Move over dumbbells and resistance bands…and make room for the weighted vest! 

This underused piece of exercise paraphernalia is designed to add some heft to a variety of workouts. Bonus: Even if you’re just a casual exerciser, a weighted vest can make your muscles stronger, help you burn more calories and crank up the benefits of your cardio workout. 

Important: To make sure that a weighted vest and the workouts described here are right for you, check with your doctor. Use of a weighted vest may not be appropriate for those with osteoporosis, pregnant women, obese individuals and people with orthopedic injuries, especially those affecting the spinal column.

Once you get your physician’s go-ahead, a weighted vest can help you…

• Build lean mass. A weighted vest is a great tool to combat the age-­related loss of muscle mass and strength known as sarcopenia and to preserve your ability to complete activities of daily living, such as climbing stairs and carrying groceries.

• Burn more calories. Strap on a weighted vest that equals 15% of your body weight and walk at an easy 2.5-mph pace, and you’ll burn 12% more calories than a person not wearing a vest, according to research. Wearing a weighted vest has also been shown to feel less taxing than adding intensity by other means, such as increasing speed or walking on an incline.

• Retain bone mineral density. In a Canadian study, researchers found that a weighted vest helped reduce bone turnover (a physiological process that fuels bone loss) while reducing body fat and increasing muscle mass in postmenopausal women. 

• Improve walking ability. Wearing a weighted vest can improve walking ability in people with gait problems caused by conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and certain types of palsy. 

The Right Vest for You

To choose a weighted vest that’s right for you, first look for a formfitting vest that covers your chest. If it extends down toward the waist, even better. This will better distribute the weight of the vest without affecting your hip movements when walking. Wide shoulder straps are a plus—they don’t interfere with your range-of-motion and put less stress on the shoulders than narrow straps. Also look for a vest that offers a relatively even weight distribution for the front and back. 

When determining the weight of your vest, start with 5% to 10% of your body weight. For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, look for a vest with a starting weight of six to 12 pounds. Most vests also have pockets that allow you to add weight packets as you get stronger, but don’t exceed 15% to 20% of your body weight. 

Helpful:Always add weight gradually —for example, by two-pound increments, adding a one-pound weight to both the front and rear vest pockets to prevent injuries.

3 Easy Ways to Use Your Vest

If a weighted vest is new to you, it’s smart to incorporate it into your existing exercise plan. Consider starting with 15-minute endurance training sessions and progressing gradually by five-minute increments to 45-minute sessions. You can use a vest for… 

• Warm-ups. This will help you quickly engage muscle fibers and raise your core body temperature. Walking at a slow pace with the vest on is the perfect warm-up for ­weighted-vest walking at a brisk pace. While you shouldn’t run with a weighted vest (it creates too much landing force), a pre-run weighted-vest walk can serve as an effective running warm-up.

• Walking. You can create a cross training–like program by wearing your weighted vest every other day—go at a slower pace for 20 minutes on the days with it and at a faster pace for 30 minutes on the days without it. Bonus: On the “off” days, you’ll feel lighter and find it easier to increase your pace, which is great for motivation.

Note: Weighted vests may be used in other weight-bearing exercise, such as elliptical training, but should not be used in exercises such as running, as mentioned above, and rope jumping that produce large landing forces.

• Strength training. Wear your weighted vest to increase resistance for standing exercises done with a straight torso, such as squats and stationary lunges. 

However: To avoid overstressing your back, don’t wear a weighted vest for exercises that involve bending your trunk forward or backward or that require horizontal body positions, such as planks and push-ups. 

A standard strength-training protocol while wearing a weighted vest is to complete a total of three sets of eight to 12 reps with two minutes of rest between each set. Start with just the vest. You should be able to do at least eight reps in good form. Once you’re able to complete 12 reps for each of the three sets, you can add weight to the vest.

Important: The additional muscle stress associated with wearing a weighted vest requires at least 48 hours recovery time between successive strength-training workouts. Although endurance training usually requires less recovery time, an every-­other-day protocol is recommended to avoid overtraining syndromes.