Ask LH: Is There Really A Benefit To Special Exercise Clothing?

Ask LH: Is There Really A Benefit To Special Exercise Clothing?

Dear Lifehacker, I exercise a few times a week and sometimes when I’m at the gym I see people all tricked out in crazy-looking clothing. Is there really a benefit to wearing anything beyond some shorts and a cotton t-shirt? Thanks, Rayon Polyester

Photo by Claire P, istolethetv, Jun,Mr Lueng

Dear RP,

We feel your pain. When you walk into a sporting equipment store, you’re blinded with a lot of choices for different materials that all claim to do the same basic thing: make exercise better. In some cases, that’s at least partially true, but it’s just as often a waste of money.

When Fabric Type Matters

You don’t need to spend a fortune on workout clothes, but it’s good to have a set of clothing that you dedicate just to working out. For one, you’re going to sweat in them a lot. It’s also helpful to just get into the mindset of working out.

All that said, certain fabrics are better at wicking away moisture. In terms of exercise, this means keeping your sweat off of you. This helps prevent chafing and rashes. Fitocracy sums it up pretty simply:

If your thighs rub together and you’re planning on running, make sure your shorts are longer than mid-thigh. If you get rashes in and around your armpits, make sure you are getting breathable or wicking fabrics and staying away from tank tops.

Essentially, you want fabrics that are both breathable and can help wick away moisture. Anything made of polypropylene, spandex, polyester blends, or wool should do the trick pretty well. For obvious reasons, wool tends to be nice in the winter as well. Cotton is very breathable, but sweat evaporates slowly on it, so it gets heavy as you work out.

Ultimately, it’s a bit of trial and error to figure out exactly what you’ll need, but if anything you’re wearing is uncomfortable, try a different cut or fabric. Most workout clothes are tighter-fitting so they don’t get caught in machines or blown up in the wind, but otherwise it doesn’t matter much. That said, WebMD points out that fabric does matter for underwear more than you might think:

For optimal comfort for both women and men, choose the right fabric for your underwear.

“Cotton is not the right choice,” says Goeke. “Look for performance fabric that is breathable, moisture-wicking and quick-drying. These fabrics won’t promote bacteria growth and are better than cotton for health reasons.”

Or you can bypass underpants altogether and work out in fitness shorts, pants, or tights with a built-in crotch panel, Wessel adds. Don’t wear underwear with these garments, she says, because it will negate the benefits of the performance fabrics used for the built-in liners.

Beyond fabric type, it’s mostly just about construction and style. Something being more expensive or from a name brand doesn’t mean it’s any better than a generic brand, so go with whatever you think looks good and will last.

Some Clothing Adds Support

Some exercise clothing is made to add support and make exercise a bit more comfortable. In this case, it’s actually helpful for certain sports.

For example, if you’re running, a sports bra makes the experience a heck of a lot better for many women. If you’re cycling, cycling shorts with a padded rear make long rides way more comfortable.

Conversely, you can use pretty much anything as a pair of running shorts, swimwear is all essentially the same, and if you’re weightlifting whatever you’re most comfortable in should be fine.

Comfort Matters The Most

We’ve talked about picking out running shoes before, and the main conclusion of that post was that you just need to find a comfortable pair of shoes. The rest doesn’t really matter. The same goes for most other exercise clothes.

You want something that’s comfortable and that you’re comfortable in. Exercising is hard enough as it is, but if you have a set of clothes you like it makes the whole thing a little easier.

Likewise, some exercise clothes have little features that are nice to have and might make exercising a more comfortable. A pair of running shorts might have a built-in pocket for an iPod, or a cycling kit might have pockets for tools. Of course, these aren’t necessary, but they’re beneficial for some people.

Don’t Forget About Safety

Finally, it’s worth noting that some exercise clothing is made specifically for safety. A pair of running shorts might have reflective tape on the sides so cars can see you better at dusk, while cycling pants ensure you don’t get tangled up in your chain.

That said, most of the safety stuff is only necessary if you exercise outside. After all, a reflective lining on your running shorts doesn’t do you much good if you’re inside on a treadmill.

In the end, it’s really all about comfort. Special exercise clothing is often made to make you more comfortable, but it’s often also over-engineered and overpriced. There are some factors that matter — like how it picks up your sweat and if it prevents chaffing — but otherwise, you don’t need to invest that much money into it.


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    • Probably around 1200AD. Whenever we settled on the english word for that part of candles and oil lamps.

  • It’s important to note some material works best for different workouts. A synthetic T-shirt is ok for keeping cool and doing light workouts, but should you go on a 10k run in them don’t be too surprised your nipples get chaffed blood red…speaking from experience. Not fun.

  • Its worth noting that price isn’t really a great indicator of quality with sporting gear although you have to pick and choose. I choose the quality by how intimate it needs to be with my body. Anything that is very close fitting such as running tights, Tri-suits or Bib shorts are worth spending the money on getting something of quality. As for running tops or running shorts, really anything that is wicking will do, taping your nipples will prevent any unfortunate concequences of a cheaper top. Shoes are worth going above budget but not to the top of the range. The difference between a mid range pair of runners and high range is pretty minimal apart from weight and cost but the difference between a cheap pair and a mid pair is huge.

  • Someone send this article to anyone who buys their gear from LuLuLemon and similar criminally overpriced retailers.

  • The one piece of clothing I always have to have when I’m exercising is compression shorts. Not only do they reduce chafing but for me they reduce muscle pain very well.
    I have both a pair of Skins and a cheap set off ebay and I find both work pretty well.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard amazing things about skins improving endurance in snowsports.

      Only thing is, I hate the feel of tight clothing 🙁

      Also, erm, dunno how to put this. I would have thought compression shorts might bruise the lads?

  • I found the Guy Leech range of sports clothes from Big W really good value for money and good at what they do. $7 for a moisture wicking workout shirt – bargain 🙂

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