Weight vests are a tool that have quickly become popular among fitness and exercise enthusiasts for the substantial benefits they purportedly offer. Advocates claim that incorporating a vest into your workouts can help to build muscle size and strength, increase running endurance, and accelerate weight loss.
While the scientific jury is still out on whether weighted vests are truly effective, some studies have confirmed their potential for a more intense and rewarding workout.
This article explores the benefits of weighted vest training, and why you might want to consider occasionally strapping on a vest when you workout.
What is Weighted Vest Training?
Weight vests are wearable tops with weights attached to them. The weights are either sewn into the fabric directly, or come as separate pieces that can be added and removed to adjust the weight as needed. Thus, donning them enables you to workout with more than just your bodyweight for exercises like squats, push-ups (press-ups), pull-ups (heaves), and dips, as well as for running, walking, stair-climbing and CrossFit workouts of the day (WOD’s).
The basic idea behind using a weight vest is to utilise a fundamental principle of exercise training known as progressive overload, which refers to gradually increasing the stress placed on your body systems. This forces your body to adapt by, for example, increasing the size and strength of your muscles so you can lift more weight, or improving your cardiorespiratory capacity so that you can run faster for longer.
Weighted vest training is most appropriate for athletes and experienced exercisers who have already achieved some level of mastery over their given form(s) of training (e.g. calisthenics, WODs, running, etc) and are aiming to push themselves to their limits. Beginners should refrain from adding weighted clothing to their workouts before perfecting their form and gaining the requisite strength. Adding too much weight too soon can increase the chance of sustaining an injury. Therefore it is wise to consult a medical professional before undertaking any new or substantially more difficult form of exercise.
Does Training With A Weighted Vest Actually Work?
The scientific community is typically split into three camps when it comes to incorporating weight vests into exercise training.
- Some studies show that weighted vest training has decisive benefits for runners and athletes aiming to make incremental gains in muscular strength and endurance.
- Other researchers have not found any discernible advantage from training with a weight vest.
- The third camp does observe some benefits of wearing weighted vests, but concludes that they are either negligible or require persistence to see positive results.
So, while the research is equivocal, it is worth noting that most studies have typically measured performance improvement within a given athletic pursuit, such as sprint training. They also tend to test high performance athletes like collegiate football and soccer players. These are unique conditions and outcomes for unique individuals, and the fact that weight vests may have limited utility in professional training settings does not mean that they can not add value to your workouts.
In fact, non-professional exercisers can rest assured that they will see results from adding weight to typical workouts involving common bodyweight exercises and cardio.
For example, when it comes to strength training, wearing a weighted vest will create more resistance for your muscles to contract against. This will force them to recruit more fibers, and fatigue more rapidly, which will in turn stimulate gains in muscular size, strength, and endurance.
Similarly, weighted workouts are almost always high intensity, and thus consistent training can also help you lose weight more rapidly due to the higher energy demands placed on your muscles, heart, and lungs.
Ultimately, adding weight to your workouts will overload your body and force it to adapt accordingly. However, before you invest in a weighted vest, it is worth taking time to understand the pros and cons of this training tool.
The Pros and Cons
Arguably the primary advantage that weighted vests offer is that they allow weight to be evenly distributed on your body. This makes the weight easier to balance, and reduces the likelihood of injury. Furthermore, as the weight is worn rather than held, it leaves the hands free to train more functional movements.
Another major pro is that many weighted vests allow you to adjust the weight in small increments (often between 1 – 5 lb increments). This makes it significantly easier to progressively overload any and all exercises you train.
Coming to some of the cons, vests can be expensive. Often excessively-so. Depending on the type you purchase, a good quality weight vest can run up to several hundred dollars. You will likely outgrow less expensive vests due to their lighter weight capacity, meaning one or more sizeable purchases are inevitable if you plan on sticking to this method of training.
Weight vests can be also uncomfortable as they often rub against the skin, especially on the shoulders. Similarly, having weight strapped to your torso can feel restrictive and may induce a sense of breathlessness and/or panic in inexperienced users.
Lastly, despite the fact that they allow incremental adjustments in weight, they can also “run out” of weight relatively quickly. For example, if you regularly train weighted bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups and dips, you may progress beyond the resistance your weight vest can offer. Then you ill be left with an expensive piece of kit that you rarely use. For this type of training, a dip belt may be a better option.
For those training for the military, or who want to add a military ‘flavour’ to their workouts, a plate carrier is a unique type of weight vest that is worth looking into.
Training With A Plate Carrier
As mentioned, plate carriers are an alternative to standard weighted vests, though both have the same function. They are both wearables with weights that allow you to exercise with more than just your bodyweight. The choice between the two largely comes down to preference and availability, though you may consider some other factors discussed in the next section.
Plate carriers are generally worn by soldiers since they act as tactical gear when equipped with bulletproof plates (e.g., SAPI and ESAPI plates). However, their usage in fitness was popularised by a Navy Lieutenant named Michael Murphy. While anecdotes of his bravery could fill a novella, he was the first to use weighted wearables for extreme workouts like his one mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats, followed by another one mile run.
He called this workout “body armour” because he did it while wearing a 20 lb vest. Such was the example he set by his courage and fitness that this workout has become the most brutal CrossFit WOD known as the ‘Murph’. Many have followed his lead and incorporated plate carriers into their own workouts.
The Pros and Cons of Plate Carriers
Given the similarities between a plate carrier and weighted vest, they come with comparable advantages and disadvantages. They also have their differences.
One notable difference and disadvantage of plate carriers is that they tend to have less capacity for weight adjustments. They typically have capacity for two plate inserts (one in front and one in back) and the inserts usually come in a finite selection of weights. Thus it is more difficult (or impossible) to make small incremental weight increases and effectively utilise the progressive overload principle. As such, they are better suited for functional training programmes like CrossFit.
As with vests, the best plate carriers can be extraordinarily expensive, and the cheaper ones tend to be less than comfortable.
Finally, plate carriers can be less comfortable and feel more awkward than standard weighted vests. This is because the plate inserts are relatively large and rectangular, and do not conform to the body as well as the sand-filled pouches or metal ingots used in standard vests.
What Kind of Workouts are Best with a Weighted Vest or Plate Carrier?
Both wearables are suitable for a wide variety of training regimens, such as sprinting, hypergravity training, bodyweight routines, and CrossFit. Aerobic exercises in general benefit from additional weight as they force your body to adjust to more intensive conditions. Similarly, they promote greater muscle fiber recruitment and tension when used in strength training. Even simple activities like walking and warming up can benefit from the use of a weight vest.
However, one area where they prove to be ineffective is isolated upper body exercises. Doing a bicep curl or bench press with a wearable is unlikely to benefit you. Barring those, wearables generally make for handy tools to increase resistance provided you have the expertise to manage them.