Move / Strength Training

Weighted Vests—Pros, Cons, and How To Use Them

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man wearing weighted vest

Written by Mona Freund
Reviewed by Marissa Miller, CPT

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Exercising with a weighted vest may seem like Navy SEAL behavior. But you don’t have to be training for an elite military force to justify a workout with this piece of fitness gear. Adding some extra weight to your body is a great way to elevate your fitness routine, whether you’re looking to get stronger, run faster, or just want to challenge yourself in the gym. Heck, you don’t even need to be in the gym—you can make progress by simply walking around with one.

But before you start adding on the weight, it’s important to understand exactly how weighted vests work, exercises you can do with them, and how to find a vest to complement your fitness goals.

How Do Weighted Vests Work?

man doing pull-ups wearing weighted vest
Shutterstock

Weighted vests are exactly what their name implies: a vest designed to distribute added weight evenly across your torso. They serve as a great low-impact option for those looking to burn more calories, build muscle, and even increase bone density by increasing body weight and adding resistance to your movements. Basically, they’re a shortcut to activate beast mode.

“Bodyweight movements are a great form of exercise, but once they have been mastered it can be hard to get a challenging workout from them alone,” says Kate Meier, certified USA weightlifting coach and senior editor at Garage Gym Reviews. “Adding a weighted vest immediately adds resistance to these movements without having to hold onto or balance a free weight.”

Some activities that you could perform with a weighted vest include:

  • Running
  • Hiking
  • Calisthenics (or rhythmic, gymnastics-like exercises)
  • Strength training
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Low-intensity steady-state training (LISS)

However, you don’t even need to lace up your exercise shoes to reap the benefits of a weighted vest. Simply wearing one as you go about your day can reduce body weight and fat mass icon-trusted-source Science Daily “Reduced obesity for weighted-vest wearers” View Source while building muscle. 

Keep in mind that weighted vests come with some risks. “Vests make every exercise have a higher impact on the landing, meaning that even things like running or jumping will have more impact on your feet, ankles, and knees,” says Corey Lewis, co-founder and CEO of 1AND1 Life. “People with troublesome joints or back problems should be very careful if using them.”

6 Benefits of Training with a Weighted Vest

Whether you’re hoping to overcome a fitness plateau, set a new personal record, or decrease your mile time, adding a weighted vest to your workouts may be the key to fast-tracking your results. 

benefits of working out with a weighted vest
Siege Media

1. Adds Variety to Your Workout 

Adding additional weight to your workout allows you to increase the resistance needed to help activate muscle growth icon-trusted-source Dick’s Pro Tips “Weighted Vest Tips” View Source throughout your session. Plus, you can add or subtract weight to aid in pyramid sets (a group of sets that start with light weight and high reps, escalating to heavier weights and fewer reps) and drop sets (completing a set until failure, then lightening the load by 10% to 30% and repeating it). Plus, not having to exert energy on swapping heavy plates and free weights in and out may help you actually get some rest during your “rests.”

2. May Help With Endurance, Strength, and Cardio Training

Any activity you do with a weighted vest will be significantly harder than without. Even just a few added pounds can dramatically increase the intensity of your workout. This resistance forces your muscles to work harder, so they break down and grow back stronger. By adding extra weight during workouts—even with a light vest—you’ll not only build more muscle but notice a huge improvement in stamina and endurance when you exercise without the vest. 

Need more proof? A recent study icon-trusted-source Sports Biomechanics “Acute and longitudinal effects of weighted vest training on sprint-running performance: a systematic review” View Source found that treadmill sprints performed with weighted vests bearing more than 11% of a runner’s body weight significantly increased velocity and decreased runtimes up to 9.4%. While further studies are needed to determine the optimal load and volume for effective sprint workouts, there are definite benefits to reap by training with a weighted vest.

