Weighted vests look pretty much like battle armor, and you normally see them on guys who make a point to pant loud enough for the entire gym to hear.
So yes, it’s really easy to write off weight vests as pretentious overkill. (And in some cases, they might be.) But while they're definitely for the intense gym heroes among us, weight vests can, in fact, make you stronger and faster—as long you use them right.
“Training with a weighted vest can be super-beneficial for power athletes or Olympic lifters, especially on moves like squat jumps or box jumps to build strength and explosive power,” says Darin Hulslander, C.S.C.S., the head of This is Performance, a Chicago-based training studio with online programs.
When training with weight vests is productive
First, it’s worth asking: Do weighted vests actually improve conditioning or performance in the long run? The research is pretty mixed. Some studies suggest training with the added resistance can improve VO2max, speed, and time to exhaustion, while other studies have found it doesn’t do much more than training without. Look at the greater body of research, and there are simply too many variables across experiments—weight used, and length/frequency/type of training done in the vest—to say conclusively whether weight vests make for better athletes.
Hulslander agrees: “My athletes who wear [a weight vest] typically hit a heart rate 3–5% higher when doing both power or aerobic work in a vest than they do without.”
Vests load weight directly to your shoulders and upper body, meaning they’re especially taxing for your respiratory muscles—the diaphragm and deep intercostals. This causes your heart rate to skyrocket way faster, but it also makes it quite difficult to breathe. Some people can’t handle this and start to panic, Seedman points out. But, he adds, learning to stay calm when you can’t quite breathe normally can become an exercise in improving autonomic nervous function and learning how to activate your parasympathetic system to counter that fight-or-flight response.
Plus, there’s a payoff: Learn to stay cool and you won’t have to perform such intense conditioning to rev your heart as high. “You get the calorie burn and bump in metabolism without going quite as hard,” Seedman says.
You can certainly get after sprints if you’re itching for some masochism. But even just walking or hill climbing while wearing a weight vestcan elicit a powerful calorie burn and eat up your legs, Hulslander adds.
The other reason trainers love the weight vest: It turns bodyweight drills into grueling strength-builders. “You could argue the vest is the most efficient way to perform loaded moves, because all the weight is closer to your natural center of gravity—compared to, say, doing pullups with plates hanging from a dip belt below you,” Seedman says.
Most people can actually handle more weight up top than hanging from their waist since the resistance is better displaced across the chest. What’s more, that same factor that makes it harder to breathe—the vest’s pressure against the back and shoulders—means your nervous system is forced to fire those muscles more aggressively, which may contribute to the same weight feeling like less work.
Weight vests are also helpful in scenarios where your individual strength may exceed your grip strength. “If I have a guy who is ready to move up from 100-lb farmer’s walks but it’s hard for him to hold anything heavier, I’ll load 40lbs onto his chest and have him carry the rest,” Seedman says. Same goes for moves like split squats or regular squats during which you can’t properly hold a barbell or dumbbell long enough or without pain, Hulslander adds.
And sure, the weight vest offers no real advantage in upper-body isolation exercises, like biceps curls or bench press. But both trainers agree their top drills to do with a weighted vest are pushups, dips, inverted or TRX rows, split squats, split lunges, and regular squats, and lunges.
The risks of training with a weight vest
Working out with a weighted vest can be risky if you’re not conditioned for it, don’t have proper form locked in, or if you wear it too long.
If you’re cheating to do standard bodyweight pullups or your hips sag during pushups—if you haven’t mastered the basics, essentially—you’re just asking for an injury by adding weight of any form, including a vest, Hulslander says. “I’ve seen a lot of lower-back injuries from people throwing weight on their backs when they don’t have basic pushups down yet.” He adds that anyone with tight neck muscles, poor posture, or any sort of back history should avoid it until they’ve built up strength and form.
The other issue with the additional resistance: Adding weight during a workout focused on speed, explosiveness, or agility can change your center of gravity and creates a different angle of body lean, which can alter your natural biomechanics, Seedman says. “Even if it doesn’t change mechanics externally in a way that throws off your form and increases injury risk, it can alter your neuromuscular firing patterns if you wear the vest too much,” he explains. “Your body gets used to the unique leverage and weight distribution from the vest and when you take it off, it’s neuromuscularly confusing and your body has to recalibrate.”
The way to circumvent the latter risk? “Post-activation potentiation protocol,” Seedman says. In essence: The small changes in your muscles and neuron activity that come with heavy loading can lead to greater explosive performance for 2 to 20 minutes after you remove the weight.
It works like this: You hop on the treadmill and hit one or two sprints hard with a weighted vest. Then, you ditch the vest and start in on normal sprints. “The weight isn’t on your body long enough to start reprogramming your nervous system or biomechanics, but it is long enough to trick the nervous system and body into thinking you still have resistance on you, so the weightless sprints will feel like you’re flying,” Seedman explains.
How to train with a weight vest
You shouldn’t throw on a vest unless you’ve mastered the basics, both experts agree.
Before you hit the treadmill with it on, try Hulslander’s test: Bike for five minutes as intensely as you can. Then, count your heart rate and don’t move for one minute. “A well-trained client should see a 40-beat-per-minute drop in their heart rate. At minute two, they should see another 25- to 30-beat drop,” he says. If your count doesn’t yield this, work your way up before throwing on a vest.
If you pass these tests, start very light and very slow. “Just taking a long walk with a weight vest will tax the back and trap muscles pretty good, since these are the primary stabilizers keeping the vest upright,” Hulslander says.
If you’re just going after cardio conditioning—speed and explosive movements—start with 5% of your bodyweight and aim to build up to 10% over time. You can keep the vest on for the entire low- to moderate-intensity cardio session. “You only need to worry about altered biomechanics for explosive speed and power work, as that's where technique plays a big role—not so much during steady-state cardio,” Seedman adds.
If you’re looking to don a vest for strength, explosive speed, or power work, condition with the vest on the treadmill first, Seedman says. That way, you can acclimate to the added diaphragmatic pressure and spiking heart rate, and learn to control your breath at a low intensity.
Once you’re ready to look at bodyweight exercises, be sure you can complete 3 sets of 10 reps of the move, all with perfect form. Then, start with 5% to 10% of your bodyweight on your chest. Over time, aim to build up to 20% to 25% of your bodyweight, Seedman advises.
Keep in mind: Whenever you’re wearing the vest, no matter what kind of exercise, your rest periods should be a little longer between moves because you won’t catch your breath quite as quickly, Seedman points out. And if you feel like your form is off or your technique is changing (that biomechanical alteration Seedman was talking about earlier), take off the vest and finish your set without it.