When it comes to athletic wear, it may seem like a simple process of just throwing something on and hitting the gym, but it’s actually anything but. In fact, some fabrics may do more harm than good, which in turn can cause you to feel less than stellar after a great workout.
However, there are many factors to consider when it comes to choosing the appropriate workout clothing that’s best suited for your needs, like breathability, sweat-wicking ability (which means that moisture is pulled away from the body to the front of the garment in order to evaporate faster), comfort level, and even how tight of a fit a garment has on your body.
If you need help getting a grip on choosing the right fitness fabric for your workout needs, check out this handy guide that ranks each type from worst to best.
Workout Fabrics To Avoid
First thing’s first when it comes to understanding fitness fabrics: Know which ones to avoid on your next shopping trip. Basic cotton and standard polyester fabric may look innocuous to the naked eye, but these fabrics are the worst when it comes to trapping sweat.
Cotton absorbs moisture incredibly quickly, which can make a high-intensity workout quickly feel like you’ve jumped into a pool of sweat and cause further skin irritation long after you leave the gym.1
While polyester is a little more breathable than cotton and typically found in most fitness fabrics, it isn’t quite as robust as, say, nylon or other moisture-wicking fabrics. That’s because polyester tends to stink and trap bacteria quicker than other materials and doesn’t dry as rapidly, meaning the bacteria hangs around longer than anyone would like.
Polyester is better suited for a brisk walk where you’re less likely to sweat, but it should be swapped out for something different when it comes to heavier workouts.2So, the next time you’re tempted to grab one of the many t-shirts from your dresser or throwing on the same polyester products you wear on the weekends, think again and swap it out for one of these fabrics instead.
Fitness Buff Favorites From Workout Clothes To Headwear
When to wear it: workouts with high ranges of motion, like yoga, Pilates, or weightlifting
Spandex is an evergreen fitness fabric that will never go out of style. Also commonly known by its brand name (Lycra), spandex has extreme stretch and flexibility, making it perfect for a weightlifting session or hot yoga class, where you need lots of room to move around.3
Spandex can mainly be found in skin-tight workout clothing, like leggings, sports bras, track shorts, and even socks. While it isn’t the best when it comes to moisture-wicking or breathability, you’ll still feel unrestricted when wearing it. (Pro tip: Spandex can lose its stretch, so try to air dry your clothing items as much as possible.)
When to wear it: any type of workout, no matter the weather
Think of poly-dri as polyester 2.0. Whereas standard polyester traps bacteria and isn’t terribly odor resistant, poly-dri is. It’s durable, doesn’t wrinkle as quickly as other materials, and wicks more moisture than the standard fabric. As with polyester, don’t let a sweaty shirt or other garment go long without a wash.
3. Bamboo Fiber
When to wear it: All workout or weather conditions.
Bamboo makes a great fitness fabric because it checks all of the boxes: It’s breathable, moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, has a regulated temperature, keeps its shape (even after a good stretch), and is extremely comfortable. What’s not to love?
The best part about choosing bamboo fiber athletic wear is that it’s also environmentally sustainable, as opposed to polyester garments that are made out of plastic. Bamboo fabric, on the other hand, is not only sustainable but also durable, which ensures that you can get plenty of wear out of these silk-like leggings, shirts, and headbands.
Another perk is that bamboo clothing is made out of natural fibers, which makes them naturally hypoallergenic, causing less skin irritation to occur after sweating.4 Although you will find that this kind of athletic wear is more expensive than most, the price tag definitely seems worth it in the long run.
When to wear it: all workouts or weather conditions
Think of nylon as the best parts of spandex and polyester combined into one material. As with poly-dri, nylon is a stronger, more durable, and scratch-resistant material than your standard polyester athletic wear.
Its low moisture absorbency and quick-drying properties make it suitable for any type of workout, whether it’s a run through the park or an intense weightlifting session at the gym.5 These properties also make nylon a great material to wear throughout the seasons, making it one of the more efficient fitness fabrics. Whether it’s the heat of the summer or bitter cold of winter, nylon will leave you feeling comfortable and accomplished all year long.6
5. Moisture-Wicking Cotton
When to wear it: regular intensity workouts, daily wear, and cooler temperatures
Because cotton is considered the opposite of moisture-wicking, fitness experts and researchers decided to create an alternative made out of a cotton blend of synthetic fibers: moisture-wicking cotton.7 While moisture-wicking cotton does help absorb sweat more and doesn’t leave you feeling as hot or restricted as the standard material, it is still a good idea to wear this product sparingly, especially if higher temperatures are forecasted.
