Wearable weights initially became popular in the 1970s and ’80s, “when people didn’t really have access to resistance bands or kettlebells or all these other things,” says Erin Mahoney, a personal trainer in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the founder of EMAC Certifications, an online personal training certification company. “It made sense: Add more weight to your feet or hands, and it will make [your workout] harder. But now, there’s so many other ways that people can access fitness that they’re really not the best choices anymore.”
Among ACE’s other findings: Wrist weights can increase your heart rate by five to 10 beats per minute and your caloric expenditure by about 5 to 15 percent, compared with doing the same exercise without weights. Ankle weights can increase your heart rate by an average of three to five beats per minute, plus boost oxygen consumption by 5 to 10 percent.
“I understand the intent to try to increase the intensity of the workout,” Bryant says. “But I think people need to be careful, because depending upon how much weight it is, it can alter your mechanics such that it could place you at risk for potential injury.”
Here’s a closer look at what to know about wrist and ankle weights — plus a potentially superior option: weighted vests.
If you stick with the ideal one to three pounds, wrist weights can be a great way to stabilize and strengthen your elbows, shoulders and core, says Karena Wu, a physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York City and India. They tend to work well for people who have trouble holding dumbbells or other weights in their hands, because they allow your arms to work against increased weight, no gripping necessary.
The best uses for wrist weights, Wu says, are:
- Isolated elbow strengthening (bending and straightening the elbow).
- Isolated shoulder motions in straight planes (forward, backward and out to the side).
- Multiple planar movements for the shoulder, either along diagonals or in circular motions.
Some people enjoy wearing wrist weights when they walk — and doing so will help burn more calories than you would expend by walking with ankle weights, Mahoney says. That’s because “the weight is higher up, forcing you to work harder against resistance.” However, she points out, your shoulders might fatigue quickly based on how heavy the weights are.
Wearing ankle weights when you’re walking or running isn’t overly helpful, Mahoney says, unless you have spatial or balance issues. In that case, “the weights help you stay anchored to the ground, decreasing the likelihood of a fall.”
Though they’re not ideal for aerobic activity, ankle weights can help make body-weight exercises more challenging and beneficial, says Jasmine Marcus, a physical therapist in New York. And compared with a lot of other exercise equipment, ankle weights are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. “I always ask patients if they have them, and I will recommend they buy some if they don’t,” she says.
Some ankle weights are adjustable, which means you can make them heavier or lighter as needed. Wu advises beginners to start with the lightest load and slowly increase by one-pound increments. Look for a pair with lots of padding and a nonabrasive inner lining, and make sure you have a secure fit to help prevent chafing. (If your ankle weights don’t fit right, they might slide up and down your leg, causing irritation.)
Then you’re ready to start working out. Ankle weights can be a good addition “if you’re targeting the lower body and performing exercises on the ground, like donkey kicks or leg raises,” Mahoney says. Donkey kicks, which are also called quadruped bent-knee hip extensions, involve getting on all fours and, while keeping your back flat, lifting one bent leg at a time straight back and up as high as you can until your back starts to arch. To do leg raises, lie on your back with your legs pressed together, then lift them upward until your butt hoists off the floor.
It can also make sense to wear ankle weights while doing side-lying abductions, says Jessica Mazzucco, a certified personal trainer in New York City. Side-lying what? “You’re lying on your side, and you have your bottom leg bent at a 90-degree angle while your top leg is extended straight,” she explains. “And then you’re lifting that top leg up and down, kind of like half of a scissors.”
If you’re interested in wearable weights, perhaps the best option, Bryant says, is a weighted vest. They’re typically 10 to 150 pounds and can be a terrific way to increase the intensity and difficulty of your cardio and strength workouts. He recommends using one that’s 5 to 10 percent of your body weight, which will help ensure safety and comfort. Exceeding that could lead to joint pain.
Weighted vests are “centrally loaded and don’t impact your movement mechanics,” Bryant says. “Yet it does add extra weight, and you’ll see about a 5 to 10 percent increase in caloric output when wearing one.”
Mazzucco also prefers weighted vests over ankle weights. “For the most part, you can really wear it for any exercise,” she says — with a few exceptions. “I would avoid exercises that place strain on the lower back, like a bent-over row or dead lift.”
Some research among older women suggests mobility and balance benefits. According to a six-week study of women exercising on a treadmill, for example, wearing a weighted vest led to a slight reduction in bone loss and helped improve balance. Another study found that working out with a vest improved leg power and could enhance balance and mobility. Additional research indicated that participants mostly in their 20s experienced gains while bench-pressing and doing push-ups with weighted vests, and that runners who trained with vests could go faster for longer periods without getting tired.
No matter what kind of wearable weights you choose, Mazzucco says to remember the perennial tenet of trying fitness trends: Always consult with your doctor before getting started.
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.