Weighted clothing is used by people all over the world. Firstly, it is used in a therapeutic sense: easily worn clothes with built in moderate weights have been shown to have a calming effect and are often used to soothe children with conditions like autism, Asperger’s and ADHD.
Secondly, it is often employed by athletes and gym-goers across a variety of disciplines to increase resistance through diverse movements.
Weighted clothing is adjustable and can be worn during routine training. For example, bodybuilders and strength athletes will often use added weight for increased lean body mass and bone density: the increased resistance they bring can be employed across exercises like pull ups, stair climbs and dips to further stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth) and strength gain, whilst also eliciting an improvement in many of the additional benefits of resistance training like soft tissue strengthening and increased bone density.
In addition, performing exercises with weighted clothing on will improve performance for when the weighted clothing is absent: suddenly those pull ups are a lot easier without the extra 20kg, and that bench press is easier for having performed rep after rep of weighted dips and push ups.
Alternatively, you can use weighted clothing as you go about your usual daily life. Simply conducting daily tasks like walking to work, climbing the stairs and going shopping can be made harder by using weighted clothing. This will cause the body to improve oxygen intake and caloric burn, thereby strengthening the cardiovascular system and enabling greater weight loss.
But what is weighted clothing, exactly? How does it work, what alternatives and varieties exist, and how can you make it work for you?
And is it safe to use weighted clothing?
Let’s take a look.
What is Weighted Clothing?
Though there are many different types of weighted clothing- which we’ll go into in more detail below- and there is a huge range of both commercially available kit and DIY, at-home options, all weighted clothing has a few things in common.
Weighted clothing options will all be quite heavily reinforced garments, durable and adjustable, with options to add weight- usually a few kilograms. You will be able to find or make options for a variety of body parts, with vests, backpacks, ankle and wrist weights being some of the more common types- again, more on this below.
In this way, you will be able to selectively add weight to specific body parts to make the most out of your resistance training, whilst leaving hands and limbs free to perform movements relatively unencumbered.
In many cases, weighted clothing will be unobtrusive. You may be able to wear it under existing, regular clothing for everyday use. It is quite common to see power walkers using ankle and wrist weights, or runners using weighted vests or backpacks. It’s also relatively common for people to use these items throughout the day, at work, whilst travelling, etc.
Types and Alternatives of Weighted Clothing
There are plenty of different types of weighted clothing and there are plenty of alternatives you can make the most of. Some of the common types and variations include:
This is the classic- the weighted vest. It’s perhaps the most commonly seen piece of weighted clothing; it is often what people think about when they think about weighted clothing. Though there are many different brands and variations, most weighted vests have a couple of things in common.
Weighted vests will generally have adjustable weight attachments: they will generally have pockets sewn into them that hold small steel weights, which can be deducted or added to as needed, making them perfect for achieving training progression. This weight is also often evenly distributed around the chest and/or torso so that, providing the vest is an appropriate fit, there should be little extra momentum generated and control should be easy.
Weight vests should allow for a full range of motion throughout the upper body. They are perfect for increasing resistance through upper body compound movements like pull ups, dips and push ups. In addition, lighter weights are perfect for working endurance during a walk or run, boosting intensity and really challenging your cardiovascular system.
Weighted shirts are something of a variation on the classic weighted vest. They combine the pros of a weighted vest with those of a compression shirt.
Weighted shirts should be slim fitting (really quite figure hugging, actually, as you want that compression). The weights are compressed into the body consistent with the upper body muscles, with their placement reducing joint strain and allowing for smooth, natural movements with full ranges of unimpaired motion.
The shirt’s fabric should also wick moisture from the skin, allowing you to keep cool as you train. Though it is costly (and, unlike weighted vests, cannot be easily made at home- see below) pro athletes and serious-minded fitness enthusiasts often favour the weighted shirt.
Weighted backpacks are also fairly iconic. They are easy to make from home (at their most basic, simply throw a couple of kilo bags of sugar or flower into a standard backpack) and easy to use.
Weighted backpacks have more limited use than weighted vests or shirts, however. They are perfect for walking, jogging, climbing stairs, and perhaps squatting and lunging in linear planes. If you are a hiker looking to boost endurance, a weighted backpack should be your go-to piece of kit. However, they have little function beyond this as their placement throws off your centre of gravity and they are not as secure as vests and shirts.
