Ankle weights have tunneled through a wormhole from the 1980s to the present moment, appearing in countless TikToks and Instagram posts. Do they really help tone your legs? Are they worth buying at all? Here’s what you need to know.
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Where they’re useful
Ankle weights’ best use is to add a little bit of resistance to exercises where you are moving your legs against gravity.
For example, side-lying leg raises become substantially more work for your muscles with even a pound or two of weight on the ankle that you’re raising in the air. Donkey kicks and hollow body holds would fall into this category as well.
The ankle weights aren’t necessarily making your ankles or legs work harder, in these examples; they just add resistance to what is still an exercise for your hips, butt, or abs.
These uses of ankle weights make sense, because they’re a way to add resistance over time. To continue progressing, you’ll need to use heavier weights when your current ones become too easy. Eventually, you may get to a point where an ankle weight exercise is no longer challenging and you’ll need to work those same muscles in a different way.
Where they’re not useful
If you’re running, jumping, or walking, ankle weights can make the motion a little bit harder, but they’re probably not a good addition. Think about why you’re doing these exercises in the first place. If your goal with running or walking is to burn calories, you can do that more efficiently by running faster or farther, no ankle weights necessary.
Some trainers even warn that wearing ankle weights while running or walking may set you up for muscle imbalances or for injury; though it’s not clear if that’s really the case or not. (I couldn’t find any solid evidence about injury either way, but historian Conor Heffernan pointed me to a 1988 paper that concluded ankle weights don’t provide any significant extra calorie burn, and aren’t worth the potential risk.)
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How much is a small weight actually going to help you?
Any time you’re looking at a small weight — whether it’s a pair of ankle weights, or a tiny dumbbell, or anything else — think of it in terms of progressive overload.
Progressive overload is one of the basic principles of strength training. To keep getting results, you have to use heavier and heavier weights. That’s how somebody who starts deadlifting with just the bar can end up strong enough to lift hundreds of pounds. Small weights can help you get started on that journey, but they won’t sustain it.
Ankle weights are often just one or two pounds each, although I have a set that can be loaded with something like ten pounds if you put all the little sandbag inserts into just one cuff of the pair. It was handy when I was rehabbing an injury; my physical therapist recommended side-lying leg raises, and I ended up needing most of the weights in the set by the time my rehab was through.
Fitness products often exist just because they’re easy to sell
Looking through ads and Instagram posts for this article, it became clear why ankle weights are popular all of a sudden. You can advertise them by putting them on a model with great legs in a snazzy pair of leggings, and having her work out by a beach or in front of a vibrantly coloured wall. They just look cool, especially some of the newer styles that look like blocky bangles.
Also, being fairly lightweight, they’re cheaper to manufacture and ship than, say, a kettlebell. So while they may have a place in your workout routine, it would be a mistake to think you’re buying a versatile or long-lived piece of equipment by treating yourself to a pair of ankle weights.
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