Doing weighted vest workouts could be the secret to amping up your routine, no free weights required.
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woman doing a weighted vest workout
Photo: Hyperwear

You're probably used to walking and running — they're two of the simplest ways to get a workout in. And you might be equally as familiar with 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 walking, running, and working out with a weighted vest can add a strength element to your routine — sans gym. Here's how, plus two tough weighted vest workout options that'll seriously challenge you.

Weighted Workout Vests, Explained

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, a NASM-certified celebrity trainer in Los Angeles.

Benefits of Weighted Vest Workouts

Because weighted vests literally force you to carry extra weight on your body, they make any activity — from walking to running to doing 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, explains Swan. This can help improve your cardio capacity, muscular endurance, and overall strength, she says. Using a weighted vest is like exercising while holding dumbbells, but those dumbbells are dispersed across your torso in a piece of clothing. (BTW, here's the difference between muscular endurance and strength.)

"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.

And 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, too. (Plus, all the usual benefits of strength training.) Of course, while no exercises are really off-limits with a weighted vest, tossing one on doesn't automatically equal a better workout. (For example, 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 body weight, such as climbing stairs, biking, running, and total bodyweight workouts, says Swan.

How to Train with a Weighted Vest

Simply put, you want to challenge yourself. "You should experience some huffing and puffing, even if you're walking," says Vicki Harber, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Out with a friend? "You should be a bit breathless as you talk," says Harber. (And even if you're exercising solo, the talk test is a great way to gauge the intensity of your workout.)

Then, lean into each stride to increase momentum — it makes everything feel easier, even as you go faster. How far you lean depends on your pace. "Keep this forward-leaning position throughout your run or walk. It should almost feel like you have to take a step to catch yourself from falling," says Zika Rea, an exercise physiologist and co-founder of ZAP Endurance in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Also? Use your core. "All movement starts from your core, so it makes sense to keep it strong and engaged while you walk or run," says Ellie Herman, a Pilates master teacher and owner of Ellie Herman Pilates. To actively engage your abs, imagine zipping up a pair of jeans from your pubic bone to your navel and keeping them tight during the walk or run.

Pulling your toes up as you step can also help you recruit more leg muscles and propel yourself forward to go faster, explains Dixie Stanforth, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist in the department of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin. Another way to pick up speed: Bend your elbows 90 degrees and keep them close to you, swinging from your shoulders. "This speeds up your arms so the legs will follow," says Stanforth.

How to Pick a Weighted Vest

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. JSYK, your weighted workout vest 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.

When choosing your weight, start small. "This is all based on the individual, but I recommend starting off light and adding from there. The amount of weight varies from 5 pounds all the way up to 20, 50, 80 pounds and more. A vest of 5–10 pounds would be my recommendation for both HIIT training and running," advises Swan.

Like with any weight lifting, progression is always more beneficial than regression or risk of injury: "Think of using a weighted 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.

Not sure where to start? Begin by wearing 3 to 5 percent of your weight and increase by 2 to 5 percent every few weeks until you reach 20 percent to avoid injury, experts say.

Some great workout weight vest options include vests from HyperwearEverlast, and Tone Fitness, says Swan. (Check out the Best Weighted Running Vests for more expert picks.)

Hyperwear Hyper Vest PRO Unisex 10-Pound Adjustable Weighted Vest
$200.00
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Amazon
CAP Barbell Women's 30lb Weighted Vest
$79.00
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Amazon
Aduro Sport Weighted Vest Workout Equipment - 4, 6, 12, 20, 25, or 30lbs
$30.00
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Amazon

Weighted Vest Workouts to Try

When it comes to exercising with a weighted vest, you can't go wrong with walking, running, or simple bodyweight strength workouts. Try these two from Claire P. Thomas, a certified personal trainer and founder of CPT FIT Co. "I love wearing [a weight vest] to add a little more challenge to my walks, hikes, and bodyweight workouts," she says. If you need form tips, follow Thomas' guidance.

Lower-Body Weighted Vest Workout

How it works: Do the buy-in (aka what you need to complete before starting the main section of the workout), a 1-mile run — in the weighted vest, if possible. Then, do three rounds of the bodyweight circuit. Finally, do the buy-out (aka what you need to complete before finishing the workout), another 1-mile run, to finish.

Buy-in: Run 1 mile

Circuit (3 rounds): 

  • Single-Leg Explosive Deadlift + Lunge (5 reps per side)
  • Lateral Lunge + Lateral Kick (10 reps per side)
  • Jump Squat (15 reps)
  • Pop Jacks (10 reps)
  • Jump Lunges (10 reps per side)

Buy-out: Run 1 mile

Total-Body EMOM Weighted Vest Workout

How it works: Set a 24-minute timer. Switch exercises every minute on the minute (EMOM). Do as many reps as you can in 50 seconds, then give yourself 10 seconds to rotate to the next exercise and begin at the start of the following minute. You'll do 4 total rounds of the workout; do Circuit 1 on your first and third rounds, and Circuit 2 on your second and fourth rounds. Rest for 1 minute at the end of each circuit.

Circuit 1:

  • Triceps Dip
  • Jump Squat
  • Dumbbell Shoulders (presses, side, and front raise) or commandos (aka plank marches)
  • Sit-up (or any core exercise of choice)
  • Hill Sprint
  • Rest

Circuit 2:

  • Push-up
  • Forward Lunge
  • Dumbbell Shoulders (press, side, and front raise) or commandos
  • Sit-up (or any core exercise of choice)
  • Hill Sprint
  • Rest