Add weight to lose it: how the weighted vest is transforming exercise

Great for bone-strength, posture and, best of all, calorie-burning. No wonder athletes and A-listers love them

Bunny hopping repeatedly over mini-hurdles is enough to send your thigh muscles into overburn. Do it with an extra stone strapped to your upper body and it begins to feels like workout suicide. And yet there is reason to persevere with such buttock-throbbing discomfort. “Add weight to lose weight” is a fitness mantra of 2014 and a weighted vest, such as the one I am wearing, is apparently the best route to achieving it.

Allyn Condon, the former Olympic sprinter and bobsleigh athlete who is now a personal trainer at The Gym in Bristol — and is instructing me through my torturous hopping and jumping session — states unequivocally that the equipment is unparalleled in its ability “to add intensity to a session so that fat-burning and metabolism are maximised”.

As strength-and-conditioning coach to several of Team GB at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Condon has been getting the likes of bobsleigh squad members Paula Walker, John Jackson and Rebekah Wilson to wear weighted vests as part of their preparation. Walker, who has an outside chance of a medal at the Games, says the team has been using a weighted vest for the past two years. “It has made a significant difference to my strength and power,” she says. “It has also made conditioning sessions much easier because of the fast transfer from one exercise to another, which you don’t get using ordinary weights. The vests have allowed our training to be very functional.”

Despite my physical reluctance, I too am sold. So, it seems, are those whose livelihoods rely on looking as if they have just stepped off the Olympic podium. Among the most impressively ripped of A-listers, the weighted jacket is currently seen as a necessary evil and worn as a statement of serious fitness dedication. Hugh Jackman’s enviable torso is partly down to him sporting a weighted vest at the gym and Matthew McConaughey has been spotted running in one. Tom Hardy, the bane of Batman’s life in The Dark Knight Rises and star of the forthcoming Mad Max movie, has been spotted cycling around London in the upper body armoury too, although the glutton-for-punishment award goes to Jake Gyllenhaal for running in sand dunes in a heavy weighted vest to bulk up for his role in Prince of Persia.

It’s not just men who are using them. Julia Buckley, a trainer and author of the newly published Fat Burn Revolution (Bloomsbury, £16.99), says two to three sessions a week with a weighted vest could have dramatic results for women. “A lot of women are wary of weights, but it’s incredibly hard to get bulky muscles,” she says. “What you will get is a much more streamlined appearance as fat diminishes to reveal muscle tone.”

In California, there’s already a trend for Super Power Yoga, in which downward dogs are performed in the bulky waistcoat, and it has become a badge of honour with the CrossFit brigade who progress to using them once the hugely popular brutal circuit-style training begins to feel too easy. Kathy Kaehler, the celebrity trainer who works with Julia Roberts, Kim Kardashian and Cindy Crawford, says it’s among her favourite items of workout equipment. She even wears hers in the pool and when doing housework. “It is a great way to burn more calories even if you are just vacuuming,” she says.

Strapping weights to ourselves in pursuit of leanness may seem something of a throwback to the 1980s, but Matt Roberts says weighted vests are much better than the ankle and wrist weights that were fashionable three decades ago. “Leg and arm weights should certainly be avoided for fast walking or running because it’s now known that the loading of stress on the tendons around the shoulders and hips is too excessive,” says the celebrity trainer, who sells his own version of the heavy vest at Argos. “The most effective way to add weight is to evenly distribute it on the trunk area. A vest should fit snugly because if it’s too loose it can throw you off balance.”

Most vests allow you to add or lose weights according to your level of fitness. Condon says you should start by slotting in weights that amount to no more than 8-10 per cent of your total body weight. “It can take some getting used to,” he says. “Ideally start with walking for 10-15 minutes a day and build up from there. Get used to the feeling of walking round with that extra stone or so.” Trying the simplest of activities in a weighted vest — stair climbing, for example — can lead to marked improvements in fitness, which is partly why even sports researchers, who are traditionally sceptical about new fads, are interested in the outcomes from using them.

Dr Len Kravitz, an exercise scientist at the University of New Mexico, says that weighted vests are his current fixation. Appropriately weighted jackets, he says, can benefit everyone from the very unfit to the seriously athletic. A study at the University of Iowa published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that just walking around the house and to the shops with a weighted vest can raise caloric burn by about 7 per cent. In his own trials, conducted on behalf of the consumer watchdog the American Council on Exercise last year, Kravitz found that the vests help to boost calorie-burning when power-walking and cycling, and there’s evidence that the same is true for bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and squats.

Weighted vests are also great for bone strength and offsetting the risks of the bone-thinning condition osteoporosis. A six-week study of 36 postmenopausal women, a group considered at high risk of the condition as levels of the bone-protective hormone oestrogen drop, was published recently in the journal Rheumatology International. It found walking on a treadmill three times a week wearing a weighted vest improved balance and strength, compared with a control group who walked without a vest. There are spin-off benefits, Kravitz has found, such as the vests make you more aware of your posture and require you to use more abdominal control when performing simple exercises. It’s what I found when I was bounding and hopping: that the need to engage the stomach muscles in order to prevent toppling over was far greater than if I tried the same moves without the vest.

It’s the impressive calorie-burning, though, that will be the persuasive factor for most. A 12-stone man who jogs or does an aerobic workout for one hour will burn about 540 calories. Doing the same activity in a vest weighted with 20 added pounds will increase the calorie gobbling by up to 20 per cent, meaning that he loses 635 calories. While going for a long run in one is not recommended — the repetitive pounding combined with any glitch in your running technique could play havoc with your knees — there are other ways to incorporate one into your fitness regime. Condon says they are also perfect for enhancing the HIT-style workout craze that is sweeping gyms this year. “Try doing short sprints, hill runs and stair-bounding in one of these and it is harder than you imagine,” he says. “Walking lunges and press-ups are also much more challenging. But the results are fast.”

Removing a weighted vest at the end of a session is also something of a revelation. I floated like a balloon when it came off, which slams home the realisation — as if we didn’t know it — that lugging around excess body fat makes exercise much harder than it needs to be. As you get fitter and lighter, says Condon, there is a lot to be said for replicating your original body weight by loading up the vest accordingly. “Physically, it’s helpful to maintain or increase the weight you are lifting so that your body is constantly challenged,” he says. “And mentally it is a huge boost to know that you can remove the weight you used to carry as fat when your workout is over.”