It seems like there’s a new, life-changing fitness routine or exercise every year. Yet, walking remains one of the best foundational exercises for athletes of all ages and training modalities. While walking is beneficial, it doesn’t always offer the challenge athletes desire.
For those who like pushing the pace, there’s always a desire to increase the intensity and support overarching fitness goals. Weighted vests are often utilized for this purpose. This leads to the questions: do weighted vests live up to the hype, and does walking with a weighted vest build muscle to support your overall training efforts?
Here’s what you need to know about whether it’s worth it to walk with a weighted vest, what muscles are worked when running or walking with a weighted vest, and who should use this training tool.
Does Walking with a Weighted Vest Build Muscle?
Walking with a weighted vest does build muscle. Furthermore, it also contributes to better bone density, diminished age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), better balance and coordination, and better lower body power to improve your running pace. It also improves upper body and core activation throughout the exercise.
Several studies have shown improvements in bone density and muscle retention in older adults. Similarly, these studies have also shown the benefits of using weighted vests during injury recovery to regain mobility and speed. While those benefits are great, the real question on everyone’s mind is whether running with a weight vest can actually make you faster.
While running with a weight vest builds muscle, the few studies evaluating the impact on speed and performance show mixed results. A meta-analysis of weight vested running studies showed positive results in short-duration sprints (10 meters) with less impact over distance (30 meters plus). There’s also evidence that higher weights are required to have an impact (over 11% of body mass), leading to poor form and increased injury risk.
The clear gaps in existing studies indicate a need for more information about how weighted vests impact pace improvement over time and the ideal weight ratio.
The general recommendation is that unless you’re an elite athlete, focused speed training with a vest likely isn’t worth your time. However, it still offers benefits for cardiovascular training, bone density, building power, and muscle retention— especially during weight loss.
What Muscles Does a Weighted Vest Work When Walking?
Walking or running with a weighted vest will primarily engage the calves, hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, hip flexors, and core muscles while activating muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and chest. The lower body muscles power the movement and carry the load, while the upper body muscles offer stability.
These muscles all play a role in walking or running without a vest. However, the increased load creates more resistance for the lower body while improving upper body activation and core engagement. While running with a weight vest builds muscle, it also contributes to leg stiffness.
Despite the term’s negative connotations, leg stiffness is actually a good thing while running. Your calves are comprised of compartments. Maintaining compartment stiffness while running helps prevent impact force-related injuries. As you get fatigued, you naturally lose leg stiffness, making you more prone to injury. Training your body for better muscle stiffness while running can help keep you out of the 70-80% of runners who experience an injury.
Who Should Wear a Weighted Vest for Walking?
Wearing a weighted vest for walking and running is beneficial for ageing athletes, runners warming up, runners working on sprint training, and athletes trying to increase the intensity of their workout. Weighted vests are also great for enhancing cardiovascular training in conditioned athletes.
When considering the pros and cons of walking with a weighted vest, it’s important to understand that you are an ageing athlete— even if you’re not in the demographic worried about bone density and muscle loss. Taking a proactive approach to improving hip strength and lean muscle mass will set you up for lifelong success as a runner. The injury-prevention and force impact training potential also makes walking with a weighted vest worthwhile.
The impacts on cardiovascular conditioning are also important pros and cons to consider, as this aspect falls into both categories. Running with a weighted vest can improve your lactic acid threshold if you’re a conditioned athlete. On the other hand, the vest can feel restrictive as you are putting weight on your chest, impacting your diaphragm and respiratory system. If you decide to use a weighted vest, start with a lighter weight and scale up while practicing calm, controlled breathing.
There is one notable difference between the pros and cons of walking and running with a weight vest. While benefits outweigh the downsides of walking with a weighted vest, the risk of negatively impacting the body’s natural running form is a serious concern. This training tool is better for walking on active rest days or enhancing resistance cross-training than wearing during a run.
Tip: It’s important to purchase a quality weighted vest to eliminate discomfort and potential issues.
Does walking with a weighted vest build muscle? Yes – walking with a weighted vest builds muscle while also offering several other benefits to improve muscular power, cardiovascular training, core activation, and healthy aging. The studies surrounding wearing a weighted vest while running are limited, but indicate benefits to advanced athletes interested in sprint training. Runners looking to build muscle should focus on incorporating resistance cross-training rather than relying on a weighted vest.