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Ankle weights and weighted vests are two ways to make your workouts more challenging. Which one is the best depends on your training goals.
Most people find it hardest to choose between these two options for cardio workouts like walking and running. In general, weighted vests are the best for these.
If you really dislike weighted vests for some reason you could also walk with ankle weights. For running, ankle weights are generally not recommended because they can influence your gait coordination.
In terms of resistance training, weighted vests are also often the preferred choice. Especially for compound exercises where big muscles and muscle groups need a lot of resistance.
That being said, there are exceptions. Ankle weights are generally slightly better in certain isolation exercises for weak muscles and in lower ab isolation exercises.
So if you want to create the best workout program with either ankle weights or a weighted vest, a weighted vest is generally the best choice. For specific goals, one or the other can be a better choice.
What exercises are they good for
Ankle weights and weighted vests are both based on the principle that more challenging workouts tend to offer more health benefits (as long as you don’t overdo it).
At the same time, by strapping on these extra weights in different locations, the effects and areas where the equipment options are the best also become different.
Cardio workouts tend to be the option that is most confusing in terms of whether a weighted vest or ankle weights are better. Especially walking and running.
If you find ankle weights and weighted vests equally comfortable and don’t necessarily want to focus on your quadriceps and hip flexors, weighted vests are generally the better choice.
The first reason for this is that weighted vests will engage your muscles in a more natural ratio. In turn, this can help you avoid muscle imbalances.
Secondly, ankle weights can influence your gait to a certain extent, even when you stop using them. This can lead to instability in your daily life and other activities.
That being said, for a lighter workout like walking or climbing the Stairmaster, ankle weights are still somewhat acceptable even if the weighted vest is better.
For these workouts, you could use ankle weights good for walking if you really dislike wearing a weighted vest or don’t have one available.
In more intense workouts like running and sports that involve running, these downsides of ankle weights are magnified even more. That means that for running, a weighted vest is definitely preferred.
Compound exercises are movements where you work out multiple muscles at the same time. The opposite is isolation exercises where you focus on one muscle or muscle group.
Examples of compound exercises include squats, lunges, pushups, shoulder presses, pull-ups, etc.
In something like pushups, ankle weights have no influence on how challenging the exercise is and in turn, don’t offer extra health benefits.
For exercises like squats and lunges, you would have to wear the ankle weights on your wrists to add a (small) challenge.
In many exercises, the higher weight limit of the weighted vest is necessary to work the strong muscles involved to a sufficient extent.
Three exceptions include pull-ups, dips, and potentially shoulder presses for resistance training beginners.
In these examples, you do not need a lot of extra weight to make the movement challenging enough for muscle growth and strengthening.
In short, weighted vests are better for most compound exercises but in some exercises, heavy ankle weights could be enough for resistance training beginners.
Leg muscle isolation exercises
Isolation exercises are movements where you focus on one muscle or muscle group. When it comes to isolating leg muscles specifically, ankle weights can be more helpful than a weighted vest.
This is because the isolation exercises for these muscles (leg adductions, leg abductions, glute kickbacks, clamshells, etc.) often do not allow you to use your weighted vest in a helpful way.
There are exceptions like lying leg curls, lying leg raises, and seated leg extensions where you can clamp the weighted vest between your legs. However, even in these, ankle weights tend to be more comfortable and convenient.
One downside of ankle weights is that they have relatively low weight ceilings. For glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and potentially inner and outer thigh muscles, you may need more resistance to be able to grow and strengthen these muscles.
If that is the case, a different piece of fitness equipment called resistance bands can be a better option than ankle weights.
Arm muscle isolation exercises
Arm isolation exercises focus on muscles/muscle groups like forearms, biceps, triceps, and the three deltoid muscle heads (main shoulder muscle).
Some examples include wrist curls, bicep curls, overhead tricep extensions, and lateral raises.
While ankle weights may be a bit more convenient in these exercises due to their compactness, you can also hold your weighted vest in your hand and do the exercise that way.
The higher weight limit of weighted vests can be really important when it comes to growing and strengthening arm muscles. That is why you generally want to choose a weighted vest over ankle weights for arm isolation exercises.
Ab isolation exercises
Lastly, ankle weights are also often used for ab isolation exercises where you move your hips towards your chest. More specifically, ab exercises focused on the lower part of this muscle.
Some examples of these include lying leg raises, hanging leg raises, reverse crunches, etc. Ankle weights are helpful for these since your legs/hips are the body parts that move.
That being said, you can also clamp a weighted vest between your legs or even strap it around both of your legs. This will have a similar effect on your ab isolation exercises as ankle weights.
Ab muscles are relatively weak so both ankle weights and a weighted vest are likely sufficient for this. Since ankle weights are generally more comfortable and harder to drop in these situations, they are generally the best of the two options for ab isolation exercises.
From a high-level view, to grow and strengthen muscles you have to challenge them hard enough. Initially, you can do bodyweight exercises to strengthen most muscles. At a certain point, you likely need more resistance by using extra weights.
After that, you gradually have to keep increasing the resistance as you get stronger to keep seeing muscle growth and strength progress. For this the weight limit of equipment options is important.
Ankle weights generally go up to 20 pounds (9 kg) in total, so 10 pounds (4.5 kg) on each leg. Weighted vests can easily be found up to 100 pounds (45 kg). Good heavy weighted vests often go even higher.
For weaker muscles like abs, forearms, biceps, etc. this will not matter as much. However, for compound exercises with big muscles, weighted vests will be able to offer a lot more health benefits like building more muscle, burning more calories, improving cardiovascular health more, etc.
The price differences between ankle weights and a weighted vest will vary from brand to brand but there are some general trends.
A 20-pound weighted vest tends to be cheaper than 20 pounds of ankle weights. This is the most relevant in terms of the most potential for strength gains at the lowest price.
That being said, because ankle weights are available in lower weights, the cheapest ones cost less than the cheapest weighted vests. This can be relevant on a low budget.