Fitness apparel is a massive market these days—and if you’re really into working out, you probably spend a lot of your time in athletic gear.
There’s no denying that what you wear to the gym can boost your confidence, but first and foremost, the right clothes support your safety and performance. If you’re a gym-goer, use this guide to make sure you’re suiting up for success.
Why Wearing the Right Fitness Apparel Matters
Wearing the right materials and having the right fit can impact how you move in a few ways. On a basic level, there’s range of motion: “Restrictive or poorly fitted clothing can alter movement patterns and limit range of motion,” says physical therapist Michael Herrera, P.T., D.P.T., regional clinical director at Evolution Physical Therapy. Moving with a limited range of motion not only limits the potential benefits of whatever training you’re doing (half squats can’t hold a candle to deeper, full range-of-motion squats), but it’s also a fast track to feeling uncomfortable and irritated during your workout.
Apparel that can’t effectively wick away sweat is similarly annoying—and can also cause you to overheat, which can hinder performance and lead to health concerns like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, according to personal trainer Hannah Shine, C.P.T. Not to mention, sweat build-up can contribute to acne.
And then there’s the potential for skin and joint injury. “When you wear items in the incorrect, size, function, or fabric, you open yourself up to the possibility of skin breakdown and joint damage,” says podiatric surgeon Dr. Dana Canuso, D.P.M. This leaves you susceptible to infection and injury, which may force you to pause training, delaying or derailing your progress. For example, wearing shoes that are too tight or worn out can result in accidents, joint injuries, or foot traumas like bruised toenails and calluses.
The Best Fitness Apparel for the Gym
Whether you prefer to fly under the radar or get flashy, use this head-to-toe checklist for maximum comfort and performance.
Not sure which undies to rock for leg day? You’re better off going commando than wearing the wrong pair of undergarments, which can cause chafing and trigger skin conditions, like acne and bacteria overgrowth, by trapping sweat. “Choose undergarments made from materials like polyester, nylon, or spandex, which can help wick sweat away from the body and prevent bacterial growth,” says Shine. You’ll also want to avoid anything that fits too tightly or is super-compressive to ensure you can move comfortably, Canuso adds.
If you wear a sports bra, choose one that offers adequate enough support to prevent excessive bouncing during training. “Look for a bra with adjustable straps and a snug fit around the rib cage, and consider the level of impact and choose a bra with the appropriate level of support and padding,” Shine suggests. Avoid bras with uncomfortable seams or materials, which may cause irritation or chafing as you move.
Also consider how breast size influences your bra needs. “The larger a woman’s breasts, the more support she needs, and the more important it is that a bra uses sweat-wicking and antibacterial fabric to prevent any under-chest fungal infections,” Canuso explains. In many cases, the more customizable a bra is, the better.
Tempted to hit the gym in that ratty old crewneck sweatshirt? Don’t do it. “Wear moisture-wicking and breathable tops that fit well and allow for a full range of motion,” says Shine, “Avoid cotton shirts, which can retain moisture and cause chafing.” Instead, shirts made from materials like polyester or spandex help wick sweat away and allow you to cool off.
Consider shirt length, too, as some workouts are best done in either a short or long shirt. “For example, a longer shirt may be more appropriate for yoga, while a shorter shirt may be better for weightlifting,” Shine says. (No one wants a shirt tugging around their rear mid-deadlift.)
As for sleeves, consider sweat production and mobility. It might be best to give your armpits room to breathe when exercising in heat or at a high intensity, or when you’re using your upper body in a wide range of motion (think pullups). Long sleeves might be nice for chilly outdoor runs, but T-shirts and tanks often win in the weight room.
Shorts and Pants
Comfortable and breathable shorts or pants that allow for ease of movement are a must in the gym. Choose polyester or spandex material to wick away sweat, and opt for a length based on the activity you’re doing. “Longer shorts may be more appropriate for running or cycling, while shorter shorts may be better for weightlifting,” Shine says.
And though you surely want leggings that fit snugly enough to stay put throughout your sweat, don’t go so tight that you’re uncomfortable. According to Canuso, athletic pants that fit too tight—especially when in the wrong fabric (think non-moisture-wicking)—put you at risk of chafing and blistering, or even sores or ulcerations, which can easily become infected. And that’s in addition to messing with your range of motion and lifting form!
While you might ditch socks for yoga and wear special socks for running, there are a few general rules of thumb to follow when prepping your feet for a gym session. “Choose socks made from materials like polyester or nylon, which can help wick moisture away from the skin,” Shine says.
It’s also a good idea to avoid socks with heavy or thick seams or a loose fit, all of which are a recipe for irritation, adds Canuso. You’ll also want the fabric and tension to differ in different parts of the sock. For example, look for extra snugness around your arches and cushioning under the ball of the feet and heels, she suggests.
Wearing shoes that are the wrong size or not designed for the type of training style you’re doing can lead to poor performance and injuries. “Shoes that do not provide adequate support, cushioning, or stability can cause foot pain, shin splints, and other injuries, so it’s important to choose shoes that fit well, are designed for the intended activity, and are replaced when they become worn or damaged,” Shine says.
In general, you want a little room for movement in the toes, enough arch support for your foot type, and enough height for your ankles to be supported and aligned, says Canuso.
If you have flat, wide feet with minimal (or no) arches, avoid shoes that have flat soles, as well as narrow shoes, “barefoot” shoes, or high tops that lack arch support, Canuso suggests. Instead, look for arch support in both the sole of the shoe and the insert. You’ll also want shoes that have a naturally wide toe box or mesh where your foot is the widest.
Meanwhile, if you have higher arches, you’ll need more arch support and cushion in the forefoot and heel, Canuso says. You’ll also want to avoid shoes that are so flexible you can twist them.
Appropriate arch support and higher ankles are particularly important for lifting weights. “Unless you have a perfect foot, which 85 percent of people do not, flat shoes will cause your arches to roll in or out and your knees to follow,” Cansuo says. “This can greatly affect the direction of force while standing during lifting and can cause injury.”
The Bottom Line
The right workout gear strikes a balance between turning heads and supporting your training. Sure, looking like a million bucks can definitely motivate you to load some extra weight on the bar or kick up your speed on the treadmill—but the right fabrics and fit ensure you can actually go the distance comfortably. Make sure anything you wear to the gym allows you to work through a full range of motion (think deep squats, pullups, and the like) and features sweat-wicking fabrics to prevent overheating and skin irritation.