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I worked out with a weight vest for a week — and it's a game changer

Weighted vest
(Image credit: Future)

As a guy who essentially types and watches TV for a living, my workouts are pretty essential to my health. So when I had the chance to review some weight vests as part of our growing fitness coverage, I jumped at the chance to let my day job join the battle against middle-aged spread.

One trend that's been creeping into my YouTube suggestions and reading lists is the use of a weight vest to enhance different workouts. Whether it's a simple home workout routine or a CrossFit WOD, I've been seeing jacked men and women grinding out reps while wearing what looks like body armor.

So I really had two questions going into this experiment. First, I wanted to know what a weight vest could actually do for me and how it would change my workouts. Sure, adding weight should make most exercises harder, but would I unlock Dragon Ball Z-style improvements when I cast off my weighted clothing? 

Second, I also wanted to know whether the whole vest idea had any merit beyond making you look really intense while doing a regular workout. There are so many other exercise fads, like face masks to limit oxygen intake and funky tourniquets to restrict blood flow, that it feels like some of the most dubious claims get traction just because they make someone look a little more extreme. Are weight vests just a way to cosplay while working out, or do they impart real benefits?

One week in, and I think I've found some answers.

What is a weight vest?

A weight vest is a simple concept: An article of clothing that weighs a lot, adding extra weight to a wide range of movements. It's a simple way to add resistance to a workout, and increase the intensity of otherwise simple activities.

There are a few different options out there for weight vests, ranging from simple weight-filled harnesses that are worn around the shoulders to crazy contraptions that let you strap Olympic weight plates to your body. But the most common vest designs are actually a repurposed bit of military equipment, called a plate carrier.

In normal use, these are used to strap ballistic plates onto soldiers and cops, but in the gym, these vests are used to put extra weight onto your torso. Various designs have different straps and elastics and Velcro closures for securing that weight, but the basic idea is simple: Strap one weight to your chest, and another to your back, and hold everything in place snugly enough that you can comfortably workout with it on.

For this first week of training, I tested the 5.11 Tactical TacTec Plate Carrier, which is a prime example of the repurposed military gear design. It's literally sold as protective gear and used by SWAT teams and the like to provide protection and carry equipment.

It's also one of the most popular and well-regarded weight vests out there. It's been the official weight vest of the CrossFit games for several years running, and is sold through retailers like Rogue Fitness and Dick's Sporting Goods.

But 5.11 also sent me the sleeker 5.11 TacTec Trainer, a fitness oriented product that ditches some of the tactical features and streamlines the vest for a less cumbersome workout. I'll be trying it out next, likely to have similar results. Keep an eye out for our upcoming reviews. 

Testing the vest: 1 vest, 4 workouts

There are all sorts of workout plans out there for people who want to try out a weight vest. From follow-along YouTube videos to intense CrossFit WODs, there's a ton of options for working out with a vest.

I wanted to try the vest in a number of workout styles and movement patterns, to get a good feel for how the vest fits and handles all sorts of activity. For my testing, I settled on four workouts, each designed to take advantage of the benefits of vest training while avoiding some of the increased risks. (I love my job, but I'm not about to risk a broken foot for it.)

I broke this down into four main workouts:

  • Basic calisthenics focused around fundamental movements, like push-ups, pull-ups and squats, with variations of each.
  • Core movements: mainly seated floor moves, like crunches and Russian twists, and hanging moves, like leg raises and windshield wipers.
  • A few rounds of a heavy bag boxing session for cardio
  • A 30-minute walk, taking a brisk walk from my house to a nearby park and back, with a route that takes me up and down a large hill.

These four workouts also have the benefit of closely matching my regular weekly routine, giving me a good sense of how the weight-vest version of these exercises matches up with the unweighted variety.

Spoiler alert: The weight vest kicked my butt.

I tried working out with a weight vest for a week: Here's what happened

Working out with 20 pounds of sand strapped to your body will definitely change the nature of your workouts. From making simple exercises harder (in a good way) to making simple movements more difficult (in a bad way), here's what my week of weight vest training looked like.

Workout #1 - Calisthenics

I'll regularly do a selection of basic calisthenics in my home office, which doubles as my workout space. (Working from home means that my office and exercise equipment share that same room.) Whether it's consolidated into a single workout or I'm sprinkling some sets into my daily schedule, it's helpful to have a pullup bar readily accessible.

Squats didn't get too difficult, because I'll regularly work in weighted squats using dumbbells (be sure to check out our picks for the best adjustable dumbbells). Pushups, on the other hand, got noticeably more difficult, and I had to cut my usual 100 pushups down to 50, and I had to stick to the basics, no fancy archer pushups or one-armed pushups. Sets were whittled down to 5 sets of 10, instead of my usual 3 or 4 sets of 25 or 30. And my form suddenly became vitally important, as the added weight drew my attention to my shoulders and slightly-too-flared elbows.