Weighted vests and shirts will be better for upper body resistance training and will likely be a safer option overall.
We’ll put neck weights on this list for the sake of education. However, neck weights are usually not a recommended option for training. Anything that puts strain into your neck should be approached cautiously and only ever under expert supervision.
This being said, there are some uses for neck weights. Certain sports will require strong neck muscles- these include contact sports like rugby, American football, boxing and martial arts. If used carefully and under light load, for high reps, neck weights may therefore be appropriate for some athletes.
Casual athletes and gym goers should avoid them.
A third iconic, very popular piece of kit on this list, ankle weights are quite commonly seen. But do ankle weights work?
Well, yes and no. No, they do not elicit much by way of hypertrophy. Most only go up to around 10kg which, considering they’re to be used by your legs, is hardly any weight at all. However, they are great for endurance athletes, or for those looking to give their HIIT a boost.
Use light weights (just a few kilos) to make walking harder, or to boost your star jumps and on-the-spot running during aerobic sessions. Even use them all day long, under your trousers, to increase global caloric burn as you go about your normal life.
Ankle weights can also be used to build muscle in other parts of the body. Pull ups and dips can be made harder using them, for instance.
However, ankle weight use over time, or at inappropriate weights, can put a lot of stress into the knees and hips. Use light weights for high rep work like walking to make the most out of them safely.
Shoe weights are something of an odd cousin of the ankle weights, albeit with some very solid practical uses. They are generally strapped on around the outside of your shoes and are used to add resistance to explosive lower body movements, like kicking, sprinting or plyometric routines.
However, caution should be employed when using them for this kind of thing. The added weight can throw your gait and technique off- sprint too often with them, and regular sprinting technique will suffer.
Shoe weights are perfect for increasing effort through walking and everyday activities. In this regard, they are well worth the investment, and work very similarly to ankle weights.
Weighted belts are perfect for increasing the resistance through upper body movements like pull ups and dips. They consist of padded belts attached around the waist, and they have pockets to hold weights at progressive loads. They should be adjustable, making for a snug fit for anybody.
Weighted belts can also be used for long distance endurance, like running and walking, though they are slightly cumbersome compared to weighted vests or ankle weights. However, though they have fewer practical uses, weighted belts are sometimes preferred over weighted vests and shirts. They don’t cover the whole torso, meaning they keep you cooler as you train.
In general, they are perhaps not that worth the investment, however. If you want to make endurance work harder, vests, shirts and backpacks are better. If you want to make your pull ups and dips harder, and don’t want to wear a shirt, a chain with a couple of barbell plates works perfectly well.
The upper body’s response to ankle weights, wrist weights are great for replacing light weight dumbbells during high rep work, endurance activities and HIIT protocols. Alternatively, they can be used in conjunction with dumbbells and barbells for added resistance (though heavier dumbbells or an extra plate on the bar make a bit more sense…)
Wrist weights are perfect for endurance work. Use them in aerobic sessions to increase the burn through your arms and shoulders or wear them (perhaps alongside wrist weights) for a run or power walk to increase the difficulty. They can also be worn, once more perhaps in conjunction with other weighted clothing, in your everyday life. Caloric burn will improve, as will cardiovascular capabilities, as every action is made just that much more challenging.
Weighted sleeves work much the same as wrist weights, except that the weight is more evenly spread along your either your forearm or, often, your entire arm. They are great for improving muscular endurance and speed in your arms. The spread of weight will make them slightly kinder to your joints than wrist weights, though the decreased leverage will mean you will likely need to use more weight.
Athletes whose disciplines require competent, strong arm mechanics will benefits the most from weighted sleeves. Golfers, tennis players, cricketers and martial artists all fall into this category.
As with wrist weights, weighted sleeves should be quite discreet. You will be able to wear them all day if you want, once more increasing energy expenditure in everything you do.
Again, these work very similarly to wrist weights, and can be used to much the same effect. They add resistance to the upper body, allowing the wearer to train for extra speed and endurance through the arms and hands.
Boxers and martial artists will especially benefit from weighted gloves. Shadow boxing and kata lend themselves perfectly to improvement with their usage. Groundwork and throws will also be possible with most weighted gloves, as most designs keep the weight on the back of the hand. It’s important to be careful, however, and to never strike using them: your opponent won’t appreciate having the full force of your punch augmented by 2-3kg!
