Leonard Schwartz is a pension-age Popeye. At 65, his small body is knotted with oversized muscles. He boasts about how he can walk briskly for two and a half hours while swinging 6-pound weights overhead.
Formerly a psychiatrist in Pittsburgh, Schwartz built his body and his fortune with Heavyhands, an exercise system he introduced in 1982. Heavyhands added the vigorous lifting of hand weights to activities like walking and aerobics.
Heavyhands weights soon had to compete with other hand weights, as well as weights for the ankles, wrists, waist and torso. Wearable weights became the oat bran of the exercise industry.
Sales of wearable weights in 1988 and 1989 topped 3 million sets a year, according to Tim Sitek, managing editor of Sporting Goods Dealer magazine. Since 1982 hopeful exercisers have purchased more than 2.5 million sets of Heavyhands alone.
The catch is that these weights share more than just popularity with oat bran. As with oat bran, the claims made for wearable weights seem overrated.
Researchers have been pondering the potential of wearable weights since 1973, almost a decade before weights ever appeared in stores. They wanted to know how much extra energy it took to use weights while exercising, because increasing energy cost during sustained exercise builds the heart into a stronger pump and consumes more carbohydrate and fat. By measuring the amount of oxygen being "burned" in the muscles, they calculated energy costs.
Hand and wrist weights appeared to use the most energy of all, pound for pound. "The heavier weights increased energy cost as much as 15 to 20 percent at any given pace," says Barry Franklin, a physiologist at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. "But you can achieve a similar rise without weights by walking a bit faster and swinging your hands vigorously."
Schwartz doesn't argue with this conclusion. But he complains that hand-weight tests should require subjects to swing weights forward to a position overhead, not just to shoulder level, as in the more common tests. "The way you work harder is to do as much vertical work and range of motion as you can," he says.
His evidence comes from two experiments he helped conduct at the University of Pittsburgh's Human Energy Research Laboratory. In one study, men walked while swinging 3-pound hand weights forward to an overhead position. This raised their energy cost as much as 155 percent.
In a second study, still unpublished, men walked and lifted the same way, while also dipping at the knees -- a Groucho Marx walk. Schwartz asserts that this boosted their energy cost by more than 400 percent.
Unless you're leading a marching band, of course, it's unlikely you'll be willing to knee-dip down the street while swinging weights forward from thigh level to sky level. Appearances aside, it goes against human nature to turn a pleasant walk into grueling work. "Most people who try hand weights wind up carrying them by their sides like luggage," says Howard Jacobson, director of the 45,000-member Walker's Club of America and the 10,000 member American Mall Walkers Club.
Worse still, wearable weights can easily drive blood pressure up to dangerous levels in people with hypertension. And weights undoubtedly lead to injuries.
"Weights tend to misalign," says Richard Goldman, president of the Metropolitan Race Walkers Club in New York City. "I've seen cases where hand weights have caused lower back injuries and tendinitis in the shoulders."