Weighted Vest Squats: Benefits, variations, and how to program

The author of Lunch Break Fitness performing squats in a weighted vest.

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If you’ve ever debated whether you’re capable of building leg muscle and strength with less resistance, such as that provided in the weighted vest squat, then stick around through this article. We’re going to discuss how squatting with a weighted vest can help you build the legs you desire while retaining the maximum time efficiency and simplicity afforded to us by the weight vest.

Squats with a weighted vest are an excellent way to build muscle mass in the quadriceps and core musculature while also maintaining a good heart rate and requiring minimal rest intervals. They are an excellent step up from traditional air squats, without requiring the equipment or time commitment of a heavy barbell squatting session.

Whether you’re planning to use weight vest squats as part of a conditioning circuit, hypertrophy program, or as a stand-alone leg day, read on to learn how to modify this versatile exercise to fit your needs.

The obvious question: are weighted vest squats as good as barbell squats

Well … yes and no.

The reason I say “yes and no” is because it depends on your goal.

If your goal is to build bulging legs, then traditional barbell squats are king. Similarly, if your goal is to build brutal maximal strength, the barbell variation will work best. There’s just simply no way you’ll be able to load a weighted vest squat heavy enough to receive the stimulus you’d get from traditional lifting exercises.

However, if your goal is to build good muscle mass and endurance in the legs while easily avoiding the potential stimulus-to-fatigue ratio tradeoffs associated with the barbell squat, then weighted vest squats are where you should be putting your time.

Similarly, if you’re planning to use squats as part of a conditioning circuit, then weighted vest squats are an obvious choice.

The two good uses of weighted vest squats

How to use weighted vest squats for hypertrophy

I’m going to assume for the purposes of this article that you know how to squat. If you don’t, there are a million “how to” videos on YouTube and elsewhere that you can access. In this section, we’re going to simply go over some subtle form cues to bias the weight vest squat towards muscle building in the quads.

If you’re trying to use weighted vest squats for hypertrophy, consider similar cues that we would use when trying to bias the push-up for hypertrophy:

  • Slow eccentrics are a must. Descend over 2-3 seconds, minimum, per rep.
  • Spend time paused at the bottom. I like a one second pause, but you’re welcome to pause for 2-3 seconds if you wish.
  • EXPLODE back to the top as aggressively as you can.
  • Spend no time at all paused at the top. We want no intra-set recovery time, if possible.

Folks who can bang out 50 reps with a 50lb dumbbell will be humbled when they try this variation. Get ready for your reps to be cut in half (at least), and for your quads to burn like never before.

How to use weighted vest squats for conditioning

If, on the other hand, you’re attempting to use weighted vest squats as part of a conditioning circuit (resistance cardio, or “cardiosthenics”, as I’ve heard it called), then the primary function of the squat will be to burn out the quads while simultaneously keeping your heart rate high.

In this case, we don’t care as much about slow eccentrics and pauses at the bottom. What we want is to keep the set moving. Since we won’t be hitting muscular failure in the traditional sense, this is one area where I condone rep goals per set.

Shooting for 15-30 repetitions per set should do the trick. Depending on how much and how often you’re squatting currently, you may find that this build strength and endurance simultaneously.

I like to increase the repetitions over time, but I find that getting hung up on the rep numbers is counterproductive. Pick a rep number, stick with it, and add reps next time if it becomes too easy.

This variation fits very well into weight loss or fat loss phases, as we know that a weighted vest increases not only tension in the muscles, but calories burned during exercise as well.

How much weight to add to your vest

My personal V-Max Weighted Vest on a pull up bar in my garage.

The box-stock answer to this question tends to be that you should use around 10% of your body weight for weighted vest training. However, where the squat is concerned, I believe we have a little more leeway than that.

I’ve found that in sessions focused on muscle-building sessions, going up to 20-30% of my bodyweight provides an excellent stimulus, adding resistance as I’m able to complete my sets more easily over time.

If you’re also incorporating running into your weight vest workout, then sticking with 15-25% of your bodyweight makes a lot of sense.

That being said, I do subscribe to Jim Wendler’s adage of: “Start too light and progress slowly.” We’ve got the rest of our lives to get stronger, and there are no shortcuts. Starting with a 10 lb weighted vest and adding weight as you get more comfortable makes a lot of sense if you’re not used to resistance training with a vest.

