Training in a Weight Vest
When it’s appropriate and when you’re just trying too hard
Everyone loves to look cool.
If you want to look really fucking cool go to the local track, strap on a plate carrier, and hit some sick combination of dips, burpees, sprints and pull-ups.
Women will swoon, and men will think you are all that is man and then some. You’ll have guys way smarter and more successful than you asking all kinds of questions about your sick ass training routine and how it has got you more jacked and tan than everyone else.
Or, you’ll look like a total douche-bag that’s trying way too hard.
As with any piece of equipment, a weighted vest has its place in physical training. When used appropriately it can add variety and value to your training. But it is not the missing link to your fitness goals. There is no specific training tool that will ever supersede discipline, consistency, hard work and intelligent programming.
First off, it is important to note that 99% of us do not need a vest to make our training more challenging. Only a select few individuals in unique situations need to train in a weighted vest. For the remainder of us, a weight vest simply adds variety and can make normal training circuits much more challenging.
Who should train in a weight vest
The majority of physical training in the military is done in regular training attire. Depending on the current training cycle, soldiers can and should train at least weekly under external load. Unlike patrol officers in an LEO setting, soldiers in garrison do not spend every day in armor. By training in it weekly they will become accustomed to its effects on movement and performance. If the current training cycle has soldiers in kit for extended durations on either the range or in the field then PT should be done without external load.
High level LEO organizations will typically have much heavier load-outs that what is expected from regular patrol officers. Full time SWAT units typically do not spend the entire day in their kit like their patrol counter parts. Like with combat arms MOS’s we suggest training at least weekly in kit.
Athletes In a Minimal Equipment Setting
When athletes are in a situation where there is limited equipment a weight vest can add loading to what would otherwise be an unloaded exercise. Lunges, Squats, Push-ups, Burpees, Bear Crawls, and Pull-ups can all be done under load with a vest. Sometimes, depending on the load, the increased difficulty can greatly change the nature of the training session. When volume per round is taken from 15-20 reps down to 3-8 reps we are now training a different attribute.
Athletes that have an extremely high level of strength endurance
At a certain point training volume in strength endurance must be capped. Athletes that have a extremely high level of strength endurance would often benefit more from adding load than adding more volume. Most of us do not fall into this category but a handful of athletes out there would greatly benefit from adding a weight vest to their normal routine.
Drawbacks of training in a vest
There will be more stress on joints compared to bodyweight exercises and movements. This can be a good thing or bad thing depending on the training age of the athlete. Older athletes that are more beat up should limit their training time in a vest and possibly exclude certain exercises.
They’re expensive. Plate carriers can run $200-$300 without plates. Fringesport makes a non-ballistic version that is very fairly priced for what you get.
Once they are on they are better left on. Unlike a KB or Sandbag dropping and putting on a vest takes a bit more time. If you’re doing a circuit with shorter rounds then you may be better off using another piece of equipment.
If ballistic in nature the integrity could be compromised. If you are training in a vest that has ceramic plates or is used for combat missions we suggest avoiding exercises like burpees and push-ups to avoid damaging the ballistic properties of the plates.
Thoughts on Specific Exercises and Activities
Running in itself is a high impact activity, much more so than walking. Running under external load dramatically increases the impact the lower extremities will be exposed to. We suggest starting off a low volumes when running under load and gradually increasing distance. Running on trails, grass, and other softer surfaces is also recommended. We’ve found that vests carry lighter loads in a more balanced manner than packs. For heavier loads (35+ pounds) we suggest a pack with a frame.
Almost any bodyweight exercise can be done with a vest on. Squats, Jump Squats, Lunges, Jumping Lunges, Push-ups, Dips, Pull-ups, Get-ups, and Bear Crawls are all appropriate movements to do with a vest. Notice how none of these have contact between your upper body and the ground. Burpees, Bodyweight or Sandbag Getups, and other exercises where your upper body contacts the ground are inappropriate to do with a vest. The contact runs the risk of popping a rib out of place or injuring your shoulders.
You can incorporate those movements with others such as KB Swings, KB Snatches, RDL’s and many others. One thing that we see little-to-no value in is doing barbell based exercises with a vest on. If doing barbell based exercises the appropriate action would be to add more loading to make them more challenging, not wear a vest.
Other Single Mode Activities
Wearing a vest during step-ups is an excellent example of the appropriate use of this piece of equipment. The vest rides easy and leaves both hands free. Holding a KB, DB, or Sandbag can be tiresome over longer durations. Hiking in mountainous terrain is another good use of a vest. They are easy to throw on for those shorter backcountry trips.
Training in a weight vest can add value to your training, but unless you fall into one of the 4 categories above you don’t need to go out a purchase one. If you’re training at home and like minimal routines, then it maybe a worthwhile investment – but your money is more likely spent on another piece of training gear.