Hand and ankle weights – why you shouldn’t weigh down your walks.

Walking with hand or ankle weights burns slightly more calories per hour, but it actually puts stress on your joints which can lead to soreness, joint damage, and injuries! Hand and ankle weights throw off your balance and walking posture and the resulting slowdown in walking speed can offset any extra calorie burn from the weights.

To burn more calories by walking, you’re better off doing a more intense fitness walking workout (like walking on an incline) or simply walking faster. While it may seem like a good idea to walk and lift weights at the same time, you’ll get a better strength workout more safely by walking first and doing a proper strength training routine separately.

We’ll cover how to build strength and flexibility safely, plus why exactly walking with weights is generally a bad idea that can leave you sore or injured.

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Why do people walk with weights?

Walking weighted wrist bands
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People who advocate walking with weights point out that weights can increase the number of calories you burn by 10-20 percent. Weights do force the muscles in your arms or legs to work harder, which can give you a slightly increased strength workout. Some just want to find a new way to shake things up and keep their walks interesting. Those benefits come with a cost which usually outweighs the benefits:

Those 10-20% increased calories burned assumes that you’d walk at the same speed for the same length of time as you would without weights. You’re likely to get tired faster or walk more slowly when weighted down. This can actually make walking with hand or ankle weights counterproductive in practice. When they have lost more exercise value than they gained, it isn’t worth it—not to mention the potential for damage and injury, which is substantially higher.

Even a few extra pounds, when not placed correctly on your body, can cause serious damage to pretty much all of your joints. When you carry hand weights, your arms can swing out of line with your body, causing your core and legs to absorb more impact from a less-than-perfect landing from each step. Ankle weights pull on your ankle joint, which can result in injuries not just to your ankle, but also your knees, hips and other joints.

Why proper posture is so important?

woman demonstrating proper posture
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Proper walking posture is important to help you walk longer, feel better when walking and prevent injuries. According to Harvard Health, you should stand tall, let your shoulders swing naturally and step lightly without a large amount of impact on your joints.

How can walking with weights increase risk of injury?

Knee pain arthritis concept
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So, how does walking with weights increase your risk of injury? One of the reasons why walking is so thoroughly recommended is that it’s a safe, low-impact form of cardio. Walking with weights decreases the safety and low-impact benefits of walking. Even if it is only one to five pounds per limb, the added weight can cause your natural gait to extend or shorten, throw your landing off, and even cause your arms to swing outward while you walk. Contrary to common belief, the adage “No pain, no gain” doesn’t mean that exercise should hurt—it shouldn’t! If it does, you need to evaluate your methods.

It’s normal to experience some muscle soreness after exercising – a sign that your muscles have been challenged. When your form changes during walking, your joints, muscles, and ligaments are working in ways they should not be. The pain comes from forcing your body into positions and rhythms it isn’t meant to experience frequently or for long periods of time.

Hand weights make it hard to swing your arms properly, and can often result in holding the weights in an unnatural position throughout your walk. Even light weights, over time, can cause your gaze to sink downward and your shoulders to slump.

Ankle weights can cause your feet to land with more impact, increasing the risk of turning an ankle or missing a step. Extra weight can fatigue your leg muscles and force your quadriceps to do extra work. This can lead to injury, as your body may not be used to walking in this way. As a walker, your number one goal should be to prevent injuries, as injuries are a sure way to prevent you from getting your steps. Shin splits, knee injuries, ankle injuries, and back pain are common injuries that can result from walking with poor form (which walking weights can cause).

walker holding shin because of shin splints
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Even if you don’t suffer an acute injury, like a fall or sprained ankle, taking yourself out of your natural walking motion can lead to injury over time. As the muscles that you normally use to walk start to get fatigued, you risk straining or injuring other muscles and joints that are forced to compensate for poor posture and walking form.

Alternatives to using weights while walking

Fortunately, there are some great alternatives to hand and ankle weights that can help you burn calories and build muscle without compromising your walking form.

Use weights and walk, just not at the same time

Trainer helping woman lift weights
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Using weights as part of an overall exercise routine is a great way to build and tone other muscles. Athletes often incorporate weight lifting with cardio—running, walking, or otherwise—in order to build and maintain a happy, healthy body. As a walker, you can take a break from walking to do some strength-building exercises. Using weights can help to strengthen your legs, which can help you walk longer without getting tired. Make sure you’re using proper form with any weight training exercises. Just like with walking, using weights with improper form can lead to injuries.

Try a resistance band

Woman showing off exercise resistance band
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Resistance bands are a great alternative to weights. Resistance bands are large, elastic bands that look something like a thick rubber band that’s open on one end. Most weigh in under one pound, but can offer resistance levels ranging from five to over 200 pounds! You can incorporate resistance band training in your walks by walking for a certain period of time, then stopping and doing a resistance band workout, and then continuing your walk. You’ll get some great benefits from doing strength training without compromising your posture as you walk. Check out this video from Harvard Health to get you started.

Try a Pacer full-body workout

Woman doing a wall sit exercise
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Another great alternative is our Pacer guided workouts, which you can do anywhere, any time. Our short, 7 to 15-minute workouts work both your upper and lower body, and feature video demonstrations of how to properly perform each exercise. You’ll probably want to try them at home as some require you to sit down or put your hands on the ground.

Walk faster, longer, or at a steeper incline

Sporty woman jogging uphill
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As an alternative to weights, both Harvard and Livestrong recommend walking an extra five to ten minutes per session, walking slightly faster, and walking at a steeper incline. Walking up and down stairs is even more intense. You can try adding stairs as well, though add a small amount at a time until you see how it affects your joints. You’ll benefit from increased endurance, a longer, more satisfying workout, and lower risk of injury as opposed to walking with weights.

Interval training is another great way to increase the intensity of your walk. Try this 15-minute walking workout or this 30-minute walking workout to get started.

Try Nordic walking for an upper-body workout

Group of friends walking with poles
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Nordic walking (with poles) lets you work your upper body without compromising your posture or putting excess strain on your joints. Some people find walking with poles actually lowers the impact – particularly on some of the lower body joints. Check out our piece on Nordic walking to get started!

Final thoughts

There are many ways to get a more intense walking workout, but it’s important that you walk with proper posture to walk further and prevent injuries. Walking is so popular and so often recommended for fitness precisely because it’s low impact, fun and offers great cardio benefits. Follow the Pacer blog for more information on exercises and activities that can complement your walking routine!

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