This is perfect for daily activewear if you’re not going to get terribly sweaty. Regular intensity workouts in cooler weather are also great environments for this material; however, you may want to choose something else when it comes to strength training or resistance band exercises.
Other Great Activewear Materials
The list doesn’t stop there. Here are a few other honorable mentions that make great fitness clothing material:
When to wear it: extreme weather exercising, like sleet, rain, snow, or extreme heat
Polypropylene is a synthetic material made out of a thin, flexible form of plastic. Polypropylene is waterproof, which makes it the ultimate choice when it comes to interval or, perhaps, even marathon training sessions, as it’s equipped to handle any weather.8
This waterproof, synthetic fabric also helps evaporate the sweat off of your skin, making irritation less likely to occur, as well as feeling uncomfortable after performing a long, sweaty workout.
2. Merino Wool
When to wear it: during outdoor, cool weather workouts
It may seem odd to include a wool fabric on a list of fitness clothing, but merino wool is a bit thinner than your standard warm wool clothes. The finer fibers also make merino wool great for comfortable, sweat-wicking activewear and is great as a base layer if participating in sports like skiing or jogging during the winter.9
All of these materials (both synthetic fabrics and non-synthetic) can be found in most clothing outlets and in styles or a color that appeal to your fashion taste. From shorts to leggings to sportswear shirts, you’re sure to find the perfect piece that adheres to your fitness needs.
More Than Material: Other Reasons To Find The Right Workout Gear
It’s important to mention that form-fitting sportswear isn’t just about breathability or sweat-wicking; oftentimes, it’s a matter of safety.
Breathable fabrics are great, and you should absolutely opt for those versus the thick, cotton shirt lying around because they can literally (and figuratively) save your skin. These fabrics can help protect your body so your body heat doesn’t spike too high during a mid-summer run.10
Additionally, form-fitting clothing can prevent certain injuries. For instance, if you wear baggy pants while bike riding, you run a higher risk of injuring yourself if the pant leg gets caught in the pedals. Perhaps one of the most important reasons that was touched on previously in this article is your range of motion. This is imperative while exercising, as too much or too little can cause muscle strain, and can even hold you back from reaching your ultimate potential.11
The Science Behind It
That’s right, what you wear to workout in can even have psychological effects on your workout performance.
This is because when you put on clothes that make you feel fit, happy or just more like yourself, you experience something called “enclothed cognition.”12Clothes have the ability to change subconscious behaviors, which can change how you act physically and mentally, leading to improved workout performances and other positive effects.13
So, the next time someone gives you grief for spending too much on your athletic gear, you can tell them that there’s scientific research that supports your spending habits and, thus, your exercise performance.
A Note on Compression Clothing
As discussed previously, form-fitting clothing is imperative when it comes to improving your exercise performance for myriad reasons. It’s also important to note that many of the materials on this list are used to make compression clothing, which is great to wear to the gym, on a bike ride, while running and during countless other workouts.
The tightness of compression clothing material (which can be found in full-body suits, socks, and shirts) provides you with additional breathability, but also the ability to help your muscles recover after an intense workout, and in some instances, even delay muscle soreness.14
This is because the tight fabric helps your muscles not swell as much and increases your blood pressure, which is incredibly helpful when it comes to aiding in muscle rebuilding or recovery.
In addition to these muscle benefits, compression clothing also helps blood flow and can improve flexibility when it comes to stretching, lifting, or extending your limbs.
The Ultimate Athleticwear
When it comes down to it, the best fitness gear for you is the fabric that’s best suited for the kind of workouts you’re routinely doing to get active. Nearly all of the fabrics listed in this article can be found at any sports store, both brick-and-mortar location or online.
If possible, choosing clothing options that are environmentally sustainable seems to be the best route to go down, as you’ll get more uses out of the material, thus using them longer rather than throwing them out after only a couple of uses.
A quick internet search can help you decide on what brands you’d like to give your money to when it comes to understanding the environmental impact that clothing can have. No matter which brand you choose, it’s important to make sure that your activewear always meets your exercise needs.
Ultimately, evaluating your exercise sessions and stocking up on the best fabrics so that you’re ready to go no matter what the day brings will be the defining factor of your future workouts. Whether it be an early morning yoga session or a high-intensity afternoon in the park, your athletic wear should be able to handle it all.