I own several weight vests including a Harbinger one (read the review here) and a Hyperwear one (read that review here). Both are designed specifically for fitness. However, before I owned either I went with the only weight vest I owned…one that stops bullets. While the exact type of vest or plate carrier can vary by brand, here are some thoughts on using tactical gear as a weight training vest:
Total Weight: With a set of plates in my vest it comes out at only around 10 lbs. Compare that to fitness vests that are usually in adjustable increments from 1 lbs. to 20 lbs. Typically most fitness vests have a “max weight” due to the availability of pockets or size of weights, aka the construction of the vest. With a tactical vest by adding other accessories you can continue to add weight to the point it is unreasonable. Where is the limit? I don’t know but I’ve never seen a tactical vest rip/fail due to too much weight despite ones that exceeded 50 lbs.
Of note, the vest comes empty. You will have to buy additional pouches or plates to add weight. Legitimate Level IV bulletproof plates are expensive. If you are just looking for the tactical look and weight without the protection companies like Rogue offer weighted inserts that don’t stop bullets.
Weight Distribution: Fitness vests are designed with the weights evenly distributed around your body. Tactical vests not so much. They are designed primarily for protection with comfort being a secondary goal. While putting in plates will give you an even front/back distribution, once you start adding other pouches/equipment the weight will favor a side. That being said, once you get a decent amount of weight on the vest it pulls on your shoulders so hard I’ve never noticed a significant discrepancy in distribution.
Comfort: Fitness vests are designed to be form fitting and comfortable. Tactical vests also attempt to be comfortable but with less success due to the requirement for a rigid plate. This is where brand plays a large role. Brands like 5.11, which are more expensive will be more comfortable as compared to a brand like Voodoo or NcSTAR carrier, the cheapest I could find on Cheaper Than Dirt. The more expensive brands will have elastic for adjusting the fit as well as pads for comfort. The cheaper brands typically have just heavy duty fabric with no padding.
Multi-functional Use: While the fitness weight vest wins on most categories, this is where using a tactical weight vest shines. At some point, maybe in fives, maybe 20, I’ll stop using a weight vest in any of my training. As someone who likes to be prepared for the worst (not quite to the extent of a doomsday prepper), my tactical vest will always have a place in my home. Even if it’s something as simple as going to the range to shoot and having a convenient place to store ammo, earplugs and maybe a couple of snacks for later.
They are also useful for other sports. If you are a CrossFit fanatic, you’ll recognize 5.11’s vest from CrossFit gyms and the CrossFit Games as their weight vest of choice. If you are more interested in Assessment and Selection Events (ASE), you also might find more value in a tactical vest. (Want to know more about ASE? Pick up a copy of Mud Run Guide’s Ultimate OCR Bucket List.) Plus, I’ve used a tactical vest for more than a couple of Halloween/Comic-con/Costume Parties improving my costume.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that it is very specific for one race in particular. I'm of course talking about Frontline OCR (also covered in Mud Run Guide’s Ultimate OCR Bucket List). Frontline will be holding their 5th event on October 31, 2020. If you want to compete in the elite wave, you'll have to finish the mandatory completion OCR in a weight vest making it a one of a kind race in the USA.
Overall: If your only goal is sports performance, the fitness weight vests are the clear winner. However, if you are looking for something that is functional outside of sport, you can consider a tactical vest. Depending on brand and what you put in/on the tactical vest it may come out slightly cheaper or exponentially more expensive. However, I know in 30 years I’ll still have my tactical vest, I can’t say the same for my fitness ones.
Photos provided by the athlete's pictures, except Frontline OCR picture, which is from the banner of their Facebook page.