Doing weighted vest workouts could be the secret to amping up your routine, no free weights required.

By Isadora Baum and Holly St. Lifer
Updated November 24, 2020
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Photo: Hyperwear

You're probably used to walking and running — they are two of are the simplest ways to get a workout in. And you're probably 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 boost your calorie burn and add a strength element to your routine — sans gym. Here's how, including two tough weighted vest workouts that'll seriously challenge you.

What Exactly Is a Weighted Workout Vest?

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 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 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 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.) Using a weighted vest is like exercising while holding dumbbells, but those dumbbells are dispersed across your torso in a piece of clothing.

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 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. One older study from the University of Iowa in Iowa City also found that people who wore a vest that was about 20 percent of their body weight burned 14 percent more calories. Translation: a 140-pound woman might burn about 30 more calories on a 45-minute walk.

"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. (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 bodyweight, like climbing stairs, biking, running, and total bodyweight workouts, says Swan.

How to Train with a Weighted Vest

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.

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," says Zika Palmer, an exercise physiologist, and co-founder of ZAP Fitness in Blowing Rock, NC. "It should almost feel like you have to take a step to catch yourself from falling."

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, owner of Ellie Herman Pilates Studios and creator of the Walk-ilates system, which combines walking and 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 in 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. (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.

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 five pounds all the way up to 20, 50, 80 pounds and more. A vest of five 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 weighted vest like you would pick out dumbbells. If you no longer feel challenged, up the weight. Start with an additional five pounds and continue from there," she says.

Not sure where to start? Begin by wearing three to five percent of your weight (for a 140-pound woman, that's four to seven pounds) and increase by two to five percent every few weeks until you reach 20 percent (28 pounds) to avoid injury, experts say.

Some great workout weight vest options include vests from HyperwearZeyu SportsEverlast, 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
CAP Barbell Women's 30lb Weighted Vest
Aduro Sport Weighted Vest Workout Equipment - 4, 6, 12, 20, 25, or 30lbs

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 certified personal trainer Claire P. Thomas. "I love wearing [a weight vest] to add a little more challenge to my walks, hikes, and bodyweight workouts," she says.

Lower-Body Weighted Vest Workout

How it works: Complete the buy-in (a task you need to complete being starting the main section of the workout), a 1-mile run (in the weighted vest, if possible). Do three rounds of the bodyweight circuit. Then complete the buy-out (a task 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/side)
  • Lateral Lunge + Lateral Kick (10 reps/side)
  • Jump Squat (15 reps)
  • Pop Jacks (10 reps)
  • Jump Lunges (10 reps/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 and 3 on your first and third rounds, and Circuit 2 and 4 on your second and fourth rounds. Rest for 1 minute at the end of each circuit.

Circuit 1 & 3:

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

Circuit 2 & 4:

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