3. Burns More Calories and Fat 

When your body works harder, you burn more calories during your workout. One small study that evaluated 13 “untrained” women between the ages of 18 and 55 found that wearing a weighted vest that was at least 15% of their total body weight burned 12% more calories during walking-based workouts icon-trusted-source Ace Research “Improve Walking Workouts with Weighted Vests” View Source

4. Preserves Your Muscle and Bone Strength 

We know adding weight to a workout is essential for muscle gains (duh), but it also helps increase bone density icon-trusted-source National Institute of Health “Exercise for Your Bone Health” View Source . This is true with all resistance-based workouts, but you can wear a vest at any time. This could increase muscle resistance while doing normal activities. One small study that evaluated 37 older adults undergoing a weight loss program found that wearing a weighted vest during daily tasks may help preserve muscle strength icon-trusted-source Innovation in Aging “WEIGHTED VEST USE FOR PRESERVING MUSCLE MASS DURING WEIGHT LOSS IN OLDER ADULTS” View Source

5. Can increase anaerobic metabolism 

Adding weight to every training session can increase your anaerobic metabolism icon-trusted-source European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology “Metabolic response of endurance athletes to training with added load” View Source —how your body creates energy in the absence of oxygen—in the leg muscles during submaximal and maximal exercise, according to a study that evaluated endurance athletes wearing a vest weighing 9% to 10% of their body weight. This helps build a tolerance to the lactic acid that causes fatigue and may help improve muscle endurance. 

6. Improves Your Posture, Balance, and Body Awareness 

With the extra weight on your body, this gear helps enhance your body’s ability to balance icon-trusted-source Rheumatology International “Effects of short-term aerobic exercise with and without external loading on bone metabolism and balance in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis” View Source . According to a study done on postmenopausal women with osteoporosis, wearing a weighted vest while performing short-term aerobic exercises can significantly increase important measures of balance. 

This study may not apply to everyone, but it’s promising. Leaning in any direction would force your stabilizing muscles to counterbalance. By consistently engaging your muscles while wearing a weighted vest, you’ll be more aware of your posture and balance once it’s removed. 

What to Consider Before Buying a Weighted Vest

Weighted vests are not one-size-fits-all. They come in a variety of designs, sizes, and weight loads. Finding a vest you’re comfortable wearing is essential to maximizing effectiveness and avoiding injury. 

When choosing a weighted vest, you should first consider your fitness level, goals, and the activities you plan to do. This will help determine the style, size, and weight capacity that’s right for you. 

Weighted Vest Type

There are three main types of weighted vests—shoulder holster, tactical, and torso-covering. Each has its own unique benefits and drawbacks to consider before purchasing. 

  • Shoulder Holster: These vests fit like a backpack, with a buckle in the front and weight distributed along the straps and upper back. The minimal design is perfect if you value mobility and want something comfortable to wear for long periods of time. However, shoulder holster-style vests are often fixed-weight, meaning you’ll need to replace your vest with a heavier one over time if you want to continue progressive overloading. If back pain is also a concern, these vests may not be a great choice. “Like a heavy backpack, [shoulder holster] weighted vests can hold the weight far from your body, causing the spine to curve,” says Matt Scarfo, Resident Training and Nutrition Expert at Lift Vault.

Shoulder holster weighted vest example: Ruck Plate Carrier 3.0 ($95)

  • Tactical: Originally used by military and law enforcement to hold ballistic plates, these weighted vests feature pockets on both the front and back to evenly distribute weight across the whole upper body. Tactical vests often have interchangeable plates so you can adjust the weight load depending on the activity. Compared to the shoulder holster-style vests, tactical vests are a bit bulkier and may be uncomfortable for some, especially when working out in warmer climates. But you’ll look really cool. Tacti-cool

Tactical weighted vest example: Rogue Plate Carrier ($175 for the vest, $75 for weight plates)

  • Torso-Covering: As the name suggests, these vests distribute weight across your entire back and torso. By adding weight to your core, you’re adding resistance to virtually every movement your body makes. Plus, distributing the weight to a larger area of your body allows for a slimmer design, granting you more mobility and a comfortable fit. These are prime options for both cardio lovers and bodybuilders, and they are adjustable—though fidgeting with dozens of little weight pockets is often the main complaint with this style vest.