Most gloves come with fixed weights, and it can be a challenge to find a pair that are a good fit and offer perfect resistance. However, doing so can be very rewarding.
No, these aren’t designed to just fall down around your ankles.
Weighted shorts are designed to add resistance to the hip flexors, knee joints and quadriceps. They are aimed at athletes looking to improve lower body speed and strength. Generally, they will be as form fitting as possible, will have adjustable weights, and should be made of sturdy yet breathable fabric for comfort.
Try wearing them as you jog or run- or even sprint. They can improve lower body calisthenic work like jumping squats and lunges.
However, unlike with your arms, pretty much every lower body movement is loaded by everything on the body. Think about squats: you have the bar across your back, not your hips or glutes. For this reason, weighted shorts may be a little redundant: you can get the same effect, along with much greater versatility, from simply performing the same exercises with a weighted vest or shirt.
Alternatively, you can try weighted leg sleeves, which strap on around the shins and calves. These use both the knees and hip joints as leverage and so can have great effects on the quads and hip flexors. They can also be used for running and calisthenics- though here, too, a weighted vest will usually be more than sufficient. Sleeves are of most use to martial artists and footballers, looking to practice kicking with a bit more resistance: in this regard, they are more akin to ankle weights than anything else.
These are the most common weighted clothing types and alternatives available. They all have their strengths and weakness, though some have more of one or the other. Generally speaking, ankle and wrist weights, weighted vests and perhaps weighted backpacks will be able to see you through anything and everything you need from weighted clothing.
But what if you don’t want to buy specialist kit? Will heavy clothing do the job instead, or can you make your own weighted clothing from home, as hinted above? Let’s take a look.
Alternatives: Does DIY work?
Does wearing thick clothes while working out work?
Not really, no. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, define what you mean by heavy. Unless you have a shirt that weighs 10kg, it will make a poor substitute for a weighted vest. Unless you want to wear iron shoes, you will still need ankle weights (you can train with steel toe caps, of course, but running around in industrial footwear will cripple the arches and metatarsals in your feet.)
For this reason, whilst it’s possible to increase resistance with heavy clothing, it’s not very practical- at least not to the degree we are looking for with weighted clothing.
In addition, proper weighted clothing is quite compact. The weights are all dense little metal nuggets. This means you can keep layers quite comfortable, without having to be swaddled.
If you train wearing seven hoodies for the weight or go running in a pair of 12-ounce boxing gloves, you will definitely lose weight. However, most of this will be from water weight as you sweat profusely. This risks dehydration and does little to either build muscle or burn fat, which will most often be the goals in place.
In general, relative weight of regular clothing vs weighted clothing means that you won’t be getting much by way of resistance, and the practicalities of layering up just don’t work out.
If you want DIY weighted clothing, rather than putting on your whole wardrobe at once, or buying extra thick, heavy gear, simply try making your own proper weighted clothing. It’s easier than you’d think, for most pieces of kit.
How to make weighted clothing
Let’s talk about weighted vests and weighted backpacks. They are some of the more common, more versatile forms of weighted clothing, they are the easiest to make at home, and anything you learn from making them will be transferable to other types of weighted clothing.
First off, backpacks are super easy. You can pick up a relatively secure backpack for a few dollars. You can pick up a few bags of sugar or flour for even less. Put the sugar or flour bags into the backpack, and you have a weighted backpack. Alternatively, put some dumbbell plates in there- you would be surprised how much weight you can store.
Make sure to tighten the straps up. When you put the backpack on, you want it secure and immovable to limit momentum. As long as it’s secure and heavy enough, you’re good to go.
Weighted vests are a little harder but can definitely be done. Start off with a robust top and some plates. Try using grip plates as they have slots in their faces to tie them down with. For the vest itself, an old football jersey or set of hockey shoulder pads will do- just make sure there is a good fit.
For a simple version, use industrial tape or rope to tie the weights in place, evenly spread across your pecs and upper back.
For a more durable version, consider adding some plywood beneath the chest for extra security. Get some cable ties or straps and attach them in place using ¼ inch bolts, drilling through shirt and plywood alike.
Make sure to place them in such a way that you can get the plates on where you want them. Also, try to use a plate and strap arrangement that will have three straps, equally placed, around the circumference of each plate. This will stop the plates from swinging as you train.
