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This Weighted Vest Workout Is The Secret To Leveling Up Your Fitness

Strapping a few extra pounds to your body during exercise can give you the edge you’ve been seeking.

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The idea of a weighted vest likely makes you think of Marines sweating through boot camp at Parris Island or at least some hardcore exercise club. But the piece of equipment has become a popular accessory with fitness enthusiasts looking to add more weight — and difficulty — to everything from bodyweight exercises to activities like running.

Weighted vests are, well, vests with added weight. They’re widely available and cost between $50 to $300. The most popular models, plate carriers, have large, replaceable metal plates that slide into the front and back panels. These plates can be cumbersome, but they add versatility — new users can start with lighter 10 lb. plates, then as they get stronger, they can increase the weight by upping to heavier plates as they progress.

While good plate carriers are designed to minimize bouncing and irritation with elastic straps and padded shoulders, a non-adjustable weighted vest may be the best choice for runners. These have the weight permanently embedded in the material, usually in the form of smaller weights distributed throughout the vest’s surface. This even distribution adds comfort, minimizes bouncing, and provides more freedom of movement. The downside, however, is that there’s no way to adjust the weight. If you want more or less weight, you’d have to buy another vest.

Weighted vests are growing in popularity because they allow users to progressively add weight to traditionally non-weighted activities. According to a study from the University of New Mexico and American Council on Exercise, calorie-burn potential was improved by 12% when users were wearing a vest weighted at 15% of their body weight.

Darin Hulslander, a certified functional strength and performance coach at This Is Performance in Chicago, notes that the vests can also be useful for those who need non-traditional weight-based gear. “One of the lesser-known benefits of a weighted vest is that it helps people that may not be able to tolerate a bar on their back or a weight at their chest and provides a higher level of benefit than a machine typically would,” he says.

Hulsander adds that he generally sees anywhere from 5 to 10% higher heart rates in people wearing a vest, and “there are (albeit limited) studies that show increases in VO₂ max in non-athletic populations.”

In theory, you can do most of the workouts you did before — just with more weight. But exercises that call gravity into play (think burpees, box jumps, and squats) will help you maximize the vest’s contribution to your workout. Not all bodyweight movements are ideal, however.

“Lower body movements are the safest,” says Hulslander. What not to do? Hulslander cautions against planks, where the additional weight can cause hyperextension in the back, and sit-ups, where bulky vests can make the movement uncomfortable.

A Beginner Weighted Vest Workout

If you want to start working out with a weighted vest, there are a few things to know. First, you don’t need a ton of weight to see results; in fact, too much weight can cause you to start using your body in weird ways that raise the risk of injury. Choose a vest weighing about 5% of your total body weight, and work your way up to around 10% to 15%, advises Hulslander.

“This is why I am fond of the interchangeable weight vests, so you can adjust as you get stronger and more balanced,” he adds.

Also, when you start using the vest in your workouts, reduce your exercise time and intensity by about a quarter of what you usually do and increase your rest time between sets or reps to allow your breathing and heart rate to drop down to normal levels (the extra weight will cause your heart rate to rise faster and stay elevated longer). Here are a few of the moves to try with a weighted vest.

1. Walk/Jog/Run

Imagine taking four one-gallon jugs of water, looping a rope through the handles, slinging it across your shoulder, and going for a run. That’s basically the weight you’re wearing in a 16-pound vest (about 9% of body weight if you weigh 180 pounds). And while it’s less cumbersome than the gallon jugs, it’s still a lot of extra cargo.

Put another way, research shows that the forces traveling through your body when you run are up to five times your body weight. So if you add an extra 20 pounds to your body via a weighted vest, that’s 100 more pounds of force traveling through your joints and ligaments. If you’re not careful, that’s a recipe for injury. In addition, “wearing a weighted vest compresses your breathing muscles — and we find most people have trouble with these muscles as is,” says Hulslander.

So start by walking, or at least jogging extra-slow. Go for 5 minutes; remove your vest, then run to your heart’s desire. Repeat for one week. On week two, start with 10 minutes of easy jogging in the vest, then complete the workout unweighted. Up your time each week until you reach 60 minutes of easy vest action; then start ramping up the pace. When you can sustain your desired pace, start adding more weight.

2. Stair Climb

Few exercises can get your blood pumping and heart rate elevated faster than going to the bottom of an office or apartment building stairwell and starting to climb flights. (You can do this on a stairclimbing machine as well, although the benefits may be slightly less.)

If you’re like most of us, you’ll be breathing hard by the third flight, even without the vest. So take it easy until you get used to things. “People that wear the vest too long at first find that their respiratory muscles and the pesky ones around it, like your traps and neck muscles, get fatigued and sore as a result,” says Hulslander. “Remember, it’s five-ish minutes max at first, and work you’re way up from there.”

3. Pushups

If you’ve ever tried doing pushups with one of those 45-pound plates placed on your back, you know how tricky it can be. The beauty of the vest: It won’t slide off and smash your hand. “Pushups are also a good option in a weighted vest since it’s harder to add weight generally to a pushup,” says Hulslander.

Start with a set of five. Make sure you keep your back flat, not arched, and that you go through the full range of motion, from straight arms to arms bent and chest two inches from the floor. It’s better to do three correctly than 10 with bad form. Rest a full minute between sets, aiming for five sets of five. Reduce your rest time as the move becomes easier.

4. Squats

The staple of most strength workouts, traditional squats become more difficult with a 20-pound vest on your back. If you’re used to doing squats while holding free weights, leave those behind for your first day with the vest. Instead, focus on form. “Our only real rule is to make sure you are breathing properly — think blowing up a balloon or blowing to warm your hands when it’s cold — so that your neck and breathing muscles don’t work too hard,” says Hulslander.

Do ten reps of air squats; rest for a minute. Go again. For the rest of the week, add more reps and/or less rest as you get used to the vest. In week two, add the dumbbells back in if you were using them before. Again, start conservatively: 10 reps x two sets. Add sets until you are back to your pre-vest standards.

3 Weighted Vests To Consider

If you want to give weight vest workouts a shot, you’re going to need a vest. But not all weight vests are created equal. The best weight vests are durable, hold the weight close to your body to minimize bouncing when you run or do dynamic movements, and allow you to move freely with little or zero movement restriction.

Also, you’ll want to find a vest with good padding on the shoulder straps so that the weight doesn’t dig into your shoulders while you work out. Based on that criteria, these are our favorites.

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