distributing weight for rucking

  1. How the ruck weight is distributed on your body 
  2. How the weight is distributed within the rucksack 

When rucking, you want to carry the weight close to your body and as high as possible in the rucksack. Your body will move into an unnatural position and your posture will be poor if the weight is low in the ruck and further away from your body. 

Ruckers recommend using a ruck plate for rucking because you can place this weight close to your body

If you are rucking with other items in your rucksack, pack the heavy items to the top of the ruck so they are closer to your body. Place any items you need access to during the ruck in front pockets so you don’t need to go digging through your rucksack, which means you may accidentally mess up how you originally packed it for the weight to be well distributed. 

4. Use a Hip Belt 

A hip belt helps lighten the load as it distributes the rucksack weight more proportionally around your waist and whole body. 

How? Well, the belt distributes the weight of the backpack between your back and shoulders, which eases strain from your shoulders and back. 

I make sure my hip belt is tight and comfortable, so it helps keep the rucksack close to my body

5. Get Wide and Non-Flexible Shoulder Straps for Your Rucksack

The right shoulder straps on your rucksack need to support your posture and back. The straps should also prevent shoulder and upper-back pain

Ensuring your rucksack or backpack has the correct shoulder straps means investing in proper gear for rucking. A 2016 study analyzed the benefits of wearing a backpack with flexible versus non-flexible shoulder straps. 

The study found that the participants wearing a backpack with non-flexible, wide shoulder straps experienced less shoulder, neck, and back discomfort. These participants also had a better posture

A 2017 study found that wider shoulder straps help distribute the weight of the rucksack better. 

So, when carrying a heavy load when rucking, choose a backpack that has non-flexible, wide (3.14 inch) shoulder straps. These straps also need to be padded for comfort

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Rucking is a good workout if you have back/spine issues

If the shoulder straps aren’t well strapped and padded, they’ll rub on your shoulders (which is painful) or your shoulder area will become numb. Constant compression from shoulder straps can cause blisters, chafing, bruising, and nerve injury (all of which are ouch, and nerve injuries could be permanent).        

6. Correctly Put on and Take off Your Rucksack 

This is maybe the part about rucking I’m not so fond of. I also injured my back at the start of my rucking journey when I incorrectly put on and took off my rucksack. This is also where the biggest risk for a back injury lies. 

I used to pull up the heavy load, swing it around my body to get the pack onto my shoulders. And after a ruck or when it was break time, I’d flop the rucksack to the ground with no regard for posture. 

Since then, I’ve learned how to properly put on and take off my ruck backpack. Follow these steps to prevent back injury when putting on your rucksack

  1. Remember to move with purpose when you put your weighted backpack on your shoulders and when you remove the ruck. 
  2. When you need to put on your ruck, don’t round your back but brace your core
  3. While lifting the ruck, move your dominant foot forward about half a step or less. Place the ruck on your upper thigh
  4. Place one arm through the one shoulder strap, then carefully shift the ruck over to your other shoulder and place the second arm through the other strap. 
  5. Make sure the straps are well-strapped and tighten your hip belt.  

To take off your ruck, reverse these movements (starting from step #4), brace your core, and move with purpose.   

Final Thoughts on “Is Rucking Bad for Your Back” 

Generally speaking, rucking is safe for your back and can even benefit your back if you follow all the tips in this guide.  That said, things can also go wrong if you don’t take the proper precautions.

It’s easy to sustain a back injury from a lack of correct posture during rucking, wrongly picking up and taking off your ruck, carrying a weight that’s too heavy for you, unequal weight distribution, thin or unpadded shoulder straps and not using a hip belt.

Injuries can most often be avoided, which means it makes little sense not to be armed with all of the safety measures and guidelines.    After all, you wouldn’t jump out of an airplane with no backup chute, would you?

Trust me on this… spend the extra 5-10 minutes getting yourself properly situated and you’ll have an enjoyable and low-risk rucking experience. And if you are new to rucking and eager to get started, read our authoritative beginner’s guide to rucking.

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