It’s rough and ready, but it will give you the added resistance and versatility you need to properly fatigue yourself.
Weighted Clothing for Everyday Use
We’ve mentioned this already, in our roundup of some of the different alternatives of weighted clothing available. However, it’s worth quickly noting again that many types of weighted clothing can be used on a daily basis, all day long.
In particular, ankle and wrist weights, weighted vests, and weighted backpacks are perfect for almost constant use.
If you’re using ankle and wrist weights, keep them light. You don’t want every movement to feel like a bicep curl- this isn’t the point of them. You just want your total energy expenditure to rise for the whole day. A couple of kilograms should do this- after a full eight-hour workday, plus commute, you will be shattered and your weight loss or endurance improvement will be quite profound.
Weighted vests are great, but they may make you overheat as they will be wrapped tightly around your torso. Wear one when you go out for a walk, as you make your way through your workday, as you commute- as with wrist weights, keep it relatively light and prepare to feel exhausted.
Weighted backpacks obviously won’t be used all day long- unless you habitually wear a backpack 24/7. However, a weighted backpack will make your commute a lot harder and more effective. It will make walking the dog and popping to the shops into more of a workout.
However, any form of weighted clothing can be used more generally than simply during a set, defined workout. They lend themselves perfectly to increasing daily energy expenditure and improving overall fitness and endurance.
Weighted Clothing’s Main Uses
When talking about fitness, we will be mainly talking about weighted clothing’s use in resistance and weight training, or as an accessory to steady state cardio.
For use during resistance training, weighted clothing is most often seen augmenting already challenging bodyweight movements. This is perfect for more advanced athletes who require added resistance in order to stick to progressive overload: if you can do twenty pull ups without breaking a sweat, consider performing them with a weighted vest.
In addition to increasing the resistance through relatively fixed movements like push ups and pull ups, amplifying the pressure felt through the muscles, bones and ligaments, weighted clothing can also be used to add resistance to ballistic movements. More force- more explosive power- will be needed to overcome this increased inertia, and more stability will be needed at the end of the movement to provide necessary deceleration. Movements like squat jumps and high knee runs are typical of this kind of training, though there are some concerns as to how safe such weighted explosive movements are for the joints- more on this below.
Fans of Dragon Ball will most likely be very familiar with weighted clothing’s use in training- several key characters make use of it! Master Roshi wears a heavy-weighted turtle shell on his back, as do Kuririn and Goku during their time training with him. They are all shown as having their strength and power improved by using weighted clothing in their training, and all experience heightened speed and power when they take the weighted clothing off.
Though it’s only a cartoon, of course, this is fairly close to the mark!
Weighted clothing’s effect on the cardiovascular system is typically achieved using small weights attached to train endurance during repetitive, often steady-state movements. Jogging, running, swimming and skipping are all examples of exercises in which increased weight will lead to a more profound cardiovascular training effect.
Sensory integration therapy
As an aside from its use in fitness training, weighted clothing is also often used in a therapeutic setting, as mentioned above. Sensory integration therapy (SIT) is a popular therapy for children, especially those with autism or any other developmental problems.
SIT makes use of weighted vests, belts and blankets. The theory behind it is that behavioural problems such as inattentiveness and stereotypy (repetitive or ritualistic movements, postures, or utterances) are in part caused by over- or under- sensitivity to sensory input. Weighted clothing or blankets provide calming proprioceptive feedback.
Though scientific data is a little scarce on the topic, experts generally agree that SIT is often a viable and appropriate route for treatment and therapy.
The Pros and Cons of Weighted Clothing
So, we now basically know what weighted clothing is and how it can be used. But what are the benefits of using it, and what are the potential downsides or dangers?
Of course there are some definite positives when it comes to using weighted clothing in your training. We have already seen a little of what it can bring to each workout, and how it can enhance individual exercises, but let’s take a bit of a closer look:
Weighted clothing is, unsurprisingly, weighted. Any weights used when training are there specifically to bring greater intensity to any given exercise, from the humblest dumbbell curl to an earth-shattering deadlift.
Weighted clothing adds more weight to your body, which means more resistance, which means more effort through your muscles and cardiovascular system. You can use this to either make cardio harder or to elicit hypertrophy and strength and power gains.