Variations of weighted vest squats

If all of the above isn’t enough resistance for you, there’s no rule saying you can’t add some more! The three variations below will allow you to add extra tension on the quads for your weight vest squat, and the benefit is that it’s easy to fit into a circuit or superset.

Simply drop or racking the weight, do your upper body exercises, then pick the weight back up and get after it:

Goblet squat with weight vest

If I’m looking for slightly more of a challenge on the quadriceps and core while doing weighted vest squats, then doing goblet squats with a weighted vest on is an excellent option.

If you aren’t aware, goblet squats are a variation of a front squat where the lifter holds a weighted implement in their hands in the “goblet” position (hence the name) and completes a set of squats. This variation is particularly taxing on the upper back and core.

Any weighted implement that can be traditionally used for goblet squats is useful here: kettlebells, dumbbells, or weight plates. Adding a weighted vest has the benefit of allowing two loading schemes: one for lower body exercises, and one for upper body exercises (by simply dropping the dumbbell)

This variation fits particularly well into weighted vest strength circuits with dips and pull-ups because you can easily pick up your implement, bang out your squat set, drop the implement, and get to work on your upper body lifts.

Bulgarian split squats with weight vest

Though the split squat is almost in a class of it’s own (somewhere between a lunge and a squat), I like to include it here because it is a true quad-dominant single-leg squat variation. If you’ve never tried weighted vest split squats before, you should.

Bulgarian split squats (also known as rear foot elevated split squats) are a particularly useful variation of the split squat because they involve elevating the rear foot on a bench or chair, which creates a very good stretch in the non-working leg’s hip flexor. So, it’s a true two-for-one strength and mobility exercise.

Of course, there are numerous other variations of the split squat that work well too:

  • Normal split squats: This variation involves keeping both feet on even ground and is a great regression for walking lunges with the weight vest.
  • Front foot elevated split squats: elevate the front foot on a curb or low box for the split squat. This variation is particularly taxing on the working leg’s quadricep and is fantastic for hypertrophy in the quads.

Barbell squat with weighted vest

If you’re a devotee of the “king of exercises”, but you’re also wearing a weighted vest (likely because you’re engaging in some kind of weighted vest circuit training), then doing barbell squats while wearing a weighted vest is absolutely doable.

Keep in mind that this variation of the squat is subject to all the normal considerations of traditional barbell back squats or front squats. Load them heavy, recover for 2-4 minutes between sets, and rep them out.

How to program weighted vest squats

Whatever variation you choose, I recommend that you complete between 10-20 sets of weighted vest squats per week. Personally I find that the easiest way to do this is to do some type of superset or circuit training with a weighted vest, 3-4 days per week.

If you’re using a heavier loaded variation like a goblet squat, Bulgarian split squat, or barbell squat with the weighted vest, then follow the traditional hypertrophy guidelines of approaching 2-3 reps of failure before you stop the set.

If you’re planning to use your squats for conditioning, then simply hit your rep goal and then return to whatever other loaded bodyweight exercises you’re doing in your circuit.

Weighted vest squat benefits

Excellent time-saving exercise (compared to barbell squats)

If it isn’t obvious from other comments I’ve made so far in the article, I believe one of the primary benefits of the weighted vest squat is that they are much more easily fit into sessions that are designed to save time:

They superset and triset well with upper body exercises, and you’re already wearing the weight.

Compare this with a traditional barbell squat session, where we’d typically spend 8-10 minutes just getting to our working weight, then be resting 3-4 minutes between sets. While weighted vest squats certainly take a back seat if your goal is maximal strength, if your goal is accomplishing a lot of resistance training quickly, squatting with a weighted vest is a fantastic way to accomplish that.

Perfect for weighted calisthenic circuits

I’ve mentioned in my post on push-ups, pull-ups, and squats that I think it’s a near perfect triset for the full body. However, it’s tough to accomplish this style of workout unless we find a lighter way to squat.

Weighted vest squats work well as a substitute, and combined with the muscle-building tips found above, they serve as an excellent stand-in.

They fit well into “resistance cardio” style training

If you’re trying to accomplish a restistance training session that also counts towards your weekly cardio goal, then throwing a weight vest on and doing some squats and push-ups makes a lot of sense. The weight of the vest allows for the resistance training not to feel “too easy”, but the weight is light enough that you can keep moving for extended periods of time.

Give it a try!

I’ve you’ve never tried this versatile exercise, you owe it to yourself to add them into your conditioning circuits, micro workouts, or even your main program. You likely be surprised at how well using a weighted vest for quads works out for you.

Happy lifting!