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There are many different ways to improve your current exercise routine. What about walking with weights, what are the pros, cons, and alternatives?
Walking with weights can offer a few benefits over regular walking but it is not for everyone. Some workouts like strength training can help you get certain benefits to a larger extent than walking with weights.
Not all external weights are equally useful and safe to use when walking. Generally, good weighted vests are the safest, most comfortable, and most effective way to walk with extra weight.
This article will go over who can consider walking with weights, what benefits you can expect from it, what different weights you can use, how to avoid injuries when walking with weights, and what alternatives may be better for achieving your workout goals.
Should you walk with weights?
Before going into the benefits you have to know that walking with weights can also have a few downsides.
Walking is generally a low injury-risk workout. Carrying weights while walking increases the pressure on your body and thus the injury risk.
Not all types of weight to walk with are equal. Some external weights like a weighted vest generally only increase pressure on the same muscles you already use in a “normal” ratio.
On the other hand, walking with, for example, ankle weights engages your muscles in a different ratio. This can lead to muscular imbalances that in turn can lead to a change in gait that may not be optimal for your daily life or walking performance (1, 2).
Some of the benefits of walking with weights may not outweigh the downsides. Other workouts may also offer these extra benefits without the downsides.
If you are injury-sensitive it may be smarter to not use extra external weights.
Benefits of walking with weights
If your body can handle walking with weights it can offer you some of the following benefits compared to regular walking.
Helps you burn more calories
A big factor in how many calories you burn during a walking session is your weight. To move around your body needs energy, measured in calories. The more weight you carry, the more energy you need to fuel movement.
For example a 155-pound (70 kg) person walking for 30 minutes at 3 mph (4.8 kmh) burns around 128 calories.
On the other hand, a 185-pound (83 kg) person walking for 30 minutes at 3 mph (4.8 kmh) burns around 153 calories.
There will likely be a difference in how much external weights increase calorie-burning vs the same weight in body fat but that just shows how walking with weights can benefit calorie burning and in turn weight control.
Helps you build more muscle
One of the benefits of walking is that even though it is mainly a cardio workout, it can also you build and preserve some muscle mass. Extra muscle is not only beneficial for your health in many ways but it is also considered to be visually appealing.
Generally the more weight you have to move, the more muscle you will build with an exercise. That’s one of the reasons why people go to a gym instead of doing bodyweight exercises at home.
This means that walking with weights can help you build more muscle compared to walking without.
Can improve cardiovascular health
Your cardiovascular system is the circulatory system inside of your body and includes heart and blood vessels. These transport many types of important nutrients, oxygen, and waste throughout your body.
When you move more intensely your body needs to transport these things, which means using your heart, at a higher rate.
Your heart is a muscle that can be trained by using it more intensely. Walking with weights makes your heart beat faster and thus helps you strengthen your cardiovascular system more. This in turn leads to a wide variety of other benefits (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
Do keep in mind that muscles can get injured. If you have not done any physical activity in a long time you may want to start out with low-intensity movements without extra external weights and build up from there.
Makes your walking more time-efficient
One downside of walking as a form of exercise is that you have to do it for a while to get in a good workout. Luckily exercising is not only about how long you do it, by making walking more intense you can get more benefits in less time.
For example to build muscle you basically want to put enough strain on your muscles so muscle growth processes start. This doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time out of your day.
A more intense cardio workout can train your cardiovascular system in a shorter amount of time than one at a lower intensity.
Wearing a walking accessory like a weighted vest can help with both of these things. This benefit of walking with a weighted vest is especially useful if you have trouble finding enough time throughout your day to fit in a workout.
Improves bone density
The way many parts of your body work is that by challenging them you set in motion processes that strengthen these body parts. The same goes for your bones, by putting pressure on them you make them stronger in the long term.
Walking with a weighted vest puts more pressure on your bones than walking without one. This in turn will benefit your bone density in the long term (14). One question is how much of a difference it makes.
One study compared walking with a weighted vest (up to 8% of the body weight of the participants) to walking without one 3 times a week for 12 weeks. They found improvements in bone health markers but these were not statistically significant (15).
Different weights to walk with
Not all types of external weights are equally useful and safe for walking. By making the right choice you can avoid injuries and gain more benefits.