Easy to work with
Part of the joy of bodyweight training is that, compared to weightlifting, the movements are all pretty easy to learn and perfect. We can all do a couple of push ups, a couple of squats, and a couple of pull ups. Using weighted clothing adds intensity to these simple moves without you having to invest much time in learning more complex escalations (though, as we will see below, using weighted clothing can be less appropriate for beginners than initially imagined).
Barbells and squat racks are not exactly easy to move around. Weighted clothing is. You can carry it in the boot of your car, wear it as you travel, or you can just fold it away into a handy suitcase. There are even variants out there that use water weight: you can travel with them empty, fill them up when you get where you’re going, and skip the hassle of having to carry the heavy weight around with you.
… easy to customise…
This is especially pertinent to weight vests and weighted back packs (see below); however, it’s roughly true across the board when talking about weighted clothing and all its variations and alternatives.
If you go with weighted variants, you can usually add or subtract as much weight as you want. If you find water variations, you can fill them up as much as you want. Much like you can with plates on a barbell or dumbbell, you can usually suit weighted clothing to your level, the requirements of each session, and the intensity you want to reach for on any given day.
… and convenient to use
We’ve all had access to the gym trimmed down in recent months as global lockdown has followed the coronavirus pandemic. A boom in calisthenic training and yoga has followed as, deprived of fancy kit and heavy weights, we’ve all gone back to basics.
However, there is a sharp, early plateau to this kind of training in a lot of cases. Without the ability to add intensity in the form of weight, progressive overload can be something of a challenge to meet. With weighted clothing, however, this needn’t be the case. You can fold it up and store it anywhere in your house and then bring it out for training, adding much needed resistance to your bodyweight program.
It is safe… mostly
Weighted clothing is pretty safe to use. Though injuries are absolutely possible in large, compound bodyweight movements, they are a lot harder to come by, and usually a lot less severe, than injuries caused by free weights. This roughly extends outwards to weighted clothing: you will be pretty safe performing weighted dips, pull ups or push ups.
There are, of course, some things to bear in mind- which we’ll go into below, in the cons section. However, as a rule of thumb, weighted clothing is a pretty safe way to add resistance to your routine.
But is weighted clothing all it’s cracked up to be? Is it even particularly safe? We have seen that there are plenty of benefits to make you seriously consider using it in your own training, but let’s take some time now to look at the negatives:
Issues with the fit
With barbells and dumbbells, we can confidently say that one size broadly fits all. Your form will usually adjust to accommodate the size of equipment relative to your own proportions. This isn’t the case with weighted clothing, however (especially weighted vests).
Many people don’t consider the fit or cannot find the perfect fit for their frames. Many brands even go so far as to claim that their products are one size fits all. Obviously, getting a vest or weighted belt that is too small is a no brainer: you probably won’t be able to put it on in the first place. However, clothing that is too loose can be an issue: the loose weight will end up swinging and will disrupt your momentum, placing your joints in precarious positions.
Always make sure that weighted clothing fits you properly before using it.
Aggravating existing injuries
Aside from causing injuries to your joints, weighted clothing may also exacerbate existing injuries. If you have issues with core muscles or stabilising muscles in any given exercise, adding precarious weight to bodyweight movements can do some real harm.
For instance, if you have a shoulder issue, weighted dips or pull ups will likely exacerbate the problem, damaging soft tissue and worsening inflammation. If you do have any injuries, it’s worth talking to your healthcare provider or a qualified trainer before trying weighted clothing.
Weighted clothing is often seen as a bit of a soft, safe option. We have all seen people new to exercise going for power walks with ankle and wrist weights.
Weighted clothing may not be appropriate for beginners like this. Due to their precariousness, and the added load over time as they are worn throughout the day, they are often best used by experienced athletes looking to increase resistance and heighten the training effect of any given exercise than newbies looking for something simple and easy.
Sore necks are common
With many forms of weighted clothing- especially torso focussed ones like vests and backpacks- much of the pressure will be in the neck. To add a few kilograms of pressure to your neck for often prolonged periods of time is incredibly unwise, as injuries can be easily caused or exacerbated.
Of course, knowing the pros and cons of using weighted clothing will likely keep you safe. If you think you’re in a position to safely benefit from using it, it can be an invaluable resource in your training. If not- if you’re relatively new to training or if you have any history of injury or joint issues- perhaps consider trying something else. Either way, it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor and/or trainer before starting out.