How a Weighted Vest Helps You Run Faster, Get Stronger, and Look Like an Action Hero
Everything you need to know about the wearable gym accessory that will supercharge every type of workout.
Sooner or later, it happens to everyone: You hit a plateau in your exercise regimen, when everything seems to come a little too easy. Your push-ups are picturesque and your squat form is flawless, but really, you're going through the motions. On cardio days, the treadmill miles fly by with scarcely a droplet of sweat. Friend, it is time to hit the proverbial reset button, and one way to do that is to cop a weighted vest.
The idea behind these action hero-looking contraptions is a simple one: By making your body a little heavier, you make the universe of exercises that involve moving your body a little more difficult, which means that you don't need to scrap your beloved routine altogether in order to start seeing more hard-earned gains. With the help of fitness coach Pete McCall and HyperWear owner Dirk Buikema, we answer all your most pressing questions about how to use a weighted vest to work out smarter—and, hopefully, how to avoid looking like a doofus in the process.
Explain that science to me, please.
Sure. The more challenging the exercise, the more oxygen you need, and the more calories you burn in the process. Whether you’re running, squatting, kickboxing, flailing around your living room while watching the World Cup, or just walking to the grocery store, the vest provides a safe overload method that enhances your ability to generate force into the ground—an important component of running efficiency. Sure enough, studies have shown that vests help boost oxygen uptake which, in turn, improves performance out on the track.
Improved land speed isn’t the only benefit, though. When performed with a vest, high-intensity strength training exercises will place greater loading forces on the body, which helps to increase bone density—something that may not concern you right now, but that will as you approach rocking-chair age.
Will wearing one make me look like an insufferable tool?
Not necessarily! Performance fabrics and clever designs have taken us well beyond the ugly, bulky, “how-sweaty-can-it-get-in-here” vests of yesteryear. Most of today’s low-profile models aim to mimic the way your body carries its existing weight, allowing you to move and breathe freely. (It is nice to be able to move and breathe freely during difficult workouts.)
Can I afford one?
High-end models can run hundreds of dollars, but your favorite jungle-themed retailer has options that cost less than a monthly gym membership. The more expensive brands boast features like higher-quality zippers (for easy on-off transitions between sets) and form-fitting weights.
As is the case with most things in life, you get what you pay for: If you just want to try this vest life out, go for something cheap. If you intend to make it a significant part of your regimen, spring for something nice so you don’t have to replace it every other year.
How much weight are we talking?
For running, aim for no more than 10 percent of your total body mass. Anything more than that will slow you down too much to be of use. For strength training, it’s all about how you feel. Since you might be comfortable squatting with an extra 25 pounds but not, say, doing pull-ups with that same load, a weighted vest that allows for easy addition and removal of those pounds is your best bet.
What size do I need?
First, make sure there are sizes: Anything that comes with the dreaded “one-size” label is designed to fit on everyone but please no one. Spend your money elsewhere.
A vest that is too tight restricts the motion of the spine and shoulders, while a too-loose vest makes you unstable and uncomfortable. Look for something that uses stretch fabrics, straps, and cords to keep it snug against your torso, like a compression shirt. Test the fit by jumping up and down—the weights should not bounce, hurt your shoulders, or inhibit your breathing.
I’m ready! What’s next?
What: Begin in a lunge position with the right leg forward and left leg behind you, with your weight evenly centered over your core. Bend both knees and jump between two and four inches off the ground, switching your leg position in midair. Repeat until you can dunk with one hand.
Why: Jumping-based exercises recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are responsible for increasing force production (good) and creating muscle definition (what you really care about).
What: Start with the feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and toes pointed forward. Bend into a squat position, dropping your hips back and down, like you're sitting in an invisible chair. Push upwards through the heels and jump between two and four inches off ground, landing softly back in the same squat position with your weight on your heels. Repeat until you can dunk with two hands.
__Why:__As with lunge jumps, this exercise helps increase overall force production in the legs, strengthening muscles and bones alike.
What: Begin in a high plank position with your feet hip-width apart. From there, take a little hop, splaying your feet outwards, in a sort of prone jumping jack motion. Land on your toes and then hop again to the starting position. Keep your core engaged throughout, and do not allow your back to dip.
__Why:__The plank position engages the shoulders, arms, upper back, and spinal stabilizer muscles, while the load of the vest challenges the leg muscles to work harder throughout the jack action.
What: Begin in a standing position, with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Draw the left leg behind the right leg and all the way across your body, bending both knees at 90-degree angles. Hop into the same movement on the opposite side of your body, and pick up the pace when you get comfortable. As you go back and forth in a fluid motion, you should resemble an unusually bulky speedskater.
Why: This movement attacks the thighs, hips, and glutes, which together control rotation and extension of the upper legs. The greater range of motion here can help strengthen muscle fibers not normally engaged in plain-vanilla squats and lunges. And while the instability inherent in dumbbells and barbells makes them difficult to use with exercises like this one, you’ve got a vest to solve that problem! Happy skating.