Everything you need to know about whether it's worth it to wear your weights instead of carry them.
You're probably used to wearing a vest while endurance running or as an added layer of warmth during the chillier months, but a weighted vest? Not so much.
Yet this underrated fitness tool can boost your calorie burn and add a strength element to your routine—sans gym. Here's how.
What Exactly Is a Weighted Vest for Workouts?
Weighted vests are exactly what they sound like: Workout vests with small weights in them. "Most vests sit over the shoulders, chest, back, and core, like a vest you would wear under a suit or a life vest for swimming," says Astrid Swan, celebrity trainer in Los Angeles. (Astrid knows a thing or two about weight training, BTW. She shared these six weighted abs exercises for a strong, sculpted core.)
The Benefits of Exercising with a Weighted Vest
Because weighted vests literally force you to carry extra weight on your body, they make any activity—from walking to running to pull-ups—a lot harder. Since you're moving more weight, you'll need to exert more effort to perform any exercise or activity compared to using just your body, says Swan. This can help improve your cardio capacity, muscular endurance, and overall strength, she says. (BTW, here's the difference between muscular endurance and strength.) It's like exercising while holding dumbbells, but those dumbbells are dispersed across your torso in a piece of clothing.
You can use a weighted vest to increase the load on bodyweight moves such as squats, lunges, push-ups, and pull-ups to increase the demand on your muscles and induce strength- and endurance-related muscle gains. (Plus, all the usual benefits of strength training.) Unlike dumbbells, however, weighted vests keep your hands free—allowing you to do unconventional movement patterns and cardio blasts without decreasing the extra resistance, says Swan.
Thought burpees were hard? Try them with a weighted vest on. Ditto for lower-body plyometric moves like squat jumps and switch lunges.
Also, if you're deconditioned or out of shape, simply wearing a weighted vest while walking can be a way to increase calorie burn without cranking up the intensity too much. Researchers at the University of New Mexico asked untrained adult women to walk on a flat treadmill at 2.5 mph while wearing a vest weighing about 15 percent of their body weight. Women wearing the weighted vest burned about 12 percent more calories compared with the women who were not wearing a vest, according to the study, which was conducted for the American Council on Exercise.
"You'll also improve your cardiovascular endurance from carrying the extra weight while working out," says Swan. Wearing a vest will make cardio feel more challenging—and when you train without the vest, you'll be faster and more conditioned, she explains. In fact, runners who warmed up by doing strides (in this case, 10-second sprints) while wearing a weighted vest showed improvements in speed and performance during a treadmill test immediately after, according to a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.
A Few Words of Caution
Before you go crazy with weighted moves, take note: "If you're struggling with form, endurance, or strength with the current training program you're doing, you are not ready to add a weighted vest," says Swan. Master the bodyweight version of whatever move you're doing first, then you can up the ante with more resistance from a vest. Like any exercise, "if you end up pushing too much, the stress could leave you with an injury," says Swan. "Continue to excel in your current program and don't be discouraged." (Check your form on basic strength-training moves here.)
While no exercises are really off limits with a weighted vest, tossing one on doesn't automatically equal a better workout. (Ex: wearing a weighted vest during yoga or spin class likely isn't worth it.) Reserve it for exercise where you're responsible for moving your bodyweight, like climbing stairs, biking, running, and total bodyweight workouts, says Swan.
And, like with most strength training, don't do back-to-back workouts wearing a weighted vest. Aim for about one or two days a week to start, and spread out the days, like Monday and Thursday, suggests Swan. "Once you feel you have built up the tolerance to train with the vest, I would not do more than four days a week, no matter the level of athleticism," she says. Because it does put some stress on the joints, it's best to vary workouts and not use the weighted vest each day. (Related: How Often Should You Do Heavy Weight Lifting Workouts?)
Plus, don't forget to rest. "I always recommend my clients take a full day of rest [per week] to let the body heal and muscles grow. Everybody has different goals and different starting off points—keep this in consideration when incorporating a weighted vest into your workouts," she says.
How to Train In a Weighted Vest
So you want to incorporate a weighted vest into your workout: How do you know which one to get?
When choosing your weight, start small. "This is all based on the individual, but I recommend starting off light and adding from there," says Swan. "The amount of weight varies from 5 pounds all the way up to 20, 50, 80 pounds and more. A vest of 5 to 10 pounds would be my recommendation for both HIIT training and running."
Like with any weight lifting, progression is always more beneficial than regression or risk of injury: "Think of using a weight vest like you would pick out dumbbells. If you no longer feel challenged, up the weight. Start with an additional 5 pounds and continue from there," she says.
While some brands only offer unisex, one-size-fits-all vests, others offer different sizes or adjustable straps to ensure minimal movement while you're working out. (They should fit snugly and not bounce around.) Many allow you to insert or remove the weights (usually small sandbags or steel bars) to change the overall load. Not sure where to start? Some great options include vests from Hyperwear, Zeyu Sports, Everlast, and Tone Fitness, says Swan.