Weighted Vests: Should You Use Them During Exercise?

Weighted vests have long been popular with athletes and celebrities such as David Beckham and former Hollyoaks star Gemma Atkinson. But interest in using them may have been piqued recently after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shared a sweaty selfie of himself wearing one on Instagram.

Weighted vests usually weigh 5-20kg. They are typically worn to increase exercise intensity. Some vests have a fixed weight and others contain pockets where you can add several weight plates before putting it on.

Historically, weighted vests have been used to train soldiers to carry heavy loads. These could include protective equipment worn by soldiers, such as bulletproof vests, which weigh around 10kg. In some countries, firefighters are also required to train in weighted vests to prepare them for the demands of their job.

More recently, people have been using weighted vests during training challenges, as part of CrossFit, or even while running, in hopes of improving their fitness. And research supports their benefits.

For example, one study found that runners who wore a weighted vest used more oxygen as a measure of fitness than those who didn’t.

Participants were given a weighted vest (9 kg for men and 6 kg for women) and instructed to jog at half the intensity they were capable of. In addition to using more oxygen, the weighted vest group had a higher heart rate and burned more calories. Men who wore weighted vests while running also burned more carbohydrates.

These findings indicate that people who run in a weighted vest may get fitter faster and will likely burn more body fat in the long run. However, you have to be fit to undertake these types of challenging workouts and see these types of results.

A young man wearing a weighted vest runs along a beach.
Weighted vests can be helpful in increasing cardiovascular fitness.
Sergio Kovalov/Shutterstock

Weighted vests can also help increase the intensity during resistance training workouts. One study compared the effect of wearing a weighted vest on participants who undertook a six-week military-style training program. Participants completed various types of workouts, including running and calisthenics (a type of resistance training that uses bodyweight exercises to build strength).

The researchers found that participants wearing the weighted vests showed an almost 4 percent improvement in their performance on an uphill treadmill compared to the control group who didn’t wear a vest. They also had a nearly 4 percent improvement in the amount of oxygen their bodies used during exercise. However, improvements in calisthenics measures (doing push-ups and sit-ups) were similar in both the vest-wearing and non-vest-wearing groups. It is unclear why there was little difference between the two groups.

Weighted vests are also useful during less intense workouts. One study found that when men wore a 20-pound weighted vest while walking uphill for ten minutes, their heart rates increased another ten beats per minute, a sign that their bodies were working harder. They also burned 6 percent more calories while wearing the weighted vest than when not wearing one.

So doing something as simple as wearing a weighted vest on your daily dog ​​walk could have a big benefit to your physical health, including cardiovascular health and metabolism.

While we don’t yet have much evidence that weighted vests themselves improve our ability to gain muscle mass, we do know that wearing them can have major benefits for cardiovascular health. We also don’t have much research on older participants, and which studies used lighter weights (1-5kg), which may not have any effect. It will be important to do more research that examines how weighted vests can benefit many different groups of people.

Potential Risks

It is important to note that even weighted vests can carry certain risks. Some research on military personnel has found that carrying heavy objects on the back or torso increases the risk of musculoskeletal injuries, particularly to the legs and back. This could be because carrying weights increases the amount of force that exists between your body and the ground, making it harder on your joints during movement. However, much of this research involves carrying loads in excess of 25kg, often more than is used for weighted vests.

Research also shows that military personnel who often carry a heavy load experience changes in their walking and running gait. Typically, this manifests itself as a shorter pitch. These changes likely occur to compensate for carrying more weight and can in turn increase your risk of injury.

But my research using weighted vests in CrossFit showed no changes in gait. This suggests that the occasional use of a weighted vest while exercising may not necessarily increase the risk of leg, knee or ankle injury.

Most research suggests that the heavier the load, the greater the risk of injury. This is because heavy loads stiffen the back and torso, which can increase the risk of muscle and tendon strains.

Therefore, most healthy people who have no existing injuries can probably safely use a weighted vest during their workouts. But to avoid the risk of injury, be sure to start with a light weight at first (about 2-3 kg) and gradually increase the weight over several weeks as your body gets used to it. This will maximize the benefits of weighted vests while limiting the risk of injury from pushing too hard too soon.

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