We've all seen the occasional jogger wearing weights attached to their ankles. But are ankle weights good for anything other than a throwback social media post? While the idea that weighted exercise gear can up your game is nothing new, there are a few things you should know about ankle weights before strapping them on.
Ankle weights are basically dumbbells for your feet. They are flexible fabric pockets filled with weights, usually ranging from one to 20 pounds. Each weight has a strap that allows you to wrap it around your ankle and secure it for exercise. Plenty of styles are adjustable, allowing you to add or remove weight to the pockets.
Using ankle weights as a way to intensify workouts — whether you're running, walking or strength training — can supply added resistance to force your muscles to work more vigorously. However, in some circumstances, ankle weights can also be dangerous, and many believe their risks outweigh the benefits — which is why so many physical fitness experts do not recommend using them.
Benefits of Ankle Weights
Ankle weights can be used in a variety of different ways and for different reasons, like adding resistance to low-impact movements or in physical therapy to aid people recovering from an injury.
According to fitness expert Stephen Pasterino, founder of P.volve, they can be a great way to add resistance during isolation exercises and used to train the glutes, lower abs, hips and thighs. "Depending on the weight and range of motion, you'll be able to target specific areas of the body," explains Pasterino, who uses 1.5-pound ankle weights in his P.volve classes.
"The added weight helps to stimulate muscle activation," he says. "You're forcing the muscle to wake up and respond." He points out that women are sometimes worried about using weights on their legs for fear of bulking up, but with 1.5-pound weights, the result will be lean, toned muscles.
Pasterino also uses heavier weights, like three pounds, in his classes to strengthen the hips. "The hips are responsible for picking up the legs and moving them into different positions," he explains. "By adding this extra weight, you're strengthening this particular muscle group, which will allow you to move more efficiently."
Physical therapist Garrick Lim explains to LIVESTRONG.com that ankle weights are a helpful tool for someone recovering from a serious lower-limb injury and unable to bear weight on an injured leg. Using them to perform certain exercises can help them maintain some of their muscle strength.
There isn't a ton of existing research on ankle weights. One small study published back in 1989 in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation examined the effects of wearing ankle weights while running on a treadmill. The researchers that found adding 3.5 to 10.5 pounds to the ankles was associated with an increase in energy expenditure and heart rate and concluded that training with ankle weights may be more efficient than running with unburdened lower calves.
Risks of Ankle Weights
Many experts, including Lim, caution that ankle weights are actually doing more harm than good. He points out that they might increase the likelihood of pain and injury for some exercisers, which is why he doesn't recommend using them for the purpose of intensifying training.
"This is especially true for people who wear ankle weights when walking, jogging, jumping, or going up or down stairs," Lim says. "By having the extra weight on your body as a result of ankle weights, you are inadvertently changing your body's natural movement patterns, which may result in muscle- and/or joint-related pains."
Plus, he adds, with high-impact activities — such as running and jumping — you are increasing the amount of load on your body, putting more pressure on your joints and increasing your risk for injury, especially at the ankles, knees, hips and lower back. The Mayo Clinic also points out strapping on these weights could strain the ankle joint and leg muscles when used during brisk walking.
Are Ankle Weights Right for You?
Only you can decide if the personal benefits of ankle weights outweigh the risks. If you do decide to use them for intensifying your workout, make sure you're strong enough to manage the added weight with good form. "If you're using too heavy of an ankle weight, this can strain the ligaments and cause an injury," Pasterino says. "I always tell my clients to keep at a comfortable pace and stay within their range of motion; start off light until you build up strength and function to add weight."
There are plenty of alternatives to the controversial gear that you can use instead, Lim says, that "will help build these muscles and not place excessive pressure on your joints." Consider using resistance bands, weight machines or even swimming to improve power, speed or the intensity of your training.
Of course, if you have any preexisting injuries or joint problems, you should definitely speak to your physician before adding ankle weight or any other new gear to your workout routine. And if you ever feel pain or discomfort while using them, play it safe and stop.
- American Council on Exercise: "Do the benefits outweigh the risks if individuals hold dumbbells in their hands while doing step aerobics or other cardio activities?"
- Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: "Ankle and wrist weights: their effect on physiologic responses during treadmill running."
- Mayo Clinic: "Could ankle weights help me get more out of my usual walking routine?"