Tors-covering weighted vest: Hyper Vest Elite ($230-$299.99)

No matter the style, all weighted vests are either fixed-weight or interchangeable. If your goal is to build strength and endurance, a fixed-weight vest will allow for more mobility and comfort during long periods of wear. On the contrary, if you want a vest geared more towards building muscle, then an interchangeable one that allows for progressive overload is the best option.

You can also find vests designed to accommodate people with breasts or larger chests. These often have the weight distributed between the torso and back, keeping it off the chest. The Hyper Vest Fit Weight Vest ($83.99-89.99) by Hyperwear, for example, was designed for this purpose.

Comfort

Fit is an important factor when purchasing a weighted vest, especially if you’re planning to use it for cardio and endurance training. 

Weighted vests should: 

  • Fit snugly to provide adequate compression
  • Have enough mobility in the chest area to facilitate breathing and for your arms to move freely

Some vests have features like shoulder pads to prevent friction, breathable material to wick away moisture, and ventilation to prevent overheating. Think about what exercises you’ll do and how these features may benefit you. If you’re buying online, take the time to read through the reviews for comments on quality, comfort, and size. A good rule of thumb is to take your chest measurements with a cloth measuring tape and compare them to the sizing chart online before purchasing. 

Safety

One mistake first-time users make when working out with a weighted vest is starting out too heavy. This can lead to overexertion, joint issues, and back injuries. A weighted vest can also increase your risk of overtraining syndrome icon-trusted-source HSS “Overtraining: What It Is, Symptoms, and Recovery” View Source , which can create a performance plateau or decline, feelings of heaviness or stiffness in the muscles, higher resting heart rate, and more. 

“When training with the weighted vest, it is easy to bite off more than you can chew initially,” says Aaron Guyett, Education Director at Living Fit. “Whatever you’re desiring to train while wearing a vest, make sure you can competently perform it without the vest, and then start light. Add 5 to 10 pounds for the first week or two until it feels like you are not wearing a vest, and then add 5 or 10 more pounds.”

Within four to eight weeks, your strength capability will increase. 

When trying on and using weighted vests, listen to your body when it’s telling you to cool it down. Some signs of overload include:

  • Muscle soreness
  • Backaches
  • Struggling to stand comfortably while wearing the vest
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fatigue after light activity

Start light when first training with a weighted vest and add a little more weight as you become stronger and more comfortable. If opting for a fixed-weight vest, start with something that’s about 10% to 15% of your body weight. That’s enough to make a difference in your training. 

Wearing a weighted vest also increases the amount you’ll sweat, meaning you’ll lose a lot of water quicker and be at a higher risk of dehydration. Make sure to drink water while wearing the vest and pay attention to the ventilation in the room. Turn on a fan, open a window, or crank the AC if you have to!

Cost

Weighted vests can cost between $40 and $400, depending on their quality and weight capacity. If you aren’t quite ready to make that investment, you could try other weight-bearing alternatives to gauge whether a weighted vest is right for you. 

Try performing your exercise wearing a heavy backpack (but maybe not school-textbook heavy), holding a medicine ball, or wearing ankle or wrist weights. While the weight won’t be quite as evenly distributed as wearing a vest—and you may want to avoid certain exercises you could do with your weighted vest—you may see similar results.  

Once you’ve found a weighted vest that works for you, it’s time to start experimenting with different exercises and routines. 

Best Weighted Vest Workouts and Exercises

Adding weight to any activity will give it a little spice. Whether you’re training for speed, endurance, strength, or gains, a weighted vest can help level up your workouts and accelerate your progress.  

