7 reasons why running with a weight vest is BAD for you

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A super-common question that I get asked by friends is what weight vest should they buy, how should they use it and is it good or bad to run with one on. Something about a wearable weight seems to be much friendlier to the novice than a barbell or dumbbell so I’ve been asked this a ton of times – even by my own mother!

So let’s take a look at the infamous weight vest and establish once and for all – is it good or bad to run with one on? In summary, running with a weight vest is good for adding intensity to your runs, but brings additional fatigue and injury risk concerns. In general a vest is more useful for shorter runs.

Intro picture for weight vest article (pros and cons)

At a glance…

  • Running with a weight vest is not the best way to build muscle
  • Performing bodyweight exercises with a vest will build muscle more efficiently
  • Pull-ups, chin-ups, push-ups and walking can all be done with a weight vest
  • Exercising with a weighted vest will help you lose weight
  • Training with a vest is less useful for distance runners than the general athlete
  • There are 7 core risks to be wary of when using a vest

Does running with a weight vest build muscle?

If building muscle is your primary goal I think you should look beyond simply running with a weight vest on. 

A much more efficient ways to build muscle would be to perform weighted exercises with the vest. Virtually any exercise can be adapted with the weighted vest – weighted chin ups, pull ups, press ups, dips, you name it.

You could do a really solid workout consisting of 3 – 5 sets of squats, chin ups and dips which would be a fantastic all over workout you could do at home quite easily.

So why is running less effective at building muscle than other exercises?

Well, running is ‘aerobic’ in nature and will burn through calories at a relatively steady rate. Replenishing those calories – and creating a small surplus – would result in some muscle gain, but it will not be an optimal split between fat and muscle as the muscle won’t have experienced the intensity required for it to rebuild stronger.

If you want to build relatively more muscle you will usually need the higher intensities offered by ‘anaerobic’ exercise which is higher intensity, but lasts less time. Think interval training, weight lifting, bodyweight training, etc.

These higher intensity exercises encourage the cycle of muscle building (also known as hypertrophy) as the muscles seek to repair themselves to be bigger and stronger after the strenuous efforts.

An important area weight vests can help in is by contributing to improved bone density – this is quite significant for older people (including post menopausal women) or those who choose not to incorporate weight training into their lives.

Does running with a weight vest help lose weight?

It does. Performing cardiovascular exercise (such as walking, or running) with a weighted vest on will result in a higher heart rate. Up to 5% increase is common and will help you on your journey to weight loss!

What this increase in heart rate means for us is that we’re going to get more bang for our buck so to speak, as we burn an extra few calories for every mile we cover.

Take it from me though – running is quite intense with a vest on! The vest loads your shoulders and covers your chest. This puts extra pressure directly on your diaphragm (the muscle that facilitates your lungs filling with air!) which can take a bit of getting used to!

In fact – unless you specifically want to run with a weighted vest – you may be better off simply walking or hiking with a weighted vest as you will still get the weight loss benefits without quite as much stress across your body. You will still get the extra calories being burned, but it will be less intense and taxing than running.

For the serial runners out there – you may be wondering if there is crossover from running with a vest to running without. For example can you expect to knock minutes off your 10k / half marathon time by using a weighted vest? Unfortunately there is little support for this. Some have reported improved VO2max and speed, but the data is weak.

In addition many report the change in centre of gravity can mess up their gait, and the additional weight up top can cause some knee strain. In other words – for serious runners – stick to light intensity work with the weighted vest to get the benefit of accelerated weight loss, but without the complications.

Doing bodyweight squats with the Bulldog Gear 20kg weight vest (review to follow soon!)
Doing bodyweight squats with the Bulldog Gear 20kg weight vest (review to follow soon!)

HOWEVER – for short, sharp sprints and bursts of energy there does appear to be a slightly stronger connection to benefits from training with a weighted vest. For example some football players were clocked around 2% faster in sprints after a vest training regime.

So training with a vest lends itself more to sports people and general fitness enthusiasts (so fits my profile), and less so to distance runners.

So… Are weight vests bad for you?

Weight vests are not evil and are they are not bad for you. However, we need to be careful when using them – as we would with any training equipment really – to minimise the risk to our bodies.

Seven risks we need to be careful of are:

  1. Burnout – when we get a new toy we are all to keen to get out there and hit PR’s. With a weight vest start slowly – a few percent of bodyweight only, relatively light intensity training. No marathons with 20kg on day 1!
  2. Posture – if you suffer from bad posture the vest might accentuate the pain as it puts pressure on your shoulders. Again building up slowly will mitigate this issue to an extent.
  3. Back pain – if you have a weak back the training vest will add to your woes if we jump in at the deep end. By building up slowly you will get used to it and strengthen your back.
  4. Neck pain – similar to back pain above, if you have a stiff or sore neck the vest might suddenly make things feel worse.
  5. Knee problems – if running on firm ground (pavements etc.) adding a stack of weight to your upper body will increase the impact that is going through your knees. It won’t come as a surprise by now that the way to minimise the risk is to build up the weight and intensity of exercise slowly!
  6. Gait issues – adding weight to your upper body will mess with your centre of gravity. Dedicated runners might find their gait messed up if spending too long with a weighted vest. Tread carefully (excuse the pun…) if running is your sport. Use the vest sparingly and remain vigilant for negative side effects!
  7. Form issues – if you ‘kip’ your pull-ups, or drop into your chin ups, you could find adding weight puts you at risk of injury. It’s quite simple to avoid – perform exercises with great form and add weight when you feel comfortable. Be sure to stop your set before form degrades dangerously. And of course, build up slowly 🙂

So by being sensible working up to heavier weights slowly over time and being cautious with our form we can minimise our risks. So weighted vests are NOT bad for us, but they CAN be if used incorrectly!

What’s the best weight vest to buy?

As ever here in the UK I have less choice than some of the folks in the USA.

I love the equipment Bulldog is putting out there – so I would suggest taking a look at their offering here. I’ve got a review of their 20kg vest you can read here as well.

Final thoughts

So, is running with a weight vest good or bad? Ultimately it depends on your goals, but it can be good for the general fitness enthusiast or sports person to run with a vest on, but likely less useful for the avid runners amongst us as the additional weight doesn’t translate to faster distance runs.

Personally I like to use a vest for light intensity, steady state training (LISS) training such as walking as it helps lift my heart rate up.

For building muscle with a weight vest I much prefer a ‘bodyweight’ workout circuit – pull ups, chins ups, dips and squats for example. These give me a better burn and seem to build more muscle than running!

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