But the real challenge came when I grabbed the pullup bar. I realized in short succession that the added weight not only increased the difficulty for my arms, shoulders and lats, but that it also had a direct impact on my grip. By the time I was six reps in, my forearms were burning, my whole upper body was gassed out, and I was acutely aware of some minor crackles and pops in one shoulder. They've always been there, but I worried about them a lot more under the added weight.

By the end of the workout, I was beat. I was more tired than almost any workout I've done in months, and this despite cutting my usual rep counts mostly in half.

Workout #2 - Core movements

My second workout reminded me that weight is only useful when it can be properly loaded, with the right angles and motions to use that weight as resistance.

That meant that while basic core exercises like sit ups and planks were marginally more difficult with the vest on, others, like hanging leg raises, were made harder. But not because the ab portion of the movement was harder – that was unchanged, since the weight is on my torso and not my legs – but it did make the hanging aspects of the move a lot more challenging, adding 20 pounds to a dead hang.

If anything, the biggest difference that the vest made for most ab workouts was that it added bulk that had to be accounted for whenever I went to lay on the ground. Anything else could be easily replicated by doing crunches while holding a dumbbell.

Workout #3 - Heavy Bag

The third workout was a cardio session with the heavy bag. Adding the weight vest to the mix did add a wrinkle to the process of gearing up – you definitely want to put on and adjust the vest before you get your gloves on. Am I an idiot? Probably.

But once I had my vest on and my gloves, I found that the vest didn't make a huge difference in a strictly bag-focused workout. The weight didn't burden my arms, though it did change how I put my newly-bulked up weight behind punches, and other movements, like dodges and footwork, were impacted by my 20-pound burden.

I will note that, when wearing the vest, I approached the heavy bag differently. Instead of mixing in any kicks or knees, I opted to stick to a boxing-style workout. The heavy vest and changed weight distribution made me leery of movements that would throw my balance off or put unwanted stress on my knees and ankles.

But it's a good reminder that weight vests aren't great for use during skill-based exercises. The extra weight may or may not increase the difficulty of a given activity, but the extra weight will mess up your training, throwing off muscle memory. Skills training with a weight vest on will only train you to do the skill with a weight vest on. Stick to exercises where the additional weight makes sense, and don't think that simply wearing it for every activity is a shortcut to better fitness.

Workout #4 - 30-minute walk

Because the added weight of the vest can increase the risk of joint injuries and stress fractures, I opted not to wear the vest for a jog, or for my usual cardio option of jumping rope.

Walking, on the other hand, provides a good way to integrate the vest into activity and increase the intensity of it without those risks. So I strapped on the vest to go for a walk.

While walking with a weight vest on sounds simple enough – and it is – there is a real benefit from the added weight. Walking is made more difficult, and a brisk pace with 20 pounds of extra weight will add a new conditioning element, more so if you plan a route that includes a lot of inclines.

So, I walked up a big hill. And down the hill again. My 30-minute walk was pretty much all hill.

Let's be clear, strapping on a weight vest won't make walking your next HIIT replacement. It's better for rest days, frankly. But it is enough to make a brisk walk a legitimate workout, one that will have you breathing a little harder, working just a little more, and strengthening leg and trunk muscles a bit more than walking alone would do.

One week later: This is a game changer

One common theme throughout this week of weighted workouts was how every workout seemed to end: Once the last rep was done, and I knew I couldn't do another, all I wanted was to tear that vest off of me. Fumbling with flaps and straps and Velcro, I would finally get the beast off my back and throw it roughly to the floor. It's a tough piece of equipment, I know it can take it. The bigger question was whether I could.

I won't lie, that first calisthenics workout left me sore for days. But once I had some distance from the more humbling aspects of my new workout, I realized that the weight vest was giving me exactly what I wanted, making basic exercise a challenge again, and giving me a way to enhance my workouts without a lot of complicated techniques, expensive gear or extra time.

I'm going to keep using the weight vests in my routine – and not just because I have more of these to test. I went into this looking to find out if weight vests were a gimmick for aggro gym bros, a piece of gear made to look aggressive more than anything else.

Instead I found a single, simple item that makes my strength workouts harder, my cardio workouts more intense, and proved that my overall conditioning has plenty of room for improvement. If you want a great way to level up your workouts in the home or at the gym, this is a killer option.

Brian Westover
Brian Westover is an Editor at Tom's Guide, covering everything from TVs to the latest PCs. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he wrote for TopTenReviews and PCMag.