Evlo Fitness/Education/Evlo Programs/Ankle weights: Trendy or effective?
Dr. Payton Busker, PT, DPT
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Ankle weights: Trendy or effective?

Related Podcast Episode: OQM #6: If, when, and how should you use ankle/wrist weights?

Ankle and wrist weights seem to be making their way around social media. I can’t seem to go on Instagram or TikTok without seeing someone documenting their walk, ankle weights securely in place. Or without seeing someone demonstrate arm circles with wrist weights employed to “get those dancer arms”. 

Seeing any form of “trending” exercises or modalities sometimes sends me down a spiral of “this is just trendy and won’t do anything for our bodies”. Mainly because the marketing around many of these trends can be really harmful and instill misinformation! However, I typically calm down and begin to analyze with a more discerning eye: 

What might be advantageous here? And what can we leave behind?

In today’s post, I’ll break this down for us! How might we use wrist/ankle weights to our advantage and when can we leave them behind?

Wrist Weights

How they are commonly used

The most common way wrist weights are marketed these days are with Pilates-style exercises. 

  • Arm circles 
  • Triceps kickbacks 
  • Pronation/supination with arms in a T position 
  • Standing front/lateral raises 

You can see instructors performing these exercises with wrist weights accompanied by this messaging: 

  • “How I got my dancer arms”
  • “Tone up your arms with these exercises”
  • “Burn off those bat wings with these 3 moves”
  • “This is how to slim your arms” 

And, unfortunately, that’s not an exhaustive list.

But what are these exercises actually doing for your body? And how do wrist weights play a role?

You can’t spot treat fat with exercise. Not even with ankle weights.

I know that that is frustrating to hear. However, it is very important to paint an accurate picture of what specific exercises and exercise in general will actually do for us. 

The mindset of using specific exercises to target fat loss can really impact our relationship with both exercise and our bodies. If you believe this messaging, you might be more inclined to overuse specific muscles in the pursuit of “slimming them down” while neglecting other muscle groups. 

We miss out on the potential to build muscle both throughout the body AS WELL AS in the very group you are trying to target. Muscle overuse and too much muscle damage can impact our body’s ability to lay down new muscle tissue and can leave us vulnerable to injury. 

Instead of utilizing specific exercises to burn either fat in a specific area or calories overall, we believe that building muscle mass through resistance training should be the cornerstone of your routine. Check out this recent episode of Fit Body, Happy Joints to dive further into this topic. 

So… if building muscle is the goal, will the above exercises with wrist weights at least help with that??

Not much. 

Stimulation of type I muscle fibers with ankle weights

These exercises with light wrist weights will primarily stimulate Type I muscle fibers. It is not bad OR wrong to stimulate these fibers. However, these are our smaller muscle fibers that make up less of the mass of a muscle. We need stimulation of Type II muscle fibers to move the needle on muscle growth. Read more about this in a previous blog post here
In addition, these exercises all late-phase load the muscles they are targeting. Again, not bad or wrong. BUT also not the most effective when it comes to muscle hypertrophy. Muscle hypertrophy is enhanced when loading the muscles from a lengthened state. This is known as early-phase loading. Because of their effect on muscle hypertrophy, we primarily employ early-phase loaded exercise in our classes while sprinkling in late-phase loaded exercises.

When might wrist weights be helpful/effective?

Wrist weights can be an extremely helpful tool when it comes to progressive overload or incrementally increasing your weights for various exercises. 

For example, let’s say you’re ready to go up in weight for your biceps curls. However, when you try a 20 lb dumbbell instead of your usual 15 lb dumbbell, you notice discomfort in your wrists or elbows. Enter: wrist weights! 

Often in these scenarios, the wrist flexors and smaller hand muscles are not able to tolerate the additional load from a heavier dumbbell while your biceps are ready to bump up the weight! Adding a wrist weight allows you to increase the load to the biceps without increasing the grip demands. 

As a rule of thumb, you can add a wrist weight to any Evlo exercise where we are holding a dumbbell.

Ankle Weights

How they are commonly used

Again, ankle weights often show up in Pilates-style classes and for walking. We will get into walking in the next section! 

Popular exercises: 

  • Outer thigh leg lifts, standing or side-lying 
  • Inner thigh leg lifts  
  • Donkey kicks 
  • Leg circles 

We used to have a slightly harsher view on the use of ankle weights for exercises like side-lying outer/inner thigh lifts. We urged members to avoid these due to the extra lateral forces placed through the knees with the placement of the load from an ankle weight. While that lateral force still exists, the magnitude is most likely not going to be detrimental for the structures of your knees. 

That said, these exercises are not going to be the primary drivers of muscle hypertrophy in the glutes/outer thighs. These are large muscles that should be loaded with greater force. This is not to say go out and buy the heaviest weights possible. But rather, to choose different exercises all together as your main muscle building exercises. 

Similar to the wrist weight conversation, the exercises most commonly seen with ankle weights are all late-phase loaded exercises. You’ll see us add this into our Burn and Build & Burn classes, minus the ankle weights. However, we primarily rely on exercises like step ups, lunges, etc. to build lower body muscle mass.

When might ankle weights be helpful/effective?

The two primary Evlo exercises that could incorporate ankle weights are kneeling hamstring curls and banded knee extensions

Gripping the weight with your feet for hamstring curls can feel funky. We totally get it! Especially when trying to increase your dumbbell load. Ankle weights can really come into play here. 

Similar to the upper body, our smaller, lower leg muscles can become overloaded by a larger dumbbell that the hamstrings may be ready for. Instead of increasing dumbbell size, you can maintain the same dumbbell your lower leg muscles are comfortable with and add an ankle weight to increase the load to the hamstrings!

Replacing the band with ankle weights in banded knee extensions can be a comfortable and effective swap! This swap actually reduces some of the lateral forces placed through the knee from a band secured under the opposite foot. It allows the knee to function exactly as it wants to, as a hinge joint that flexes and extends, while challenging the quad in a lengthened state. 

Although it takes a few extra moments to set up these exercises with ankle weights, we really think it’s worth it to make them more comfortable AND potentially more effective. Feel free to pause the class and press play when you’re set and in place!

Using ankle or wrist weights on your walks 

We really encourage people to utilize walks as an awesome form of light to moderate intensity cardio. And to leave the strength/hypertrophy work to their resistance training. 

Adding ankle or wrist weights to your walk can really be a “more is not better scenario”. If you are being really intentional with your resistance training programming, the ankle weights are not a necessary addition for your walks. 
Also, adding weights to walks in order to “burn more calories” may not be the best solution. In a recent podcast episode, Dr. Shannon describes the Constrained Total Energy Expenditure model. This model proposes that although temporary changes in metabolism can take place by adding more cardio, our bodies will quickly adjust to account for this change. So instead of focusing on burning more calories in your workout, look to build up your muscle (resistance training!!) and seek out reputable nutrition guidance.