Professional athletes, military personnel, and regular gym-goers all use a weighted vest to get bigger, faster, and stronger.
So working out with an additional load is not a bad idea, but how effective are the weighted vests for muscle building?
As a whole, walking with a weighted vest does help to build and preserve muscle mass, specifically in the type I muscle fibers.
When combined with bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups, it can lead to optimal hypertrophy gains.
However, the results may vary depending on the individual fitness level, duration of wearing a vest, and weight of the vest.
Can a weighted vest build muscle?
We know from science that weighted vest training can make you run faster, jump higher, and burn more calories. However, there is not much information in regard to building muscle mass.
In a nutshell, walking with a weighted vest is not enough to stimulate optimal hypertrophy and build muscle.
Studies have shown that increased loading from a weighted vest has a positive effect on elevating heart rate and decreasing serum leptin levels, but has no significant effect on the skeletal muscle.
You may have heard about the famous research article by John-Olov Jansson, MD, Ph.D., and his colleagues from the University of Gothenburg on “gravitostat”.
The researchers looked at the effects of carrying a weighted vest on biological body weight.
The results have shown that an increase in body weight activates sensors in the bones that regulate hunger. Therefore, carrying a weighted vest was effective in controlling food intake, but it was not effective in hypertrophy.
In other words, walking with a weighted vest helps to reduce hunger and burn extra calories, but to build an optimum amount of muscle, you need more than mechanical loading from the vest.
You also need resistance training that reaches muscle failure.
Are weighted vests good for building muscle?
Are weighted vests good to build muscle? Well, it depends.
If you wanna build muscle mass, the most effective way is to get to the gym and lift heavy stuff. I would be a fool if I tell you that it’s better to ditch barbell squats, deadlifts, and bench press and substitute that with weighted vest workouts.
You still can build some amount of muscle by carrying a weighted vest, as long as you meet the right training volume and intensity.
“Both high-load and low-load training can elicit significant increases in muscle hypertrophy among well-trained people,” says a researcher and hypertrophy expert from New York, Brad J Schoenfeld, Ph.D.
“However, low-load (which is resistance training that uses 30-60% of your 1RM, has to be done to failure,” explains Dr. Schoenfeld.
So yes, carrying a weighted vest that is heavy work. Plus, doing squats with a weighted vest, or other bodyweight training can, indeed, make you big and strong.
(As long as you carry WV with a decent weight.)
On the other hand, you won’t get big just from walking on the treadmill with a weighted vest.
Does walking with a weighted vest build muscle?
Wearing a weighted vest can build muscle, specifically in the type I muscle fibers, but it won’t make you jacked.
If you want to achieve good results (similar to heavy weight lifting) you would need to walk around with your vest all the time until it reaches volitional fatigue (the point when the muscle can no longer perform the movement).
Without reaching muscle failure, you won’t get significant gains in hypertrophy.
This means that the juice is not worth the squeeze because you would have to carry a weighted vest all day long, climb up the stairs, and hike in the hills. And even if you would see some improvements, that would be mainly in the lower body, and it wouldn’t be worth it.
What does science say about weighted vests and muscle building?
If like me, you love to geek in scientific literature, you probably noticed that most of the publications online do not mention substantial hypertrophy gains.
Most of the studies on simulated hypergravity training look at athletic performance like biomechanical changes, running speed, or jumping power.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, novice lifters can achieve optimal hypertrophy when performing an exercise with 8−12 repetitions done for 1−3 sets with the intensity of 70−85% of 1RM (one repetition maximum).
On the other hand, advanced lifters need to perform an exercise for 3−6 sets with 1−12 rep range with the intensity of 70−100% of 1RM.
My point is that to maximize hypertrophy from weighted vest training, you would need to add bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, push-ups, dips, or burpees.
And as long as you meet the optimal volume and training load, you will build tons of muscle.
How to use a weighted vest to build muscle
In general, you can build muscle using a weighted vest by doing calisthenics workouts 3-4 days per week. For best results, choose a weight that equals to 10-20% of your body weight and apply progressive overload.
NOTE: Please remember that recovery is as important for muscle growth as the actual workout.
Use a weighted vest for bodyweight exercises
Doing weighted bodyweight moves like chin-ups, jumping lunges, bear crawls, farmers’ walks and push-ups help to induce muscle failure, induce muscle protein synthesis and stimulate hypertrophy.
I would not recommend doing barbell exercises with a weighted vest. I’d skip it during your compound moves because that could reduce your training progress.
Choose the weighted vest between 10-20% of your body weight
Use the weighted vest that is heavy enough to induce enough mechanical tension.
Lighter vests that equal less than 5% of your body weight may be effective to induce higher metabolic costs, burning more calories, and elevating your heart rate.
However, they won’t be effective to build a serious amount of muscle.
On the other hand, when you carry a vest that is too heavy it can make you feel lethargic, pull on your muscles, and make you sore in various parts of the body.
This will dramatically reduce your ability to wear that vest all the time.
Wear a weighted vest during cardio workouts
Wearing a vest when you run may not be as effective to induce muscle protein synthesis, but it can definitively help to reduce muscle protein breakdown.
For cardio, I recommend wearing a vest that equals to 5-10% of body weight.
You can also wear a weighted vest throughout that day, which will burn more calories and transform your regular daily tasks like washing the dishes or cleaning up the house into a physical challenge.
Apply progressive overload
To build muscle and strength, you need to follow the progressive overload principle. This means you should gradually do more reps, sets, and overall training volume while wearing a vest.
Plus, in the beginning, not every workout has to be with the vest. If you train 4 times per week, start with only 1 weighted workout. Most of the guys in the military don’t train hard every day. In fact, they use concepts like Weight Vest Wednesday as a one-time challenge.
I see a lot of information about the benefits of wearing a weighted vest in regards to sprinting speed, cardiovascular fitness, and running performance, but not on muscle building.
You can gain 1-5 lbs of muscle after wearing a weighted vest for 7-30 days. However, the amount of muscle mass you gain will depend on your workout program, how long you wear the vest, and how heavy is the vest.