It’s important to keep your experience and comfort in mind when engaging in any weight-bearing exercise—start light and focus on perfecting your stance first. If you don’t have the basics down before you start adding weight, you’re more likely to injure yourself. Take this advice from Lewis: “The key is to know your body and not try to push it too far. Sometimes training mindfully is better than training hard.” 

Here are a few exercises that can go hand-in-hand with weighted vests. 

Intensified Bodyweight Exercises

It’s easy to hit a plateau when performing bodyweight exercises—you only weigh so much, and eventually adding more reps may not make as much of a difference in your routine as when you first started. 

Adding a weighted vest increases the intensity of these workouts and gives you the extra push you need to build muscle without having to handle bulky free weights and barbells. 

Some examples of bodyweight exercises:

  • Pull-ups or chin-ups: You’ll build your bicep, back, and forearm muscles even faster with a weighted vest.
  • Squats: Adding weight will place more resistance on your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Hello, leg day.
  • Bear crawl: A weighted vest will add intensity to this already-effective full-body exercise. 
  • Lunges: Adding a weighted vest will challenge your balance. This compromises the stability in your legs, forcing you to work harder and your legs to get stronger.  a
  • Step-ups or box jumps: With or without a vest, these are great for strengthening your quads and glutes. Just make sure you have a good amount of room—and you’ve cleared out any stray free weights—so you don’t trip and slam into a wall.
  • Planks or push-ups: Wearing a weighted vest while doing these exercises will help strengthen your core and chest.

Walking or Running

woman running wearing weighted vest
Shutterstock

Wearing a light weighted vest during your cardio routine has been proven to increase stamina, strength, and endurance. But you don’t need to wear the vest for the full duration of the workout to see results. A study that looked at the effect of wearing a weighted vest during running warmups icon-trusted-source Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport “Warm-up with a weighted vest improves running performance via leg stiffness and running economy” View Source found that doing so helped yield a large increase in peak running speed and some reduction in leg stiffness. 

If it’s your first time running or walking with added weight, it’s important to start light and run for a shorter distance and time than usual to gradually acclimate to the extra weight and prevent injury. 

Agility Exercises

Weighted vests are great for increasing coordination, balance, and explosive power needed for agility exercises. The extra weight puts more stress on the entire body, so when you perform the exercises without the vest after training for a period of time with it on, these movements become much easier. This is especially beneficial for athletes looking to improve their performance during gametime. (This is a good example of the principle of specificity, or when you submit your body to the same stressors during training that you expect during a certain event.)

Agility exercises that work well with a weighted vest include:

  • Lateral jumps: Lateral jumps require balance and coordination—adding weight will make it even more challenging to keep from falling over.
  • Plank jacks: This cardio and core-strengthening combo can help strengthen muscles in both the upper and lower body. It’s a win-win for your arms and legs!
  • Quick feet: This exercise is used to improve speed and agility, and adding weight will accelerate your results. 
  • Lateral shuffles: Lateral shuffle drills greatly improve both knee and ankle stability, making them ideal for court sports like basketball or tennis. The key is to not trip.  
  • Dot drills: These drills help improve agility and explosive speed by strengthening both knees and ankles. 
  • Shuttle runs: This is an easy-to-incorporate exercise to improve speed, agility, and endurance. 

Whether you’re a CrossFit junkie, treadmill warrior, or a busy mom who really doesn’t have time for the gym, you can enhance a workout routine by donning a weighted vest. Now that you know the benefits, potential drawbacks, and types of vests available, you’re ready to find the perfect weighted vest to help you reach your fitness goals (or maybe you decided a weighted vest isn’t for you, and that’s totally okay, too).

But before you make a purchase, sign up for the Ness Rewards app waitlist. When you do, you’ll get points for any healthy purchase you make, which can then be redeemed for gift cards to other healthy retailers. Win-win.

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