A weighted vest is simply a vest with some weight, often sand, added to it. You can wear a weighted vest while walking to make your workout more challenging.
Generally you want your weighted vest to be about 4-10% of your body weight. With some of the best weighted vests for walking you can also go outside of this range but that is not always recommended.
Walking with a weighted vest is generally the best way to run with weights. This is because it only increases pressure on the same muscles you already use in a “normal” ratio.
Weighted belts again put most of their weight on your body but this time the area covered is limited to your waist. A benefit of this is that you have more breathing room during your walks compared to a weighted vest.
A potential downside is that even the best weighted belts have a relatively low weight capacity. If you really want to make walking a lot more intense you will have to go for certain weighted vests.
Weighted belts typically stay in place relatively well. However, the risk of them moving around is still higher than many of the other weights you can use for walking.
Ankle weights are simply straps with some extra weight that are attached to your ankles. They can be used in many exercises including walking to add some extra resistance to your training.
Ankle weights may be a relatively popular way to add some external weight to your walking training but they are typically not optimal.
The ankle weights can influence the coordination between your brains and your legs and work your muscles in an unusual ratio.
This can lead to muscular imbalances and a change in gait that may not be optimal for your daily life or walking performance.
That being said, for walking you can still get away with using good lighter ankle weights that don’t get in the way too much. Weighted vests are a better choice for most people but you may not like the way they fit and their price tags.
Wrist weights are very similar to ankle weights but as the name implies you attach them to your wrists. Although to a lesser extent, similar to ankle weights, wrist weights can lead to some change in gait.
On the other hand, by walking with wrist weights you engage your arm muscles slightly more on top of the common potential benefits of walking with weights.
For that reason, you may still decide to invest in one of the best wrist weights for walking. Make sure you choose a model that will fit comfortably and won’t hit your body in every step you take.
Another option is walking with actual external weights, for example light dumbbells, in your hands. The effects are similar to walking with wrist weights but there are some small differences.
It’s easier to make a mistake like dropping the weights involuntarily. The chances of that may be small but if it happens you have to stop walking for a little bit. On the flip side, you do train your grip strength a little bit.
Weights in a backpack
Lastly some people even purposely walk with a heavy backpack. Depending on how you approach it this may be ok but there are some possible issues.
The first issue is that the weights in the backpack or the backpack itself can move around. Secondly compared to a weighted vest the weight distribution of a heavy backpack is more uneven. This can cause lower back issues.
How to avoid injuries
Another important point when walking with weights is the injury risk involved. An injury can reduce the amount of time you can exercise to 0 in the worst case. Consistency is an important factor when improving your health. Doing one big workout is often not as effective as three medium ones.
That means that walking without weights may offer slightly fewer benefits today but more in the long term by avoiding periods of injury in which you do no exercise at all.
Especially if you are more of an exercise beginner you want to start with gentle walks without any weights and build up from there. Many weight types allow you to change up the weight. In that case you can start with lower weights first and if that goes well go up to higher weights.
If you feel pain in any body parts it may be a sign you are overdoing it. In that case, you may need some rest, better lifestyle habits, a less intense workout schedule, or it may be a sign that walking with weights is not for you.
In general walking with a weighted vest will be the safest way to walk with weights.
What is your goal with walking with weights?
It may also be smart to consider what your goal is with walking with weights.
If you are aiming for the benefits associated with more muscle mass, implementing days with strength training exercises is likely a better option.
You don’t necessarily have to get a gym subscription, just some bodyweight exercises can go a long way.
You may be interested in a more intense cardio workout. In that case, running may offer a similar effect.
It’s possible that running is not an option because it is a high-impact exercise that can be rough on ankles, shins, knees, and back. In that case, walking with weights may be a good alternative.
Walking with weights can also be a fun way to make your walking sessions more challenging. If you don’t like running but do want more intense workout sessions, walking with weights may be the solution.
Walking with the right types of weights can certainly be beneficial for some groups of people. For others, it may be smarter to stick to the more popular regular walking.
As long as you don’t cross your limits making an exercise more intense is usually beneficial for your long-term health. The challenge is being able to do this without injuries.
The message is rather safe than sorry. Especially if you are an injury-sensitive and/or inactive individual you may want to start with soft workouts and build up slowly from there.